Even after a decade on the air, Nickelodeon's "SpongeBob SquarePants" is showing no signs of drying up.
The network has picked up 26 more episodes of the series built around a lovable sponge and his undersea pals. The new segments will keep the show on into 2011 and make it one of the longest-running series in Nickelodeon's history.
"There are a bunch of different theories about 'SpongeBob,'" Nickelodeon President Cyma Zarghami told The News. "You can't dismiss the fact that it is a creatively excellent property. It's a character of good, positive energy. It came at a time when people wanted something more positive."
So far it's working. Since its launch, "SpongeBob" has spawned a big-screen movie and toy lines and become a stopping-off spot for celebrities trying to impress their children. For instance, Will Ferrell, Craig Ferguson, Tina Fey, LeBron James and others appeared in an anniversary special that aired in November and averaged 8 million viewers on a night NBC averaged 5 million in the time period. Moreover, though not competing head-to-head, "SpongeBob" routinely outdraws CNN's "Larry King Live" and "Anderson Cooper 360."
"It's just a little edgy," says AOL TV Managing Editor Sandra Deane. "I just think it's a little salty with its undersea humor. I think kids and parents can appreciate that."
Along the way, "SpongeBob" has become part of the pop-culture lexicon, largely because about 25% of the audience are adults. Likewise, many are tweens and teens, which adds a level of cool.
How so? Rapper/music producer Pharrell Williams recently backed a line of "SpongeBob" T-shirts and shoes targeted at hip adults. Earlier this year, the Simmons Jewelry Co. released a $75,000 diamond pendant as part of a "SpongeBob" collection. And SpongeBob was the first animated character to be featured in Madame Tussaud's in New York.
"He's a relentlessly likable character," Zarghami says. "Every once in a while, one of those characters comes along. With the best properties, and the ones that last the longest, you can feel the blood, sweat and tears in the way they're drawn and the way they're written."
But not every expansion of the brand has been warmly received. Earlier this year, the network took heat for allowing the character to be part of an edgy Burger King ad in which the Burger King rapped about liking women's square butts.
Zarghami says the spot was a chance to stretch the Nickelodeon brand and the reach of "SpongeBob." In retrospect, she says, making kids meals part of the commercial might be the only thing she'd change.
"It made people pay attention to Nickelodeon," she says. "I'm happy to not just be the kids' channel. We have a relationship with the older consumer. We are allowed to step out of the box."