Monday, October 12, 2009

Cannon Suits Up, Focuses On New Role

Source: Omaha World Record via NYT

NEW YORK — The first thing Nick Cannon does every morning is kiss his wife, Mariah Carey. Then comes meditation and prayer, maybe a workout. After that, it's the suit.

These days you'd be hard-pressed to catch Cannon, erstwhile teenage comedy star and current would-be media mogul, wearing anything but, though sometimes he'll take the jacket off.

It was a three-piece number on a recent episode of the MTV Jams game show “Hood Fab,” on which he answered hip-hop trivia questions outside the Marcy Houses in Brooklyn. In a shaky hand-held clip recently uploaded to his YouTube channel, he struts into a Best Buy, in suspenders, to buy 10 copies of his wife's new album, “one for every room in the house.”

And of course, he wore one to work on a Monday late last month when he met with executives at Nickelodeon, where he recently took on the position of chairman of the network's TeenNick division.

Over the last decade, Cannon has been a stand-up comic, a rapper, an actor, a DJ, a screenwriter and a television host. For a stretch early this decade he was a Nickelodeon mainstay, one of the most recognizable personalities in teen media. And he's still a popular one: He has 1.2 million followers on Twitter, placing him in the Top 100 of all users.

But currently most of Cannon's energies are focused behind the scenes — he runs a movie and television production company, a record label and a clothing line. And now, at 29, he's returned to the Nickelodeon fold.

Late last month Nickelodeon rebranded its teenage-oriented channel, the N, as TeenNick. Cannon is both a celebrity engine and a hands-on executive with responsibilities in front of the camera and behind a desk. He has an office, an assistant, a business card and a marketing pitch on how best to reach young people: “Instead of trying to create something, it's about being involved in something they're already doing. They create their own media channel among themselves.”

In TeenNick, Cannon has, effectively, a blank slate upon which to test his ideas about what kids want. At the moment TeenNick is more of an idea than a fully formed channel; like the N, it has an emphasis on second-run programming. It's best known for “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” the Canadian import.

A decade ago, when Cannon was a gawky teenager plucked out of Hollywood comedy clubs to be a staff writer for Nickelodeon shows like “Kenan & Kel,” teen media wasn't as culturally prominent as it is today. Now entrepreneurs are entranced by the demographic's allure and cash.

That's something Cannon has been aware of for years. He began earning audiences' trust at a young age, when he turned to performing as a refuge from a difficult, scattered upbringing.

Cannon was shuttled between North Carolina and Southern California as a child. In North Carolina, where he stayed with his father, a television minister, he would work the camera, interview ministers and record rap songs in the studio. In California he was raised largely by his grandmother. “Section 8 homes,” he recalled. “I wanted to be part of the gang life, tried it. Entertainment saved me from that world.”

He graduated from high school early so that he could pursue his career full time. He wrote for Nickelodeon shows and sold a pilot to WB that was never broadcast. Later came “The Nick Cannon Show,” which ran for two seasons on Nickelodeon. He had star turns in the films “Drumline” and “Love Don't Cost a Thing,” but more substantive roles eluded him. A 2003 hip-hop album was coolly received.

Learning how to translate his experience for a mainstream boardroom didn't come easily to Cannon.

But after trial by fire on comedy club stages and in writers' rooms, he eased into the gift for slick talk. “I'm the nonthreatening guy,” he said. “I'm the safe guy.”


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