Thursday, March 21, 2019

Nickelodeon at 40: Variety Looks at Nickelodeon's Past, Present and Future

On Monday, April 1, 2019, Nickelodeon will celebrate its landmark 40th anniversary. Nickelodeon launched on April 1, 1979 and has become the number-one entertainment brand for kids. To commemorate the milestone, as Nickelodeon is about to embarks on a new direction with its biggest, most wide-ranging content slate ever, Variety has published a slew of articles which examines Nickelodeon's roots, takes a look back at its present, and takes a peek at what's in store for the brand. Check out the articles below!:

As Nickelodeon turns 40, the kids’ network is finding ways to rely on its past as it presses boldly into the future.

“My goal is to fill up every screen of every size to make Nick kids’ first and last stop for everything they want in entertainment,” says Nickelodeon Group president Brian Robbins, who succeeded long-time Nick veteran Cyma Zarghami last year in Viacom CEO Bob Bakish’s reorganization of the media conglomerate. Robbins has a long history with the channel, dating back to his role as co-creator of “All That” in 1994.

“There’s no doubt kids are consuming a ton of content in many different ways,” he says. “The good news is we live in a world where brands still matter, and Nick is absolutely a giant brand that still matters.”

While ratings have been on the decline on the linear channel — down 29% in total viewers in 2018 — as they have been for most of Nick’s competitors, Robbins’ goal is to extend the Nick brand much further beyond traditional television. That includes creating “The Loud House” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movies for Netflix.

“We still have the largest share of linear television eyeballs for kids 2-11,” Robbins says. “But we’re also making sure we expand our movie business, making sure we expand our digital content, making sure we expand our live experiences and making sure we touch our audience wherever they are.”

One way to achieve that goal, Robbins says, is to re-embrace the creative-led culture that distinguished Nick in its early days.

“I didn’t come here to be an accountant,” he says. “I came here for one reason and one reason only: To make sure this place really is a creative-driven company from the top down because ultimately this is a creative business and your brand is your content and your content is your brand.”

Former Nickelodeon executive Albie Hecht says long-running hit “SpongeBob SquarePants,” which celebrates its 20th anniversary this summer and may soon spin off characters into new series, grew out of an early ’90s-era desire for such a creator-driven culture.

“One of the reasons for creating the studio in Los Angeles [in 1998] was so we would have a place for creative people to sit and be safe and experiment and come up with all their great, creative ideas,” Hecht says. He notes that “SpongeBob” creator Stephen Hillenburg had been working on “Rocko’s Modern Life” in another building at the time, but putting him in the same building as other animators and giving them “a safe place” to create allowed for the “amazing pitch” that was “SpongeBob.”

In addition to a creative safe space internally, Nick was an early pioneer in outward-facing pro-social causes for children, including on-air series “Nick News With Linda Ellerbee” (1991-2015) and initiatives such as “The Big Help,” which encouraged volunteering; Worldwide Day of Play, which pushed kids to leave the TV and get active; and Nick Jr. Beyond the Backpack to help preschoolers prep for kindergarten.

Hecht, whose tenure at the network ran from the early 1990s to 2003, says a theme of kids’ empowerment runs through Nickelodeon programming, from the sports fantasies of “Nickelodeon Guts,” to the Indiana Jones fantasies in “Legends of the Hidden Temple,” to the permission to get dirty in “Double Dare.” This is an approach that echoes through Nick today in the revived “Double Dare,” hosted by Liza Koshy and featuring original host Marc Summers as a commentator.

And Hecht intends to extend the kids’ empowerment theme through his company,, which produces “Ryan’s Mystery Playdate,” debuting in spring. The live-action series features the 7-year-old star of YouTube’s “Ryan ToysReview,” which has 18 million subscribers. He completes challenges (including unboxing challenges, as on his YouTube channel) to try to figure out the identity of his mystery playdate, who could range from an astronaut or fireman to a musician.

Hecht credits Robbins’ background as a child star, director, producer, and especially his work as co-founder AwesomenessTV in 2012, with an understanding of the power of digital franchises. “This whole generation, their primary screen is a tablet or mobile device they control,” Hecht says. “Their primary viewing is on YouTube. … Nick recognizes that through this show… [It’s] a big deal for them to stay relevant.”

Robbins also plans for Nick to catch the reboot wave that’s currently sweeping through all media companies with new takes on Nickelodeon classics “All That,” “Rugrats” and “Blue’s Clues.”

“It’s still a small percentage of our slate,” Robbins says of the reboots. “That said, we live in a world where awareness and IP matters. There’s just so much content it’s harder and harder to cut through. It’s nice to start with a piece of IP people know and we’re fortunate at Nick over our 40-year history to have created some of the most iconic shows in kids’ lives and it makes sense to bring some of those shows back.”

In the case of “All That,” Robbins hopes the reboot may help inspire additional programming for years to come, just as the original did.

“When we did it 20 years ago we created stars in front of and beyond the camera,” he says. “It led to ‘Kenan & Kel,’ to ‘The Amanda Show,’ to ‘Drake & Josh,’ to ‘iCarly’ and on and on. … So we’re excited about finding new talent and creating the next generation of Nick stars, and we’re off to a great start in casting.”

Paula Kaplan, executive vice president of talent for Nickelodeon, says the rise of YouTube offers another place to look for talent, as in “Ryan’s Mystery Playdate.” But while casting someone with a social-media following can prove helpful, it’s not the be-all, end-all of modern Nick casting. She expects the rebooted “All That” series regular cast will be populated with fresh faces without tapping into the YouTube ecosystem.

“We have to find that spark in somebody, that certain something that connects for whatever character or role,” Kaplan says. “They have to be able to do the job, same as it was 50 years ago or five years ago, with or without the internet.”

One change from Nickelodeon’s early years is its approach to parents, both as portrayed on its shows and as members of the audience. Kaplan notes parents are now written in Nick shows in a more respectful manner: They’re in on the joke rather than being the butt of the joke.

That shift behind the scenes parallels an increase in co-viewing among kids and parents. As of 2018, 44% of kids’ viewing was with an adult, the highest it’s been in 10 years, according to Nielsen. Robbins pays attention to that change as he moves Nickelodeon forward.

“Millennials’ best friends are their children, and the TV in the living room has become the meeting place,” he says. “We need to open up our aperture to what’s happening in the world and not be dug in.”

That fits his plan to push Nickelodeon forward by taking another page from its past.

“When I first came here to make ‘All That,” this was a very exciting place, very free creatively and it wasn’t a very structured environment,” Robbins says. “Like any company, as you grow things change over time. I want to get back to that company where we were looser and not scared and making big, bold decisions based on creative choices.”


Credit: Will Heath/NBC

With four decades of transformative kids’ programming from such series as “All That” to “Blue’s Clues” to “Rugrats” under its belt, Nickelodeon has been responsible for inspiring new generations of Hollywood creatives.

For comic actor Kenan Thompson, it’s easy to see how Nickelodeon’s “All That” became a training ground for his work on NBC’s late-night, much more adult sketch comedy show “Saturday Night Live.”

“All That,” Thompson says, taught him “how to play to a four-camera setup and all that good stuff — going in and out of costumes and wigs, being patient putting makeup on and rehearsing all day.”

Meanwhile, “The Big Bang Theory” showrunner Steve Holland remembers being a fan of Nick’s “The Adventures of Pete & Pete” and “Ren & Stimpy” before getting his first job in TV as an intern at Nick’s former studio in Orlando, Fla. He also landed his first writing job on a Nick show (“All That”) and draws a thick line from that gig and his current one.

“I got brought onto ‘Big Bang’ by Steven Molaro, who [also] started at Nick. He’d done ‘The Amanda Show’ [and] ‘Drake & Josh,’” Holland says.

Holland says despite honing his chops on kids’ comedy, there really isn’t a distinction in the work, besides age of characters and partial sensibility in jokes. “It’s still sitting in a room with a script to write. And the Nick shows had much smaller staffs of people to do it with,” he says.

In addition to being a training ground, Holland says the Nick programs offered an opportunity to try fresh ideas: “They weren’t afraid to break the rules and do things that were different and weird. That was a good lesson to learn — to not be boxed in by rules of how a script has to unfold, so you can take chances.”

“Blue’s Clues” co-creator Angela Santomero notes that in updating the series as “Blue’s Clues & You” she’s found great support from one of the original show’s interns, Sarah Landy, who is now Nickelodeon senior vice president of production and development. “She’s running with ‘Blue’s Clues’ for the next generation and we’re like proud peacocks,” Santomero says.

Current “Double Dare” host Liza Koshy credits Nick shows she watched as a kid with helping her get her start on Vine and YouTube. “I grew up watching ‘All That,’ watching ‘The Amanda Show,’ so my humor, my timing, my comedy all came from watching the stars that I still love to this day, like Amanda Bynes, Josh Peck and Drake Bell,” Koshy says.

Executive vice president of Nickelodeon animation production and development Ramsey Naito recalls first seeing the network at age 12 in 1982 when her father got cable in New York City. Even though she was a little old for the shows on Nick at that point, she remembers being impressed with the network’s messaging that Nick was a place for kids only. She started her career working as a production assistant on “Rugrats” at Klasky Csupo. Now, decades later, she is involved with a “Rugrats” revival at Nickelodeon proper. She also produced the upcoming “SpongeBob SquarePants” theatrical movie.

“I feel a strong tie to the overall community of animation, but no question Nickelodeon has informed my love of animation. The majority of my work has been on Nick shows or Viacom shows,” says Naito, who also worked on Comedy Central’s long-running “South Park.” “What I loved about Nick, and I really have found this to be nowhere else, is it was creator-driven and artist-driven … a place artists could develop their ideas and be heard.”


As Nickelodeon turns 40, Variety breaks down some of the network’s most important titles to date.

“All That”

All That

“All That” launched careers in its 1994-2005 run, and is being resurrected with a new cast and many of the same producers this summer. “It just seemed like a quirky, different hang out for kids,” says original cast member Kenan Thompson (“Saturday Night Live”) who is coming back as an executive producer on the reboot.

“Blue’s Clues & You!”

The new host of Blue's Clues, Joshua Dela Cruz, on Nickelodeon. Photo: Gavin Bond/Nickelodeon

“Blue’s Clues & You!,” premiering in November, reinvents the 1996-2007 hit for another generation. Series co-creator Angela Santomero looked at specific elements of the original when reviving the show, including music: “How can we make sure fans can sing along, but kids of today feel like it’s a show for them?”

“Dora the Explorer”

Dora the Explorer and Boots the Monkey

“Dora the Explorer” comes back as a live-action movie ["Dora and the Lost City of Gold"] in August. “The reason to make that movie wasn’t because it was still running on television,” says Nickelodeon Group president Brian Robbins. “It’s because it’s a beloved piece of IP, a beloved character and it spans multiple generations. A first-generation ‘Dora’ fan probably has kids of their own.”

“Double Dare”

Liza Koshy and Marc Summers from Nickelodeon's All New Double Dare

“Double Dare” returned last year with new host Liza Koshy, a Vine and YouTube star, and original host Marc Summers offering commentary. “As a kid you’d get psyched to get messy or see others get messy and win prizes,” says Koshy, who grew up watching the original game show.

“Henry Danger”

Jace Norman and Cooper Barnes as Henry Hart/Kid Danger and Ray Manchester/Captain Man on Henry Danger

“Henry Danger,” a live-action comedy in its fifth season, stars Jace Norman as a superhero’s sidekick. “Jace was 13 at the time [of auditions]; he felt like a young Jim Carrey,” says Paul Kaplan, Nickelodeon executive vice president of talent. “Finding talent in that 13- to 14-year-old age range has been a great sweet spot for us.”

“Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards”

Heidi Klum and Melanie Brown at Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards, Show, Los Angeles, USA - 24 Mar 2018. Credit: Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shut

“Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards” was co-created by Albie Hecht in 1988, before he became a Nick executive, and it continues to air annually. “We were taking this genre of awards shows that nobody had given kids, but who went to the movies? Who loved music?” Hecht says. “To celebrate kiddom that way was extraordinary.”

“Paw Patrol”

PAW Patrol

“Paw Patrol” has been a hit with preschoolers since its 2013 debut thanks to “a magical combination of cute, adorable puppies; vehicles and community heroes,” says Cathy Galeota, senior vice president of Nickelodeon preschool content. “The community hero theme is not only very powerful and aspirational to preschoolers, but so relatable and developmentally appropriate for this age group.”

“Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”

Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

“Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” returns for its second season this fall and the franchise expands with a feature-length animated movie produced for Netflix. “It’s a way to reach kids on streaming at the same time the series is running on Nickelodeon,” says Ramsey Naito, executive vice president of Nickelodeon animation production and development.


Rugrats. Credit: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

“Rugrats,” a hit during its original Nicktoons 1990-2006 run, will be revived [as a new TV series and live-action/CG-animatd theatrical movie]. “‘Rugrats’ connected because we were making it smart,” says Paul Germain, who created the show with Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo. “Kids responded to the comedy, related to the characters and could tell that they were not being talked down to.”

“SpongeBob SquarePants”

SpongeBob SquarePants

“SpongeBob SquarePants” celebrates its 20th anniversary with a one-hour tribute special in July followed by a new theatrical release next year. “It’s a show that relates to everyone whether it’s kids and a family or college kids,” says Naito. “It’s a very authentic voice.”


More Nick: Nickelodeon Embarks on New Direction with its Biggest, Most Wide-Ranging Content Slate Ever!

Originally published: Wednesday, March 20, 2019 at 7:15pm GMT.
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