You Can Do That On Television : an essay on Nickelodeon in the 90s

You Can Do That On Television :

How Nickelodeon changed children’s television programming during the early 90s.

Television was a fairly big part of my life growing up. I watched Sesame Street almost every morning, I sat with my dad watching baseball games on weekend afternoons, and I spent a significant amount of time on the set of Cheers when my dad on the show for a couple of seasons. Television was always there, always around; but it wasn’t till Nickelodeon came around in the early 1990s that television finally became something of my own. The world that Nickelodeon had created was smart, funny, interesting, relevant and completely brand new. It didn’t belong to my parents or my siblings; it belonged to my generation and it was finally something I could identify with. It wasn’t just a couple of cartoons on a network on Saturday morning; it was an entire network with creative, smart, insightful sitcoms about families, game shows, news shows and vaudeville-like sketch comedy programs. It was like the television shows grow-ups watched, but it was made for me. And it was really good. But how and why was Nickelodeon able to be so successful at the time and how has it affected the children’s TV that has followed it? These are subjects that I will be exploring in this paper.

There was no channel on U.S. Television that was dedicated exclusively to children’s programming before Nickelodeon emerged. In order to talk about how the show got it’s start, you have to know about the pre-cable models of children’s television: the commercial broadcast model and the public broadcast model. Television as a medium has “been recognized as symbolically powerful as both entertainment and education, and historically the presence of advertising as well as merchandise tie-ins has distinguished the commercial “entertainment” programming from the publicly funded…educational television.” (Banet-Weiser, 15)A large part of the creation of children’s television was based around advertising, as kids were seen as “easy targets” to advertise a ton of stuff to. This is unfortunate, because children weren’t seen as a real audience. Nickelodeon was the first to really change that mentality. There were some FCC policies that helped to create a wider vision of the children’s television audience. From the 1950s up until the 1980s there was a general idea that children didn’t really care about what they were watching and were content with watching the same old cartoons on Saturday mornings and after school in the afternoons. During the 1980s when Regan was president there was a considerable increase of merchandising tie-ins which led to the FCC creating the Children’s Television Act in 1990, of which a major goal was “to increase the quantity of educational and informational broadcast television programming for children and to force broadcasters to serve the child audience as part of the obligation to the public interest.” (Banet-Weiser, 16) In 1961, the FCC president, Newton Minow, gave his famous “vast wasteland” speech about the advocacy for better programming and that TV was failing to give children the good programming they deserved. Because they “produced programming designed to meet the social and emotional needs of children.” (Singer, 191), Nickelodeon was able to fill this void.

It’s important to note that Nickelodeon took a different stance on children as consumers than regular broadcast TV networks did: it didn’t think children needed to be protected from television. This, along with the fact that Nickelodeon was on cable, allowed them to take many more risks. One-such risk, which may seem backwards in todays violent-rich media society, was that it didn’t show any violence. This was a risk because most other television programs for children were peddling violence because it was gainful. This was where Nickelodeon really began to stand out. The network respected it’s audience, children, but didn’t alienate their parents and aired programs that were still seen as good for proper childhood development. It was their mission to “air programs that kids like to watch, not those that their parents would like them to watch.” (Banet-Weiser, 24)

Nickelodeon’s self identity was apparent: they were non-violent, they weren’t stereotypical and most of all, they were respectful of children. This notion of being “respectful” to children and their tastes seems like it might not have been a new concept, but it really was at the time. Children were seen as an avenue to sell products to; as a line into their parents pocketbooks. They were a huge market for advertising. And in the case of PBS shows like Mister Rodgers Neighborhood, they were seen as people who needed to be educated and needed to be educated by adults. This was the last thing that Nickelodeon wanted to be. Nickelodeon created programs that mirrored the shows kids’ parents were watching, which elevated kids programming to that of adult entertainment. This was respecting children. And although these shows were like the adult programs on TV, they were crafted with a distinctly “kid-centric” p.o.v. Gerry Laybourne, who became president of Nickelodeon in 1985, said they looked for “shows with new information, shows about another culture, heroes and heroines, life styles. We look for shows that present kids as competent or interesting and have respect for them.” (Banet-Weiser, 55) In fact, Nickelodeon went a step further and made shows where kids were the heroes.

The Adventures of Pete and Pete , which debuted in1993, is a perfect example of a kids show from the point of view of an actual kid. The show takes a somewhat traditional family sitcom blueprint and flips it entirely around. On this show, and all the other shows on Nickelodeon, the protagonists were the children, whereas many other children’s shows had children in them, but were primarily starring adults. The Adventures of Pete and Pete centers around two brothers, Big Pete and Little Pete, and the lives they lead in the small town they live in. The show brilliantly crafted a world the way a kid might see it, where all the adults are crazy and you have your own personal superhero. The show was narrated by Big Pete which also gave it that authoritative voice and made it even more personalized for kids. He was speaking to them, telling them his crazy stories. All the adults in the Petes’ world, even the parents, were fairly unstable: the bus driver is an overemotionally, lovesick dope, the mother has a metal plate in her head and mild agoraphobia, the father is severely competitive, and the beloved neighborhood ice cream man, Mr. Tastee, has commitment issues and disappears without a trace. In every other kids show the adults are the “arbiters of truth”, but in Pete and Pete there were completely unreliable. This was part of Nickelodeon’s “us vs. them” mentality: it was a “kids only zone” and there were the ones in charge. “It’s an adult world out there where kids get talked down to and everybody older has authority over them.” (Nickelodeon, How To Nickelodeon, 5) So when a lesson was learned on a particular episode, as it was with many sitcoms throughout television’s history, it wasn’t being handed down by an adult; the kids learned it on their own and shared it with the rest of the kid audience that was watching.

As a part of their ongoing crusade to empower kids, Nickelodeon aired programs that showcased a lot of “girl power.” Nickelodeon aired Clarissa Explains It All in 1991 and “…it was among the first children’s series to feature a strong, independent girl lead character, and through this program, [they] became well-known in the industry as a champion for girls.” (Banet-Weiser, 107) Clarissa Explains It All starred Clarissa Darling, an off-the-wall adolescent girl, who lived in rural Ohio with her two parents and her younger brother, Ferguson, whom she appropriately loathed. She was the most eccentric 14-year-old anyone had ever met: she wore mens shirts and Doc Martens, made her own computer games and loved quirky bands like They Might Be Giants. And as I was about nine when the show aired, and slightly eccentric myself, I idolized her. She taught me it was cool to wear hats all the time, which was a daily accessory for me at the time, and that doing your own thing was cool. This was a very important message for girls growing into their own identities to learn. It was so successful at this that it spawned at least ten different “girl-centric” shows, including The Secret World of Alex Mack, The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo, and later on the hugely popular programs iCarly and Zoey 101. It was also a show that was edgy and did a lot of things you wouldn’t expect to see on a show for children. In the first episode alone Clarissa’s little brother takes her training bra to school for show-and-tell, of which we catch a glimpse, and then she openly talk about about he is going to kill him. Clarissa didn’t care about boys or shopping; she snuck around her parents back; she has a pet alligator for crying out loud. Nickelodeon was making innovative television for and about children, and they were really knocking it out of the park

Nickelodeon aired many different types of innovative programs during the early and mid 90s; most of them took standard television forms, challenged them and turned them upside down. Double Dare was a kids game show, which must like other game shows on television, had contestants on and they competed for prizes. On Double Dare, however, the kids competed with their families and if they couldn’t answer the trivia questions, they had to take the physical challenge, which required them to do some sort of physical game that usually involved slime or goo somehow. I loved a lot of game shows growing up, but did I care about winning a new car? Of course not, I couldn’t drive. But a shiny new bike? Absolutely. It gave kids something to get excited about and put investment in. And they saw adults being put on their level, having to compete with them instead of against the and getting messy doing so. Roundhouse was a vaudevillian-like, sketch comedy show in the same vein as that of Saturday Night Live. The sketches were mostly light and funny, usually having the standard Nickelodeon theme of parents being portrayed as dopes and nerds, while the kids were cool, calm and always collected. But the show also used sketch comedy to impart some pretty important messages and deal with some heavy issues, like prejudice and family problems. This was another way to speak to children on their level and not make them feel as if they were being “taught a lesson”, but still have them walk away feeling a little bit better about life. Another show that helped do that was a program called Nick News, a news program for kids starring Linda Ellerbee. Again, it wasn’t like a regular news program, but more like a open arena, a roundtable, a safe space for kids to learn and ask about tough topics. They had episodes talking about what it’s like growing up with two moms and special episodes devoted to letting kids talk about how they felt about tragic events such as the Oklahoma City bombings. This respected children in such a tremendous way, because it treated them as adults. So often children are sheltered from the truth because they are believed to be too fragile, but this can leave them feeling more afraid and less informed. Nick News let their voice and opinions be heard.

The mark Nickelodeon in the 1990s has left on children’s television will never go away. It changed children’s television for good. It inspired other cable networks, like Disney and Cartoon Network, to up their programming to a higher standard. Nickelodeon created the “tween” market: not babies anymore, but not quite teenagers either. “It generally refers to youth between the ages of 8 and 12…according the 2000 U.S. Census there are roughly 20.9 million tweens.” (Mazzarella, 836) This is a huge market, and a market that loves watching television. Disney and Nickelodeon are still putting shows on air that empower women and encourage diversity, like Dora the Explorer and Hannah Montana. Nickelodeon paved the way for this market, by showing that these tweens want to watch quality programs.

Nickelodeon in the 90s really inspired a generation of kids, creating imaginative thinkers and independent spirits. I have to admit that, yes, I am a bit bias because that is my generation, but it’s hard to deny the truth of it when you really look at the evidence. Television was seen as an empty vessel for children’s entertainment and Nickelodeon showed that children want to watch programs that challenge their thinking and that television could challenge them. Many people who are my age and grew up watching Nickelodeon shows never, ever forget them and the impact they had: teaching that being different and unique was wonderful and fun, that adults don’t always know everything, and that it was great to be a kid. Children grow up really fast in our society, often because they feel they have to just to survive. Nickelodeon showed us how smart, funny and unique we were, so that we felt good just being us. And doesn’t everyone want to stay a kid forever?


Banet-Weiser, Sarah. Kids Rule!: Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. Print.

Hendershot, Heather. Nickelodeon Nation: the History, Politics, and Economics of America’s Only TV Channel for Kids. New York: New York UP, 2004. Print.

Mazzarella, Sharon R. “Medis Preference of Tweens.” Encyclopedia of Children, Adolescents, and the Media. Vol. 2. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2007. 836-37. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web.

Nickelodeon. How to Nickelodeon (Corporate Employee Handbook). New York: MTV Networks, 1992.

Pecora, Norma Odom., John P. Murray, and Ellen Wartella. Children and Television: Fifty Years of Research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2007. Print.

Singer, Dorothy G., and Jerome L. Singer. Handbook of Children and the Media. Thousand Oaks, Calif. [u.a.: Sage, 2001. Print.

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