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Nickelodeon sits atop the basic cable heap

Being all things to all kids keeps the network at top of ratings
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wouldn’t you know it? The television network that brought the world burping contests and buckets of green slime was born on the date known as All Fool’s Day.

“That’s an interesting irony,” Nickelodeon Television President Cyma Zarghami noted recently as she reflected on one of the network’s more unusual milestones. “The day Nick was born was 26 years ago in Ohio — on April Fools Day.”

It was just a block of syndicated shows that debuted on the Qube Network that day in 1979, but brighter days definitely lay ahead, as Nickelodeon would be basic cable’s top-rated network by the mid-1990s, in total viewers as well as kids and so-called tweens. Its shows attract audiences in the millions throughout the day and into the early evening hours.

Its success, says Tommy Lynch, an independent producer who has brought several shows to the network over the past 10 years, has been its ability to be all things to all different kids.

The first show he sold the network was “The Secret World of Alex Mack” in 1994, a basic sci-fi adventure-comedy in which a mishap at a top-secret plant results in 13-year-old Alex being doused with a chemical that allows him to morph into a liquid puddle and move objects telekinetically.

Alex was a boy until Nickelodeon executives suggested girls might like to identify with such an action hero. So, Alex then morphed into 13-year-old tomboy Alexandra Mack, played by Larisa Oleynik.

“That was a radical notion at that time because no network would put a female in a children’s show into a lead role,” Lynch recalled.

Since then the network has gone on to produce numerous shows for girl stars including “The Amanda Show” with Amanda Bynes, “Clarissa Explains it All” with Melissa Joan Hart and the current “Zoey 101” with Jamie Lynn Spears.

Innovative programmingThere were other innovations as well. “Blues Clues,” which has been a mainstay of the network’s preschool programming block for 10 years, encourages children to talk back to the television host and join him in unraveling mysteries created by his dog Blue.

The more recent “Dora the Explorer,” which debuted in 1999, is similar in approach but features a bilingual animated girl adventurer who moves effortlessly from Spanish to English.

“Dora came along at the time when we had just gotten the earliest indications in the shift in the population,” Zarghami recalled. “Latino kids were growing ahead of the adult Latino population, and we were getting some great insight into what 2010 was going to look like.”

Another popular animated show from the 1990s, “Hey Arnold!” featured an orphaned 9-year-old living in an inner-city boarding house run by his grandparents and surrounded by friends and adults of all races and nationalities.

“When we invented ‘Hey Arnold!’ it was becoming significant that the number of kids living in single-parent homes had been increasing over the last 10 years,” Zarghami said.

But if such back stories seem calculated, Nickelodeon officials say they are only used to provide the broadest, most honest and most appealing shows to the widest number of young viewers.

Then there is Nickelodeon’s simple goofiness, reflected in perhaps its biggest star, the animated “SpongeBob SquarePants,” as well as its trademark green slime, which has been dumped on the heads of countless people over the years on shows like “Figure it Out,” “You Can’t Do That on Television” and at Nickelodeon’s annual “Kids Choice Awards.”

The network’s penchant for sliming, coupled with “Kids Choice” contests for such talents as burping, have brought some objections from critics, along with concerns that Nickelodeon, in expanding the market for kids TV, may have also expanded the time kids spend staring into TV sets.

Nickelodeon Networks President Herb Scannell said the network is sensitive to the latter complaint and has broadcast programs encouraging play and other outside activity.

“For the past two years we’ve gone black for three hours one day under the guise that it’s just Play Day today,” he said, adding he sometimes turns off the TV on his own children.

“Parents have every right to, and should be, involved in choices that their kids make when they watch TV,” he added.

As for the slime, no apologies are forthcoming. Nickelodeon recently broadcast its first Chinese version of the “Kids Choice Awards,” and Zarghami noted that slime proved to be just as popular with Asian children as their American counterparts.