October 26, 2021

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Nickelodeon’s Generational Divide – The Ringer

Thirty years ago this week, a rising, but not-yet-ubiquitous kids network by the name of Nickelodeon launched its first original animated series. Introduced on August 11, 1991, under the brand of “Nicktoons,” Doug, Rugrats, and Ren & Stimpy would quickly become hits and change the course of animation, television, and popular culture at large. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is looking back at Nick’s best-ever characters and the legacy of the network as a whole. Throughout the week, we’ll be publishing essays, features, and interviews to get at the heart of what made Nick so dang fun—and now so nostalgic.


On April 30, 1992, Nickelodeon GUTS emcee Mike O’Malley stood on a stage in front of the gaudy, glorious Nickelodeon Studios in Orlando, Florida, speaking to a crowd of stoked children and their obliging parents. NBC Blossom star Joey Lawrence was beside him in a vest and ripped jeans, ready to help seal and bury a time capsule for the next half-century. “On this spot, in 50 years,” O’Malley, dressed in a loud fuchsia button-up, declared, “the kids of the future will be able to come here and visit the first world headquarters for kids, and find out what was important for kids today.”

The capsule contained items that had been selected, O’Malley explained, by an official “Kids World Council” that sought to best represent its generation’s cultural and sociopolitical enthusiasms and concerns. Inside was a Game Boy, a VHS tape of Home Alone, a skateboard, and a piece of the Berlin Wall.

There was also a Ren & Stimpy shirt commemorating the launch of original Nicktoons programming less than a year earlier, and a jar of Nickelodeon Gak, the slimy-putty sensation banned by some schools and described by The Washington Post as a “jiggly, gross, stretchy, slippery, icky, and strangely addictive substance [that] smells like the butt end of a bad bottle of wine, feels like oysters, and comes in nine strikingly bright colors.” There was a copy of a TV Guide and a Michael Jackson CD. There were Reebok Pump sneakers, and materials about the AIDS crisis and Operation Desert Storm, and a hat bearing Lawrence’s himbo catchphrase: Whoa! When O’Malley couldn’t figure out how to extricate the tape from a “Kid Cam” operated by a girl named Vicki, he just stuck the entire camcorder into the vault.

The time capsule, the balloons, the building’s giant splatter-shaped logo—they were all the color Pantone 021, that unmistakable Nickelodeon orange. And the presentation itself was unmistakably Nickelodeon, too: absurd yet earnest; manufactured yet chaotic; treating green slime and the fall of the Soviet Union with roughly equal gravitas. This whole random shebang was the very essence of the network I’d been tuning in to daily for years to watch shows like Double Dare and Hey Dude. Its Orlando setting, with its polka-dot-and-zebra-print facade and its fountain of slime, was a Xanadu I dreamed of visiting, a place where I aspirationally mailed in so many failed sweepstakes entries.

Years after an event, you can examine and interpret the memories like they’re rings on a tree. I was in second grade at the time, right in a demographic sweet spot, which means this kind of thing was, and remains, absolute primo Nickelodeon to me, a key inclusion in my own mental time capsule. Talk to a number of my colleagues, however, and this era of Nickelodeon means little. Instead, they’re shocked and horrified that I’ve never seen a full episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, or heard of Henry Danger.

It’s not too different from the way albums released during one’s teenage years, or the starting quarterbacks who play during one’s early 20s, loom forever: apt and influential in an outsize way, enduring even in absentia. Nickelodeon has been around for more than 40 years, and it’s well aware that its most fervent viewers will eventually leave it. The result is many of those sweet spots for many people over the years, and many blank spots, too.

What is Nickelodeon? Depending on your age, the answer might be old-heady (Mr. Wizard’s World) or elder millennial (Salute Your Shorts) or Zoomer (that time they did the triple-crossover episode between iCarly, Zoey 101, and Drake & Josh). If you identified Avatar: The Last Airbender, you may be an Olympian who competed in this summer’s Tokyo Games. (The Dutch windsurfer who won gold credited his Airbender-inspired blue hairstyle for his victory, and the Mexican synchronized swim team wore costumes that paid homage to the show.) Perhaps the safe answer is “SpongeBob SquarePants,” one of the longest-running, highest-rated children’s series in all of television, and the choice of three of my friend’s kids, aged 10 to 18, when I asked them the question in a FaceTime conversation.

“SpongeBob is the Bugs Bunny of the modern generation,” says Fred Seibert, an entertainment executive who helped launch MTV Networks and redesign Nickelodeon in the ’80s. “I produced Fairly OddParents, which is, after SpongeBob, the most long-lived ratings-getter on Nickelodeon. But it’s not SpongeBob, in the same way that Daffy Duck isn’t Bugs Bunny. There are peaks, and SpongeBob was one of those peaks.”

My own Nickelodeon topography omits that peak, however, similar to the people out there who, bless their hearts, haven’t visually ascended the Aggro Crag. For me, Nickelodeon means distant memories of Pinwheel and David the Gnome. It means watching the first half of The Ren & Stimpy Show on Sunday mornings until my mom yelled that we were going to be late for church. It means living large on my friends’ living room floor, eating pizza and drinking cola and wearing Umbros and watching Roundhouse and Are You Afraid of the Dark? at sleepover parties. It means getting the straight-shot, no-bullshit news from Linda Ellerbee, and it means a young Alanis Morissette getting slimed. It means Mike O’Malley, and Nickelodeon Studios in Orlando, and a Christmas stocking full of Gak.

“If you remember the Gak container,” says Anne Kreamer, who launched Nickelodeon Magazine in 1990 and was also responsible for overseeing the network’s toy business, “you would put the Gak back into the thing and it would fart when you did.” Do I ever! “We had to fight hard with Mattel,” Kreamer remembers, “to get the extra three cents per container that it cost to get the lid that would actually make the sound. We always wanted to go above and beyond.” I wish I could hug her through the Zoom screen for enriching my childhood so.

It’s amazing to think how much content and delight Nickelodeon has brought to so many children over the years, given the way the first few years of Nickelodeon went. Launched nationally in 1979, the channel floundered for quite some time, unable to find a toehold despite being the only dedicated network for children. “It turns out that only one program gets a steady rating,” recalls Seibert, “and all the rest, you know, get what they call hashes.” Viewership was so low, in other words, that all that showed up was a dash. The one program that did succeed was the oddball and slime-fueled Canadian sketch comedy show You Can’t Do That on Television, which was named after actual studio notes.

Seibert and his business partner, Alan Goodman, had recently worked with studio honcho Bob Pittman to develop the logo and vision for MTV; Pittman would ask for their help with Nickelodeon, too. Neither of Seibert or Goodman had any experience with children; nor did Scott Nash or Tom Corey, the designers they brought in for help with the logo. But Seibert saw a link between what kids’ programming could be and what MTV was.

“Looney Tunes and rock ’n’ roll had a lot of things in common,” he says. “And one of those things that was in common was sort of a subversion of the established world, of parents, of teachers, of, you know, government and of the establishment.”

Eventually, a new logo and direction was born, one that spoke to that rejection of order. It was a mess, literally: the shape of a splat. It was also an invitation to imagine: The Nick logo wasn’t only a splat, it could be any orange shape that you could dream of, from an alligator to a blimp. Nash says the logo was a backup concept, one scribbled on a coffee cup on the plane ride ahead of a meeting with Seibert to present a different idea. The orange color was selected because it clashed with everything, and more importantly, “based on research that we found,” Nash says, “the colors that were least liked by adults at the time were orange and, like, slimy green. That sort of gave us our marching orders as to what the colors should be.” It would remain the corporate logo for more than two decades. And Nickelodeon would cultivate a reputation not just as a place to watch a designated program at a certain time, but as a place to just … watch. “The Nickelodeon clubhouse,” is how Seibert describes it. No parents allowed; the only place for kids.

In 1990, Kreamer wrote a letter to Geraldine Laybourne, the head of Nickelodeon, who would come to be known as the network’s “fairy godmother.” Kreamer had worked at Sesame Street in the 1970s, and in the 1980s she had been part of the brain trust behind the influential and satirical magazine Spy, along with her husband, Kurt Andersen, and longtime Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter.

“I wrote Gerry,” Kreamer says, “and said, you know, it strikes me that Sesame Street plus Spy magazine equals Nickelodeon.” She was hired not long after. The consumer products Kreamer oversaw were unlike most kids toy tie-ins of the time; they weren’t specific to any one show, or any one character, and they weren’t pink or blue. They were promoting the network, Nickelodeon, making sure those orange splats were everywhere to be found.

My parents didn’t get the Disney Channel when I was a child, but sometimes I glimpsed it at friends’ houses and concluded that whereas the Disney Channel was a glittery destination for showbiz kids, Nickelodeon was wish fulfillment for the people. Kids passed along legends of friends’ cousins or cousins’ friends who had been lucky enough to live the dream in which Nickelodeon showed up one day to Take Over Their School. And one needn’t look further than the Super Toy Run, the ne plus ultra of Nickelodeon normal-kid excess. A kid—a kid like me, a kid who filled out one of those sweepstakes entries and sent it to Orlando—got to run through a toy store for five minutes and keep everything they could grab!

“Nick was so kid-centric, and just so focused on things that would be cool for kids to do,” O’Malley tells me about the toy run, which he hosted in the early ’90s. It blew even his mind. “I was only like 24 years old. I wasn’t that far away from being a kid myself,” he says. “Forget kids! Anyone that had ever played with a toy could imagine what that would be like.”

It’s the kind of thing that seemed too good to be true—surely behind the scenes, Nick was stingy with the winnings, a stickler for any items that touched the floor, a lawyer referring to tiny print, that sort of thing. But in one of my favorite things on the internet, an AV Club interview with two former Super Toy Run participants, each of them recalls the experience as somehow better than one could fathom. The network let them scout the store in advance and move things around so they could gather toys more quickly.

“I was playing the part of an older brother or a camp counselor to the younger kids or the younger cousins, who, you know, treated the kids with laughter and respect,” says O’Malley of the way he approached his various Nickelodeon gigs. (Since then, he has branched out into scripted acting and producing, and is both the showrunner and the villain of the upcoming wrestling drama Heels.) “You always have to put yourself in their shoes. The world is bigger to them. There’s a lot of rules. They’re constantly being told what to do. Wake up, go to bed, wash your hands, you know, change your clothes, learn your lessons, get inside, get outside.”

The spirit of Nickelodeon was the opposite. “Like, what would it be like to dunk a basketball?” he says. “Let’s put a bungee cord on your back so you can feel what that would feel like.” Want to throw food or pick your nose? Welcome to Double Dare, where you’re encouraged to do both. (Seibert says that in his mind, Nickelodeon falls into eras distinguished by being before or after Double Dare, and before or after SpongeBob.)

The era after SpongeBob saw Nickelodeon increasingly target a new demographic of kids. During the aughts, the network had a whole cohort of live-action tween-driven meta programming that felt specifically in competition with the Disney Channel’s vibe—like iCarly, about a teenager with a prospering web show, or Zoey 101, which starred Britney Spears’s sister Jamie Lynn and was set at a Malibu boarding school.

At the time, in my early-mid 20s, I was vaguely aware that a pal of mine in New York City with a job in the legal division of an investment bank also had a side gig in which he played bass on tour with two young Nickelodeon bros behind a quasi-mockumentary show called The Naked Brothers Band. “They were like the Beatles,” Chris Muir says when I call him to reminisce about it, “among 11-to-13-year-old girls.”

One of the first times he performed with Alex and Nat Wolff, at a shopping mall they traveled to via private plane, they were so swarmed by tween fans that the Wolffs had to hide out “in the back of, you know, an American Eagle or something,” Muir says. (He first got the gig after an agent saw him play with and for grown-ups at a bar on Manhattan’s Bleecker Street one night; when he ultimately left his day job a year later to spend more time touring, his boss said, Well, at least you aren’t going to Morgan Stanley.) The band’s most reliable banger was a song called “I Don’t Want to Go to School.” One time, they played a concert at Nassau Coliseum with some youngster named Justin Bieber, who absolutely crushed it.

On the road, during idle moments, the Wolffs introduced him to a strange show they loved that wasn’t particularly new—it had aired for close to a decade—but that he had never seen. “The Naked Brothers loved SpongeBob,” he says.

The Naked Brothers Band as a show lasted only for three seasons, from 2007 to 2009, though the Wolff brothers continued to tour musically afterward and have gone on to establish impressive acting careers, with appearances ranging from Broadway to Hereditary. The show’s Nickelodeon run coincided with Disney programming like Hannah Montana, which first aired in 2006, and Jonas (from the Jonas Brothers), which premiered in 2009. For years, Nickelodeon had two main competitors: Cartoon Network and Disney. Each network had a long history of competing and/or being inspired by one another. SpongeBob was in part a reaction to the Cartoon Network. ABC hired Melissa Joan Hart of Clarissa Explains It All fame to headline Sabrina the Teenage Witch; Disney poached the creator of Doug.

I ask one momquaintence whether she’ll ask her now-16-year-old what show first comes to mind upon hearing the word “Nickelodeon,” and before she does, she makes a prediction: “My hunch is that she’ll say something like, ‘That’s the channel that showed Big Time Rush, which you wouldn’t let me watch,’” she says, referring to a show that ran during those years in which four hockey players form a boy band. And she’s pretty close! A few minutes later, she tells me her daughter has texted her back to say: “iCarly, but you never let me watch that.” The power of Nickelodeon remains strong enough that even its absence is memorable.

A few years ago, Kreamer’s daughter, Lucy Andersen, went on eBay and bought the same Nickelodeon alarm clock she’d had as a kid—or, sorry, the same Nickelodeon Time Blaster, I should say. It has it all: the slime-green accents, the polka dots, the orange logo, and a handful of wacky wake-up sounds including an oncoming train and that classic interstitial nick nick nick nick na-nick nick nick / Nickelodeon … that was originally recorded for the network by a doo-wop band and is forever seared into the brains of both the kids who watched the channel and the adults who overheard it.

“I still love the ’90s Nickelodeon aesthetic,” Andersen, a designer in her early 30s, says. She hates to admit it, but even at the time, she knew her mom’s job was extremely cool. Andersen says she was a fan of Rocko’s Modern Life and Legends of the Hidden Temple back in the day (though sometimes cringes at the way the latter has aged). And like me, “I was never a big SpongeBob person,” Andersen says. “I would say, yeah, probably once I got to be … 12? I kind of left the world that was exposed to Nickelodeon.”

“That means,” says her mom, Kreamer, “that Nickelodeon did their job right.”

If the network once helped implicitly prepare its youth to leave its nest, it has followed that up over the years by issuing invitations for those same people to come back to find a place to crash.

When the network announced in 2011 that it would air a handful of ’90s-era shows like Clarissa Explains It All and The Adventures of Pete & Pete after midnight on TeenNick, an executive told EW that when the shows originally aired, “At the time, we were completely devoted to that audience ages 9, 10, and 11. … Those kids who are now 22, 23, and 24 want to bring that back.” That was a decade ago, and many of those kids now have kids of their own.

Nostalgia is a comfort as well as a currency, and in the land grab that is the “streaming wars,” competing content providers are hoping their past IP can generate future growth. While mediums like YouTube and TikTok might be shaking up the established channels of entertainment and content, in other ways they have deep ties to the past. (After all, Seibert points out, The Adventures of Pete & Pete was originally shot as 40 one-minute episodes. How positively TikTokian!)

These days, Nickelodeon’s home is on the newly rebranded streaming service Paramount+, where planned projects include a SpongeBob spinoff called The Patrick Star Show, Fairly OddParents and iCarly reboots, a PAW Patrol movie, and a “full-fledged franchise strategy,” as Paramount+ kids and family programming honcho Brian Robbins told The Hollywood Reporter, “creating films and spinoffs out of Avatar.”

Robbins himself has returned to Nickelodeon after some time away, and comes from a background that is more creative than managerial. The former producer of shows like All That and Kenan & Kel, Robbins started his own studio, AwesomenessTV, which developed short web shows for tween audiences as well as streaming hits like the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before franchise on Netflix and Hulu’s Pen15. Now he’s back, and he’s “redefining Nickelodeon through a lot of these social media stars who are making big shows for them,” Seibert says. “So, the wheel keeps turning, the creativity keeps moving, but it always is of a piece with the culture of today rather than the culture that used to be.”

Speaking of the culture that used to be: The old Nickelodeon Studios in Orlando—the first world headquarters for kids—is no longer. In fact, it’s been gone for a long time: Nickelodeon abandoned the space in 2005, less than a third of the way into that poor time capsule’s 50-year residency. The network stopped relying on live game shows the way it once did, and Nick’s success had led to a situation in which its stars became big enough to want to shoot in Los Angeles or New York, not Florida. Shortly after Nickelodeon moved out, the building got a new tenant: the Blue Man Group.

The time capsule has been moved twice: first to a Nickelodeon-branded hotel in Orlando, and then, upon that hotel’s rebranding, to Burbank, California, where it chills at the Nickelodeon Animation studios, waiting out another couple of decades. “We hope by then we have found solutions to our problems,” O’Malley said in 1992, “and that our dreams have become realities, and that the concerned kids of 1992 have become the concerned adults of the year 2042.” On at least one of those counts, I appear to be on the right path.

An earlier version of this piece misstated when the Jonas Brothers’ show premiered; it was after the Naked Brothers’ show premiered on Nickelodeon.