Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, this is the story of how the first kids network rose from chaotic underdog to creative heavyweight
By Diara J. Townes November 17, 2018
In its 39 years of existence, the story of the first cable network for kids has never been told. Directors Scott Barber and Adam Sweeney accepted the challenge, presenting their broad scope at the DOC NYC premiere of The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story on Thursday, November 15.
The 98-minute movie traces the history of the first cable channel created in the void of television programs for kids in the 1980s. From inside looks into shows like Double Dare, Legends of the Hidden Temple and Salute Your Shorts, to Nickelodeon Studios in Florida, the film does its best to capture the childhood visuals of a generation.
“Man, it was the best trip down memory lane,” said Brooklyn-resident Meredith Mende, 31, after the film. “I teared up several times!”
“It was so interesting to watch,” added her friend, Kasey Hicks, 33, also from Brooklyn. “I definitely got chills; I forgot about so many things!” Hicks shared that her favorite show as a kid was Doug; for Mende it was Rocko’s Modern Life.
At 13 hours a day and seven days a week, Nickelodeon began as an off-beat, MTV-esque laboratory of creator-driven content. The small team was led by visionary founder and first president Geraldine Laybourne, whose goal was to never talk down to kids.
“We were competitive, we were loving, we were supportive,” she shared during the panel at the School of Visual Arts Theatre in Chelsea. “And we wanted kids to feel good about themselves.”
In the 1980s, GI Joe and My Little Pony became cartoons because of toys. However, Laybourne didn’t want animation that needed merchandise to be a hit. Coffey was determined to find content that kids could relate to.
“You never saw a show like Rugrats,” she said. The animation was originally pitched as a show about babies that could talk when the adults left the room. “And Doug wasn’t cool or a loser, he was just in the middle, where a lot of kids are.” This series, created by Jim Jinkins, was fashioned after his own childhood of common pre-adolescent issues in Richmond, Virginia, such as asking out the girl he likes and getting a bad haircut.
The final of Coffey’s first three Nicktoons was by far the weirdest animation the network produced: Ren and Stimpy.
“I don’t think anyone at Nick ever saw our storyboards,” Coffey laughed. “They took a huge risk with that one.” Marked as a turning point for the kids channel, the abusive story-telling of Ren and Stimpy’s edgy, visually disruptive style of animation brought in a broader audience: the MTV crowd.
With that new, unanticipated audience growth, the network shifted gears to create content for the pre-teen and junior high kids.
In The Secret World of Alex Mack, a junior high student develops special abilities like telekinesis and liquefaction, following a chemical truck accident, elements of a live-action drama never used for a teen female protagonist.
“To take the lens back a little bit and see what we were really a part of is incredibly special,” shared Larisa Oleynik, the show’s lead, during the panel.
Danny Tamberelli, 36, the younger star of The Adventures of Pete and Pete, started the show when he was seven years old, and finished at age twelve. “Little Pete was definitely me in a lot of ways. I was the weird, antihero cool kid. Looking back,” he said, referring to the film, “it’s really amazing to see how this network created all of these [shows] that were a little left of the dial, you know? We weren’t cookie-cutter kids.”
The network soon launched Nick Jr, engaging programming for the 2 – 5 year-old preschool viewer. Born from the idea of a game show, Blue Clues transformed the way parents viewed kids television, mostly due to how excited their children became, screaming at the sight of a blue paw print.
Nickelodeon managed to capture a strong viewership on Saturday nights as well, a dead zone for television. SNICK (Saturday Nick) aimed programming such as All That, Kenan and Kel and Are You Afraid of the Dark? at kids who were too young to date and too old to go to bed. Nick produced some of their most iconic shows in the two-hour, 8p -10p block.
“What am I proudest of?” reflected Laybourne during the post-film panel. “Nobody helped us. It was all just us. We were determined to make something great for kids, and nobody ever let us down.”
While not a complete video anthology of the network, The Orange Years captures decades of meaningful and impactful television for a generation of kids who just wanted to be kids.