Two and a half years ago, we explored the early history of Cartoon Network
... but it wasn't the only player in the youth television game.
As a matter of fact, Fred Seibert
-- the man responsible for the most inventive projects discussed in that post -- first stretched his creative legs at the network's truly
venerable forerunner: Nickelodeon
Founded as Pinwheel, a six-hour block on Warner Cable's innovative QUBE
system, this humble channel struggled for years before Seibert's innovative branding work transformed it into a national icon and capstone of a media empire.
Much has changed since then, from the mascots and game shows to the versatile orange "splat."
But starting tonight in response to popular demand, the network is looking back
with a summer programming block dedicated to the greatest hits of the 1990s
, including Hey Arnold!, Rocko's Modern Life, The Adventures of Pete & Pete, The Ren & Stimpy Show, Double Dare, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Legends of the Hidden Temple
, and All That
To celebrate, look inside for the complete story of the early days of the network that incensed the religious right, brought doo-wop to television, and slimed a million fans -- the golden age of Nickelodeon. (warning: monster post inside)PART 1: The Early Years
Nick started out as a young children's program called Pinwheel
that mixed puppetry and live action with animated shorts from overseas. Only a few bootlegs survive from this era, making video hard to track down.
As the nascent channel struggled to find an audience, it started rerunning episodes of the Canadian comedy show You Can't Do That On Television!
, which proved to be a big hit and laid the groundwork for future variety shows like it once the network found its legs. The show also introduced the infamous green slime
that would characterize the network's later game show programs. Semi-active fansite YCDTOTV.com
provides official recipes
, and is positively overflowing with other content about this era.
PART 2: "From Worst to First"
Fred Seibert arrived at Nickelodeon fresh from success at MTV, where he and colleague Alan Goodman had developed the iconic "Man on the Moon" sequence
that launched the channel in 1981
. The Fred/Alan team found Nickelodeon floundering, hemorrhaging millions of dollars and dead last in the ratings.
Their solution: a complete re-branding, starting with the logo. Out went the clunky silver balloon
, in came The Splat
. Inspired by MTV's shifting psychedelic design, The Splat was an all-purpose wonder, an amorphous blob of bright orange gunk that could be anything and everything
. Using fun style guides
, producers applied the Nick name to bones, rocket ships, dinosaurs, and dozens of other forms
across hundreds of products
over the next few decades. The logo was so versatile, in fact, that it went through only one major revision
) before Viacom, in the way of all corporate giants, dispensed with The Splat in 2009 for a new unified brand
-- one very similar, ironically enough, to the logo that saddled the network in its infancy
To introduce Nick's new brand, Seibert and Goodman contracted with dozens of artists to create a series of striking and innovative "bumpers" all showcasing the bright orange Splat. Perhaps the most fortuitous hire was a capella
band The Jive Five
. As Seibert explains in his article "The Doo-Wopping of Television"
Alan's former colleague, writer and producer Marty Pekar, had started Ambient Sound to capture contemporary recordings of classic doo-wop groups from the 50s and 60s. He introduced them to the leader of The Jive 5, Eugene Pitt, as "not only a great singer, but a smart man." They found Eugene to be, as Rock and Roll Hall of Fame CEO Terry Stewart said, "the most underrated soul singer in America," and a wonderful collaborator. When the opportunity to work with Nickelodeon presented itself, Fred, Alan, and producer Tom Pomposello immediately knew the Jive 5 would be the perfect underpinning for defining the vocabulary of the network.
Convincing Nickelodeon was another story. [...] Fred/Alan tried a lot of arguments to bring them around to a doo-wop sound, but they fell on deaf ears. "Doo-wop's 30 years old, no kid has ever heard of it."
We won the day on two grounds. Fred played on the executives' liberal backgrounds. "We love all forms of African-American music, and using doo-wop will be a great way to educate American kids without anyone being the wiser."
Alan's worked even better. He opened his mouth and, quoting The Marcels' arrangement of chestnut "Blue Moon," sang: "Bom-ma-bom, a-bom-bom-a-bom, ba-ba-bom-bom-a-bomp, b-dang-a-dang-dang, b-ding-a-dong-ding."
"What kid isn’t going to relate to that right away?" Alan asked. Case closed.
The Jive Five proceeded to record a number of joyful and infectiously catchy doo-wop melodies for the artists to animate in a wide variety of styles, spots that went on to form the core of the channel's new identity (and the first of which became the its enduring theme song):
N-Nick Nick Nick N-Nick Nick Nick... Nickelodeon! (Main Theme) - Hon De Laud Hup Hivvel Up Nick (Calling Cades MasterMix) - Orange you glad you got your Nickelodeon? (Fruit variant) - Bulldog Crew (Jungle) - Tweedley Dum (Space Beans) - Shoo Be Doo (Worms) - It's Time, It's Time (Haircut) - Say Hey Say Hi Say Ho (Skating) - Better Off By Far (Space) - Waiting for You (Fish) - Dino Bop - Doo-Wop-a-Saurus - Your TV Network (Jive Five) - Top of the Hour - Easy Groove - Alligator and Frog - Dragon and Frog - Full Montage
The campaign was a tremendous, CLIO award-winning
success -- within six months Nickelodeon had rocketed to the number one slot on the ratings chart. And the doo-wop was just the beginning -- that first batch inspired a wider range of spots in later years, from the cute to the bizarre:
Pinchface - Bone - Picnic Ants - Big Beast Quintet - Nicktoons Blob - Scissors Man - Opera - Reggae - Toothbrush Morph - Monkey Balloon - Dancing Dogs - Monster Disco - Banner - Around the World - Waiter - Laundry - Rock Dance - Teacup - What You Want claymation - Doug - Spelling - Barnyard - Comet - Flying Chair - Origami - Asian ID - Sea Monster - Box Face - Stage - Cave Paintings - Octopus - Tractor - Head on Chair - Windshield - Lockers - Rugrats - Gymnastics - Nick Takes Over Your School - Compilation (with lots more) - Shorts: Inside-Out Boy and Angela Anaconda
A Maine summer camp was even invited to submit student-created bumpers
, which turned into a fun campaign of its own.
PART 3: Nickelodeon Studios
Years of sustained success led to the 1990 foundation
of Nickelodeon Studios
, a combination film studio, animation mecca, and theme park at Universal Studios in Orlando. The studio, with its colorful facade and infamous Slime Geyser
, would become the nerve center
of the company and a backdrop for many programs throughout the next decade, especially game shows like Double Dare
, the notoriously difficult Legends of the Hidden Temple
obstacle course (which you can attempt yourself!
), and Global GUTS
with its imposing Aggro Crag
The network also developed spin-offs and sister channels, such as Nick Jr.
(full of colorful fare like Face
and Gullah Gullah Island
for the toddler set) and Nick at Nite
, which featured reruns of popular sitcoms from decades past (which, if you think about it, is basically what this '90s programming block is doing right now -- oh noes!).
Sadly, the studios closed its doors in 2005 in the face of flagging attendance, storm damage, and staff relocations to other offices. The building still stands, but all has been stripped away
, including the Geyser and the studio time capsule
(reburied at a company resort
talked about previously
). Gone, but not forgotten, though -- enjoy this thorough behind-the-scenes guided tour of the facility
from before the closure by a former employee.
PART 4: Live Action
The Nick Studio was home to many live action programs, from sitcoms to horror to variety shows (and Stick Stickly!
Two early sitcoms, Hey Dude
and Clarissa Explains it All
, have been given full retrospectives by the AV Club, while fan favorite The Adventures of Pete & Pete
is getting an episode-by-episode review. Speaking of which, don't miss the full version of "Hey Sandy,"
the great theme song by Polaris that carried some surprisingly dark undertones
, or this original short
uploaded by Fred Seibert. As for the cast, where are they now?
Horror series Are You Afraid of the Dark?
went through several incarnations, many episodes of which can be found online
. Brave the list of scariest episodes
(or TVTropes' High Octane Nightmare Fuel page for the show
) ...if you dare.
And of course there were the two big variety shows, both the work of Dan Schneider ("the Norman Lear of children’s television"
). Each were modeled on the earlier YCDTOT -- the SNL-lite All That
and spin-off Kenan & Kel
(both of which helped propel star Kenan Thompson to actual SNL stardom
). The nature of the shows makes video more scattered, but there's plenty to take in; this 100+ video playlist
is a good start, as is the TVTropes page
(And lest we forget: Camp Anawanna
, Alex Mack
, Cousin Skee-- well, you can probably forget that one.
For the cynics out there: The Nostalgia Critic's skeptical 18-minute mocking of the above
(except for Pete & Pete, which he loves unconditionally
PART 5: Nicktoons
Of course, the most well-known Nick properties were their many original animated series, or Nicktoons
. A ToonZone member explains their genesis
Sometime in 1989, at the Montclair, New Jersey house of Nick president Geraldine Laybourne, Laybourne, her husband Kit, Herb Scannell, Fred Seibert, and others had a meeting where they watched TV shows currently running at the time and compared them to classic shorts such as the Looney Tunes. They came to the conclusion that then-current animation from studios such as DIC and Hanna-Barbera was formulaic and had no unique style. Geraldine Laybourne believed that the best characters, such as Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Kermit the Frog, were those characters who were linked to their creator. Laybourne and the team decided that the creator should be the one who was the center of the production, just as it was in the old days. Also, having a library of animated shows that they owned would allow them to both prevent having to license other animation and make money for the network- and also eventually make back the high cost of producing original animation, since animation is costly to produce, but has a long shelf life.
It was an expensive and laborious project- around $12 million in total ($1 to $2 million per pilot) to commission eight pilots, of which they hoped four would be able to air as an animated block with a target date of August 1991.
Only three of the eight made made it through to production: Doug
, and the wonderfully edgy Ren & Stimpy
. The success of these inspired others throughout the next decade, including:
Rocko's Modern Life, whose first season is on review at AV Club
Hey Arnold!, whose main voice actress (for Helga) recently did an informative Q&A over at Reddit
Kablam!, the comics-inspired variety animation show with one catchy theme song ("Two Tone Army" by The Toasters)
The ongoing Spongebob Squarepants juggernaut, whose first few seasons could be pretty twisted
Invader Zim (lots of episodes here), whose twistedness was a little more obvious
And of course plenty of Mefites are familiar with the artistry and good storytelling of Avatar (no, not the 3D one)
One notable project was Seibert's Oh Yeah! Cartoons
, an innovative series of one-off creator-driven shorts
that would inspire later work on Cartoon Network's World Premiere Toons
series (which in turn led to programs like Dexter's Lab
and Powerpuff Girls
, discussed here
). There's a full list of shorts to peruse on Wikipedia
-- many are on YouTube, but far to many to post here. Seibert himself has put a lot of media from the show on the web, like multiple 100+ page books of art
from his Frederator Studios, which helmed the project and now makes series like Adventure Time
. Don't miss the ongoing 16-part history of the studio
(full table of contents are only in that last post). Also interesting, if unrelated, is Seibert's collection of media from his time at Hanna-Barbera
in the early '90s. If you want more (lots more), check out Jerry Beck's Not Just Toons: Nicktoons!
or Heather Hendershot's more scholarly Nickelodeon Nation
(The Nostalgia Critic is slightly more tolerant of the 'toons)
PART 6: Nickelodeon Magazine
For years, Nick promoted subscriptions
to Nickelodeon Magazine
, its flagship print product with a peak circulation of more than seven million. Interestingly, while the magazine was largely concerned with pranks and jokes and celebrity interviews, it was also a haven for the underground comix
scene, featuring work from cartooning luminaries like Kim Deitch and Craig Thompson, whose works were popular enough to justify periodic all-comic specials and support award programs
and convention events
. As cartoonist Rod McKie described his first read through an issue
So, having heard good things about Nickelodeon Magazine (US), I decided to get a hold of the thing and go over it with a fine tooth-comb, and try to think my way into the thing. The thing was, I had no idea what to expect, it was a kids magazine after all. Well, I was astonished when I saw it, really astonished. I'm not kidding, I was really bowled over by the magazine, I had never seen a publication more visually literate, more cartoon and illustration friendly, it was a cartoonist's delight. [...] I found myself responding to it with the same levels of wonder and delight as a cartoonist, as a parent, and as a teacher. I had never seen anything like this, and I had never seen such a range of mainstream and indie cartoonists all gathered together in one publication.
Though the magazine unfortunately folded in 2009
, information and art from its many features can still be found on the web:
Fiona of the Felines
by Terry LaBan - Grampa and Julie: Shark Hunters
by Jef Czekaj - Impy & Wormer
by James Kochalka - Juanita and Clem
by Craig Thompson - Mervin the Magnificent
by Richard Sala - Patty-Cake
by Scott Roberts - Sam Hill & Ray-9
by Mark Martin - Scene But Not Heard
by Sam Henderson - Southern Fried Fugitives
by Simon and Kim Deitch - Teeny Weeny, the Tiniest Hot Dog in the World
by Mark Martin - The Uncredibly Confabulated Tales of Lucinda Ziggles
by Andy Ristaino - Underpants-On-His-Head Man
by Michael Kupperman - Yam
by Corey Barba
Lots more material in the unofficial Nickmag-Comics LiveJournal site
, or browse an old issue at Archive.org
PART 7: Nick News
In 1992, the channel hired respected journalist Linda Ellerbee
to helm Nick News
, a new educational program meant to air periodically in classrooms and in primetime. The show gained renown (and eventually won a Peabody
and an Edward R. Murrow Award
) for tackling difficult and complex issues like AIDS and global warming in a frank way, taking its young audience seriously
and relying heavily on interviews with kids and teens to explore their problems and concerns. Politically aware, the program's regular "Kids Pick the President" mock election correctly called five of the last six winners (save Kerry in 2004).
Perhaps the most notable episode of the show was the controversial
2002 special report "My Family is Different"
), which dealt with same-sex parentage and attendant issues such as sexual harassment and hate crimes. In a time when homosexuality enjoyed far weaker public support in America, Ellerbee's earnest and nonjudgmental take on the subject provoked bitter outrage from conservative groups
, who pledged to boycott Nickelodeon
in retaliation. The episode, the show's highest-rated, went on to win a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Television Journalism.
The show's still going strong
, most recently covering the long-term consequences of the Haiti earthquake
PART 8: Nick Movies
In its heyday, the company produced original live-action movies, such as Harriet the Spy
(1996) and Good Burger
(1997), in addition to adaptations of its animated stable. It later branched out into producing big screen versions of other works, from A Series of Unfortunate Events
and Nacho Libre
and the terrible M. Night Shyamalan version of beloved Nicktoon Avatar (The Last Airbender
PART 9: SPECIAL MUSICAL BONUS!!
An official "Best of Nicktoons" CD
featuring a random assortment of earwormy tunes from across the network; available for download here
or with selected tracks on YouTube:
Nick Nick Nick (Main Theme)
- 3D Laughing Boy Open
- Rugrats Theme
- Nick Video Open
- Kablam! Theme
- Thunder Girl
- Nick-o-Las Tell Underture
- Ren & Stimpy Theme
- Happy Happy Joy Joy
- Log Commercial
- Calling Cades
- Aaahh!! Real Monsters Theme
- Artman Open
- Angry Beavers Theme
- I Think I Like You
- Hey Arnold! Theme
- Haunted Train Blues
- Darling You Left My Heart
- Look Up!
- Simple Things
- Rocko's Modern Life Theme
- Orange You Glad?
- CatDog Theme
And what musical bonus is complete without a little amateur a capella?
PART 10: It all comes back
For the foreseeable future, rotating blocks of the old shows are now set to air weeknights at midnight EST on sister network TeenNick, starting with All That
, Kenan & Kel
, Clarissa Explains It All
, and Doug
. If you're not a fan of those, changes will be made to the schedule in response to feedback online through Facebook
, Twitter, and other social media channels. Also, regular marathons of the old animated shows run overnight on fellow sister network Nicktoons at the same time, offering some variety for anybody who wants it.