Two weeks ago brought “The Secret World of Alex Mack,” a series about a 12-year-old girl who accidentally gets sprayed by an experimental chemical and develops supernatural powers that she uses to deal with the problems of adolescence.
Last week brought “My Brother and Me,” a series about an 8-year-old boy in North Carolina who relies on his older sibling to help make sense of the world.
And two more new series arrive Monday as Nickelodeon, the 15-year-old cable channel, rolls out a fall schedule designed to bolster its appeal both with older children watching in prime time and younger ones watching on weekday mornings.
Nickelodeon president Geraldine Laybourne said the new slate of shows for older children, including “The Secret World of Alex Mack” and “My Brother and Me,” represents “an expansion of Nickelodeon into new genres such as comedy/adventure and sitcoms.”
But the preschool programming on weekday mornings is perhaps even more ambitious: It represents an attempt to increase the channel’s profile in an area that has long been dominated by PBS’ Big Bird, Barney and King Friday. Nickelodeon plans to spend $30 million during the next three years on new series for preschoolers.
The first of the new entries are “Allegra’s Window,” a puppet show about the everyday life of a 3-year-old girl, and “Gullah Gullah Island,” a musical series featuring an African American family who explore the traditions of the South Sea Islands of South Carolina. Interspersed between programs will be a series of two-minute vignettes featuring new Muppet characters.
Nickelodeon has produced shows for preschoolers for many years, but its new initiative with the “Nick Jr.” morning block puts increased emphasis on original production for the 2- to 5-year-old audience.
Nevertheless, Laybourne and Alice Cahn, the director for children’s programming for PBS, both downplayed any competition between the two networks, saying that an increase in good programming for children can only benefit young viewers. But each clearly is an advocate for her network’s approach.
“We (at PBS) use TV as a teaching tool for children, and we’ve been doing that successfully for 25 years,” Cahn said. “We have established outreach programs with teachers and local communities to ensure the carry-over of the learning that takes place on the TV program.”
“We (at Nickelodeon) are not aiming to teach kids a curriculum like the alphabet,” Laybourne said. “Our approach with our preschool programming is to create an electronic playground where kids can use playful thinking and other tools that will build their self-esteem and prepare them for life today.”
Underlying Nickelodeon’s new shows--which also include an animated series, “Aaahh! Real Monsters,” premiering Oct. 30--is a pro-kids approach that has made the children’s TV network one of the most popular and profitable cable channels.
“Most prime-time shows with kids surround adults with unrealistic kid characters,” said Herb Scannell, senior vice president of programming for the channel, which reaches about 60 million homes. “We make the kid the center of the show, seeing the world from his or her perspective.”
That his or her is important. In a world of macho Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Nickelodeon has taken the unusual step of making competent girls the heroes of some of its shows. Television programmers traditionally have been reluctant to base children’s series around girls because it was believed that boys wouldn’t watch, whereas girls were willing to tune in shows about boys.
“Alex Mack,” for example, is something of a younger sister to “Clarissa Explains It All,” a popular Nickelodeon comedy about a bright teen-age girl who was an expert on sibling rivalry. “Clarissa,” which has gone out of production but continues in reruns, predated NBC’s “Blossom” and ABC’s “My So-Called Secret Life,” which also center around teen-age girls.
Like MTV, its sister network, Nickelodeon has been very successful at creating a feeling among young viewers that this is a network for them . In addition to meeting with kids to discuss program ideas and issues that affect them, the network communicates with children through computers and sponsors events such as “The Big Help,” which led to kids across the country pledging volunteer time.
“I think of Nickelodeon as a relationship with kids,” said Laybourne, a former educator who is credited with much of the success of the network. “We have a promise to our audience that we’re not going to sell them short, and we’re not going to talk to them as if kids are born stupid.”
That relationship is translating into loyal audiences, with Nickelodeon accounting for 30% of the total viewing time children spend with all children’s shows on TV.
Nickelodeon (which includes the Nick at Nite lineup of “classic” sitcoms) showed an estimated $115 million in operating profits in 1993 on $282 million in revenue (from advertising and affiliate fees), according to Bill Marchetti, an analyst for Paul Kagan Associates. Marchetti estimates that Nickelodeon will take in $331.1 million in total revenues this year, with operating profits of $145 million.
“They’ve been very successful at creating a brand identity and loyal viewing,” Marchetti said, “and advertisers are willing to pay a premium for that.”
* “The Secret Life of Alex Mack” airs Saturdays at 8 p.m. “My Brother and Me” airs Sundays at 6:30 p.m. “Allegra’s Window” premieres Monday at 11 a.m., followed by “Gullah Gullah Island” at 11:30 a.m.