Building a Better Fun Factory : For Years, PBS Had a Monopoly on Quality Children’s Programming. Now It’s Being Challenged by Brash Upstart Nickelodeon, Which May Prove a Bigger Threat Than a Republican Congress Ever Will.
There is slime in the air this bright Florida morning--great, goopy green streams arcing into the cloudless blue as though the space shuttle has gone aloft again, powered this time by liquefied frogs. Kids in line outside the entrance to Nickelodeon Studios gaze in delight as the slime freezes at its apogee, for a breathless second, before it comes splattering back to the ground with a gooey squish--a wonderful and disgusting sound. Next door, in a huge and padlocked sound stage, “seaQuest DSV,” Steven Spielberg’s elephantine submarine drama, is being filmed. But not one kid cranes his neck to look at that studio, not on this bright morning, with joy in their eyes and slime in the air.
“Spielberg came down here one day with his kids,” says Matt Palmer, Nickelodeon Studios director of publicity. “We slimed him.”
In fact, since Nickelodeon opened its studios on the Universal Studios lot near Orlando in 1990, almost 20,000 people have been slimed. If there is a single emblem of the way in which the Nickelodeon cable network has supplanted the Public Broadcasting Service to become the dominant force in children’s television, it is not the wise and disturbingly friendly puppets of “Eureeka’s Castle,” the wise and disturbingly ambulatory toddlers of “Rugrats,” the wise and disturbingly frank teen-agers of “Clarissa Explains It All,” or even the stupid and disturbingly hairball-prone characters of “Ren and Stimpy.” It is this green glop, first developed as part of a show called “You Can’t Do That on Television,” and it is why the Green Slime Geyser has fired skyward more than 70,000 times in the past four years. A dousing of slime was the maximum penalty another program, “Double Dare,” and that quiz show was such a breakthrough that the stuff came to symbolize the entire network. Moreover, nearly 2 million people have tasted either slime or its mutant cousin, Gak. Which, alas, is where the Juicy Booger Lady comes in.
The tour winds through the studios, passing the kitchen, where slime and Gak are allegedly brewed. There, a nice woman explains that, while slime is just, well, slime, Gak is slime with certain additives. “For example,” she says, “a nice, juicy booger.” The children erupt into a chorus of mock vomiting. The parents, who have already been dragged through all manner of pop culture gimcrackery elsewhere on the lot, look as though someone has collectively hit them in the head with a hammer. The tour winds noisily on.
There was a time, and not so long ago, when there wasn’t such a thing as children’s television, let alone a tour of a children’s studio. Television was simply television, produced by people who never experienced television in their youth, and much of the programming looked as though these people still distrusted the talking furniture. During the past 25 years, however, television gradually fell into the hands of the television generations.
Still, children’s programming lagged dreadfully. At the local level, there were some shows that treated children as children: Big Brother Bob Emery and Rex Trailer at WBZ in Boston went on for years; Fred Rogers’ neighborhood was always in Pittsburgh. However, at the network level, with the honorable exceptions of “Captain Kangaroo” and “Romper Room,” children’s programming functioned as little more than extended advertising for products, and children generally were looked upon as little more than larval consumers. What was left was “educational television,” which most kids ran away from as if it were Brussels sprouts.
All that changed in 1969, when PBS launched “Sesame Street.” Parents loved the way the show taught numbers, and children loved the Muppets. After “Sesame Street” came “ZOOM,” “The Electric Company,” “Reading Rainbow” and a host of other shows that gave PBS a corner on quality children’s programming that lasted more than two decades. It was such a solid franchise that PBS advocates cited it any time a liberal critic bemoaned the right-wing hackery of “The McLaughlin Group” or any time some antediluvian confederate in Congress swore budgetary vengeance upon Bill Moyers. This argument--effectively summarized as Don’t Mind Morton Kondracke, We’ve Still Got Big Bird--proved to be so nearly irrefutable that children’s programming became inextricably entwined with PBS’ identity.
Today, with House Speaker Newt Gingrich talking about “zero-ing out” the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the corporate umbrella for PBS, public television enters an era of unprecedented political vulnerability. Although attention will focus on the Republican efforts to kill off PBS, those efforts will be aimed at an institution already weakened by its dilatory approach to the competitive TV marketplace. PBS has lost its monopoly on quality children’s programming, and it will not simply be right-wing critics who question whether, without that monopoly, there is anything left to PBS at all.
"(Children’s proramming) is critical to who our stations are,” says Alice Cahn, director of children’s programming at PBS. “It’s part of the reason that PBS defined itself as providing needed services. Frankly, no one else was doing this.”
That is not enough in a multi-channeled world, where children’s programming can be found not only on the four broadcast networks--FOX is the current leader--but also on such cable networks as the Disney Channel and the Family Channel. It is now big business: According to a 1993 Yankelovich study, kids ages 6-17 watch TV an average of 22 hours per week; and last year, advertisers spent more than $800 million on commercials aimed at children. (This doesn’t even address the other form of competition that television itself faces: video games, like Nintendo. According to one study, kids play Nintendo 4 1/2 days a week, at 90 minutes a shot.)
Because of the very natures of the two networks, Nickelodeon easily can do what PBS does, but PBS is no more capable of doing what Nickelodeon does than Secretary of State Warren Christopher can host “Wheel of Fortune.” Some of PBS’ failure to respond was simple inertia. It inexcusably fumbled away the licensing rights to the characters from its most popular shows. The network gets virtually nothing from all the Big Bird lunch boxes that have poured out of the stores during the past 20 years. In an age in which practically all of mass popular culture--from the Dallas Cowboys to the Rolling Stones--finances itself through the sale of various logo-ed gewgaws, PBS has found itself left hopelessly behind. Others in the industry say that it’s unfair, though, to criticize PBS for not taking the rights of its most famous characters. (“It is like asking a quasi-government agency to think like an entrepreneur,” says Mark Pedowitz, senior vice president, ABC Entertainment. “It’s not fair to hold 1995 standards to a quasi- government agency.”)
Not only did PBS fumble its licensing rights, but also its programming. The network all but abandoned children once they left “Sesame Street” at age 8, picking them up again when they developed a taste for British drama in their late 30s. It didn’t help that it never quite dropped the stigma of being “educational television,” the dreaded curse of being television that was good for you. But PBS had little choice. That was its mandate. This is what Nickelodeon has exploited during the past 15 years. It was through these gaps that the green slime has flowed.
“I’d always seen the two models out there,” says Geraldine Laybourne, president of Nickelodeon. “There was the commercial TV model, which was never appealing to me because the demands on the programmers were so severe. They had to maximize eyeballs, so they’d go for the most surefire pre-sold properties they could find. Then, there was the PBS model, which was not appealing for me because of their lack of steady financial support.”
With that in mind, Laybourne set out to build a network in which kids could simply be kids and still be profitable. “The basic positioning for Nickelodeon came out of a series of research meetings in 1984,” she says. “We listened to the way kids talked about the way they were being sold to by Madison Avenue. Basically, they didn’t like being told what to think about a product. They wanted to make up their own minds. They needed a place where they could have a refuge from the adult world. We thought previously that our job was to show kids really great role models to inspire them to go on and do great things themselves. We ended up making them depressed.”
So, Nickelodeon entered brassily into a conspiracy that enlists every child against the adult world. One early advertising campaign advised kids to “Send your parents to their room.” At the same time, Laybourne stayed off the path that leads inevitably to FOX’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Kids could enjoy being kids without having their intelligence insulted. The mix has resulted in Nickelodeon’s having captured 30% of the children’s viewing audience despite being available in only 60% of the nation’s homes. It is estimated that Nickelodeon reaches 20 million children a week. The network took in $282 million in revenues in 1993, clearing operating profits of $115 million. In short, Nickelodeon--or, at the very least, its carefully crafted sensibility--now drives children’s television.
“Nickelodeon is in the driver’s seat in selling advertising,” says George Harrison, director of marketing and corporate communications for Nintendo of America. “They will actually limit how much time you can buy, because they don’t want to be dependent on too few advertisers.”
But it is precisely the network’s success in attracting advertising dollars that has drawn the sharpest criticism. “Nickelodeon is not a substitute for PBS because it’s clearly driven by advertising,” says Kathryn Montgomery, president of Center for Media Research, a public-interest group based in Washington, D.C. “While the preschool programs on Nickelodeon have their merits, they are surrounded by hard-sell ads that target kids who can’t tell the difference between the ad and the program.” The war for those young viewers is led by women. Children’s TV “is something of a lesser priority at a network, and so it’s been an area where you’d put people that you’re not sure of,” muses Cahn of PBS. “The fact of it is, though, that in most cases, it’s a very high-profile and a very profitable area, and a center of activity at all the networks now.” Indeed, at all four commercial networks, women run the children’s programming departments.
Further, it is another woman, another mother, who made up all the rules from scratch, and who did so because the quality of day care was once so terrible that she stayed home with two daughters and watched too much television. After 25 years, it is she who most directly defines that now-burgeoning universe that stretches all the way from Big Bird to the Green Slime Geyser, a place where PBS is for children and where Nickelodeon is for kids.
Peggy Charren is being impossibly merry. She is both matronly and sharp, the librarian who always knew what went on behind the distant stacks. Sunlight dances off the Charles River in Cambridge, Mass., and she knows everybody in the restaurant, including the waitress. In 1968, Charren founded Action For Children’s Television in an attempt to make the public-service provisions of the Communications Act of 1934 apply to children’s television as well. “The one thing that children’s television lacked was choice,” Charren says. “For example, almost all the cartoons were from a very small set of programmers, and they were all the same cartoon anyway. Obviously, that wasn’t service, so I went to the FCC and I told them, ‘You have got to have these guys get their acts together.’ ”
She became, in her words, an all-purpose noodge. She was so effective that, by the late 1970s, the networks responded to the pressure she had gotten the Federal Communications Commission to exert. At one time, CBS employed 20 people in its news department writing specifically for children and producing not only “In the News,” a brief digest of world events that was sandwiched between the Saturday morning cartoons, but also “30 Minutes,” a children’s version of “60 Minutes.” “Then Reagan came in,” says Charren. “And it was all over.”
Frustrated by the deregulated Reagan FCC, she turned to Congress. She prevailed upon Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) to author a Children’s Television Act that required every licensed station in the country, as part of its public-service requirement, to provide programming that serves the social, emotional, cognitive and intellectual needs of children. Ronald Reagan pocket-vetoed the bill just before leaving the White House in 1988, but Charren and Markey pushed another version through that became the Children’s Television Act of 1990, which President George Bush allowed to become law without his signature. “That was good,” says Charren with a twinkle in her eye. “I didn’t want to have to pat him on the back in the Rose Garden anyway.” What she didn’t count on was the rocklike stupidity of many local broadcasters.
In 1992, Charren took with her on vacation to Martha’s Vineyard some of the license-renewal applications from local stations, which were supposed to prove that they were in accordance with the act. Reading them, she nearly fell into the sea. One station claimed that “The Jetsons” taught children about life in the 21st Century. Another cited a “Phil Donahue Show” on teen-age strippers and their moms. “Needless to say,” Charren says, “we had a pretty funny press conference about these guys.”
Eventually, the FCC tightened the definition of what constituted programming that served the social, emotional, cognitive and intellectual needs of children. Presumably, teen-age strippers would no longer count. While the Children’s Television Act does not apply to cable networks (which technically do not use public airwaves), Kristan Van Hook, a Markey aide who specializes in broadcasting and communications issues, cites Nickelodeon as an example for broadcast stations to follow.
“They’ve proven that you can make money doing children’s programming,” she says. “When the act passed, the definition of educational was very broad. You don’t want government in there defining it, but you can’t let them get away with some of this garbage, either.”
Charren has shut down ACT--enactment of the Children’s Television Act was that organization’s sole purpose--but her work opened the way for modern children’s programming and, thus, for the way that it has developed both at Nickelodeon and at PBS. “You’re talking to a PBS fan,” she says. “On the day Nickelodeon decided that they couldn’t make it just on the subscription fees, I predicted, Cassandra-like, that it would end up looking like a television station. Happily, I was wrong. I think I was wrong because the people at Nickelodeon, particularly Gerry Laybourne, have my attitude toward TV. It wasn’t surprising to me that the head of Nickelodeon was a woman. What is surprising is that she’s some kind of big cheese. I think Gerry is the kind of woman who manages in both worlds--in the world of worrying about children and in the world of making money.”
The hallway is tchotchke heaven. High above Times Square, the offices of the Nickelodeon Network drip with rubberized Eureekas, glowing Rens and stuffed Stimpys, characters from popular Nickelodeon shows. Walking toward the president’s office gives even the most casual visitor the sensation of having plunged into the world’s largest toy chest. Awash in bright colors, the place is festooned with the network’s trademark splatter logo, second cousin to the trademark slime. “Isn’t this a great office?” Geraldine Laybourne asks as a visitor fights down a nearly overwhelming desire to start a pillow fight.
She has a broad prairie of a face, and a manner both open and efficient. Laybourne grew up in New Jersey, but she spent summers at her grandmother’s farm in Mohall, N.D. Emma Stenehjem ran the family potato business, minding both the books and the crops. Geraldine Bond, a middle daughter, marveled at her grandmother’s industriousness. “Seeing her operate was encouraging to me,” she says today.
Back in New Jersey, Geraldine was home when a deliveryman brought the family’s first television set. It delighted her mother, an actress who had worked in radio soap-operas. Her daughter was transfixed, regularly begging her mother to spin the television set around and throw her into the back of the set so that she could meet Hopalong Cassidy. Frequently absent from school because of allergies, Geraldine grew up a television omnivore. “I watched everything,” she says. “I knew Bobby Kennedy before I knew Jack Kennedy because I watched the Hoffa hearings. And I always watched ‘Queen for a Day.’ I thought that was just the most amazing show.”
Geraldine went off to Vassar College, studying art history. She also met Kit Laybourne, a gifted animator who had taken a job teaching media literacy to secondary-school kids. They married in 1970, had two children, and Geraldine got a master’s in elementary education from the University of Pennsylvania. After a teaching stint, she started Early Bird Specials, a production company that would market the work of independent filmmakers, particularly the young animators who couldn’t crack what was essentially a closed market. “What was being programmed for kids was being controlled by four animation factories in Los Angeles,” she says. The first thing that Early Bird did was to sell two pilots to the fledgling, New York-based Nickelodeon Network.
Only five people worked there. The network was a non-commercial operation that stayed on the air from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. PST, after which cable operators regularly sold the “back end” of Nickelodeon to the Arts and Entertainment Network. Started in 1979 by Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Co. and originally called Pinwheel, Nickelodeon consisted largely of traditional educational programming, purchased from Canada.
“We call that time our ‘Green Vegetable Years,’ ” says Howard Smith, vice president for marketing at Nickelodeon Studios in Florida. “We were supposed to be good for you, but we didn’t taste very good.” On the strength of Early Bird’s two pilots, Nickelodeon hired Geraldine Laybourne to be its program manager. Two months later, she was running the network. Laybourne was finally inside television.
Her first decision was the most momentous one. She decided to take Nickelodeon commercial in 1984, freeing it to produce its own shows. “It was pretty easy, actually,” she says. “I had a business that was just going to limp along without advertising. I would never get to be ambitious about our programming. We’d always be dependent upon acquisition and not be able to create anything of value.” After Nickelodeon began accepting commercials, briefly unnerving Peggy Charren, Laybourne set out to make the network the one place on the cable box that kids could call their own. (The decision to commercialize the network also compelled Nickelodeon to broadcast during the entire day, which led to the development of the remarkably successful Nick At Nite, that sprawling elephant’s graveyard of boomer TV.) In 1984, Nickelodeon, along with MTV and VH-1, went public as MTV Networks and was purchased by Viacom for nearly $700 million a year later, becoming one of the most visible parts of what is now the Paramount-Viacom media empire.
“They had this incredibly good idea, which it took PBS too long to come to, that you had to make kids feel as though this was their channel,” Charren says. “What Nick does is make kids feel like there’s a whole lot of different programming for them on one spot. They did it with an image, with a look that said, ‘Don’t tell your parents what you’re watching.’ ”
Nickelodeon executives regularly refer, without apparent irony, to “kid-dom.” Nickelodeon’s first two breakthrough shows were indicative of the sensibility that Laybourne tried to establish. “You Can’t Do That on Television,” was a comedy that showed the adult world from kids’ warped perspectives. “We had teachers putting kids in dungeons,” Laybourne says. “No kid in America had a teacher that bad. It made kids feel better about themselves and their own teachers.”
The second show was “Double Dare,” which popularized slime. “That was a great show,” Charren says. “It was like a really nifty birthday party that takes place at somebody else’s house.”
Since then, Laybourne and Nickelodeon have not made many mistakes. “Eureeka’s Castle,” a puppet-animation show aimed at preschoolers in day-care and developed by Kit Laybourne, won an ACE, an award of excellence by the National Academy of Cable Programmers. The network opened up a market for innovative animation in 1991 with its Nicktoons, which include “Ren and Stimpy” as well as the “Rugrats,” whose music is composed by Mark Mothersbaugh, once the leader of Devo.
This is where Nickelodeon has moved most directly into territory previously ceded to PBS by almost everyone else. With startling swiftness, the network has moved down from the early adolescent audience into the preschool market served by “Sesame Street,” “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Barney & Friends.” This season alone, the network has debuted two shows for younger kids--"Allegra’s Window” and “Gullah Gullah Island"--as well as several shows for the older audience that Nickelodeon first grabbed with “Clarissa Explains It All.” That production confounded media analysts, who told Laybourne that teen-age boys would not watch a show starring a teen-age girl.
In short, while holding to the sensibility that produces slime and the Juicy Booger Lady, Laybourne and her network have freed themselves to produce programming that is entertaining and culturally diverse. “Gullah Gullah Island,” for example, takes place on the sea islands of South Carolina, and it is one of the only shows on television where whites appear almost incidentally. And with “Eureeka” and “Allegra,” Nickelodeon produced puppet shows with female characters, something that until this most recent season eluded the allegedly PC-bound PBS.
Nothing is more indicative of the way Nickelodeon operates than the way that the network got Linda Ellerbee to put together “Nick News.” A jolly television apostate, Ellerbee left network news to start her own company, Lucky Duck Productions, which commands a suite of offices near the Hudson River that are only slightly less funky than the Nickelodeon offices. In 1991, Laybourne asked Ellerbee to develop current-events programming for Nickelodeon.
“We were skeptical,” Ellerbee says. “They came to us saying, ‘We know about kids, but we don’t know anything about news. We’ve done a pilot but we don’t think it’s very good.’ We watched it and told them, ‘You’re right. It’s terrible.’ We said, kind of flippantly, that we thought kids’ news ought to be just like grown-up programming, only a lot better. People ask how our show is different from the evening news. We say, ‘It’s smarter,’ which isn’t hard.”
Ellerbee produces a regular news show on Nickelodeon as well as a number of specials, most notably one with Magic Johnson after the former Laker star revealed that he had contracted HIV. But, most significantly, the programs have come about because of the relationship between Ellerbee and Laybourne. “I think she’s not only a gifted executive, she’s the best mother I’ve ever known,” Ellerbee says.
“Our worst nightmare is that we try to repeat our success,” says Laybourne. “We’re not driven by the standard things that people are driven by. We like innovation. They still don’t believe that I love a mistake because you learn almost as much from a good flop. It’s what keeps you up at night; are people going to keep taking risks? Are they going to be willing to fall on their face?” The most conspicuous failure at Nickeloden was the high-concept “Turkey TV,” an hour long video-comedy show that the network hyped heavily in 1985 but went nowwhere. Nickelodeon is quick to take highly successful shows off the air before they get stale. “Double Dare” is long gone, as are “Eureeka” and “Clarissa.” “We remake the network every three years or so,” explains Andy Bamberger, a production executive who came to Nickelodeon from PBS. “We buy 13 episode packages, and if the show succeeds, it goes to 39 episodes.”
Across Orlando from Nickelodeon Studios is a large warehouse that holds all the props, sets and costumes from dozens of shows no longer in production. At the same time, in the same complex, carpenters hammer together sets for the shows that took their place. In all the commotion, you can almost hear the green vegetables, subtly mixing with the greener slime.
“You know what I envy about Gerry?” asks Alice Cahn. “Her promotions budget. They have dynamite promotions. In a very short space of time, they have done an absolutely fabulous job at making kids and parents aware of this place for children on television.”
Long and lanky, shooting answers in great bursts like the high-school shooting guard she once was, Cahn works in a quiet place, an office park called Braddock Place in suburban Virginia. There is a silver pen encased in plastic on the lobby wall. Lyndon B. Johnson used it to sign into law the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. Opposite LBJ’s pen is a poster for “The Simpsons"--Wallis and the Prince, that is, not Homer and Marge. Down the hallway, near Cahn’s office, there is a huge Cookie Monster in a corner. He is missing one eye.
Almost from the moment that Johnson’s silver pen left the paper, PBS moved into children’s programming with a missionary fervor. But the network since has grown stodgy, so trapped by its layers of bureaucracy that it didn’t respond well to the challenges of a larger marketplace, and so content with its own image that it seemed reluctant to do anything to respond to those challenges. Today, however, PBS seems to be shaking off much of what has encumbered it. It faces the daunting task of trying to render itself, well, hip, while trying to avoid looking like the elderly senior partner who cracks a vertebra dancing the Frug at the office Christmas party.
“I want to be good,” says Cahn. “We take a little ribbing for being different from everyone else. I know that kids like our programs, and I know that kids use our programs. If I have a choice between being cool and being good, I’d rather be good.” But, it is clear, the people at PBS are trying hard to be both.
Like Gerry Laybourne, Cahn is a child of the New York suburbs--in her case, Long Island, where her father moved the family as he moved up in the garment business. Cahn was allowed to watch a half-hour of television every night, which she religiously devoted to the “Mickey Mouse Club.” She attended New York University and then moved to California in 1979, where she received a master’s in educational technology from San Francisco State University. She spent 10 years at the PBS station in San Francisco, worked for an eduction foundation before moving to PBS’ headquarters two years ago to direct children’s programming. She qualifies as a PBS lifer. So do Kathy Quattrone, the network’s vice-president for programming, and Jacqueline Weiss, CEO of PBS Enterprises, a for-profit subsidiary of PBS. If the presiding spirit at Nickelodeon is that of a kid-populist sensibility, the presiding spirit at PBS is a profound sense of tradition.
“I think we are being careful to stay very close to the central mission of what we’re trying to do,” says Quattrone. “I think there will always be a home for that. For example, we have ‘Puzzle Place.’ It’s a really important new series that has as its premise giving kids a sense of how to appreciate the diversity around them. It’s a very important and serious intent--but in a very entertaining kind of situation.” Co-produced by KCET-TV in Los Angeles and costing $8 million, “Puzzle Place” is the biggest new children’s show that PBS has launched in years. Billed as television’s first attempt to teach young children “to celebrate diversity” the show debuted last week.
PBS differs from Nickelodeon in that PBS does not produce any of its children’s programming. Much of it bubbles up from the local affiliates the way that “Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood” once did. A few years ago, an executive named Larry Rifkin at a Connecticut PBS station watched as his daughter was entranced by a musical video featuring a goofy purple dinosaur. Thus was Barney loosed upon the land. However, this also adds a layer of bureaucracy between the network and its programs. “That ‘Puzzleworks’ thing is a good idea,” says one TV executive. “But I can just imagine the number of consultants they must have had on that.”
When PBS launched its “Ready to Learn” project last July, it did so based on vast research and extensive meetings with educators, executives from the member stations and child-care providers. “We discovered that most kids are in some kind of informal day-care, and that 50% of them were in their own home,” Jacqueline Weiss says. “We needed to make our children’s programming accessible to children and their care-givers when they want to use it. And we needed to add some material between the shows that was targeted to certain skills that kids needed in schools.”
“Ready to Learn” is a halting step toward behaving like the commercial networks that are threatening to outflank PBS. It consolidates existing programming within a single concept--much like the kids clubs that have been established to link cartoons on local commercial stations. The morning program block, aimed at preschoolers, features “Sesame Street,” “Mr. Rogers,” “Barney & Friends” and a new show, “Storytime.” The afternoon block is directed at not just preschoolers, but also at preteens. PBS incorporated its popular “Ghostwriter” series with the geography quiz show “Where in The World Is Carmen San Diego?” and the new “Bill Nye The Science Guy” in a 90-minute afternoon strip designed to attract the same audience that used to watch “Clarissa Explains It All.”
Moreover, PBS has assembled “PTV Park,” a series of animated shorts, to run as segues between the shows in each block. “PTV Park” is populated by P-Pals, animated heads on legs that deliver short educational messages. The whole package evinces a new and sharper PBS aesthetic, and one that, in spirit at least, seems to be a more dignified version of the one that prevails on Nickelodeon. Here in “PTV Park,” it seems, there is a sharp sauce atop all those green vegetables.
“One of the hallmarks of public television is that we’re free--available over the air free of charge,” says Alice Cahn. "(But) does PBS want to be hip? We could be. It’s like ‘Mother, May I?’ You can, but you may not.”
Almost everything is moving to Nickelodeon’s advantage. PBS has to worry about a general assault from the new Congress at the same time it is laboring so hard to modernize itself. At best, PBS may find itself privatized; Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) is planning to introduce a bill to that effect soon. (But there may be some hope, after all. Gingrich has personally promised to kick in at least $2,000 a year for five years to a privatized Corporation for Public Broadcasting.)
Nickelodeon has enormous revenue streams at its disposal--estimated at $331 million last year--that PBS failed to anticipate years ago. And it is becoming increasingly apparent that the new congressional order plans to defang the Children’s Television Act, effectively undoing all of Peggy Charren’s work. Laybourne’s fundamental premise--that quality children’s television can be, of all things, commercially viable--should be immune to these changes. PBS, on the other hand, is going to be fighting too many mortal battles on too many fronts.
Something else might be occuring that would horrify both Laybourne and Cahn: “The Republicans,” says Jeffrey A. Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education, “are using Nickelodeon as a Tonka truck to run over PBS.”
The people at both Nickelodeon and PBS insist that the two networks simply are each other’s opposite half--that Nickelodeon is fun that occasionally teaches and that PBS is teaching that might just be fun. In a large and more complicated world, each needs the other more than each needs to compete. More than anything else, it comes down merely to where on the plate you put the green vegetables.
“I don’t think it’s competition,” says Linda Ellerbee. “I think it’s two people putting on television for children that, at worst, does no harm, and that, at best, does much better than that. When I first met Gerry Laybourne, I thought that children’s television was run by people of the sort that I’d run up against at the networks whose main interest was how much cereal they could sell, and how many little fannies they could put in the seats. I would hope they wouldn’t compete. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was room for both of them?”
Meanwhile, a new line of children stands in the Florida sunshine, waiting for the torrents of slime to be blown skyward once again. They are Big Bird’s children and Eureeka’s kids. They wait politely, hopping one foot to the next. Then the geyser erupts, and children become kids again, squealing, and now they are off to see the Juicy Booger Lady as the slime hurls itself skyward again.