Reacting to the decline of traditional family programming on the major networks at 8 p.m., Nickelodeon--the cable channel that specializes in children's fare--is leaping into the breach. Beginning tonight, it will offer original series nightly in the first half-hour of prime time, rather than the Nick at Nite reruns that have been its nighttime staple for years.
"The broadcast networks have abandoned the kids' audience at 8 o'clock because they're after a pure 18-to-49 demographic for advertisers," said Nickelodeon President Herb Scannell, citing research that shows a significant drop in kids' viewing from 8 to 8:30 p.m. over the past two years. "Broadcasters have gone from shows like 'Full House' at 8 p.m. to shows like 'Ellen,' 'Friends' and 'Mad About You' that are sophisticated, adult-oriented sitcoms. We think there's a real opportunity for Nickelodeon to reach an audience that's underserved by broadcasters."
Bill Croasdale, president of national broadcast advertising for Western International Media, agrees. "There are many parents with young children who say they're uncomfortable listening to the double-entendres in 8 o'clock shows and watching the shows with their kids," he said.
Nickelodeon's four new shows for prime time are "Hey, Arnold!," a cartoon series about a sensitive city kid that premieres tonight; "KaBLAM!," an animated "sketch comedy" show in the form of an electronic comic book; "Kenan and Kel," a spin-off of the network's comedy-variety show "All That"; and "The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss," from Jim Henson Productions, which brings the Dr. Seuss characters to life as Muppets.
The latter program, which will be seen on Sundays, is the first TV series based on the best-selling books by "Dr. Seuss" creator Theodor Geisel. It combines the nonsensical verse of the books with Muppet versions of the Cat in the Hat, Horton the Elephant and other classic children's characters. Twenty episodes have been ordered.
In addition to these new entries, Nickelodeon is moving "The Secret World of Alex Mack," its popular series about a teenager with supernatural powers, to the 8 o'clock time slot. There will be two new episodes of "Alex Mack" each week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. "Hey, Arnold!" will be shown Mondays and Wednesdays, with "KaBLAM!" on Fridays and "Kenan and Kel" on Saturdays.
No one thinks Nickelodeon will garner network-sized ratings with its foray into prime time; the networks, after all, say the reason they've gone to more adult programming at 8 p.m. is that fewer families are watching television together. Broadcast executives say the profusion of TV sets in the home and channels from which to choose has led to parents and children watching different programs at the same time. Some point to the low ratings of ABC's "Muppets Tonight" last spring as evidence.
"I don't think they'll get big ratings, but I do think a number of viewers will try out their shows because it's family viewing," Croasdale said. And he added that Nickelodeon can still be a success with a relatively small audience by appealing to advertisers who want to reach a high concentration of children--as the 17-year-old channel does throughout its schedule. It is the highest-rated network on basic cable.
While the Dr. Seuss show is fairly traditional family fare, "Hey, Arnold!" and "KaBLAM!" feature the unconventional animation styles and quirky humor that have helped make Nickelodeon popular with young viewers.
"Hey, Arnold!" was created by Craig Bartlett, a writer on "Rugrats," the Nickelodeon cartoon series about toddlers' adventures that is the highest-rated series on cable.
Arnold has a wide face and wide yellow hair that make him look like a New York city cab with the doors open. In one episode, he tries to befriend the accident-prone class nerd, with disastrous results. Arnold deals with some of the same issues as "Doug," the gentle hero of a popular Nickelodeon series that moved to ABC this fall.
"When you're a kid, friendship and homework are big issues, and childhood can be tough," observed Albie Hecht, Nickelodeon's vice president of production. "I think Arnold captures those feelings--and it's funny, too."
"KaBLAM!," on the other hand, has a frenetic pace, with a variety of short segments. One recurring segment, "Action League Now," has the weird, aggressive humor of the old "Mr. Bill" pieces on "Saturday Night Live." It features small toy dolls falling off real tables, riding in--and getting crushed by--real cars.
"It's a technique we call 'chuck-o-mation,' " Hecht said, laughing. "We invented it one day in the office--chucking toy dolls around the room."
With the increased demand for children's programming, other networks are eyeing Nickelodeon's success. Scannell even finds himself competing with his former boss, Geraldine Laybourne, who left Nickelodeon at the end of last year to run the Disney/ABC cable networks, including the Disney Channel.
"Gerry is a wonderful executive, and she's still a good friend," Scannell said.
Emphasizing that he was not talking about Laybourne, Scannell said that he was skeptical of companies "who think they can just go out and 'buy' the kind of shows that Nickelodeon has created. The children's TV world has become more competitive, but we have a culture of innovation. We'll keep coming up with and finding fresh artists and ideas."
Prime time is not the only area where Nickelodeon intends to expand. Scannell said that the company plans to create original shows for Saturday morning as well as new series for the after-school period. (Even with reruns, Nickelodeon is currently beating ABC, CBS and WB on Saturday morning, according to Nielsen research.) These moves, Scannell said, will come within the next two years. "We believe that kids think of us as their network, and we want to expand Nickelodeon into new areas," he said.