A funny thing happened the other night on "The Wild Thornberrys," the most-watched new cartoon on television: The mother saved the day.
The plucky heroine--a pigtailed 12-year-old named Eliza--marched into a deep, dark jungle and became lost and utterly terrified. Suddenly, she heard the strong, sure voice of her mother, Maryann Thornberry, who had rigged up a loudspeaker and was calling her. Eliza's freckled face beamed with joy as she raced toward the sound--out of the thicket, into her mother's arms.
The fairy-tale plot tracked a larger story unfolding in the competitive jungle that children's television has become. After being airbrushed off the screen for a generation, reduced to comic foils in a celluloid world ruled by kids, parents are back.
But not the idealized moms and dads TV kids left behind in the 1980s. The new TV parents brave every harsh reality from downsizings to divorce. And some, like Maryann Thornberry, are even cool.
Mom and Dad Thornberry are all the more noticeable because of where kids find them: on Nickelodeon, the cable channel that invented "Kids Rule!" television in the 1980s. Its defining hit, "Rugrats"--the most-watched children's TV program, with more than a dozen airings a week and now with a big-screen version--features talking babies who negotiate the world on their own, or think they do, as their clueless parents pursue grown-up obsessions mostly off screen.
Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo, co-creators of "Rugrats" and "The Wild Thornberrys," had wanted for some time to make a cartoon with parents in the foreground, Klasky said. But Nickelodeon wasn't buying. "Nickelodeon, looking to its research on kids, always said the characters had to be kids," Klasky said.
But that was before the research, which includes more than 200 focus groups a year with children under 12, identified a seismic shift in how kids feel toward parents. Put simply: The fantasy of kids alone against the world has lost some luster. It's all too real, when a majority of parents are working dual jobs or, for almost one in three children, are divorced or separated.
The network that in the 1980s had "Kids Only Weekend"--when kids were told to kick parents out of the room and kick back with their very own channel--believes its current audience wouldn't get the gag. "They want their parents back," said Cyma Zarghami, Nickelodeon's executive vice president and general manager.
Children in focus groups now talk more and more about parents, empathizing with stresses they face, Zarghami said. "This is a completely different audience growing up in a very different world," she said. "The latchkey phenomenon was just beginning when we started out."
Nickelodeon is hardly alone in detecting this shift. Betty Cohen, president of Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon's fastest-growing competitor, spotted it in a survey a couple of years ago asking young viewers to suggest contest prizes. "I was struck by how many included 'the chance to spend a whole day with my mom or my dad,' " said Cohen. "It was right up there with 'a ride in a limo.' "
It crystallized for Disney Channel President Anne Sweeney when she heard children in a focus group name "quality time" with parents as a favorite way to spend free time.
"At first I almost dismissed it, thinking some adult mentioned this phrase and they really don't know what it means," she said. "Then it came up again in another focus group in a completely different city." She asked her daughter, then 5, if she knew the phrase, and was told with total self-assurance: "It's anything we do together."
"She listed all kinds of ordinary chores like going to the dry cleaners, the grocery store, things you'd never think kids find interesting," said Sweeney. "That speaks to: 'I just want to be with you.' "
Advertisers who make commercials for Nickelodeon have reached the same conclusion. Johann Wachs of Saatchi and Saatchi, the advertising giant, recently e-mailed 8- to 16-year-olds whom he regularly surveys to ask if it is "cool" or "uncool" to rebel against or make fun of parents. "Uncool," came the unanimous response.
Launched in 1979 as a revolt against the sorry state of children's commercial TV, Nickelodeon--a subsidiary of Viacom--soon won over what turned out to be one of the most lucrative audiences in cable: children under 12. Even now, with competitors swarming for its audience, it has television's largest number of under-12 viewers in the daytime and five of seven nights a week, despite reaching 30 million fewer households than the networks. It has achieved this in part by tapping children's psyches as obsessively as the Clinton White House monitors voters.
In its first focus groups in 1984, "the amazing epiphany to us was that kids weren't happy about being kids," said Geraldine Laybourne, Nickelodeon's president from 1984 to 1996 as it rose to become the No. 1 channel on basic cable. "They felt burdened with adult-type problems--fears about AIDS, teenage pregnancy, teenage suicide and on and on and on. So we said, 'Let's get on their side, let's give them a place to be free of all that and just be kids.' "
The result was a network that analysts called CNN for children--all kids, all the time. The breakthrough came in the mid-1980s, with shows and promotions pushing the classic childhood fantasy of breaking free of parents to new frontiers.
A mood swing surfaced as early as 1990, but the changes accelerated in the last two seasons. Besides "The Wild Thornberrys," Nickelodeon has "The Journey of Allen Strange," a live-action show in which a brother and sister, whose best friend is an alien who looks human, struggle with issues of belonging as they are raised by a consistently sympathetic single dad. "The Rugrats Movie," for its part, gives the parents much more screen time than the TV version.
Even Nickelodeon's on-air promotions, which by fiat used to feature kids only, without parents, have changed. Throughout October, Nickelodeon ran its first-ever ad starring parents and children together.
"It's not like a conscious strategy to change," said Nickelodeon President Herb Scannell. "It's changed because kids' lives have changed."