Miranda Cosgrove, the sprightly star of Nickelodeon's "iCarly," is sitting on the floor of the show's fictional Ridgeway school set during a lull in production — practicing lines and adjusting the collar on her bright blue jacket. Try as she might, though, she can't ignore the inevitable.
Looking up at her character's locker that towers above her — a veritable landmark among the tween-set — the brunet wunderkind summons a cornball glance at costar Jennette McCurdy sitting beside her. "Think of me fondlyyyy/ when we say goodbyeeee," the twosome mirthfully croon to each other, calling up a ballad from "The Phantom of the Opera."
The charmingly goofy off-screen moment between the friends and costars mimics the shenanigans viewers have come to enjoy on the teen-centered show about three pals who produce a popular online series. But the clownish antics are in the closing stages: After five seasons, one of the network's preeminent shows is wrapping its run. On this June day, Cosgrove and McCurdy are in the thick of the show's swan song, filming the one-hour send-off, "iGoodbye,"which will run Nov. 23.
For the generation that grew up on "iCarly," this was a show that spoke its language — before "Gossip Girl" or "Awkward" tried to do the same. The half-hour comedy, from Nickelodeon sire Dan Schneider, soared to popularity in no small part because of the way it converged the television and computer screen — a radical notion in 2007. It was a well-timed concept that resonated with a young constituency mesmerized by cellphones, computers and iPods. The show was also unusual in portraying young children on their own with no parental nemeses or guardians.
The ending of one of its longest-lived hits comes at a crucial time for Nickelodeon. The network — which will also lose hit teen sitcom "Victorious" (also created by Schneider) — saw its audience levels fall nearly 30% over the past year, a drop reflected in "iCarly's performance.
By its second season, "iCarly" had overtaken Disney's "Hannah Montana," the seemingly untouchable ruler of tweens, as TV's No. 1 series among kids (ages 2 to 11) and tweens (ages 9 to 14). Its current season is averaging 3.2 million viewers, down nearly 32% from the previous season. It now clocks in at No. 7 among kids and No. 3 among tweens, with Disney stalwart "Good Luck Charlie" taking up the crown.
Part of the drop-off could be attributed to changes in behavior as viewers turn to TV watching on computers, phones or tablets. The amount of time 12- to 17-year-olds spent watching traditional TV dipped dramatically in the fourth quarter of 2011, according to a Nielsen report. Those viewers watched an average of 100 hours of TV each month, down from 105 hours in the same period in 2010. Among children ages 2 to 11, the shift was less dramatic: an average of 109 hours, 6 minutes a month, down from 112 hours, 46 minutes the previous year.
Marjorie Cohn, the network's president of original programming and development, doesn't minimize the task that lies ahead. "It's a hurdle," Cohn said. "It's always sad to lose a ratings workhorse. But our job is to replace it with another one, so that's what we're going to do."
Viacom, which owns Nickelodeon, has invested tens of millions of dollars into development of new programs to find that replacement. Its recent launch of a revamped "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" has already helped the network make gains. And Cohn categorized the network's next crop of live-action shows as "high concept" — with some projects centering on ghosts and superheroes. On Saturday, Nickelodeon will roll out "Marvin Marvin," starring Lucas Cruikshank (a rising Nickelodeon star best known as the character Fred Figglehorn in a series of YouTube videos) about an alien trying to fit in as a human teenager.
Not that the "iCarly" universe is totally imploding. In keeping with its tradition of launching spinoffs, the network will feature two offshoots from the show: In "Gibby," Noah Munck carries on his role as the oddball teen, with viewers following him as he gets a job at a recreational center and winds up becoming a mentor to four middle-school students. In "Sam & Cat," McCurdy resumes her role as Sam and will be paired with "Victorious" character Cat (Ariana Grande) for the show in which the duo become roommates and start a babysitting business. And Jerry Trainor, who plays Carly's older brother Spencer, will appear in the comedy "Wendell & Vinnie." The network will also continue to show "iCarly" in reruns.
"One of the things that is interesting and fun about kids television is that the audience turns constantly and there are new kids all the time," said Cohn, who has been at the network for more than two decades. "And they're different than the kids that came before. I think it's important if you're going to stay contemporary and relevant that you are offering shows that are made for the generation that is just joining into that tween mind-set. They want to have shows of their own."
"It's weird to think of it as being a pioneer, in some ways, because technology becomes so ubiquitous and we adapt so quickly to new tools," said Shelley Pasnik, director of New York-based Center for Children and Technology. "But when you look back to when it first began, it was a time when young people were still getting accustomed to the personal broadcasting via YouTube, Tumblr … it rode that wave. But it didn't lose its resonance with the everyday concerns, anxieties and aspirations of young people."
Connecting with kids
The "iCarly" fictional Web show-within-the-show was often as spontaneous as what actual teenagers are generating on the Internet. There was Carly and her friend Sam's famous outbursts of random dancing — luring First Lady Michelle Obama to take part when she guest-starred — or that time they made spaghetti tacos, inciting an army of kids to demand a new entree.
When the friends are not holed up in Carly's attic producing the show, they're at school dealing with the travails of youth: annoying teachers, high school dances, love triangles, etc.
The entertainment carried over to "iCarly's" website, supplying media-hungry tweens with online videos, quizzes and blog posts between episodes (now de rigueur for almost all TV shows).
"It wasn't just something that you watched through the TV," Cosgrove said. "You could also communicate back to the 'iCarly' world. I think that was something that was very new to kids and that appealed to them."
The 19-year-old, who got an early start starring as a 10-year-old band manager in 2003's Jack Black comedy "School of Rock," is more soft-spoken and docile than her fictional persona. Like many a child star, she has parlayed her "iCarly" stardom into a singing career — albeit a more subdued one than her peers Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato.
Being young and famous would fall in line with the setup of the show and others like it. "iCarly" was part of a genre of shows — Nick's "Big Time Rush" and "Victorious" and Disney's "Hannah Montana," "Sonny With a Chance," etc. — that played up the idea of showbiz fantasies.
"Thirty years ago, there wasn't Disney, there wasn't Nickelodeon," said Yalda T. Uhls, a researcher at Children's Digital Media Center@LA, who co-wrote a study on how values in children's TV have shifted over the years. "Now there's all these channels that are specifically catering to this one audience, and they're competing with shows like 'American Idol' and a moment where kids are growing up being groomed thinking they can be the next star." She suspects the next trend will be a return to more traditional values, stories that emphasize belonging to a group.
Ask Schneider, whose next projects are the "iCarly" spinoffs, and he'll tell you the comedy's point was illustrating kid empowerment.
The 46-year-old TV producer, who previously created the hits "Zoey 101," "Drake & Josh" and "The Amanda Show," had originally designed a show that would center on a teenager who gets plucked from a crowd by a casting director and joins the cast of a popular CW-like TV show. But it would turn out to be expensive to produce, so Schneider went back to the drawing board, enlisting the help of his wife, Lisa Lillien, and friend Steve Molaro, producer of "The Big Bang Theory."
"Out of that discussion in my den came the idea of, 'Hey, what if it's a Web show?'" Schneider recalled. "I like to make shows that make kids feel good about themselves. I loved it because while, yes, it is very cool to be cast in a popular TV show but even cooler to create it yourself, do it yourself, control it yourself."
It helped that there weren't parents to put a stop to it. Carly lives with her older brother Spencer because her father is stationed overseas (there is no mention of her mother). Schneider wanted to evoke a feeling of kid freedom, inspired by trips he would take to visit his older sister in college. It was an idea that had Nickelodeon on edge.
"The network had a concern that the audience might perceive it as unusual that there was not parental supervision present at all times," he said. "I resisted that strongly and felt that this was the better way to go." The final installment will see Carly's dad return from service.
"In the episode, we're all moving on," a soft-spoken Cosgrove said. "It's sad because it's kind of the same as how it is in real life. We all kind of grew up and had our childhoods on set, and now it's time to leave it behind."
Cosgrove, at the time of the interview, was just a couple of months away from starting her first semester at USC to study theater (her followers on Twitter, @MirandaCosgrove, have since been along for the ride as she has chronicled sketch class achievements and library encounters: "You know ur in trouble when u go to check out books at the library to write an essay & the guy checking u out says "May the force be with u," she recently tweeted).
The finality of it all was not lost on Schneider. He conducted exit interviews with the cast on his own — an "audio scrapbook," as he called it — asking questions such as "What's your favorite episode?" and "If 'iCarly' were going to be erased or destroyed forever and you could only save one [episode], which would it be?"
"I just wanted to have it because 'iCarly' was something really magical," he said. "And not just for us involved in making it, but a generation of kids. I know that when these kids are in college, they'll have 'iCarly' as a point of reference. Sort of like the way some kids had 'Saved by the Bell.' We'll be a form of nostalgia and that's really cool."