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Essay: Changes in television (80’s)

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  • Published: 14 January 2019*
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In the early 80s, standards on television loosened, bans on violent action got repealed and educational requirements got lowered. This of course led to big companies taking advantage by using cartoons to market merchandise. G.I. Joe, He-Man, Ninja Turtles, Transformers, all of these shows primarily were created to sell toys and other licensed merchandise.
Enter nickelodeon, a channel that made sure that young viewers could immerse themselves in shows like Doug and Rocket Power, a show that was captivating in a relatable way, not just in the way one gets consumed in the Autobot vs. Deceptacon wars and conflict of Transformers.

Kids grew up seeing themselves represented on nickelodeon from all ages and stages of childhood, Nickelodeon celebrated the notion of “I’m a kid and the world is mine.”

As an animator, the old Nick shows have recently become a big inspiration for my own personal film ideas blurring the lines between adult content and that aimed for kids. And truly understanding representation. Watching some shows now that I haven’t seen growing up, makes me wish that I had taken the time to watch when I was younger. Because Nicks goal was to make television that kids actually wanted to watch and could relate to by the use of representation and diversity in subject matter of the toons.

The reality of the grounded shows like rugrats, Doug, as told by ginger or hey Arnold! indicates that children of the 1990s had access to a new type of cartoon. A type of cartoon that is now hard to come by.

Nickelodeon first began as a network named “Pinwheel” and was only shown on the television system called the QUBE. only exclusive to the Columbus Ohio Area, Pinwheel premiered on December 1st 1977. It’s programming was a similar to a channel like PBS Kids, especially because of its specific time slot which was 7 AM to 9 PM like PBS the content was geared towards juvenile and educational shows.

After the the QUBE system failed, due to its ambitious endeavors and trying to push the limits of what a TV could and should do. Pinwheel was acquired by the Warner Cable Company and was relaunched on April 1st 1979 titled as the now famous “Nickelodeon”. Nickelodeon still continued to air educational children shows, but now also Video comic books, pop clips, and the iconic Nick show called “You Can’t do that On Television” which was a sketch show which debuted the iconic and famous Green Nickelodeon Slime.

“The slime was an accident. Honestly. We had this joke on the set: “Don’t any of you kids pull this chain!” We ended up going to the cafeteria, gave the prop guy a bucket, and said, “We want you to take all the stuff that was left on the plates the whole day. We’ll add water to it and dump it on the kid.” (Klickstein, Darby 90)

Nickelodeon was very different for its time as the few other networks who showed children programming heavily pushed for advertising during its show’s. Sometimes having it stretch over 15 minutes. While these other programs were heavily trying to sell, Nick was much more content based and even ran commercial free in the early 80’s. In 1984, Warner Communications scrambled Nickelodeon and two other channels, both music networks “MTV” and the “Radio Television Station” into the newly formed MTV Networks. While trying to stand out Nickelodeon still lacked brand recognition especially competing against front runner channels like MTV and The Disney Channel. MTV network president Bob Pittman brought Fred Seibert and Alan Goodman, who created the iconic MTV Logo, on board to revamp the kids channel. Defining itself as a channel for kids and teens. Still growing, by 1990 Nickelodeons live action programming was at an all time high. And it was then when due to a rise in popularity and immense success of cartoon shows like “The Simpsons”. In 1991 Nickelodeon ordered three original animated series:

“Doug” created by Jim Jenkins at Jumbo Pictures; a grounded show about 11 year old Doug Funnie who moves to a small town. “Doug” follows his adventures as he writes in his journal, meets friends, falls in love, maneuvers his way through 6th grade and tries not to make himself look like a loser in front of everyone. “The Ren and Stimpy Show” created by John Kricfalusi at Spumco; The series focuses on the titular characters Ren, a psychotic chihuahua, and Stimpy, a good-natured, dimwitted cat. Throughout its run, The Ren & Stimpy Show was controversial for its off-color humor, black comedy, toilet humor, sexual innuendo, and violence. And of course “Rugrats” created by Arlene Klasky, Gábor Csupó, and Paul Germain at Klasky Csupo; the most successful of the initial three. The show revolves around a group of little babies. The babies are able to communicate with each other through an unspecified baby language, The group is often reluctantly joined by Tommy’s cousin, Angelica, the older three year old girl, Angelica is able to communicate and understand language from the babies and the adults which she often uses as an advantage when she wants to manipulate either party in her favor. The show quickly became a pop culture juggernaut. Spawning three theatrical releases.

Nickelodeon grew larger and more successful because of their toons, which specifically targeted children. Children benefited because of this, considering that in nicktoons, the kids were primarily the subjects, not just the audience. These shows depicted children from baby age through high school. They contained protagonists that are average everyday individuals just like the rest of us but it was these average Joes that were the heroes of their respective cartoons and stories. We identified with their normalcy. These shows taught kids that it’s okay to be awkward and uncool. And then of course in an aggressive juxtaposition, there was of the crude, crazy cartoons that were extremely insane, shows like Ren and Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life. Pushing the limits of kids television but proved to show that they do not underestimate the wit and brains of the youthful audience.

Because of the aim at children, it became what nickelodeon was known for and evolved into the most popular and iconic network for kids content until it peaked around the 2000’s, after SpongeBob Squarepants debuted, which became tremendously successful and evolved into a massive franchise. However because of the astounding success. Nickelodeon tried to mimic that and pulled focus from a lot of their other shows and started prioritizing its schedule around Spongebob Squarepants and other franchises. without giving any room for healthy competition between its own original or wacky creator show’s. And slowly one by one the original nicktoons disappeared. And Nickelodeons popularity died down.

“The big change at Nickelodeon came after the vast success of Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob. Suddenly, there was exceptional wealth in licensed products. Billions and billions of dollars. Companies that get a taste for that want more and more. Before you know it, you are developing shows or acquiring programs that come with licensing attached. Like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” (Klickstein, Goodman 321)

SpongeBob to this day is still massively successful and can in popular culture be compared to the likes of Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. Nickelodeon still has some good shows however the edgy, boundary pushing nickelodeon that kids became familiar and accustomed with has been gone, when other networks like cartoon network and The Disney Channel became superior.

“They got seduced by the success of Disney’s shows with older tweens and teens living fantasy lives. Wizards, a rock star in disguise, twins who live in a palace. But you can’t beat Disney doing “dreams come true.” They’ve been doing that since Pinocchio. And you end up blowing off the younger part of the demographic that identifies with the “regular kid” stories—bucking the establishment—that were always Nickelodeon’s forte.” (Klickstein, Goodman 331)

“Everything’s about wish fulfillment now: becoming famous or popular. What was great about Pete & Pete is
we glorified being a kid. There aren’t too many shows that glorify what it’s like to hang out in your backyard with your friends trying to figure out what to do for the day.” (Klickstein, McRobb 332)

To demonstrate the well known juxtaposition I’ve decided to analyze the pilots from Ren and Stimpy and Rugrats to showcase the wide variety of content nickelodeon offered. The pilot for Ren and Stimpy called The Ren and Stimpy Show – Big House Blues, shows Ren and Stimpy, hungry and poor on the streets being picked up by a dogcatcher. After seemingly living a carefree life in the dog pound, they see another dog, Phil being taken away, Ren finds out Phil is going to the big sleep, implying death, and flips out at stimpy. Later while lingering in their dog pound style jail cell, stimpy pukes up a hairball that covers Ren. Ren is angry until a little girl sees them and asks for the “poodle”, which is Ren covered with Stimpy’s hairballs. Ren realizes he is free but looks behind to see a sad stimpy left behind. “You can’t have me unless you take stimpy too!” He yells, and they end up living in a suburban house together.

This pilot contains many extreme adult elements, but at the time the show was described as kid friendly because of the “life long friendship” character trait Ren and Stimpy had. However it shamelessly fails to hide the very vulgar and aggressive nature these characters portray.

But with the Rugrats pilot the subject matter is completely different “Tommy Pickles and the great white thing” shows a baby named Tommy Pickles sneaking into the restroom, and is awe struck by the toilet, which he calls The Great White Thing, before he gets close to it, his grandpa picks him up and returns him to the playpen. There, Tommy tells Phil and Lil that he’ll be going back to find out what it means. Later, Stu and Didi, tommy’s parents, put Tommy to bed in his crib, only for Tommy to escape using the iconic “toy-screwdriver crowbar” trait that people easily associate with the character of Tommy Pickles. Tommy makes it back to the toilert where he proceeds to make a huge mess of things, Tommy leaves the bathroom, and enters the living room on Spike’s/the dog’s back. Meanwhile Grandpa gets up to use the toilet during commercial break, only to find out that the bathroom is a giant mess.

Grandpa calls Stu and Didi to the bathroom, and the three begin to panic. Meanwhile this is going on you can hear the arguing and screaming in the background. Tommy picks up the remote and changes the channel to a concert video, he and Spike slowly begin to dance along to the program during the entire bathroom argument still happening in the background. Unaffected and Innocent.

This pilot showed an unusual color palette as the regular show does as well, and an interesting rough Russian-influenced animation design and style. This pilot was all hand drawn, and had the quality of a feature 2d animated film.

“The pilot captured the world from a baby’s perspective, but also seemed to have an “us versus them” feel, which made the babies’ predicaments relevant to older viewers and appropriate for the nickelodeon brand. The pride they tried to instill in the youthful audience for being a kid.” (Hendershot 99)

Although it is sad to see the glory days of Nickelodeon ended, I believe that the history and the content of the channel, one that many people grew up on inspires future generations to create content like Rugrats, Doug, and Arnold. Celebrating the youth and everything that comes with being a kid. The success of nickelodeon is proof that you can push boundaries in animated content and it professes that representation is what leaves audiences cheering for more.

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