Nickelodeon used to undergo a transformation when the clock struck eight on weekday nights. As the sun went down and primetime kicked off, the kidvid haven populated by Rugrats, Salute Your Shorts, and Double Dare turned into a place kitschy Nick At Nite promos dubbed “TV Land.” But in April of 1996, TV Land became its own destination on the cable box, its Nick At Nite-curated lineup of vintage programming and “Retromercials” freeing up a little more space on the Nickelodeon schedule. And so it was, on Monday, October 7, 1996, that “the first kids’ network” graduated to the adults’ table, a milestone cinched by two best friends dressed like a strawberry and a banana and a schoolyard tyrant with a giant pink bow in her hair.
The first episode of Hey Arnold!—composed of the segments “Downtown As Fruits” and “Eugene’s Bike”—was the opening salvo in a campaign promoted on-air as “More Nick.” Shepherded by newly minted network head Herb Scannell, More Nick filled a vacancy left by Nickelodeon’s broadcast competitors, who were increasingly inclined to hand over the once-federally-mandated Family Viewing Hour to more mature fare like Friends, Beverly Hills 90210, and Martin. Emailing with The A.V. Club in 2016, Hey Arnold! creator Craig Bartlett said that Scannell’s primetime initiative “put me at ease,” providing an extra year for the production of the show’s first season. “He told me we didn’t even have to be huge coming out of the gate, that we could take our time and find our audience as Nick went into prime time for the first time.”
Joining Hey Arnold! in this unchartered territory were a pair of Nick favorites—the sci-fi thriller The Secret World Of Alex Mack and the Saturday-night programming block Snick—and two newcomers: KaBlam! was a sort of Liquid Television for kids that took place in the pages of a comic book, while The Jim Henson Company brought the Cat In The Hat, The Grinch, and Yertle The Turtle to life in The Wubbulous World Of Dr. Seuss. In one of the many More Nick promos still circulating on YouTube, Alex Mack stars Larisa Oleynik and Darris Love introduce the roster, giving viewers a mouthful of an abbreviation to remember it by: “HA-AM-HA-AM-Kablam-S-W.” In a pre-DVR era, when VCR timers and TV Guide reigned supreme, tongue-in-cheek mnemonics counted for a lot.
And yet Bartlett and the Hey Arnold! team nearly missed their opening bow. As he recalls, the show’s premiere party at a now-defunct Hollywood club had everything—DJs, a contortionist, lots of drinks, not enough food—but a proper TV hookup. “I wanted to show the premiere as it came on, live, but it turned out that club was on a satellite East Coast feed, so the show had aired two hours earlier when we got there,” he said. “Somebody ran home and taped it on their VHS deck and brought the tape, which we watched at 8 p.m. and no one knew the difference.”
Reflecting on the first episode, Bartlett touched on the tone and templates it set for Hey Arnold!’s early goings: The “instantly terrifying” Helga; the friendship between Arnold and Gerald, put to the test when they get stranded on their way to a school play. Arnold’s best intentions meet their match in the second segment, “Eugene’s Bike,” in which the “perfect day” he orchestrates for the title character begets a series of minor disasters, one of which unexpectedly spilled into the real world. According to Bartlett, at least “three actual kids” were inspired to use the Heimlich maneuver on friends or family after seeing Arnold use it to successfully dislodge a chunk of hot dog from Eugene’s throat.
“I’m most proud of the vibe of that first half-hour,” he said. “It’s funky and nocturnal, lots of blues and purples and blacks, and there’s some danger and violence, but when Arnold walks off into the night and the end credits roll, you feel like the city is his friend, and he’ll be back with more stories.”
Today, Arnold is poised to come back for one more story: Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie, a long-gestating coda coming to Nickelodeon in 2017. Asked how he hopes the show is remembered in 2036, Bartlett said, “Twenty years from now, we can commemorate how, 20 years after it first premiered, Hey Arnold! got a chance to reboot and go back into production and finally make The Jungle Movie, the story where Arnold travels to Central America to solve the mystery of his missing parents. That’s what I’m working on now. It’s huge closure for a bunch of us here. I don’t think this kind of thing happens very often.”
And if it weren’t for Nickelodeon’s share of the TV landscape ballooning just a little bit in the fall of 1996, it might not have happened at all.