Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Nickelodeon grew up and blew up in 1996

Graphic: Nick Wanserski

“It was just a normal Saturday, like the 51 other Saturdays that year.” So begins the 13th episode of the third season of The Adventures Of Pete And Pete, aptly titled “Saturday.” Like the other 38 half-hour episodes of Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi’s suburban fantasia, it’s a mundane setup that takes approximately 30 seconds to get surreal. There’s a ninja on the loose, a bunny suit figures prominently in the proceedings, and the eldest of the show’s titular Petes has his hair cut by future Oscar winner J.K. Simmons. Extraordinary circumstances anywhere else, but just the typical start to another typical weekend in Wellsville, U.S.A.

But December 28, 1995, was far from a typical day for The Adventures Of Pete And Pete. “Saturday” was the final new episode of a series that had aired on Nickelodeon, in one form or another, since 1989. It wasn’t written to be a series finale, but it certainly has the wistfulness of one. There’s a layer of snow on the ground, and the skies are gray throughout. The characters all come together to save the day in the end, but to that point, they’re all on their own separate adventures. It’s almost like they’re preparing to move on to the next stages in their lives, just as Nickelodeon would in the year that followed.

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In 1996, Rocko’s Modern Life and Are You Afraid Of The Dark? followed the Wrigleys and friends into rerun land. (Are You Afraid Of The Dark? returned in 1999, because anthology shows, like childhood fears, are eternal.) They were among the last series that would’ve looked familiar to regular Nick viewers of the late ’80s and early ’90s, a heyday of original comedies, game shows, and cartoons that made Nickelodeon the premier cable destination for children’s programming. The fundamental weirdness that set the network’s shows apart from grown-up fare was receding into the background.

These shows shared some behind-the-scenes overlaps—for example, McRobb and Clarissa Explains It All creator Mitchell Kriegman served as story editors for the network’s slate of animated programs, a.k.a. Nicktoons—but they were united by intangibles: subject matter, aesthetic, and tone. Nickelodeon sympathized with its target audience, telling its stories from a childhood perspective. It was brash and playful and unafraid of what adults considered “rude.” Of course, this image of irreverence and experimentalism resulted from years of cultivation by (gasp!) adults with full-time jobs, who were given a tremendous amount of creative leeway by network president Geraldine Laybourne and her lieutenants. The system didn’t always work out: When Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi started blowing deadlines and pushing the content of his series in more extreme directions, the bosses stepped in and fired him. The controversy was high-profile evidence that for all the fun and games, Nickelodeon still had a brand to protect.

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Zigging and zagging

Such bottom-line thinking seemed anathema to an empire built on green slime. And it still was, to a certain extent, based on the shows that premiered on Nickelodeon in 1996. The “First Kids’ Network” was growing up by programming aggressively, incubating talent, and exploring creative avenues beyond the small screen, but its three biggest success stories still tapped into the youthful ethos of classic Nick. On Kenan & Kel, anarchy reigned within the confines of an old-fashioned sitcom. Like Pete And Pete and Doug before it, Hey Arnold! was reverent toward the mysteries and joys of youth, but also aware of its profound melancholy. Before Blue’s Clues conquered the world and spawned an undying urban myth, it channeled the spirit of every great Nickelodeon production: play.

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1996 wasn’t a sea-change year for Nickelodeon, just one of shifting currents. Laybourne—the architect of Nick’s rise from obscure cable outpost to major ratings player—left the network for Disney, passing the torch to her longtime number-two, Herb Scannell. During the Laybourne era, Scannell made a name for himself with innovative programming decisions like Snick, a lineup of originals that colonized Saturday nights from 1992 to 2004. Snick took Nick into unchartered scheduling waters: Whereas the network traditionally ceded the air to the vintage sitcoms of Nick At Nite at 8 p.m., Snick pushed shows like Ren & Stimpy, Clarissa Explains It All, and Roundhouse into primetime.

It was an example of what The New York Times described as Scannell’s “zigzag” policy: “When others zig, we zag,” as executive vice president and general manager Cyma Zarghami described it. Working against the conventional wisdom, providing an alternative, and finding an audience that demanded just a little bit more from their entertainment—just as the decade’s modern rockers and independent filmmakers had done in their respective mediums. But it’s only so long before the alternative becomes the conventional wisdom. First comes co-option and imitation: After a rigorous development process overseen by Fred Seibert (one half of the Fred/Alan team that overhauled the Nick branding in 1985), Cartoon Network brought forth its first original series in 1996, Dexter’s Laboratory. Meanwhile, Nick’s toughest competition at 8 o’clock, ABC’s TGIF lineup, found its biggest hit in years when it cast Clarissa Explains It All star Melissa Joan Hart in a live-action adaptation of Archie Comics’ Sabrina, The Teenage Witch.

The trend spanned the dayparts, too. Beaten at their own game by the cable upstart, the broadcast networks drew new animated programming from the Nicktoons talent pool. While Rugrats was in reruns, its studio Klasky Csupo Productions made Santo Bugito for CBS, bringing the studio’s house style—rough-and-ready visual aesthetic, music by Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh—to Saturday mornings in 1995. The show’s border-town bugs had a gnat-like lifespan, however, and Santo Bugito was off the air after 13 episodes.

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“Move it, footballhead!”

A bigger coup occurred in ’96: When Nickelodeon chose not to order a fifth season of Doug, it left the door open for another broadcaster to snatch up one of the original Nicktoons. And that’s exactly what ABC did, with help from its then-newly minted corporate parent Disney, which made like Bill Bluff and dropped seven figures to acquire the show and the Jumbo Pictures shingle of creator Jim Jinkins. Given a new coat of paint (Doug wears longer sleeves! But he no longer speaks in Billy West’s voice!) and an updated title (Brand Spankin’ New! Doug, later simplified to Disney’s Doug), the show joined a handful of other Mouse House productions on ABC that fall. Nickelodeon had once shrewdly gone against the children’s programming grain by scheduling Rugrats, Doug, and Ren & Stimpy on Sundays; now one of those shows was anchoring an entire Saturday-morning roster for a broadcast rival.

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But Doug reemerged as a pale imitation of its former self, a sunnier take whose Bluffington adventures strained to fill a full half-hour. The show always had its wacky elements, but not “The kids go to a new school shaped like the head of their entitled friend Beebee Bluff” wacky. The first few episodes channel these changes by putting the protagonist through his adolescent paces, as he deals with the local burger stand going haute cuisine, his favorite band breaking up, and local bully Roger Klotz striking it rich. Creator Jim Jinkins had put a lot of himself into Doug, and as he became less of a hands-on presence behind the scenes, the personal, introspective elements of the show faded.

Fortunately, there was another daydreaming kid with a peculiarly shaped head waiting in the wings: One month after Doug’s relocation, Hey Arnold! came bursting through the boarding-house doors. From the opening measures of its theme song, Hey Arnold! announced itself as something both fresh and familiar for Nickelodeon. The show broke new ground for Nicktoons in terms of setting, dropping viewers into an urban sandbox of brick walk-ups and endlessly rolling blacktop. Jim Lang’s jazz score and a cast of school-age characters played by school-age actors drew parallels to the many animated incarnations of Peanuts, with a Lucy Van Pelt-by-way-of-Angelica Pickles in the form of mercurial classroom tyrant Helga Pataki.

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Hey Arnold’s protagonist is the kid with his name in the title, but Helga quickly proved to be the show’s most compelling presence. Like her predecessors in Peanuts and on Rugrats, bossiness was only one facet of her personality: It’s the cover for her unwanted crush on Arnold and a manifestation of the neglect she experiences at home, where she’s ignored in favor of her overachieving older sister, Olga. The city populated by Arnold and his friends is not a place for the one-dimensional, the type where the burly baseball hero has a deep sentimental streak or the class brain wields a mean fencing foil.

That sensitive treatment of its characters—which didn’t preclude the show from roughing them up for laughs—went a long way when the show delved into heavy subject matter like Helga’s feelings of insignificance or the whereabouts of Arnold’s parents. It also explains the intense online fandom for the show that exists to this day, stoked by the series’ lack of resolution. Unlike McRobb and Viscardi, Hey Arnold! creator Craig Bartlett and his team were tasked with bringing their show to a close with an epic cinematic adventure—part of Nick’s journey into features, which began with 1996’s Harriet The Spy. Behind-the-scenes wrangling led to the selection of a more grounded Hey Arnold! film and a cliffhanger finale that languished without a follow-up for 14 years—until Nick green-lit Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie for a 2017 premiere.

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“Aw, here it goes!”

Hey Arnold! premiered as part of “More Nick,” another Scannell concept that added a half hour to the programming days during the school week and at the end of the weekend. Some More Nick promos positioned the move as a classic by-popular-demand prospect, with a field full of kids chanting “We want more Nick!” and passing a giant orange balloon over the heads. Elsewhere, advertisements took advantage of a brand built on doo-wop vocables and onomatopoeia, introducing the new schedule with a cheekily unhelpful mnemonic: “HA-AM, HA-AM, KABLAM, S-W.” Or, as patiently illustrated by Larisa Oleynik, star of The Secret World Of Alex Mack: Hey Arnold! on Mondays and Wednesdays, Alex Mack on Tuesdays and Thursdays, KaBlam! on Fridays, Snick on Saturdays, and The Wubbulous World Of Dr. Seuss on Sundays.

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But More Nick was about more than kiddie populism and silly sounds. It was a canny strategy that identified a vacancy on the programming grid and filled it. As The New York Times told it three years later, the broadcast networks were increasingly turning the 8-o’clock hour over to comedies detailing the loves and lives of twentysomethings in the city, à la Friends. The old “Family Viewing Hour” was losing its families, who were now in search of something they could watch together—enter Nickelodeon. The gambit paid off so well that the start of Nick At Nite was eventually rolled back to 9 p.m. By the end of the decade, the first kids’ network was staying up a full hour past its bedtime seven nights a week.

More Nick also meant more Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell. The duo had found success individually as cast members on the sketch series All That, with recurring favorites like “everyday French” instructor Pierre Escargot and less-than-handy superhero Repair Man (“Man Man Man Man!”). But the young actors struck a special spark when they were paired together in a sketch, whether they were antagonizing their cast members as gray-haired hecklers Clavis and Mavis, or driving each other batty as the no-nonsense Lester Oaks, Construction Worker and scatterbrained Good Burger counter jockey Ed. Those sketches prepped the duo for a smooth transition to Kenan & Kel, a sitcom spin-off that cast Thompson as a scheming Chicago teen (named Kenan) and Mitchell as his clumsy best friend (named Kel).

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The characters and their madcap scrape-ups would be right at home at Nick At Nite—the leads were, more or less, adolescent versions of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, “Who loves orange soda?” the show’s “Baby, you’re the greatest”—but Kenan & Kel tapped in to a distinctly Nickelodeon sense of mischief. Double Dare-style food hijinks were common: a peanut-butter sandwich adheres itself to a camera lens, Kenan’s parents have a farcical “ice cream barge” dumped in their laps, or Kel’s fantasy of ludicrous wealth involves crates and crates of ham. Slapstick is the show’s default mode, and the loudest studio-audience laughter is prompted by Mitchell’s gangly limbs flailing through frame, or Thompson playing coy through wild mugging. There’s always some authority figure to get one over on—a mom, a dad, the president of the Luna Tuna Corporation, or Kenan’s hapless boss at the local grocery store—and while the schemes don’t pan out, the boys are never left looking less foolish than the adults.

If All That was Nickelodeon’s answer to Saturday Night Live, then Kenan & Kel was the franchise’s Blues Brothers. It was an unprecedented investment in the channel’s onscreen talent—Marc Summers and Robin Marrella did What Would You Do? after Double Dare wrapped, but even the prospective Clarissa Explains It All spin-off Clarissa Now was passed up the corporate ladder to sister network CBS. At the time, it was more common for Nick to do repeat business with people behind the scenes, like the Klasky Csupo expats who brought Hey Arnold! to life. But Kenan & Kel was the first ripple in a wave of programming that would keep the channel populated by All That stars for years to come. One branch of the All That family tree alone split into The Amanda Show, Drake & Josh, ICarly, and Sam & Cat (the latter requiring some cross-germination with Victorious), a 20-year lineage for producer Dan Schneider that’s worthy of Garry Marshall or Norman Lear’s ’70s sitcom empires. And with the animated anthology KaBlam! introduced during the same year, the channel gained a proving ground for Nicktoons, too. But the number-one animated star of 1996 wasn’t any of the characters crammed between the pages of KaBlam!—it was a friendly puppy with a hard-earned pedigree.

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“Blue skidoo, we can too!”

Blue’s Clues is a zag-when-others-zig story in itself. Eschewing the controlled chaos of its older siblings, the show abides by a strict formula. It was a regimen backed by research: Preschool-age viewers “love to watch the same videos over and over,” and Blue’s Clues didn’t just repeat the same beats every episode—the same episode of the show would air at the same time Mondays through Fridays. Tuning in to Blue’s Clues every afternoon, viewers could expect to participate in a game whose rules never changed, no matter the circumstances. Host Steve Burns could be expected to interact with the household objects scattered across his storybook abode—like the delightful Mr. Salt and Mrs. Pepper—or follow his azure pup into one of the many frames hanging from its walls. The solution to the game will always be the sum of three clues, and Steve will always hash that solution out in his overstuffed Thinking Chair. (Viewers could also count on the absentmindedness of the main character, forever overlooking the blue paw prints marking the clues.) Routine and regimen are even baked into the lyrics of the show’s songs—which are sung in every episode, without fail.

And yet Blue’s Clues never feels restrictive. The show’s masterstroke was the way it encouraged the kids at home to play along, by directly addressing the audience and asking for their help in solving the day’s puzzle. This was more than Miss Nancy gazing at the boys and girls at home through the Romper Room Magic Mirror: Blue’s Clues talked back to itself, through a chorus of voices prodding Steve in the right direction. The viewers-cum-players were made to feel like their voices affected the show’s outcome, an illusion that Burns excelled at creating: Because his character rarely heard things correctly the first time, engagement with the series had to be emphatic. Like the laughter of a sitcom studio audience, the Blue’s Clues voices made a potentially solitary act feel communal.

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Not that anyone was ever alone in watching Blue’s Clues. The show quickly became the top-rated entry in Nickelodeon’s preschool block, Nick Jr., a popularity that benefited the network in more than one way. On its way to nine Emmy nominations, a 2001 Peabody Award, and a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Blue’s Clues blossomed into a merchandising juggernaut: A 10th-anniversary profile in Variety put worldwide sales of Blue’s Clues products at $20 billion.

Nick had never acted afraid of a licensing fee (Gak, anyone?), but Blue and Steve came along at a time when the network was increasingly receptive toward additional streams of revenue. The plans for a dedicated Nicktoons studio space began taking shape in 1996. That summer, Harriet The Spy performed adequately at the box office, but Nickelodeon Movies soon turned its attention toward converting audiences for Nick’s TV franchises into audiences for its cinematic efforts: A Good Burger movie with Thompson and Mitchell in 1997, followed by The Rugrats Movie in 1998. With a movie to promote, Rugrats was put back into production, and though it had lost most of the writing staff responsible for its most memorable moments, the show eventually became Nickelodeon’s first to cross the 100-episode mark, followed by another hit with an equally bottomless potential for spinning off toys, apparel, and movie adaptations: SpongeBob SquarePants.

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Things at the network were changing, and the people behind the scenes could sense it. As Bartlett says in the Nick oral history Slimed!:

“MTV Networks, Viacom, Nick—every year they got bigger and more corporate than the year before. While Herb was running things, it just grew more and more corporate, and less like you had a personal touch. It was probably just inevitable that that was the way it was going to go. It wasn’t Herb’s fault. Herb’s Nick was still a great place to be, but each year it got bigger and more out of control.”

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But for a while, at least, Nickelodeon could have it both ways: playful and profitable, experimental and expanding. The mindset was maturing, but there was still enough of Laybourne’s “If it’s good for kids, it’ll be good for business” concept floating around. It was Saturday in Wellsville, and Sunday would come soon enough.

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