How Nickelodeon Got America Hooked on Cable

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Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture

All week on Vulture, we're examining '80s pop culture, and how it lives on today.

It may be hard to imagine for anyone born after Ronald Reagan became president, but at the start of the 1980s, most Americans lived in homes where you could count the number of available TV channels on two hands. The cable revolution changed all that: By the time the Gipper left office in 1989, most U.S. homes subscribed to cable and were able to access an average of around three dozen channels. Instead of a choice between ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and a couple of local independent stations, viewers could opt for channels designed to appeal to a niche rather than the masses. While it would be silly to try to label any one network the most important or influential channel to emerge from the '80s, there is a good argument to be made that Nickelodeon — the self-described "first network for kids" — best illustrates how the cable industry waged its successful assault on broadcasters' decades-old hegemony by getting adults to spring for cable. It changed how TV was both produced and consumed and paved the way for today's home-entertainment universe, where there's a network or streaming outlet catering to almost every imaginable programming focus. Here’s how:

Nick helped usher in the era of personalized TV.
MTV changed the look of TV as directors mimicked the quick edits of its videos. CNN set the stage for the 24-hour news cycle and helped turn news into a commodity. But because it targeted the youngest of viewers, Nick played a uniquely valuable role in building TV's new world order: It served as the gateway drug for cable, hooking an entire generation on the virtues of television beyond the broadcast borders. This may not sound like that big a deal, but remember that back in the early 1980s, the idea of paying for TV was a bizarre concept to many Americans. Sure, HBO and a handful of regional movie networks had started to make inroads among early tech adopters willing to pay for the ability to see Hollywood blockbusters a year or two before they'd arrive on broadcast TV. But viewers saw that as paying for movies, not TV (HBO hadn't yet shifted its focus to producing its own shows). At the dawn of the 1980s, fewer than one in five Americans paid for a basic-cable subscription, per Nielsen data. Cable companies had a major sales job: They needed consumers to start shelling out money for something they'd always gotten for free. The promise of a channel devoted to kids' programming was a great marketing hook — a way to convince skeptical adults who saw buying cable as an unnecessary luxury.  Parents weren’t just splurging: They were giving their kids access to a whole channel devoted to fare which was both entertaining and (much of the time) educational.

But because it raised a generation to expect more from TV than what the broadcast networks were dishing out, Nick was also a sort of long-term investment for the cable industry. Kids who came of age in the Reagan years were being taught to look for TV in places not named ABC, CBS, or NBC. (MTV, launched two years after Nick, served a similar function with teenagers). By the time they were ready to move into their own apartments a decade or two later, hooking up cable would become as much of a no-brainer as turning on the power. It's a hook 'em young strategy that's been duplicated many times since as new forms of home entertainment have come online. Kids' titles helped fuel the boom in videocassette players-recorders in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly when movie studios realized they could produce cheap, direct-to-video sequels of much more expensive theatrical films and sell millions of copies of, say, The Return of Jafar, the 1994 home video follow-up to Aladdin. More recently, Netflix and Amazon Prime have been devoting significant sums to building up big libraries of kid-friendly content.

It was one of the first networks to realize it could be more than just a programming service.
There were dozens of cable networks in operation by the end of Nickelodeon's first decade, but most of them seemed content to survive on two basic revenue streams: subscription fees and ad sales. But Geraldine Laybourne, who became president of Nick about five years into the network's history, quickly understood the network's very specific niche made it possible to build a relationship with its young viewers in a way more traditional networks had never done. "Our goal at Nickelodeon had everything to do with the audience," Laybourne told Vulture via email. "Our mission statement was to 'Connect kids with each other and the world through entertainment.' We never thought of ourselves as just a cable network."

That realization prompted Laybourne and other execs at Nick to dream up ways to extend the channel's brand beyond TV. In 1986, young Gen-Xers could purchase tubes of the green slime used on Nick's first breakout hit, the Canadian import You Can't Do That on Television. Soon after, Nick opened a combination production studio–tourist attraction at Universal Studios Florida. Nick Magazine launched in 1990, followed by a slew of new toy releases tied to network shows (remember Gak and Floam?). "Our mission was to bring the best creative voices to serve kids, to delight them, to amuse them, to get them to care about things," Laybourne wrote. "That's why it was so easy to imagine a great comedy magazine for kids, theme park attractions, feature films, or a line of activity toys."

To be sure, the idea of viewers wanting to connect to TV shows they loved by purchasing a product or visiting an attraction hardly originated with Nick. Kids in the 1950s snapped up coonskin caps by the millions after the Disney-produced Davy Crockett became a smash hit for ABC. What Laybourne & Co. did was turn Nickelodeon itself into a brand, one whose seal of approval on a product or show made it much more valuable. Such co-branding is now standard for cable networks, and increasingly a significant source of revenue: Turner Classic Movies offers its audience the chance to buy expensive tickets for its annual film festival and cruises; Food Network viewers can make recipes they see on the channel using cookware bearing the network's name. Nick showed how a network's identity could be nearly as important as its programming.

Nick pushed broadcast networks out of the kids and family TV business.
Before Nickelodeon came of age in the '80s, the Big Three broadcasters all considered family-friendly shows a significant part of their business model, particularly in the 8 p.m. hour of prime time and on Saturday mornings. Weekend cartoons were huge profit centers for broadcasters (and their local affiliates). And at night, networks regularly included as part of their programming mix series that were designed to appeal to kids and teens without totally alienating adults — think NBC sitcom Diff'rent Strokes or ABC's short-lived Indiana Jones clone Tales of the Gold Monkey. These kinds of shows encouraged what TV types call "co-viewing," i.e., series that disparate audience segments (old and young, male and female) can enjoy together. Networks considered themselves "big tents" where all sorts of viewers could fit comfortably.

As the 1980s dawned, co-viewing was already falling out of favor a bit as broadcasters became focused on satisfying advertisers' growing obsession with reaching adult viewers between the ages of 18 and 49, a demographic that left out kids. But the rise of kid-targeted networks such as Nick, Cartoon Network — and, when it moved to basic cable in the mid- to late-1990s, Disney Channel — arguably sped up the process by giving kids their own channels, encouraging them to wander outside the broadcast ecosystem to a place with programs built specifically for them. The impact was first felt on Saturdays, where Nick began nibbling away — and then completely destroyed — the Big Three's once-mighty morning monopoly. Feeling the heat from Nick (and new FCC regulations designed to encourage more "educational" programs), NBC in 1992 was the first to give up on kids' programming on Saturdays, instead targeting teens with series such as Saved by the Bell. CBS exited five years later; ABC held on until 2004.

Nick's impact on prime time was a bit more gradual, with broadcasters still somewhat interested in co-viewing well into the 1990s, as evidenced by ABC's TGIF lineup and NBC sitcoms such as Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Blossom. By the turn of the century, however, broadcast had all but given up on reaching family audiences. And today, save for ABC's sitcoms and Once Upon a Time, virtually nothing in prime time is built to appeal to both kids and adults. Execs rightly figure it's not worth bothering, given today's youngsters can summon up thousands of hours of age-appropriate TV on demand. "Now every kid is their own programmer," Laybourne noted.

It mastered the science of reinvention.
Broadcast networks, or even cable outlets such as USA or TNT, may change their programming mix a bit every few years by adding more or less of certain kinds of shows. From its earliest days, however, Nick has been faced with the challenge of a core audience, which is constantly in a state of flux: Today’s kids and tweens, currently flocking to Nick hits such as Harvey Beaks and a sitcom adaptation of School of Rock, have notably different tastes than younger millennials raised on The Wild Thornberrys, older millennials who lived for Rugrats or Gen-Xers who came of age with You Can’t Do That on Television. Like their peers at sibling network MTV, Nick execs were quick to realize the need for the network to always be reinventing itself. That’s why the sarcastic and somewhat edgy offerings Nick offered in its first decade — think The Adventures of Pete & Pete or The Ren & Stimpy Show— evolved into an emphasis on sillier and more sitcom-y fare such as Kenan & Kel or Drake & Josh.

Nickelodeon has obviously had periods of ratings decline over the years, particularly around the turn of the century, when Disney Channel transitioned from a commercial-free premium channel to an all-out basic cable rival to Nick. And over the past few years, Nick (and Disney) have both been hit hard by the shift from linear to on-demand and digital networks. Nick finds itself in the same position the Big Three broadcasters were 30 years ago —  threatened by a brand-new form of content distribution, in this case, streaming. What’s kept Nick afloat, however, has been its willingness to adapt as its target audience — kids — change their habits. As a result, Nick has now become a massively powerful brand whose reach extends around the globe and across multiple generations. There’s no guarantee it will stay as potent as it once was, but if history offers any clue, don’t bet against Nick’s ability to remake itself once more.