Documentary by lifelong Nickelodeon fans reveals how the network grew from plucky upstart to global giant
'People that are of a certain age ... have this strong reaction to the channel,' says filmmaker
Lifelong friends and creative colleagues Scott Barber and Adam Sweeney weren't always planning on creating a documentary about Nickelodeon's early years.
In fact, it wasn't until they learned about the efforts of early president Geraldine Laybourne in building the once-fledgling TV network for children and teens — as well as learning about Laybourne's immediate influence on their own childhoods and the childhoods of millions around the world — that Barber and Sweeney felt they had no choice but to tell the story.
"One thing we knew about Nickelodeon is that people that are of a certain age that grew up in the '80s and '90s have this strong reaction to the channel," Barber told Day 6.
"You can do a documentary that's about pop culture or nostalgia and that's great, and that could get people excited about it. But if you don't have a story, there's really no point."
That story — catalogued with equal amounts fanatic devotion and historical documentation in The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story — spans the birth of Nickelodeon in 1977 as a small station in Columbus, Ohio, until the late 1990s, just before the arrival of a beloved sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea, Spongebob Squarepants, would take the media company to untold new heights.
For Barber and Sweeney, however, it's those early years that are so special to them, largely because they were Nickelodeon's key demographic — they were young, had less supervision than previous generations and spent a lot of time in front of the television.
"Scott and I both came from families of divorce and one of the ways that we stayed together as friends when I moved away ... is that we would watch episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark, as well as Nickelodeon At Large," Sweeney said. "We would just call each other on the phone and make comments about what we loved about the stories, what we wish other stories would be."
"That was a huge bonding element for our friendship, which has stood the test of time and allowed us this privilege to work together as creative colleagues."
While Barber and Sweeney distinctly remember the joy of watching early Nickelodeon, the network's success was largely the result of small, steady improvements and bitter work.
"The reality is that, for a long period of time, [Nickelodeon] were the underdogs," Sweeney said. "When they chose to step out on their own, they were up against the world and they were facing very formidable odds — and competing against programs and networks that had made the rules and also had all the advantages."
The network had to fight with distributors to gain access to content, and the shows they were able to produce in-house were put together on shoestring budgets.
"If you can imagine MacGyver or somebody just really making a rocket out of bubblegum and aluminum, like some of the original spaceships, that's what Nickelodeon was," Sweeney said.
Barber pointed out that fans love to reminisce about Nickelodeon's early slate of original game shows, like Double Dare, as examples of the network's ability to connect with that generation of children viewers.
"They had just the absolute best game shows for kids," Barber said.
Fans might not know, however, that game shows were a part of Nickelodeon's early slate because they simply cost less to produce. "Game shows, compared to a scripted sitcom, are incredibly easy on the budget," he said.
Kind and friendly programming
Nickelodeon didn't just keep costs down by producing shows on the cheap — the network also saw early success by licensing Canadian programming — like You Can't Do That on Television and Are You Afraid of the Dark — since that was some of the only content for which they were able to acquire broadcast rights.
"You Can't Do That on Television … ended up formulating and giving them some of the most iconic associative elements — like slime and the messiness and the dirtiness and teenagers and children breaking the rules and standing up to adults — that Nickelodeon is still known for," Sweeney said.
In fact, green slime — along with the Pantone 021 C shade of orange — are still part of Nickelodeon's modern brand identity.
"If you watch the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards, they still use slime," Sweeney said.
Also part of Nickelodeon's core identity? "The kindness and the friendly nature" of certain Canadian programming, according to Sweeney.
"I think that every single Nickelodeon show, even up until now, while there is a level of irreverence and there's always a playful kind of chicanery, it's always friendly. Nobody's truly getting hurt. There's no violence, it's all in good fun."
'I still think Spongebob is awesome'
Despite it's enormous growth, Nickelodeon today continues to maintain the core values that made it so popular when the network first launched.
Barber says they wanted the documentary to avoid "that old trope of saying that things were better when you were a kid, that your generation is somehow better than others."
Instead, the goal was to highlight the ways that Nickelodeon was able to grow from a tiny upstart into a globetrotting juggernaut.
"I still think Spongebob is awesome," Barber said. "And I think Spongebob came from a really pure, beautiful place. It came from the same beautiful place that Rugrats, Doug, Ren and Stimpy, Rocko's Modern Life, all those shows came from."
"[Nickelodeon] just happened to latch onto something big … They just grew. That's what happened, and they're something different than they were. I'm not going to say better or worse, it's just something different."
Written and produced by Sameer Chhabra.