NEW YORK — Five years ago, the man who invented MTV assessed his latest assignment, the children's cable channel Nickelodeon, and what he saw was "spinach." Video spinach.
It had all the essential video vitamins and nutrients that conscientious parents could feel good about: It had no commercials, no cartoon series with hulking superheroes as stars, lots of nice programs with strong pro-social messages. And, like spinach on a child's supper plate, it just sat there, barely touched by the young viewers to whom it was served.
So under the direction of MTV guru Bob Pittman, the Nickelodeon team set out to re-create its then-5-year-old children's channel, casting it in the spirit and and style of MTV. Nickelodeon got hip.
And it worked. If commercial success was the aim, then the reborn Nickelodeon has met, if not surpassed, expectations. Ratings are still minuscule by network standards but have nearly doubled since 1984. Advertisers, now welcomed, avidly associate themselves with Nickelodeon's numerous sweepstakes for toy-store runs, trips and parties. The channel has grown into a stalwart of basic-cable TV, reaching 46 million subscribers, nearly all homes wired with cable. Last year, net revenues soared to an estimated $90 million, from $59 million the previous year.
Such is Nickelodeon's success that the talk of it becoming, in the words of one executive, "a worldwide provider of kids' entertainment" sounds increasingly within reason. Already, Nickelodeon shows are copied in England, Holland and Australia. A mini-Nickelodeon started airing in May in the Philippines. And in something of a departure, a Nickelodeon theme park is in the works--the channel's first permanent production facilities, which will double as a kid's attraction, at the New Universal Studios Florida.
But long before there could be any international expansion or studio deals, Nickelodeon had to win over its stubborn constituents--the young members of its audience. "One of the big chal-
lenges was to create an image for the channel that it is the place to be, where the name means something," says Pittman, now an independent producer, ". . . not as a channel that was good for kids, but for kids."
As MTV had come to represent teen culture a few years earlier, Nickelodeon set out to define for children a new TV sensibility, distinct from any other. It would be a kind of televised kids' clubhouse, a world unto itself where children's styles, language and attitudes prevailed.
The Nickelodeon that emerged would never be mistaken for video spinach. The expressed message of its pitch to young viewers is that this is TV that parents wouldn't approve of--a TV world where kids get to play with (even wallow in) food, trash a house during a treasure hunt and sound off about bedtimes and emptying the trash.
Symbolic of the change in Nickelodeon, which turned 10 this year, is the phasing out of the last remaining show from the channel's original schedule, "Pinwheel." On Sept. 4, "Eureeka's Castle," a decidedly more sophisticated show than "Pinwheel," will make its debut as the centerpiece of the channel's preschool programming. Where "Pinwheel" was simple and sunny with talking vegetables and fruits imparting positive values, "Eureeka's Castle" wraps its lessons in a slicker entertainment package of puppets, animation, music and dance revolving around the misadventures of a hapless young sorceress.
Although some parents and educators question aspects of the new Nickelodeon, there is little doubt that the channel, with its kid-hip, us-against-them attitude, has established itself among children.
"You see the kids on Nickelodeon wearing today's clothing, saying the right things. They're cool. They're touching all the right buttons," says Tom Kinney, a vice president of Bohbot Communications, a media buying agency that specializes in children's advertising.
Through all this, says Geraldine Laybourne, Nickelodeon's president, a former schoolteacher who guided the channel through its transformation, "our governing philosophy hasn't changed at all: We want to provide kids with some fun and diversity."
Diversity, there is. For 13 hours a day, Nickelodeon presents an eclectic bag of programming--from imported animation ("David the Gnome") to old network reruns ("Lassie"). (At 8 o'clock, Nickelodeon's nighttime component, Nick at Nite, takes over with an irreverent presentation of 1950s and '60s comedies, which is suitable for the family but is aimed primarily at parents, the members of the original TV generation who were weaned on the shows.)
Increasingly, Nickelodeon is conceiving and producing its own programs, each bearing the distinct imprint of the new Nickelodeon, each carrying the channel a step further from its "spinach" roots. All new Nickelodeon projects share a single aim--entertainment.