Nathan Kress, Miranda Cosgrove and Jennette McCurdy in "iCarly." (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
Miranda Cosgrove, the sprightly star of Nickelodeon's "iCarly," is sitting on the floor of the show's fictional Ridgeway school set during a lull in production — practicing lines and adjusting the collar on her bright blue jacket. Try as she might, though, she can't ignore the inevitable.
Looking up at her character's locker that towers above her — a veritable landmark among the tween-set — the brunet wunderkind summons a cornball glance at costar Jennette McCurdy sitting beside her. "Think of me fondlyyyy/ when we say goodbyeeee," the twosome mirthfully croon to each other, calling up a ballad from "The Phantom of the Opera."
The charmingly goofy off-screen moment between the friends and costars mimics the shenanigans viewers have come to enjoy on the teen-centered show about three pals who produce a popular online series. But the clownish antics are in the closing stages: After five seasons, one of the network's preeminent shows is wrapping its run. On this June day, Cosgrove and McCurdy are in the thick of the show's swan song, filming the one-hour send-off, "iGoodbye,"which will run Nov. 23.
PHOTOS: 'iCarly' by the numbers
For the generation that grew up on "iCarly," this was a show that spoke its language — before "Gossip Girl" or "Awkward" tried to do the same. The half-hour comedy, from Nickelodeon sire Dan Schneider, soared to popularity in no small part because of the way it converged the television and computer screen — a radical notion in 2007. It was a well-timed concept that resonated with a young constituency mesmerized by cellphones, computers and iPods. The show was also unusual in portraying young children on their own with no parental nemeses or guardians.
The ending of one of its longest-lived hits comes at a crucial time for Nickelodeon. The network — which will also lose hit teen sitcom "Victorious" (also created by Schneider) — saw its audience levels fall nearly 30% over the past year, a drop reflected in "iCarly's performance.
By its second season, "iCarly" had overtaken Disney's "Hannah Montana," the seemingly untouchable ruler of tweens, as TV's No. 1 series among kids (ages 2 to 11) and tweens (ages 9 to 14). Its current season is averaging 3.2 million viewers, down nearly 32% from the previous season. It now clocks in at No. 7 among kids and No. 3 among tweens, with Disney stalwart "Good Luck Charlie" taking up the crown.
Part of the drop-off could be attributed to changes in behavior as viewers turn to TV watching on computers, phones or tablets. The amount of time 12- to 17-year-olds spent watching traditional TV dipped dramatically in the fourth quarter of 2011, according to a Nielsen report. Those viewers watched an average of 100 hours of TV each month, down from 105 hours in the same period in 2010. Among children ages 2 to 11, the shift was less dramatic: an average of 109 hours, 6 minutes a month, down from 112 hours, 46 minutes the previous year.
Marjorie Cohn, the network's president of original programming and development, doesn't minimize the task that lies ahead. "It's a hurdle," Cohn said. "It's always sad to lose a ratings workhorse. But our job is to replace it with another one, so that's what we're going to do."
Viacom, which owns Nickelodeon, has invested tens of millions of dollars into development of new programs to find that replacement. Its recent launch of a revamped "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" has already helped the network make gains. And Cohn categorized the network's next crop of live-action shows as "high concept" — with some projects centering on ghosts and superheroes. On Saturday, Nickelodeon will roll out "Marvin Marvin," starring Lucas Cruikshank (a rising Nickelodeon star best known as the character Fred Figglehorn in a series of YouTube videos) about an alien trying to fit in as a human teenager.
Not that the "iCarly" universe is totally imploding. In keeping with its tradition of launching spinoffs, the network will feature two offshoots from the show: In "Gibby," Noah Munck carries on his role as the oddball teen, with viewers following him as he gets a job at a recreational center and winds up becoming a mentor to four middle-school students. In "Sam & Cat," McCurdy resumes her role as Sam and will be paired with "Victorious" character Cat (Ariana Grande) for the show in which the duo become roommates and start a babysitting business. And Jerry Trainor, who plays Carly's older brother Spencer, will appear in the comedy "Wendell & Vinnie." The network will also continue to show "iCarly" in reruns.