Cyma Zarghami is still struck by what happens when Nickelodeon's Dora the Explorer theatrical show opens in a city with a large Latino population. “If you look out over the audience, what you see are a lot of Hispanic families, with daughters who believe they've found a heroine and a role model,” said Zarghami, who is president of Nickelodeon Television. “Dora is an icon with the Hispanic community.”
The first animated children's series to star a Latino character, Dora the Explorer broke new ground when it premiered, and has since become one of Nickelodeon's highest rated shows. It is emblematic of a network with a long history of pro-social programming. In fact, some would say that by virtue of its programming philosophy — to empower kids while entertaining them — Nickelodeon is pro-social in and of itself.
Long recognized as a revolutionary force in children's television, Nickelodeon is home to an extensive list of award-winning shows and campaigns with pro-social themes.
Even before it had the means to produce much original programming, Nickelodeon's “Kids Pick the President” campaign, which drew 12 million votes in its first outing in 1988, gave children a voice in the biggest news story to hit the U.S. every four years.
Clarissa Explains It All, the network's first scripted series, shattered the industry maxim that boys won't watch shows with girls in the leading role, while Rugrats, one of its first animated series, ended a dreary period in children's animation, when the vast majority of shows were based on toys. The network has made diversity a hallmark of its programming, featuring kids of color in series and starring them in shows like Brothers Garcia, Dora and Romeo.
Kids still Pick the President every four years, and since 1991, they've had their own version of 60 Minutes, thanks to Nick News, the award winning weekly series that has put into perspective such wrenching stories as Magic Johnson's announcement that he is HIV positive, the Oklahoma City bombing, Columbine and 9/11. “When a piece of news becomes so big that kids can't avoid it, we need to explain it,” Zarghami said. Nick News has covered many other issues of importance to kids, including body image and disabilities, like ADD and Asperger Syndrome, that show up in the classroom.
While building up its library of originals-with-a-difference, Nickelodeon continued to create pro-social campaigns that empower kids. “The Big Help” had kids pledging millions of hours in volunteer community service and giving parents leads on organizations where their kids could perform their service. More recently, Let's Just Play, a massive campaign that includes live local events across the country, fights childhood obesity while reminding families of the importance of unstructured play.
Over the years, Nickelodeon has expanded its mission, adding Nick Jr., a preschool block designed to entertain tiny viewers while building self-esteem and thinking skills. Commercial-free Noggin, as well as the Nick Jr. block that airs Saturday mornings on CBS, have helped Nickelodeon to a dominant position in programming to the very young. The 112 hours of programming airing each week on Nick Jr., Noggin and CBS's Nick Jr. block represent 56% of all pre-school programming on television. Nick Jr. is also a ratings powerhouse, having captured seven of the top ten shows watched by preschoolers in fourth quarter '04.
While Nick Jr. and Noggin foster self-esteem in preschoolers, The N, another Nickelodeon network, has a similar mission with teens. Its evening lineup of shows features the critically acclaimed Degrassi: The Next Generation, which unflinchingly explores the challenges of adolescence, from peer pressure and shifting relationships to questions about sex, substance abuse and body image. The show has considerable pull with teens, as a recent episode on gun violence demonstrated. A toll-free hotline number posted at points during and after the show prompted a 4000% increase in calls to PAX, an organization that offers teens information about preventing gun violence and accepts tips about the presence of guns in peers' lockers or other inappropriate locations.
Along with Degrassi and other series, such as the tolerance-promoting A Walk in Your Shoes, The N has aired some notable specials with pro-social themes. I Sit Where I Want, a documentary marking the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation decision, looked at race relations and integration from a teen perspective. Miracle's Boys, a six-part drama shot in Harlem and directed by an all-star lineup of black directors, told the story of three orphaned brothers, and their struggle to hold their family together.
Just as Noggin seeks to help pre-schoolers navigate a tumultuous time, when they're experiencing a great deal of growth and development, The N reaches out to another group going through a time of change, said Tom Ascheim, executive vice president and general manager of Nick Digital Television. “Their journey is about identity, and 'who am I becoming?,'” Ascheim said. “It's an essential human journey.”
Although education through media, as Ascheim calls it, is a big part of the mission at both Noggin and The N, two other spinoffs, Nick at Nite and TV Land, have entertainment at their core. This doesn't mean, however, that they avoid pro-social programming. Inside TV Land specials have delved into the portrayal of African Americans on TV and the impact that entertainment shows, such as The Smothers Brothers, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and The West Wing, have had on American politics. An upcoming Inside TV Land special will look at classic TV series, such as Batman, Golden Girls and Maude, that have had special resonance among gay viewers.
Meanwhile, Nick at Nite's first original series, the Bill Cosby-created Fatherhood, celebrates the challenges, lessons and comical confusions of family life.
Along with pro-social shows like these, TV Land and Nick at Nite air “Family Table: Share More Than Meals,” a pro-social campaign reminding families of the importance of sitting down to dinner together. A Roper Public Affairs and Media study, commissioned by the networks, found that families who dine together feel closer to one another, solve problems better and have kids that are less susceptible to destructive behaviors like drinking alcohol.
Table Time is a natural for TV Land and Nick at Nite, two of the most-watched providers of family programming. It is also the cornerstone of the networks' pro-social effort, said Sal Maniaci, the networks' vice president of production and development. “This is an initiative that's very important to us.”