By Les Brown | March 4, 1979 | ARCHIVES | 1979
The new network does not go by initials but by the name Nickelodeon. Since it carries no advertising, it is liberated from the tyranny of audience headcounts. Instead of being designed by specialists in the art of riveting the great mass of viewers to the set, its programming is assembled by an authority in children's education, Dr. Vivian Homer, who helped develop “The Electric Company” for the Children's Television Workshop.
Programs carried by Nickelodeon, a channel for children, are intended to be more edifying than run‐of‐the‐mine children's shows. The channel tries to be nonviolent, nonsexist, nonracist and nonpropogandistic. Its fare is a mix of foreign animations, vintage movie serials, films produced for the school market, short informational pieces, read‐aloud comic book presentations, music and teenage forums.
Who created this utopian service? Not a philanthropic foundation but the entertainment conglomerate, Warner Communications. Nickelodeon was developed over the past year at Warner's experimental two‐way cable installation, known as QUBE, in Columbus, Ohio. Packaged into a 13‐houra‐day service, the programs are to be distributed to cable systems nationally, beginning April 1, by satellite. Even without commercials or direct subscription fees to consumers, Warner expects the venture to make money.
Revenues will come from the cable systems that carry the network, each paying 10 cents a month for every household reached. A dime a month may seem paltry, but as Warner executive observed, “Ma Bell built an empire on the 5‐cent phone call.” Initially, Nickelodeon will reach 500,000 households, with the number expected to treble in a year and to expand steadily thereafter. For the cable systems paying the fee, Nickelodeon represents a loss leader — a giveaway likely to attract additional customers. As new subscribers sign up for cable television at $7 to $10 a month, the Nickelodeon revenues grow. With 10 million subscribers, the, Nickelodeon dimes will add up to $1 million monthly.
“Cable operators see this as an opportunity to be the good guys in comparison with commercial broadcasters.” said John Lack, president of Warner Cable. That idea implicit in the headline on the Nickelodeon brochure: “At Last. Children's Programming That's Fit For Children.”
An Electronic Sandbox
Dr. Horner explained the Nickelodeon philosophy: “We are trying to make it be not‐television, different from commercial or public television. And much of it will be — pardon the expression — good for them. The object is not to compete with the commercial networks but to provide an alternative. We're not trying to sell the kids anything. We're paid in advance for what we provide, and so we're not motivated the same as other television programmers.”
“This doesn't look at all like television fare.” Dr. Horner noted. “The pace is different, slower, gentler. There is none of the bang‐bang‐bang that the commercial people think necessary to catch and hold attention. The programming made up of varied materials of varying lengths, so that none of it begins or ends on the hour. I think of it as an electronic sandbox the kids can come to whenever they wish.”
For children between age 7 and the teens, the fare mostly films from the Bernice Coe collection of quality films for television and from Xerox, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Macmillan and other companies producing for schools.
Bridging the age groups are old movie cliffhangers. such as the Tom Mix and Rin Tin Tin serials, and a new television form billed as Video Comic Books, in which the dialogue balloons are read by off‐screen actors. ‘'I think of it as a kind supported reading activity, without making any educational claims for it,” Dr. Horner remarked.
Nickelodeon's big, original production is a daily teenage program, “America Goes Bananaz.” This is a youth version of the talk‐variety programs typified by “The Mike Douglas Show,” with disco music and guest‐star spots girding the “rap sessions,” or dialogues, on teenage issues. “This program has some conventional TV concepts,” Dr. Horner conceded. “but the difference is that it cares about kids and their concerns, without playing down to them.”
Whatever the merits of the particular programs, the Nickelodeon concept elevates children's television from the programming ghettos to which it has been consiened by the networks and also insulates it from the cynicism (If commercial impresarios.
To the extent that television is a babysitter, the least that may be said for Nickelodeon is that its attitude more positive, and its approach more responsible, than those of the alternative electronic nannies.
Nickelodeon is not the first venture of its kind but only the most ambitious. Last September, UA‐Columbia Cablevision, in partner‐ship with Learning Corporation of America, began „ending out a weekly children's film senes, “Calliope,” for about 2 cents a subscriber. Programs have included “The Mime of Marcel Marceau” and “Ballet With Edward Villella. “Sent out as an added service to the sports events on UAColumbia's Madison Square Garden cable network, “Calliope” is received in about 850,000 households, according Kay Koplovitz, manager of the miniature network. “Our concept.” she said, “is not to provide programming in bulk but rather the best children's films available. There aren't many of them that we could fill up a channel all day, every day of the week.”
Still to come in the cable‐television sweepstakes is a new family‐entertainment channel, laden with children's programming, from Home Box Office, largest of the pay‐television networks.
In cable, as in commercial television, children's programming is growing hotly competitive. The difference is that the race is along the high road rather than the low.
A version of this archives appears in print on March 4, 1979, on Page E20 of the New York edition with the headline: Children's Programming Without Commercials.