Nothing sells quite like nostalgia, and that’s definitely the prime commodity peddled by The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story, Scott Barber and Adam Sweeney’s documentary about the meteoric ascent—and lasting cultural impact—of the kid-focused cable channel. Premiering on VOD on Nov. 17, it’s a warmhearted trip back to the early ‘80s-‘90s days of the fledgling broadcaster, which tapped into the hopes, dreams, desires, and hang-ups of adolescent viewers and, in the process, revolutionized how television targeted its youngest demographics. There’s little criticism here, but plenty of affection.
The main attraction of Barber and Sweeney’s documentary is its wealth of clips and behind-the-scenes footage from Nickelodeon’s defining programs, as well as the participation of numerous luminaries involved with its rise to prominence. Chief among those figures is Geraldine Laybourne, the former president of Nickelodeon. Upon taking the reins of the network—which began as an awkward spin-off of a Columbus, Ohio-based interactive-TV venture known as QUBE—Laybourne sought to appeal directly to the pre-teen set, even going so far as to have her staff visit Montclair, New Jersey’s Watchung School to question students about their lives. The goal, she made clear, was to create something novel: an entertainment venue that reflected the myriad ways kids thought and felt, in all their crazy, unruly, insecure immaturity.
“Geraldine Laybourne is the most progressive thinker the world of media has ever seen,” asserts someone in The Orange Years, and while that may be a debatable point, it’s difficult to understate the seismic shift she helped bring about with Nickelodeon, whose wild and irreverent spirit was epitomized by its logo: a giant orange splat that plastered itself all over the screen. It’s no surprise to learn that said logo was created by the same people behind MTV’s spray-painted one, since Nickelodeon felt like the younger sibling of the revolutionary music network—a brash-and-sweet rebel that reveled in its not-for-adults youthfulness. Nickelodeon was something exclusively for kids, and to that end, its endeavors were populated by a wide range of stars who fans recognized as similar to themselves.
The process of striking a chord with American adolescents began with You Can’t Do That on Television (a Canadian import) and Double Dare—arguably the coolest kids program of the 1980s, or so I remember from my own middle school years—both of which made green slime the channel’s signature element. They also foreshadowed the strategic path forward for Nickelodeon, with You Can’t Do That On Television presaging the abundant scripted and sketch comedies to come, and Double Dare paving the way for a slew of kindred game shows that revolved around gooey, icky, adventuring excitement. Marc Summers’ recollections about his tenure at the helm of Double Dare, enthusiasm and humor in his voice, illustrate how an infectious love of gonzo fun was central to the appeal of that show, and the entire channel.
The Orange Years hits upon just about every memorable half-hour hit from Nickelodeon’s heyday, with participation from many of those shows’ principals, be it Hey Dude (the channel’s first sitcom), Clarissa Explains It All, All That, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Kenan & Kel (with input from both stars, as well as Coolio, who penned its theme song), Blue’s Clues or unconventional and wacky animation smashes such as Ren & Stimpy, Rugrats, and Doug. No one has a negative thing to say about their time spent working on these and other formative Nickelodeon series. Given the genuineness of their sentiments, it’s hard to quibble with the overriding contention that what made the network so special was, first and foremost, its dogged attention to the fundamental experiences of its viewers during their various stages of childhood, from pre-school learning to tween discomfort, doubts and devil-may-care impudence, and identity formation.
This sounds like a natural tack for a children’s network to take, but at the time, Nickelodeon’s modus operandi was bold and pioneering, and its series exuded a playground-type energy that made kids want to be a part of the action. Guided by its speakers’ commentary, The Orange Years posits interactivity as one of the keys to Nickelodeon’s success. Whether it was via game shows like Double Dare, or its studio at Universal Studios Florida—where visitors could take tours through the soundstages and dressing rooms where their favorite programs were being produced at that very moment—Nickelodeon engaged everyday viewers in the excitement, and that trickled all the way down to the likes of Blue’s Clues and its call-and-response structure for tykes.
The Orange Years proceeds in chronological fashion from Nickelodeon’s seminal stages to its eventual status as an entertainment-media goliath and, scattered throughout, it delivers a few amusing anecdotes, including Summers’ story about a father strong-arming Double Dare into forking over a large-screen TV so he didn’t sue them for almost killing his son, as well as his later admission that he once sabotaged his Universal Studios Florida makeup room’s microphones in order to get a brief moment of privacy. The only potentially juicy angle comes late, when the film segues into Nickelodeon’s post-‘90s phase, when SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer became such gigantic billion-dollar smashes that merchandising—which Laybourne had always been loath to overdo, fearing exploitation of children—became an unavoidably significant factor in the outfit’s business practices. Hearing people like Blue’s Clues co-creator Angela Santomero discuss this transition, the disappointment (and not-so-veiled censure) is easy to spot.
For the most part, though, Barber and Sweeney’s documentary is little more than a lighthearted and joyous celebration of a groundbreaking network determined to push boundaries. That probably limits its appeal to those who grew up spending hours in front of their television sets playing games with Steve Burns on Blue’s Clues, relating to the everyday dilemmas of Clarissa Explains It All, laughing at the absurdity of Kenan & Kel, or getting frightened by the campfire stories of Are You Afraid of the Dark? But at its most insightful, it also illustrates a fundamental rule of TV programming: know—and speak directly to—your audience.