I’m sure we all remember Nickelodeon, the studio that brought us shows like Rugrats, Fairly OddParents, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and of course their crown jewel SpongeBob SquarePants. I’d like to meet the young adult who hasn’t grown up influenced in some part by the famous Nicktoons. They used to be the stars of television animation! That’s why it saddens me to see how far they’ve fallen. Their overall quality has been… lesser as of late. In this week’s column, I want to give both a general description of Nickelodeon’s troubles, and move into some more recent transgressions that sparked this whole piece.
The root of the problem lies with SpongeBob SquarePants. That yellow sponge has been both a blessing and a curse to Nickelodeon. On the one hand, it’s been a cash cow that has earned Nickelodeon over $12 billion. If the franchise were a country, it would have a higher GDP than nine other nations. It’s been a financial wellspring, but it has also acted as a drug. The network executives air their safety show SpongeBob ad nauseum, and other shows are not allowed to have a fair chance. In fact, let’s look at the schedule for Tuesday, November 29. Their main programming begins at 7 AM, with three airings of SpongeBob reruns. At 8:30, they begin their Nick Jr. programming. In this window, that all important youth demographic is getting ready for school and turning on the TV for a few toons before they head out. Once the school day ends (usually about 3), kids come home, and they’re tired after learning all day, so how about some toons? Oh look, SpongeBob airs from 3 to 5 PM! But you wanna watch The Loud House or Henry Danger afterwards? Too bad, homework and dinner time! Herein lies the problem. There are 14 hours of programming for kids, and if you take out the preschool shows there are only 7.5. When half of that is devoted to a single show, and that show is also given all the peak time slots, it makes it harder for new shows to establish themselves.
That doesn’t even get into the bizarre scheduling of premieres. The Legend of Korra, the follow-up series to the incredibly popular Avatar: The Last Airbender, is an excellent case to study. In its third season, the broadcast of new episodes received advertisement only a week in advance. One week! What kind of information campaign can you pull off in that time? Plus, they moved it from Saturday morning runs to Friday evenings. So of course it aired to low viewer ratings, which led to the later episodes being premiered online only. The fourth and final season only showed up online as well, and didn’t see television airings until nearly two months later. The low ratings couldn’t have been because of poor quality, not when it received such critical and popular acclaim: audiences gave it a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.6 on IMDB out of over 68,000 votes. It could have been a big hit, but because of Nickelodeon’s mistakes — or perhaps ill-intentions — the series instead got poor ratings to show for its creators efforts.
Now we come to C.H. Greenblatt, creator of the well-received show Harvey Beaks. Greenblatt complained about Nickelodeon’s treatment of his own show back in 2015, stating he was “not thrilled” with the network suddenly yanking premieres of Harvey Beaks from their timeslots. When Cartoon Brew reported on it, he responded with a comment moderating his position. Greenblatt said his post was “not a knock on the network in general” and that Nickelodeon had “been extremely creator friendly”. His comment can still be seen on the article. However, on November 6 this year, he revealed that he had been forced to give that defense. In a now-deleted post accessible in Internet archives, Greenblatt says: “I was taken into an office, given a stern lecture, and told I had to go on Cartoon Brew and write a reply.” He further expressed his anger that day with another post saying, “I’m disappointed that I spent 7 years of my life making something special for them to just throw away.” What’s shocking isn’t so much that he was forced to make an apology; in my own cynical way, I’d say that’s to be expected. What I find surprising is that conditions are apparently so bad for Greenblatt, and probably other artists in the studio, that he feels that making these revelations is worth the retaliation he’ll face.
There’s nothing wrong with a company wanting to make money; businesses are designed to maximize profit, that is their explicit goal, and that’s all fine and dandy. Even in an animation studio, they need to balance their artistic endeavors with a need to maximize revenue. In Nickelodeon’s case, though, that balance has been thrown wildly askew. Their abuse of their creators is, in a word, unacceptable. And keep in mind, I use “creators” in two senses here. These are the people who write the scripts, draw the storyboards, voice the characters, compose the music and so much more. At the same time they also built the company. The network is nothing without the studio, and the studio is nothing without the artists. When Nickelodeon spits on the work of its creators, it is insulting the very people it owes its entire existence to. I don’t know whether this shameful management originates from Nickelodeon itself or from Viacom, its parent company. Either way, I am disgusted, and plenty of other people are too.
Nickelodeon needs to get its act together. SpongeBob cannot last forever, despite the studio’s most frantic efforts. They need new series, they need new ideas, they need new blood. They will get nothing new if they keep abusing their creators, though. In the late aughts, they turned down Adventure Time, which became a huge hit on Cartoon Network. In the future, people may not bother coming to the studio in the first place. I earnestly hope that Nickelodeon will see the error of its ways and treat its creators with the respect they deserve.
David Gouldthorpe is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]. His column Animation Analysis runs alternate Tuesdays online this semester.