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Looking at Nick at Nite

Looking at Nick at Nite — Nickelodeon’s late night offering brings classic television back to life

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It looked like a scene from a deranged horror movie: Dozens of Donna Reed clones — all wearing identical high heels, kitchen aprons, and pearl necklaces — were marching down the middle of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, brooms and dustpans clutched to their sides. ”Make your beds!” they shouted at bewildered bystanders. ”Clean your rooms!” But it wasn’t Dawn of the Donnas — it was just another publicity stunt cooked up by the folks at Nick at Nite, the nuttiest network on cable TV. Throughout early May, Nick plugged its nightly lineup of vintage sitcoms with a blitz of Donna Reed promotions — magazine ads, TV spots, a Donna fashion show — culminating in television’s first ”Donna-thon,” in which Nick ran 140 consecutive episodes of The Donna Reed Show over seven nights. Witty, outrageous, and impossible to overlook, the ”Donna-thon” was a classic Nick PR stunt. For five years the network has unleashed one wacky publicity campaign after another, usually with remarkable results. In fact, despite limited resources (total promotional budget: less than $5 million per year) and limited airtime (Nick is only on from 8 p.m., after the Nickelodeon children’s channel signs off, until dawn), the network has pulled off one of TV’s great marketing coups: It has transformed a collection of antique comedies into one of the hottest programming lineups on cable.

Nick’s roster includes some of the oldest relics on the airwaves: Mr. Ed, about a typical American family saddled with a rambunctious talking horse; The Patty Duke Show, in which a pair of identical teenage cousins mischievously switch identities at crucial plot junctures; Bewitched, about a pretty young witch and her mortal husband; My Three Sons, the chronicles of a widower and his three boys; and, of course, The Donna Reed Show, which follows the squeaky-clean Stone family as they wrestle with such pressing social issues as misplaced mittens and burnt roasts. Somehow Nick manages to make all these ancient jokes zing like new.

Nick at Nite ”has been extremely clever,” says Wayne Walley, a reporter for the trade magazine Advertising Age who covers the television industry. ”They’ve taken a bunch of old reruns — the dregs of the airwaves — and turned them into profitable products. That’s what good advertising is all about.”

From the moment it arrived on the dial in 1985, Nick has displayed a rare flair for outlandish image-building. There was, for instance, its ”String-a-thon” in 1988, during which viewers were asked to ”save the network” by calling in with pledges of spare string (more than 14,000 did). There was also last year’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration, when Nick showed green-tinted episodes of My Three Sons (in honor of Bub O’Casey, widower Steve Douglas’ Irish father-in-law). Then there was the time the network boosted its ratings for The Patty Duke Show by running interviews with the actress who played the back of Patty’s head in scenes where Patty appeared as sister Kathy. (”Maybe my show was just a little too ahead of its time,” she mused.)

”We try to come up with a different stunt every four months,” explains Rich Cronin, the network’s senior vice president for marketing. ”We have only one guiding principle: We ask ourselves, ‘Is the stunt stupid enough?”’

Sitting behind his oval-shaped desk at Nick’s headquarters in New York, Cronin is surrounded by the flotsam of shag-carpet culture. There’s an Elvis lamp, a vintage cathode-ray tube, an electric guitar clock, and various other objects d’junk. ”We didn’t want Nick at Nite to be an ordinary network,” Cronin continues. ”We didn’t want it to be some dorky channel that was completely straight about everything. We wanted it to have a sense of humor, a sense of fun. ”So we developed this idea we called ‘TV Land.’ We believe that in every person’s brain there’s this lobe where TV Land exists. It’s this town where the Cleaver family from Leave It to Beaver lives down the street from the Douglases from My Three Sons and the Douglases live next door to the Posts from Mr. Ed. It’s all tongue-in-cheek, of course, but we really try to believe that such a place exists. And everything we do with our advertising and promotions flows from that belief.”

Down the hall, in his own kitsch-cluttered office (a four-foot wood carving of Disney dog Pluto, a Darth Vadar helmet), Nick’s creative director, Scott Webb, expresses similar sentiments. ”We never admit that Mr. Ed can’t talk,” he says. ”We never say that Patty and Kathy (of The Patty Duke Show) aren’t identical twins. And that’s one of the reasons we have such a loyal following. People have real strong emotional attachments to these shows — they care more about these characters than they do their own neighbors. Nick at Nite embraces that. We understand how people feel about their television sets.”

It has been an effective marketing strategy, inspiring on-air advertising campaigns that often have been funnier than the shows themselves. One TV spot for Mr. Ed claimed to reveal the talking horse’s secret sexual agony (”I wish I’d been born a woman!” he whinnied). Another promised to expose the Freudian horrors lurking inside Steve Douglas’ tortured psyche. Still another pretended to discover subliminal messages hidden in The Donna Reed Show (”Drink Your Milk,” ”Marry a Doctor”).

Nick’s print campaigns have been equally offbeat. One recent magazine ad featured Mr. Ed dressed in top hat and tails, peddling his own brand of after-shave (”A trace of saddle blanket bouquet of pasture essence of stall ”). Another introduced ”The Patty Duke Time/Space Travel Institute” (”Have twice as many friends! Attend two parties at one time! Wear the red tie and the green tie!”).

The ads clearly have had an impact on viewership. In its five years on the air, Nick’s national audience has jumped from five million households to more than 50 million. Reruns that languish on other networks somehow seem to come alive on Nick: When The Patty Duke Show left another cable network for Nick, its ratings were said to have doubled overnight.

”Nick at Nite has had to operate on a very restricted budget, but they’ve done remarkable things,” says cable-industry analyst Larry Gerbrandt. ”They’ve tapped into a very effective gimmick — this classic TV thing — and it’s been very profitable for them. It’s helped make the channel a fixture in cable households, with consistently high ratings.”

In fact, Nick has been so successful in marketing its TV lineup that it’s expanding into other ventures: It recently distributed its own home-shopping catalog, featuring such avant-nerd products as Nick at Nite pocket protectors, bowling shirts, and refrigerator magnets.