Can Nickelodeon threaten Disney's reign? -- With ''Rugrats,'' the children's network makes strides against the industry giant

By Josh Young
December 04, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

Many Fortune 500 companies have an executive washroom, but how many can also boast a corporate toy lounge? On the 38th floor of the Viacom building, overlooking the now Disney-fied Times Square, you’ll find the Nickelodeon playground. Located just to the right of the office of Albie Hecht, Nick’s president of film and TV entertainment, this grown-up romper room is cluttered with such goodies as an original Mr. Potato Head, a Darth Vader helmet, and a Superman punching bag. But it’s the basketball hoop that takes the most hits.

Sporting suede Puma Clyde sneakers and a Rugrats golf shirt, Hecht, 45, is practicing his hook shot while explaining how he and his staff evaluate Nick’s prospective movie and TV ideas. ”What we’re looking for is the kid in all of us,” says Hecht. To connect with that inner child, Hecht and his execs use a crepe-paper thermometer taped to the room’s wall to see what ideas are truly in the Nick zone. A boring concept registers a zero. Interesting equals 25 points. Stupid — good or bad — registers 50. Weird clocks in at 75. And funny is — bingo! — 100 points. ”Funny is money for our audience, but [we] like weird if it’s contemporary,” Hecht explains. ”And when we get something that’s between weird and funny, we have a big hit.”

In other words, Rugrats. Created by animators Gabor Csupo, Arlene Klasky, and producer Paul Germain in 1991, the long-running, high-rated cartoon stars a batch of somewhat anemic-looking babies who become energized whenever their deeply distracted parents aren’t looking. As Generation Y’s favorite loony ‘toons, they have already spawned a sea of dolls, knapsacks, and coloring books as well as a sellout road show. But those were baby steps compared with the challenge facing The Rugrats Movie, which debuted last weekend at $27 million (the largest opening ever for a non-Disney animated movie).

Paramount, Nickelodeon’s corporate sibling, bet correctly that these scribble-faced carpet crawlers could put a chink in Disney’s animation armor. ”It’s a label unlike any other label. They push the envelope. They take risks with ideas,” says Rob Friedman, Paramount Motion Picture Group’s vice chairman. If the movie’s boffo box office is any indication, these ‘rats may grow up to be the Mouse’s worst nightmare.

After all, Nickelodeon’s already bested Disney on TV. As the No. 1 cable channel (over HBO and TBS), last season Nickelodeon boasted a Saturday-morning lineup that outdrew those of the Big Four nets (for ages 2-11), including the Disney-owned ABC. An aggressive branding campaign gives the channel a stronger identity with kids than, say, the Disney Channel. And strategic alliances like the partnership with the Children’s Television Workshop are allowing Nick to keep one step ahead of such kid-friendly upstarts as the Cartoon Network and Fox Family Channel. (Another competitor, HBO Family, debuts in February.)

”The way kids have been represented going back to Shirley Temple is very much in a Hollywood way,” explains Nickelodeon president Herb Scannell. ”Disney has had a point of view about kids that has been different from ours. The Disney formula is kids in relation to their parents, while Nickelodeon is a place where kids can feel good about being a kid.”

Disney Channel president Anne Sweeney, who worked at Nick for 12 years, responds: ”What Disney doesn’t do is isolate kids. We look at the bigger picture of kidhood.”

The difference can even be measured in their respective theme songs. Disney has the sweet Jiminy Cricket ballad ”When You Wish Upon a Star.” But ”Thank you, Nickelodeon” is an infectious (albeit shamelessly self-promoting) rap ditty with the lyric ”A kid’s gotta do what a kid’s gotta do.” It’s a battle of enchantment versus empowerment, and in this schoolyard showdown, the Big Orange Bully (the industry nickname for Nick’s citrus-colored logo) has already thrown the first punch. There’s a scene in Rugrats in which the characters are shown barreling through a bucolic, bird-twittering Bambi moment, sending poor creatures scurrying.

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