I have to admit, when I was a little kid during the nineties, I had very little patience for “dramatic” television. Until Degrassi came in to my life, the only things I watched on television were cartoons featuring colorful characters and adolescent comedies that most likely utilized a laugh track (or a live audience). So, every Sunday night, when my Rugrats marathon was being interrupted by this lady named Linda Ellerbee, I sighed. However, I didn’t change the channel. The reason being that my parents disliked me watching TV Sunday nights, so something educational like Nick News being on was a way I could convince my parents to let me watch the tube for thirty minutes (this of course didn’t always work but, still, I tried). Even though, at sixseveneight, Nick News was really my first exposure to television news, I couldn’t appreciate that fact at the time. Nick News may not be the type of show that the targeted audience will rush downstairs to watch, but it’s a show that once kids get past the fact they aren’t watching their favorite cartoon characters, they become invested and curious and maybe even a bit more tuned in to the real world. It’s a show that parents and educators should have encouraged their students to watch, and if Wikipedia is correct about Nick News’ consistently high ratings, that may have been the case.
Nick News has won a boatload of awards, including both Daytime and Primetime Emmys; it won six straight Emmys for Outstanding Children’s Program from 2007 to 2013. It won three Peabodys during the mid 90’s and has been honored with a couple Critics Awards. However, these critical and industry achievements are sort of in contrast to this show’s IMDB and TV.com ratings. Now, I think IMDB ratings are useless, but that’s another story for another time (maybe February 30th 2017). But there’s also a Facebook page dedicated to people who disliked Nick News for…well, the same reason I stated above. It interrupted our cartoon schedule. And that may be the reason for the low user scores: Angry millennials who remember changing the channel to Cartoon Network when Nick News came on. However, there is another reason, probably more significant. Nick News was never afraid of taking risks and talking about real, relevant issues. The show didn’t sugarcoat or lie or hide. The show was focused on discussing the current events we’d maybe see in an episode of 60 Minutes and packaging the issue in a way a ten year old would understand. From HIV/AIDS to the war on terror to same sex parents, the show wasn’t afraid.
Some adults felt (and still feel) that topics like these should be left off a children’s television network. That children should be shielded from these controversial topics until they’re older. The thing is though, all the topics that Nick News covered on the show, at least 99% of the time, had some relevance to children. I mean, there are children living with HIV. There are children whose parents are overseas fighting in the war. And, yes, there are children who are part of nontraditional families. Surely, if the kids featured in these stories can deal with these issues, I think the average kid in the suburbs can as well, at least for 22 minutes. These complaints by mostly well meaning adults is the reason why children’s television nowadays can come across as a bit juvenile. Some time, after the nineties, we’ve decided that television geared towards pre-teens should shield children from real world problems. That these issues are too “adult” for youngins. This has affected our dramatic television. Afterschool specials (which, seriously, weren’t as corny as people like to think they were) are extinct, and Disney Channel and Showtime no longer produce high quality, dramatic television specials for “all ages.” (like The Color of Friendship or Bang Bang You’re Dead). Fortunately, for society, a newsmagazine like Nick News stood standing in a world where conservative parental groups write a damning press release every time a television exec dares to be relevant, progressive, and challenging (Good Luck Charlie featuring a two-mom family in one episode comes to mind).
And, yes, another reason Nick News received flack was that it tended to be more progressive, at least for a show aimed towards 9 to 16 year olds. Last year, Nick News had a program titled “Coming Out” about gay preteens and teenagers. We’ve come a long way in this country when it comes to LGBT rights. Even though gay people now have marriage rights that came about 20 years too late, homosexuality is still a taboo subject, particularly when it comes to children. Many parents do not want to talk about gay people with their children because they see it as being inappropriate. I don’t know about you, but kids were calling each other “gay” when I was in elementary school. I didn’t learn about homosexuality from my parents, but from kids on the playground, and these kids didn’t have really nice things to say about it. And that’s probably true for the majority of kids across this country. If you don’t want your child to grow up a bigot, you have to talk about these “types of people” with them at an early age. If a ten year old can handle the overwhelming amount of heterosexuality that fills our TV and movie screens, our magazines and ads, and our music, surely they can handle the idea that sometimes two dudes just want to live happily together. Yet, homosexulaity is mostly absent from youth television because of these misguided fears about sex. As in, “I don’t want to talk to my kids about homosexaulity, because I don’t want talk to them about sex.”
So, it was so refreshing seeing a special about gay kids on Nickelodeon (one that steered away from a sex talk). If one kid came out of that special a little more open-minded, or more comfortable with who he or she is, then the special did its job. This year, Nick News did a story on kids living Cuba. The idea might seem harmless and uncontroversial, but within this special we actually heard kids talk about and even defend…gasp!…communism. In a world where the mere mention of “socialism” draws gasps and scoffs, we have a special where kids are finally able to tell their side of the story about this controversial fiscal ideology.
Now, if you’ve made it this far, I don’t want you to think that I’m some militant social justice warrior who believes kids shouldn’t be kids. Of course, childhood should be filled with happiness, but it should also be filled with wonder, skepticism, and some knowledge of the world we live in today. If we want our Generation “what comes after Z” to grow up into successful adults, they have to learn how to be accepting, and face the fact that the world isn’t perfect, or even fair, all the time. Nick News strove to do that, and I am thankful that Nickelodeon always gave Nick News the chance to educate the youth of America.
Nick News with Linda Ellerbee had its last episode tonight. It was mostly clipshow highlighting the show’s most memorable moments and stories. Nick News premiered in 1992 with Linda Ellerbee, a host who had worked on both ABC and NBC; she was known for her humor and slightly quirky on-screen persona. The program began as a weekly show, that also aired during the daytime. However, during the last decade or so, it’s mostly aired primetime specials every other month, from topics about the caste system in India, to Alcoholism, to Terminal Illnesses, and a controversial, yet highly rated episode about same sex couples (that presents viewpoints from Rosie O’Donnell and conservative figure Jerry Falwell alike). In a world where people can get their news quickly from the internet, Nick News public presence has declined in its last years. In fact, there are many people my age who were surprised to find out that the show was still on the air. Nick News was a quiet show. Besides a few online press releases, many of the major entertainment sites never really announced when Nick News had a new episode (if they did, these announcements certainly wouldn’t make it to the homepage). Yet, believe it or not, Nick News was still a powerful and insightful show in the year 2015.
Nick News has presumably ended after 25 years on the air, and Ellerbee is retiring after over forty years in the reporting business. Although, if a really big news story comes up, I hope Ellerbee won’t hesitate to pull a “Barbara Walters” and create another “Special Edition.” In fact, even if this is the end of Nick News, I hope and pray that Nickelodeon still finds time to produce a documentary special here and there. HBO (with Sheila Nevins and co.) can’t be the last cable channel to make high quality award worthy specials for young people. Their specials are really good, but they don’t have the rawness and sense of urgency that Nick News had. I truly believe there is still a place for this type of edutainment on television. Nick News bowed out tonight with grace…but I hope this isn’t the last we see news on Nick.
Thank you, Linda Ellerbee, for telling the sixseveneight year old me that there’s more to this world than talking babies and totally real monsters. You taught me about the real world. And if I didn’t appreciate it then, I certainly appreciate it now.