30 Years Ago, Cartoons on Cable TV Changed Forever Thanks To These Women
A cartoon image of a group of children in front of a pink van.
Spongebob Squarepants, The Loud House, and Big Nate are some of the hottest cartoons today from the kids entertainment giant, Nickelodeon. Becoming part of the NickToons lineup is a dream come true for so many animators, joining the ranks of the greatest kids shows of all time like Hey Arnold!, Fairly OddParents, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and many more. Nickelodeon was the first network specifically targeted at kids, and their animated series are what made them one of the top channels across cable. But the network didn’t catch on right away after it debuted over 30 years ago, and original cartoons weren’t even part of their launch. That all changed with the vision of an innovator in the world of children’s television, and an artist who wanted to make a difference.
Disrupting the Status Quo
From a young age, Geraldine Laybourne had a fascination with television beyond passively watching. As a child, she dreamed of walking through her TV set, climbing onto Hopalong Cassidy’s saddle, and riding off into the sunset. By 1970, the last thing Geraldine expected was to be a TV executive, working her way through school to become an architect. Thanks to her husband, Kit, a pioneering educator in Philadelphia who used cartoons to share life lessons at inner-city schools, she shifted gears into this emerging sector of using media to teach youth.
Geraldine continued to explore how adolescents consumed television through the Media Center for Children she founded in 1977. Two years after her institute opened, Warner Cable launched cable’s first kids-only channel, Nickelodeon. The problem was, nobody was watching. Something needed to change.
Geraldine’s efforts caught the attention of Nickelodeon, who hired her in 1980 as a program manager. She employed focus groups like she used at her Media Center (a novel concept at the time) to get a grasp on what kids wanted to watch, and how they felt about what they saw. The youngsters felt spoken down to, that the content aimed at them lacked fun, and much of it simply didn’t engage with them.
Through her research, she also discovered kids often felt alienated, isolated, and depressed by the world around them. They were feeling anxious from the bombardment of anti-drug ads, or commercials against intoxicated driving child abductions. Geraldine wanted kids to feel like kids again, and set in motion a plan to bring shows that would give their demographic that feeling back.
“When I joined nickelodeon, we had no audience, no money, and no subscribers,” Geraldine explained. “Even if we had wanted, we couldn’t follow the tried-and-true path to high ratings. We were disruptive, and we were disruptors.”
Focused on Kids
By 1984, Geraldine moved up as Nickelodeon’s President, with the channel drastically evolving under her leadership alongside a growing revenue stream. Laybourne was responsible for changing the Nickelodeon logo into their signature amorphous orange blob, the creation of the Nick at Nite programming block, and making slime their trademark. Live-action shows like You Can’t Do That on Television were the turning point for Nick, leading to game shows like Double Dare and sit-coms like Clarissa Explains It All and Salute Your Shorts. The next step was tackling animation.
By the late 80’s, Nickelodeon’s animated programs were leftovers from public television, or dubbed imports from Europe and Asia. Major studios wouldn’t sell to them, because they believed the money was in broadcast and syndication. The network had no original toons of their own, but knew they had to fix that problem right away.
Going back to the focus groups, Geraldine and her team found what kids yearned for wasn’t being provided. This was the era of Transformers, TMNT, and G.I. Joe, a period when children’s entertainment was a means to sell toys and merchandise, instead of genuinely having a positive effect on a child’s mind.
Laybourne explained, “What kind of devolved into children’s television was ‘You have to program only to boys – girls will watch anything – you have to program pre-sold characters’… so don’t create original characters, and kids only want animation.’ And we said no, this isn’t right. Kids only like what you’re giving them because that’s all you’re giving them. If we broaden the palette, they will come with you.”
Geraldine structured a plan that went against the grain, making content that was actually fun because it was fun, not because a network told a viewer it should be funny. She also learned children accepted seeing different styles of art and genres of media, and after some successful short-term experiments in animation, Nickelodeon had the confidence to move forward with original cartoons. Their hope was to make “Nickelodeon the Disney of the ‘90’s.” The next step was figuring out what cartoons would accomplish that goal.
The Search for the first NickToons
Vanessa Coffey had just moved to New York to pursue a new career, disillusioned by the direction of children’s television at that time. Through a lucky cold call, she found her way to Nickelodeon’s front door, who shared her view of the state of the industry. Coffey went to work producing the specials mentioned earlier. Pleased with their reception, Geraldine sent Vanessa on the hunt to find the next big thing in animation and bring it to Nickelodeon.
For two weeks, Vanessa met with creators, instructed to find original properties from artists who had a unique vision and “characters living inside them.” She wasn’t looking for polished pitches – she wanted characters and ideas. What nobody expected was the three shows Coffey ordered pilots for – Rugrats, Ren & Stimpy, and Doug – would become classics that birthed the NickToons era, and made Nickelodeon one of the superpowers in cable television.
Vanessa described the trio as meals, stating, “Doug is the ‘good for you’ food, Rugrats is like spaghetti and meatballs. It will keep you alive, but it’s really fun to eat. Ren & Stimpy is just sugar, and there’s nothing good for you in it.”
The pitch for Rugrats was simply a logline about life from a baby’s point of view. This concept immediately appealed to Coffey because she had a similar idea with her earlier Nickelodeon projects. Jim Jinkins was perhaps picked more on his demeanor than the illustrations of Doug, based on Jim’s new children’s book. “Having just met Jim and him showing me his book,” Vanessa explained, “I knew what I was getting with Doug, because Jim is Doug.”
John K. came armed to his session with four pitches, mish-mashes of various characters he doodled including one called “Your Gang” with a dog and cat as part of the ensemble. Vanessa suggested spotlighting those two, who John K. revealed lived in his head for years, and just like that Ren & Stimpy was born.
Kids loved the different feeling of the original NickToons trinity, and parents loved it because their kids weren’t ninja-kicking each other, but were laughing and feeling seen. Each show was unique, and offered something for everyone. Rugrats was pure silliness, starring a group of babies who explore the world around them, making their own rules and stories based on what little they know about anything. Doug was the pre-teen experience, dealing with everyday struggles through a fanciful lens. Whether it was being forced to eat liver & onions, or striking up a conversation with his crush, Doug was the relatable awkward character who kids saw in themselves. Ren & Stimpy pushed the envelope as safely as possible for its targeted age group, as hilarious as it was grotesque – and man, was it gross!
NickToons Now and Then
The success of the NickToons launch was practically overnight. “Probably the first weekend it aired, the ratings were pretty extraordinary,” Vanessa said, “Then the ratings got better and better as time went by. The second and third week, we started getting a demographic for Ren & Stimpy that was older, and the ratings were extraordinary. At one point, we had the best rating in cable history. We had a 4.0. Nobody had done that in cable at that time.”
The NickToons lineup expanded over the years to produce hits like Rocko’s Modern Life, Jimmy Neutron, Danny Phantom, and many more popular series. These series were as diverse in approach as they were in content, and every young generation since then relies on these shows to offer a departure from reality, and to guide them through their developing lives.
In her own words, Geraldine was about passion, not perfection. The same could be said about Vanessa, and when their powers combined, the most influential group of cartoons were shared with the world. A pair of mavericks, Geraldine summed it up best by saying, “Creating an environment where people feel safe to play is probably a big secret to the success of my career, and I’ve had such wonderful people to play with.”
NickToons can be streamed on Paramount+ or through your cable provider.