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Kids Rule!: Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship

Kids Rule!: Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship

by Sarah Banet-Weiser

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In Kids Rule! Sarah Banet-Weiser examines the cable network Nickelodeon in order to rethink the relationship between children, media, citizenship, and consumerism. Nickelodeon is arguably the most commercially successful cable network ever. Broadcasting original programs such as Dora the Explorer, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Rugrats (and


In Kids Rule! Sarah Banet-Weiser examines the cable network Nickelodeon in order to rethink the relationship between children, media, citizenship, and consumerism. Nickelodeon is arguably the most commercially successful cable network ever. Broadcasting original programs such as Dora the Explorer, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Rugrats (and producing related movies, Web sites, and merchandise), Nickelodeon has worked aggressively to claim and maintain its position as the preeminent creator and distributor of television programs for America’s young children, tweens, and teens. Banet-Weiser argues that a key to its success is its construction of children as citizens within a commercial context. The network’s self-conscious engagement with kids—its creation of a “Nickelodeon Nation” offering choices and empowerment within a world structured by rigid adult rules—combines an appeal to kids’ formidable purchasing power with assertions of their political and cultural power.

Banet-Weiser draws on interviews with nearly fifty children as well as with network professionals; coverage of Nickelodeon in both trade and mass media publications; and analysis of the network’s programs. She provides an overview of the media industry within which Nickelodeon emerged in the early 1980s as well as a detailed investigation of its brand-development strategies. She also explores Nickelodeon’s commitment to “girl power,” its ambivalent stance on multiculturalism and diversity, and its oft-remarked appeal to adult viewers. Banet-Weiser does not condemn commercial culture nor dismiss the opportunities for community and belonging it can facilitate. Rather she contends that in the contemporary media environment, the discourses of political citizenship and commercial citizenship so thoroughly inform one another that they must be analyzed in tandem. Together they play a fundamental role in structuring children’s interactions with television.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Popular literature on the child as consumer focuses on children as victims of aggressive marketing campaigns, e.g., Juliet B. Schor's Born To Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture. According to Banet-Weiser (Annenberg Sch. for Communication, Univ. of Southern California; The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity), however, the kid-centered cable station Nickelodeon sees children in a very different way-as media savvy consumers or, "consumer citizens." Not as educational as PBS or as commercial as toy-based programming on network television, Nickelodeon, says this author, is a commercial station with a mission: to empower kids by giving them a space where they can be themselves. Each of her six chapters is written as a separate essay. There is a chapter that traces the history of the station from its early days as "green vegetable" educational television to its current status as a hip, kid-centered media giant of original programming. Another two chapters are devoted to the network's dedication to representing racial diversity and its sensitivity to gender issues as part of the Nickelodeon brand. This is not the first book about this cable network giant (see, e.g., Heather Hendershot's Nickelodeon Nation: The History, Politics, and Economics of America's Only TV Channel for Kids), but the focus here, on children as "citizens" within a commercial context, is distinct. Recommended for academic libraries.
—Jennifer Zarr

From the Publisher
Kids Rule! challenges us to think about Nickelodeon’s impact on our ideas about childhood, consumerism, and citizenship. With wit and insight, Sarah Banet-Weiser explains how this phenomenal cable and branding success story changed children’s TV while deftly promoting its brand worldwide. A must-read for parents and teachers.”—Ellen Seiter, author of The Internet Playground: Children’s Access, Entertainment, and Mis-Education

Kids Rule! is an immensely important and exciting book. Based on meticulous research, with a strong cultural production approach, it is a book that will be widely read by scholars and students alike. It fills a large gap in this terrain of work and it is lively, thorough, and brimming with insight and argument.”—Angela McRobbie, author of The Uses of Cultural Studies

“In this remarkable book, Sarah Banet-Weiser delves into the political, cultural, and economic forces that drive Nickelodeon. As it has moved from upstart cable network to international conglomerate, Nick has tried to have its cake and eat it too—it is a place where ‘kids rule!’ but also a network that understands the value of pleasing parents. The book compellingly reveals how Nick addresses its young viewers as consumer-citizens and how it commodifies both ‘girl power’ and ethnic diversity to forge a unique place for itself within the children’s television marketplace.”—Heather Hendershot, editor of Nickelodeon Nation: The History, Politics, and Economics of America’s Only TV Channel for Kids

Product Details

Duke University Press
Publication date:
Console-ing Passions
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Barnes & Noble
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2 MB

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Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3976-2

Chapter One


In January 2005, the popular Nickelodeon cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants became a figure of controversy when he was featured in an educational video intended to promote tolerance and diversity. The video, called We Are Family, featured "lessons" on racial, ethnic, and sexual tolerance, including a short segment depicting a family with gay parents. The representation of same-sex parents prompted U.S. conservative religious groups to attack the video, focusing the assault on SpongeBob SquarePants and Nickelodeon. No stranger to sexual controversy, SpongeBob has been frequently identified as a gay character by both conservative organizations and gay fans and has consequently provoked homophobic organizations in the United States. The latest controversy around the video (or, as conservative religious group Focus on the Family depicted it, the "vehicle for pro-gay propaganda") prompted Focus on the Family spokesperson Paul Batura to say, "We see the video as an insidious means by which the organization is manipulating and potentially brainwashing kids."

Later that same year, Nickelodeon made headlines again, but for a very different reason. In October 2005, the U.S.-based Alliance for a Healthier Generation entered into a partnership with Nickelodeon and former President Bill Clinton to combat the spread of childhood obesity. The aim of the partnership was to "provide the necessary tools to empower children and families to be agents of change in their communities through grassroots activities, events, and programming support through multiple media platforms." Herb Scannell, the Nickelodeon president at the time, added, "We want kids to become personally invested in living strong, healthy lives. And if we do our jobs right, kids will believe that being healthy is cool." Smoothly transforming civic behavior-grassroots organizing, activism-into part of a market strategy ("if we do our jobs right"), Scannell sells the idea of "empowerment" the same way Nickelodeon sells programming and merchandise.

These two news stories, and the rhetorical strategies employed in both, demonstrate the various ways that children's media, and Nickelodeon in particular, are understood and contested within public discourse. Interestingly, while Focus on the Family laments television's role in "brainwashing" kids, and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation presumably takes a different tack, claiming to "empower" children through its multimedia platform, both strategies rely on a fairly instrumental theory of media effects and assumptions about the formation of identity through the media. Nickelodeon, a children's cable television channel, has claimed since its inception that its role is to "empower kids" and motivate children to be "agents of change." Yet these claims, and the very idea that a television network could inspire a certain civic-mindedness in children, compete with powerful ideologies, held not only by conservative groups, that children's television works to "manipulate" and "brainwash" its audiences. These two representations of children's interaction with media mirror some of the tensions surrounding how young Americans are interpellated as both citizens-in-training and consumers in contemporary culture. This book is my attempt to make sense of these contradictions, which I see more generally reflected in the social identity of a citizen in late-capitalist, "post-national" U.S. culture. Commercial media play a pivotal role in creating cultural definitions about what it means to be a citizen-indeed, our sense of ourselves as national citizens emerges from (not in spite of) our engagement with the popular media. Here, I am specifically interested in the role that children's media plays in both constituting and maintaining this cultural contradiction.

When examining children's media in the United States, it is impossible to ignore the significance of the children's cable television channel Nickelodeon, which is potentially the most popular and influential producer of children's programming and media in the United States-and increasingly throughout the world-today. A division of Viacom International, Inc., and delivered via satellite, the twenty-four-hour Nickelodeon channel is a network of children's programs with millions of subscribers that targets broad children and adult audiences. Nickelodeon is arguably one of the most successful cable channels in history and has worked aggressively to claim and maintain its position and image as the preeminent distributor of television programs for young children, tweens, and teens in the United States. The channel's success has been possible in part because its segmented programming appeals to all age groups: preschool programming in the morning (the award-winning Blues Clues and Dora the Explorer, among others), young children's programming in the afternoon (the widely popular Rugrats), pre-adolescent and adolescent programming in the later afternoon (Hey Arnold!, and SpongeBob SquarePants), and "tween" programming in the evening (The Amanda Show and MTV-style variety programs that encourage audience participation). Then, in the later evening, Nickelodeon airs Nick at Nite, a nostalgic programming lineup of older family shows that includes Petticoat Junction, The Cosby Show, and Growing Pains, to name only a few. Aside from the actual program lineup, Nickelodeon has also garnered critical acclaim for its original programming, featuring both animated and live-action programs that have as a selling point the idea that the channel addresses "kids as kids." In the last quarter of 2004, all of the ten highest-rated television shows watched by children under the age of twelve-on both broadcast and cable-were Nickelodeon programs. But Nickelodeon's reach and influence does not stop at television programming; Nickelodeon-produced movies, such as Harriet the Spy, The Rugrats Movie, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, are also a staple of children's media-in fact, The Rugrats Movie became the first non-Disney children's film to gross over $100 million. And, as just a brief glance in most U.S. elementary schoolyards, malls, and athletic fields will show, many of the products purchased by or for children are licensed by Nickelodeon. SpongeBob SquarePants t-shirts, Dora the Explorer lunch boxes, Rugrats backpacks, and Blue's Clues plush animals all have a place within the consumption ethos in which American children surround themselves.

Clearly, given the broad scope of the channel, there are many stories to tell about Nickelodeon. In this book, I focus on two related narratives: the relationship between kids and commercial media citizenship, and the position of Nickelodeon as a powerful site for constructing this kind of media citizenship. I see this book as both a contribution and an important challenge to the recent (both scholarly and popular) literature on the construction of the child consumer. The first few years of the twenty-first century have witnessed an increasingly sensationalized debate about the consumption habits of young middle-class American children, and popular books lamenting new heights of kids' superficial spending have topped best-seller lists. The child consumer appears all too often in this literature as a stereotypical cultural figure, helpless against the enormous reach of media corporations and vulnerable to a bottom-line profit motive. Consider in this regard the titles of recent books on the topic: Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood; Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture; Freaks, Geeks and Cool Kids: American Teenagers, Schools, and the Culture of Consumption; and Branded: The Buying and Selling of American Teenagers are just a few examples. Much of the popular literature that laments the contemporary state of the young U.S. consumer relies upon relatively simplistic mainstream effects research on children, research which assumes a media environment of passive viewing, from which children should be protected. Although I would not deny that youth culture is commodified in contemporary U.S. culture in unprecedented ways, I also believe that acknowledging the consumer element of kids' lives and their status as consumer citizens does not indicate that children are somehow victimized and without agency. In other words, I do not nostalgically long for those days before MTV and Nickelodeon occupied every aspect of a middle-class U.S. kid's life, from clothing to food to rebellion, as a time when children were not interpellated as particular kinds of consumers. As I discuss throughout this book, there has been very interesting and important recent work within media and cultural studies on U.S. children's culture that complicates this picture in important and useful ways. Kids Rule! intervenes in this literature by offering a rethinking of the definition and dynamics of citizenship in a niche-marketed, branded society. Unlike many traditionally progressive perspectives on the commodification of youth culture, I see the contemporary commercial environment as one that is complex and contradictory-and it is within those complexities and contradictions that youth citizenship is constituted in profound ways.

This book is about a particular historical juncture in U.S. media culture, and the role that the particular communication technology of cable television plays in this juncture. Kids Rule! challenges some of the assumptions made in more conventional media studies about how to understand the relationship of children with the media. In many of these studies, social categories such as "innocence" and "corruptibility" are frequently measured in terms of how often and to what extent a child witnesses violence and other adult themes such as sexuality and politics in media culture. Through communication impact studies and social science surveys, the relationship of children and the media has been traditionally conceived as a kind of behavior, measurable through the presumed negative effects of violent messages and images. Although not all media effects research strictly focuses on a behaviorist model that looks for causal links between stimulus and behavioral outcomes, it nonetheless remains difficult to investigate the impact of the broader social context on children and media within the confines of this research tradition. Traditional effects research and policy studies can be useful in theorizing the kinds of content in the media, as well as certain reactions of children to the media. However, policy decisions do not address the unprecedented ways in which children are marketed through the media, nor do they propose any change in how children are thought about as consumers. While some interventions certainly are important, effects research is limited in what it can tell us about the nature of children actively participating with the media.

Here, I discuss how tensions between consumer citizenship and political citizenship are maintained by the media industry within which Nickelodeon is situated: it is precisely the structure of the cable industry that allows for a more innovative and active address to a youth audience even as this industry remains structured around competitive commercial interests. Because of the flexibility of a cable network's programming-Nickelodeon airs exclusively children's programs fifteen hours a day-there are greater resources to create innovative and potentially more risky programs (especially when compared with the somewhat more constrained broadcast networks). As recent technological innovations in animation as well as a broad diversification of content in children's programs have demonstrated, the children's cable industry is clearly a valuable cultural site in which to locate recent shifts in the structure of kids' television. This media context provides youth culture with commodities, a class-based definition of "cool" culture, and an idealistic and inaccurate picture of a harmonious "multi-cultural" youth population. It also provides opportunities for rights, belonging, group membership, and perhaps even political action. Often these opportunities are immediately co-opted by corporate culture, but nonetheless there is potential within this media environment for a kind of meaningful consumer citizenship to be constituted.

It is within this dual cultural and marketing framework that Nickelodeon imagines its audience as a group of active consumer citizens. The fact that this imagined audience is similar for both Nickelodeon and advertisers does not automatically mean that the network is somehow disingenuous in its claims about being on the "kids' side." What it actually means, however, to be on the "kids' side," and what the consequences are for the child audience when an empowered identity is marketed as a kind of product, needs to be critically explored. The divisive strategy employed by Nickelodeon that establishes a discrete boundary between adults and children is one that functions brilliantly for the company in terms of profit. As Marsha Kinder has pointed out, the exaggerated generational conflict that Nickelodeon cultivates and markets as a kind of fun rebellion actually results in a blurring of the two identity categories. Thus, Nickelodeon presents a "convergence of generations" where adults are addressed as children on television, and children are encouraged to act like adults. Within this consumer market, the two seemingly oppositional forms of address-the generational divide and the transgenerational connection-function in tandem to provide a landscape in which Nickelodeon is the entity to smooth over any kind of generationally based conflict. Both a divisive generational warfare (seen most clearly in the network's philosophy of "Us versus Them") and a transgenerational address (seen in the programming itself, as well as ads for the network that air on broadcast television during primetime) form the two sides of the Nickelodeon brand.

This book details the development of the Nickelodeon brand, from roughly 1985 to 2005. In this sense, it is a historical analysis of the channel-as with all media, the structure and organization of Nickelodeon has changed dramatically in the past twenty years, and many changes occurred even during the writing of this book. Viacom has been restructured, and has acquired new holdings and sold old ones; the structure of leadership within Nickelodeon has changed (in January 2006, Herb Scannell resigned as president of Nickelodeon and was succeeded by Cyma Zarghami); and many of the programs discussed throughout the book are no longer being produced or aired. My interest here is in charting the ways the channel developed from an upstart cable channel to a global brand, rather than giving an account of Nickelodeon's present status in the children's television landscape. Analyzing this development allows us a critical look at the strategies involved in the transformation of a small cable channel into a hugely successful network that insists that "kids rule."


Excerpted from KIDS RULE! by SARAH BANET-WEISER Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Sarah Banet-Weiser is Associate Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. She is the author of The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity and coeditor of Cable Visions: Television Beyond Broadcasting (forthcoming).

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