Alan Goodman and I invented Nick-at-Nite.
It’s funny to see it in print. Ted Turner invented CNN the Cable News Network, Bill Paley created CBS the Columbia Broadcasting Company, John Lack invented MTV Music Television. But, there it is. Two guys most people never heard of invented America’s first oldies channel on television.
By mid-1985 Alan and I had developed the branding and vocabulary for MTV and Nickelodeon, and MTV President Bob Pittman had asked Nick General Manager Gerry Laybourne to figure out what to do with the dark hours after Nickelodeon went off the air at 8pm*. Gerry and her team tried to develop original programming for a number of months before giving up and asking us for suggestions. We were ready for them.
A couple of years before PIttman had purchased the rights to 300 episodes of The Donna Reed Show, a black & white series from from 1960s, because they were cheap and he thought they might be useful someday; I’d heard about the acquisition and started hatching up ways to use them. When we became independent producers in 1983 we spent over a year trying to convince ABC to create an “TV oldies” show in their daytime programming block. They eventually passed. “We’re a television network. We can’t run old, black and white shows!”
So, when Nick came a calling Alan and I had worked out the whole thing in our heads. We could run an entire network with programming that no one else wanted, but was solid enough to get a good rating. Perfect for the audience and perfect for advertisers. Our channel would be the television equivalent of oldies radio, the most successful format in decades. Just like “The Greatest Hits of All Time" we wouldn’t try to hide what we were. The networks might have reruns (sad face), but at Nick-at-Nite we’d be RERUNS!!! (happy face!). It would be a blast.
The powers that be at Nickelodeon did not like The Donna Reed Show at all; it was seen as a pre-feminist throwback that set a depressing role model. I’d watched it for weeks at a time in high school during an illness, and figured any show that could hold the attention of a high school boy for weeks had to be, at the very least, entertaining.
We convinced them to give it a try. Look for shows that fit the budget, were good (meaning strong characters and solid stories), package it all up under our guidance, and go for it. No one was sure what we were smoking, but after our last ditch presentation to Pittman, met with smiles and enthusiasm, they agreed to let us at it.
Alan and I were at Nickelodeon everyday for months lining things up (though we were still ‘outsiders’ we effectively served as the channel’s creative directors for the next seven years). Programming chief Debby Beece came up with the name ‘Nick-at-Nite;’ and she lined up a great debut line-up of Donna Reed, My Three Sons (the black & white years), Mr. Ed, and Route 66. Tom Corey and Scott Nash had already designed the Nickelodeon logo, so we tapped them again. We had a couple of bumps with our Nick promo team, the most important element in our scheme, because a couple of them with hipper-than-thou and thought oldies TV was the dumbest idea in creation. We convinced them by pointing out we didn’t think we were doing great art, just “good TV” (eventually one of our cornerstone promises to the audience). Scott Webb, Bob Mittenthal, Jay Newell, and others wholeheartedly committed to our vision and created some of the most memorable packaging a television network had ever seen.
Nick-at-Nite was an instant success. Within months it was the #1 cable network in prime time. It started being referenced in the popular culture, and became shorthand for suddenly retro culture. In competitive research Nick-at-Nite got credit for any old program a viewer liked, no matter where it ran on TV. And, it paved the way for Nick spinning off the 24 hour TV Land (check out Alan’s first written “positioning” for NANin 1987, “HELLO OUT THERE FROM TV LAND!”).
In many ways, Nick-at-Nite was one of Fred/Alan’s most satisfying triumphs. Creating success where most everyone else thought we had nothing. It doesn’t get any better.
* Back in the day, satellite transponders were scarce and extremely expensive; Nickelodeon leased their nighttime hours to the ARTS channel. When they got their own 24 hour berth and became A&E the cost was too much for Nick to bear without hope for revenue.0 comments Tagged: Corey McPherson Nash, MTV Networks, NIck-at-Nite, Scott Nash, TV Guide, Tom Corey, advertising, branding, print, trade advertising, NAN,.