It was a critical time for Nick-at-Nite in the early 1990s. Fred/Alan’s innovation had already defied all odds by running just “reruns” and become one of the top rated cable networks. Better yet the channel was “branded,” which meant that advertisers would pay more for their commercials. But there were only so many ways to re-package and re-present old shows, and we’d pretty much used them all.
We tossed around a lot of stuff, mainly variations of what we were already doing. But more marathons (“See all the black & white “Bewitched” episodes in order!”) or stunts (“The Nick-at-Nite String-a-thon!”) weren’t going to cut it; NAN was already the best in the business at that. Nick-at-Nite needed to do something bigger!
I’d always loved The Dick Van Dyke Show, and we were about to debut it, bringing one of the great classics back to TV for the first time in a long while. It was funny (and 12 year old me had a crush on the young Mary Tyler Moore).
For a long while, I felt like an oldies channel needed a personality. We’d accomplished a lot with packaging and promotion, and over at HA! I tried like crazy to get then to make a deal to use Lucille Ball as “the patron saint of TV comedy,” but no go.
Now, I had a bright idea. Why don’t we actually hire Dick Van Dyke as the Chairman of Nick-at-Nite? He certainly looked the part, with a executive mane of gray hair and an authoritative mustache.
Programming head Herb Scannell (soon to be CEO) upped the ante. He did a little back of a napkin math and realized the idea could be even bigger. “We’ll announce it as a million dollar deal.” Back in the day, there were no big deals being done with name talent, just little hosting gigs here and there. ”Salary, promotion, and programming production commitments, we can swing it.”
Sure enough, the announcement made headlines across the business, and then further, in newspapers across the country. Nick-at-Nite (and cable) was starting to come into its own.
By the way, those people in full dress with Dick up above. A rare clean-up day for the Fred/Alan staff at the industry event announcing Dick’s “promotion” to executive status.
Left to right: Robert Hunter (accounting), Alan Goodman (founder), Bill Burnett (creative director), Dick Van Dyke, Fred Seibert (founder), Bill Horvath (art director), Tom Barreca (account supervisor), Dave Landesburg (account executive), Lou Bauer (media director).
—Fred0 comments Tagged: Dick Van Dyke, NAN, Nick-at-Nite, branding, Bill Burnett,.
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,.
Nick-at-Nite had a big problem, and Fred/Alan needed to fix it.
Advertisers loved the Nick-at-Nite ratings (it was one of the top three primetime cable networks), but the ad sales team was inexperienced and unskilled, and they never knew how to answer the questions from the agencies media groups designed to push the cost of the spots down through the floor.
Primary among them was, “Why should we pay as much for your old black & white as for newer color ones?” Stupid as it sounds —the high ratings meant lots of the same people watching everything else on TV were watching Nick-at-Nite— the sales team thought it was a worthwhile argument.
For the first few years after the creation of Nick-at-Nite, Fred/Alan’s primary role was in the day-to-day activities of the network itself. Promotion, branding, programming, acquisitions, we were involved in every aspect of the channel.
Then, in 1988, our collaborations with MTV Networks had evolved so far that they asked us to morph our production/consulting company into their full service advertising agency. Not knowing all that much about advertising other than it seemed to pay a little better than consulting, we agreed.
Enter Noel Frankel.
Noel was an experienced ad man, a print designer and copywriter. Aside from his consummate graphic design and painting skills, Noel brought a sophisticated strategic mind and, maybe more importantly, a twisted, quirky sense of humor. Perfect for Fred/Alan, which needed to start acting like we knew what we were doing. Even though we’d invented the Nick-at-Nite television network (a first —and probably to this day— only time an agency had actually invented a whole TV network), but now we needed to prove we could also invent an ad campaign that would solve their high hurdles with advertisers.
As his first freelance project for us Noel brought in comps for the Mr. Ed’s After-shave (“A trace of saddle blanket…bouquet of pasture…”). It captured the voice we’d inpsired, but it wasn’t dependent on footage from the episodes. There was a slick, color feel that belied the show’s black & whiteness, and when the ad ran in TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly, or any of the media trade publications, it would be a blast of fresh air. No network ever had such great fun with its own shows.
Then Noel adapted the campaign for small size, one color ads, and we added copywriter Bill Burnett to his team. If anything, Bill reveled in the weird even more than Noel, and the campaign started taking on some totally surreal tones.
The other agencies took notice. All of a sudden the networks started getting incoming calls looking for media time. The young media buyers were becoming big fans of the network and wanted their clients to be associated with our cool advertising; they started agitating their clients to get on board. Nick-at-Nite had solved their big problem.
Worthless? These worthless ads really put Fred/Alan on the map as an advertising agency with a sense of advertising way different than anyone else in the country.0 comments Tagged: Fred/Alan, MTV Networks, NIck-at-Nite, Noel Frankel, TV Guide, advertising, branding, print, trade advertising, NAN,.
…we were busy wondering what had happened to us.
By the late 1980s, Fred/Alan had morphed into a full service advertising agency, with writers, art directors, and account, production and media departments. Over 40 people.
We started trying to get some new accounts, the lifeblood of any agency. And not a skill we were particularly attuned to at the time. First step, a agency brochure!
It’s great fun doing good advertising, and we’d had a better run than many. Sure, we’d been critical to the building of MTV, VH-1, and Nickelodeon. And we did some awesome work for Swatch, Mosaic Records, Myers’s Rum, and Barq’s which had driven lots of business for them. It ought to be easy to wrap it all up and brag a little, yes?
Putting together a company hype is a drag, pure and simple. In person, we could speak passionately for hours telling you about what went into our work. But somehow, writing it down was somehow crass.
It began to dawn on us that maybe being an advertising agency wasn’t for us.0 comments Tagged: Barq's, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, MTV, MTV Record Club, Mosaic Records, Mosiac Records, Myers's Rum, Nick-at-Nite, Nickelodeon, Showtime, Swatch, The Movie Channel, VH-1, self promotion, NAN,.