A Look Back at 35 Years of Nick at Nite

This coming week will celebrate 35 years of Nick at Nite, the family-friendly programming block during the evening hours on Nickelodeon.  On July 1, 1985, Nick at Nite launched with only a handful of shows and a small collection of movies.  Its library may have been small when it started, but since then, the network has added a vast array of properties and has gone through many different changes.

On the 10th Anniversary in 1995, they aired one episode of every series that had ever aired on the network over the past 10 years.  In 2005, they aired a 48-hour marathon on TV Land, the spin-off sister network, to celebrate the 20-year milestone.  Other than a few on-screen graphics, the Nickelodeon did not honor its 30th Anniversary in 2015.

Unfortunately, it does not appear that Nickelodeon plans to do anything for the 35th this year.  So since Nick at Nite won’t, I intend to honor the 35th Anniversary myself!

Many viewers have since grown disenfranchised with Nick at Nite, myself included, but there was a time for many of us that it was the only home for nostalgic television classics.

A lot of my cherished memories growing up centered around spending time with my Dad watching Nick at Nite.  Dad was always a fan of the “Andy Griffith Show” and we’d spend many hours watching that on TBS. When we got cable and Nick at Nite arrived with classics like “Dick Van Dyke”, “Newhart”, and “I Love Lucy”… there wasn’t anything else that would be on our TV in the evenings before my bedtime… except maybe the New York Rangers.

Way back in 1984, the Hearst Corporation spun off its broadcast content into several different channels, such as Nickelodeon and Arts and Entertainment (A&E), to take better advantage of satellite feeds.  Not wanting to attract controversy for broadcasting children’s entertainment after most children’s bedtime, Bob Pittman, the President of MTV Networks, asked the Nickelodeon general manager Geraldine Laybourne to develop non-children focused programming for the late evening hours.  She turned to brand consultants Alan Goodman and Fred Seibert, the creators of Nickelodeon’s iconic balloon logo and bright orange color.  They conceived the idea for the first “oldies TV network,” modeling the programming block after the successful “Greatest Hits” radio format and branded the new venture with the name “Nick at Nite.”  The original logo was based on Nickelodeon’s original pinball motif and Nick at Nite’s logo and branding would separate itself from Nickelodeon in design, advertising, and overall atmosphere until the early 2000s.

Nick at Nite broadcast nightly from 8pm to 6am, featuring sitcoms “Dennis the Menace” and “The Donna Reed Show,” the sketch comedy show “Turkey Television,” and drama “Route 66.”  The Nick at Nite Movie aired nightly at 9:00pm from ’85 to ’89.  These films included old classics such as the 1947 “Red House” and 1937 “A Star is Born.”  As the popularity of the programming block grew, the library expanded to include early season episodes of “Saturday Night Live” and Canadian sketch series “SCTV.”

Recently, someone uncovered a home recording on VHS of Nick at Nite’s debut, and the very first commercial on the network was for the 1985 classic “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.”  Pretty cool, considering its one of my favorite movies of all time.  The second commercial was for a long-defunct Kellogg’s cereal I’ve never heard of called “OJ’s” where the cereal was supposed to taste like orange juice!

In 1995, Nick at Nite celebrated its 10th Anniversary with a week-long event, airing viewer picked episodes of every series that ever aired on Nick at Nite since its July 1985 debut.  Each episode was introduced with a brief history, pop culture references, and the original run date on Nick at Nite.  A special 10th Anniversary logo “bug” was shown on the bottom corner for the entire year.  In 2005, on the 20th Anniversary, TV Land aired a similar marathon that lasted only 48 hours, showing “most” of the series that had taken part in the 20-year run.

During the past 35 years, Nick at Nite dabbled in broadcasting its own homegrown originally produced content.  On December 5, 1987, they ran a contest called “The Do It Yourself Sitcom,” where they claimed, “real people could win their own television show.”  Viewers submitted ideas to the network, and the winner would earn their own show.  In ’88, the channel aired the winner, a half-hour Christmas special called “Tattertown.”  As the contest stipulated, it was meant to be a pilot for a new series, but it was never picked up and instead repackaged as “Christmas in Tattertown” that aired for several years around Christmas time on Nick at Nite.

During the early 90s, Nick at Nite ran a one-time special featuring old television commercials.  The show was an absolute hit and was rehashed several more times but with diminishing returns.  TV Land would use this idea as part of their “Retromercials” segment aired during commercial breaks during the network’s early years.

In 1991, Nick at Nite debuted its own sitcom based on classic TV tropes.  The short-lived “Hi Honey, I’m Home!” followed on a 1950’s former television family living in modern times and was a mega-hit with my parents and myself.  In the story-line, following the cancellation of their sitcom, the Nielsen family (get it?) were forced to leave fictional TV Land and move into a real 1990s suburban neighborhood.  There they were repeatedly confronted with culture shock in modern times.  This series originally aired as part of ABC’s TGIF lineup and was “rerun” on Nick at Nite the following evening.  After a handful of episodes, ABC canceled the series, and it continued for another season and a half on Nick at Nite.  As much as my family enjoyed it, it never gained real traction with other viewers, who were used to the retro content like “Gilligan’s Island” or “Mork and Mindy.”

Nick at Nite frequently used marathons and other outlandish promotional events to rapidly grow its viewer numbers.  In October 1990, the network held a unique contest hosted by game show host Wink Martindale during an “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” marathon.  Viewers at home would keep a running total of deaths through the marathon, and the viewers who gave the correct total were entered into a drawing to win a prize.  The prize?  A family plot in a cemetery.  I’m not kidding.  They realized that was too macabre, and eventually, a group of winners were instead awarded a murder-mystery dinner cruise.

One of the things that made Nick at Nite stand out during the early 90s was its quirkiness.  The marketing was kitschy, using tongue-in-cheek style humor aimed at a hip, relatively young adult audience.  One quirky ad campaign was “Smell-O-Vision,” in which viewers would collect Scratch and Sniff cards from various convenience stores, newspapers, or magazines.  Then on a specific date or time, they would watch different episodes and “smell” along with the show, such as pot roast and perfume on “The Donna Reed Show” or grass and horse manure on “Green Acres.”  One year the network celebrated St. Patrick’s Day by tinting all of the shows green.  They would occasionally put fake travel posters up in New York subway trains, advertising things such as “Cruises on the SS Dragnet:  No thrills!  No frills!  Just the facts!”  To celebrate a “Donna Reed Show” marathon one year, they had 30 women dress up as Donna Reed and run the Chicago marathon loop.

When new shows were added to the lineup, they are often accompanied by some sort of marathon to create interest.  In 1990, when the network acquired Bob Newhart’s short-lived sitcom “Bob,” they ran a “Bob’s Bob, Bob Newhart, Newhart Marathon” featuring the new show “Bob,” “The Bob Newhart Show” (which it already broadcast), and “The Newhart Show” (which they previously held rights to broadcast.)  When they added “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in 1992, it was welcomed with a “Marython.” Likewise, when “I Love Lucy” joined the network in 1994, it debuted to a “Nick at Nite Loves Lucy” marathon featuring not only “I Love Lucy” but “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour,” “The Lucy Show,” “Here’s Lucy,” and “Life with Lucy.”

Nick at Nite achieved the height of its popularity during the mid-90s, complete with board games, tee shirts, and other merchandise based on the “Nick at Nite” branding.  They would sell travel kits consisting of a “Get Smart” Shower Cap of Silence and Alfred Hitchcock Spine-Tingling Soap.  There was even a working Nick at Nite shoe-phone based on “Get Smart” that I remember seeing once at Spencer’s Novelty shop in the mall.

During the summer months, they discovered arguably the network’s most popular and beloved stunt, “The Block Party Summer.”  During the Block Party Summer, a different series was shown in a three-hour block each night of the week with distinctive branding and quirky advertisements that a lot of folks remember fondly.

Created in 1994, this is widely considered the driving force behind the popularity boom to Nick at Nite in the mid-90s.  The Summer Block Party would air for about eight weeks in July and August and run mini-marathons on a nightly basis.  I’ve read that people called this the “original Netflix binge-watching.”

In its first run, the Block Party ran “Mary Mondays” with episodes of the Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Similarly, “Lucy Tuesdays” (I Love Lucy), Bewitched Be-Wednesdays (Bewitched) “Jeanie Thursday” (I Dream of Jeanie), and “Sgt. Joe Fridays” (Dragnet) rounded out the week.  The programming changed year to year, but the concept remained the same.  Over the years, shows like “The Wonder Years,” “Welcome Back Kotter,” “The Munsters,” “The Brady Bunch,” and more were given a spotlight on the Block Party Summer.

After 2000, the summer promotion changed names and themes annually until the network stopped running summertime specials in 2006.  In 2001, it was referred to as the “Un-Real-A-Thon” to match the new “Un-Reality” anti-reality TV marketing campaign for the channel.  2002 referred to it as “Camp Nick at Nite” that is regarded by many for its clever marketing, graphics, and commercials that rivaled the Nick at Nite of old.  2003 hosted “Viewer Appreciation Summer,” while 2004 featured the “Road Crew Summer.”  In 2005 the branding changed to “Easy TV Summer,” and in 2006, the final summer promotion was “Summer of Favorites.”  With the passing years, the summer blocks shifted from the classics of the 50s, 60s, and 70s to the more modern series recently added to Nick at Nite’s program library.

Individual programming blocks were not saved for just the summertime at Nick at Nite.  One of my family’s favorite lineups was the “Whole Lotta Lucy” block, which ran on Saturday nights starting in June of 1994 featuring “I Love Lucy,” “The Lucy Show,” and “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.”  From 1996 to 2001, the block changed to only show “I Love Lucy” and “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour,” which were basically 13 one-hour-long episodes that extended the stories of “I Love Lucy” after the original series ended.

In the mid-90s, another programming block titled “Very, Very Nick at Nite” centered around different themes each week to highlight four classic episodes of a particular show, such as “Very, Very Mary” for “Mary Tyler Moore Show” episodes or “Very, Very Jeanie” with “I Dream of Jeanie.”

On April 29, 1996, Viacom and Nickelodeon executives launched an entirely new network called “TV Land.”  Originally called “Nick at Nite’s TV Land” to ensure viewers just exactly what they’d be getting, the channel launched with an episode of “Love, American Style” titled “Love and the Happy Days.”  This episode was selected because it was also used later in 1974 as the pilot for “Happy Days.”  The network’s original lineup consisted of shows like That Girl, Gunsmoke, The Addams Family, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, and Hogan’s Heroes.  By February of 1999, TV Land was the 10th highest watched cable network in the country and was the new home for “classic” TV.

Nick at Nite certainly changed throughout the years.  The network that initially aired classics from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s had begun to show “classics” from the mid to late 1990s.  By the end of 2010, the shows on the “classic TV channel” were only a few years old.  Many Nick at Nite fans who were in love with the network during its early years haven’t tuned in for over 10 or 15 years.

The network that once aired classics like “Taxi,” “F Troop,” and “WKRP” had switched to syndicated shows like “Wings,” Home Improvement,” and “The Fresh Prince of BelAir” by the turn of the century.  In 2020, Nick at Nite currently airs content that recently ended or is still even being produced, like “The Goldbergs,” “Mom,” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”  No offense is meant towards these newer shows; I very much enjoy “Wings” and “The Goldbergs,” but they don’t hold a candle to “I Love Lucy” or “Happy Days.”  We all understand that nothing can stay the same forever. Still, there were some significant events over the years that pushed the network away from its original mission, and each time loyal viewers lost interest.

In March 2004, Neilsen split Nick at Nite and Nickelodeon’s rating reports for the first time, due to the different programming, advertisers, and target audiences.  Based on the “drop” in Nick at Nite ratings, advertising rates fell, and the programming began to change in response. The “classic” television programming started to change a few years earlier, but this was pretty much the death knell for what we all had grown up with.

In 2006, Nick at Nite’s logo was changed from blue to orange to blend better with Nickelodeon. Further changing the logo and adding a visual end to its independence, in 2007, the network changed its logo to match the famous Nickelodeon “splat” logo.  While still keeping the iconic half-moon, the splat effect was added, which integrated Nickelodeon branding on Nick at Nite for the first time since 1985.

Also, in 2007, Nick At Nite once again began airing movies for the first time since 1989 under the original name “The Nick at Nite Movie.” Films were shown on Tuesday nights and were more modern Nickelodeon productions for a younger crowd like “Good Burger,” “The Rugrats Movie,” “The Spongebob SquarePants Movie,” and other family-friendly cartoons and films.  In recent years, the Nick at Nite Movie has moved to weekends and shows heavily edited versions of cult favorites like “The Back to the Future,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Pretty in Pink,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” and “The Ghostbusters.”

In July of 2009, Nick at Nite extended the end of its programming hours to 7am.  It would continue to begin each evening at 8pm except Fridays now began at 9pm.  Saturday’s had already shifted to a 10pm start years earlier due to the popular Saturday primetime lineup “SNICK.”

The following year Nick at Nite once again overhauled its on-air appearance as part of Nickelodeon’s rebranding effort.  A new logo, based on Nick’s latest version, stylized the name to “nick@nite” (a single word in lowercase orange letters).  At this same time, they ceased airing the closing credits for any shows without ‘tag scenes.’  Nick at Nite had begun showing more recent syndicated sitcoms like “The George Lopez Show” or “Everybody Hates Chris,” and along with this rebranding, they reintroduced older content like Full House and Family Matters to bring back any previously lost viewers.

In May of 2011, Nick at Nite began scheduling programs from the 11pm to 6am window in an “off the clock” format.  The network would air extended commercial breaks, sometimes ten minutes in length, allowing for the show to overrun the standard half-hour timeslot.  This “format” was originated by sister network TV Land in 2010 and has since been used by other Viacom networks like MTV, BET, and Spike/Paramount.  This format results in the gain of an additional half-hour of paid advertising while having to air one less half-hour show at a financial benefit for the network.

Further blurring the line between the two “networks,” Nick at Nite soon began airing Nickelodeon content for the first time.  Episodes of “All That” and “Kenan and Kel” debuted in June of 2012.   Two weeks later, the two were replaced with reruns of “Victorious,” before being replaced by Nick at Nite’s original teen drama “Hollywood Heights.”  “Hollywood Heights” eventually moved to the TeenNick channel halfway through it’s one and only season due to falling ratings.

In 2017, Nick at Nite began airing all-new episodes of Nashville on a one hour delay from CMT.  They also added “SpongeBob Squarepants” to the lineup, in a move that, as the ratings by demographic reflect, pushed out most of the older viewers of the network.

In 2019, Nick at Nite began simulcasting events from other networks that had nothing to do with classic television, such as the MTV Music Awards.  It seems that Nick at Nite is now a catch-all for any spillover needed by parent company ViacomCBS.

The management team for Nick at Nite once told the New York Times that the network’s second-largest audience was made up of young children.  Usually watching with their parents, these numbers increased considerably during the summer months for the trendy “Block Party Summer.”  When questioned why children raised on such cinematic special effects like in “Jurassic Park” find black and white sitcoms of the 50s so entertaining, Nick at Nite officials had a quick response.  Diane Robina, Senior VP of Programming, said, “Research shows that children love watching Nick at Nite because they feel safe and comfy… No one ever gets old on Nick at Nite.  No one ever gets hurt.  Children write us letters to Lucy and Samantha on Bewitched, blissfully unaware the actresses are dead.”

There was a timeless quality to these old sitcoms that is lacking today.  Bewitched and Brady Bunch, for example, were made during the political unrest of the Vietnam era, but purposefully chose to not mention political issues, so that viewers had a chance to have a peaceful escape from reality.  The New York Times mentions (about the 90s) “…mid-east tensions and the Gulf War, rising divorce rates and drug use, the prevalence of sex and violence on television lead children of today to seek a happy escape …on Nick at Nite.”

Here in 2020, everything has turned political. When one cannot escape a corporation, celebrity, or “friend” on social media pushing an unrequested political opinion in your face, it would certainly be nice to go back to a time where we could escape for a while.  Perhaps that’s why nostalgia is so big these days.

In my personal opinion, the demise of Nick at Nite is another example of something that starts out just so very creative with a niche audience but eventually gets homogenized into what is cheap, easy, safe, and thereby boring in an attempt to reach a wider audience.  The eventual shift away from classic television at Nick at Nite has led to the creation of competitor networks that classic TV fans still tune into today. You can find the oldies on Antenna, MeTV, specific dayparts on The Hallmark Channel, and countless streaming networks that still offer the timeless classics of yesteryear.

Happy 35th Anniversary, Nick at Nite

While you aren’t the same as you once were, we’ll always have the memories.

About Jeff Sheldon 12 Articles
Born in the 80's. Child of the 90's. I fly people places for a living and enjoy discussing the good old days of yester-year.