Rugrats A Bundle Of Joy For Nickelodeon

by Mike Antonucci, Knight-Ridder Newspapers

(Originally published in the San Jose Mercury-News and copyright (c) 1998 Knight-Ridder Newspapers. Source: rec.arts.animation newsgroup.)

So much for secrecy. the movie is still six months away, but once the marketing engines started to fire, there was no keeping the entire plot under wraps. The way it's going now - curse that Internet! - every element of surprise will be destroyed.

No, this isn't about the script for the next "Star Trek" film (Capt. Kirk is still dead, folks). It's about another kind of TV-spawned obsession that's headed for the big screen.

It's about - no kidding - "Rugrats".

A Nickelodeon cable network cartoon that made its debut in 1991, "Rugrats" has evolved into one of the entertainment world's flagship properties: a  sophisticated-but-adorable, absurd-but-sincere comedy that's almost as addictive for adults as children.

Perhaps the ultimate testimonial is that its appeal stretches all the way to teen-age boys! "It' pretty much the only show of its kind," says John Lucas, a 14-year-old Alameda, CA, resident who watches with his 3- and 9-year-old sisters.

The plainly drawn star is Tommy Pickles, a diapered 1-year-old with a lumpy head. but the breakout character may be his cousin Angelica, a 3-year-old (sic) terror. Flesh-and-blood adults have begun throwing stern looks at kids and saying, "Don't be like that bad Angelica".

Tommy is part of a pack of babies who speak to the viewers and each other with impossible fluency, basically offering a running commentary on how life looks when you're staring up from the rug. They crawl and toddle about with a nutty lack of supervision from their loving parents, who think they're just normal babies.

"Rugrats" Is Big

After a relatively humble start, "Rugrats" has become a Nielsen ratings powerhouse, an ad-revenue magnet and one of the hottest forces in merchandising. Even if you know that "Rugrats" is big, you may not appreciate how big.

Thanks in part to the momentum of "Rugrats", Nickelodeon has reshaped the style and economics of children's TV and cable TV. "Rugrats" has filled an early evening programming vacuum for families. It has become a symbol of creative independence for animators, and it can seem as slyly relevant to baby-boomer parents as any other depiction of their lives.

Some people in the public TV fraternity cringe at hearing Nickelodeon credited like that. They view the network as far more mercenary than its image, and they disdain "Rugrats" as mere brain candy compared to their educational children's shows.

Problem is, Nickelodeon and "Rugrats" represent a standard-setting success: no objectionable violence, original concepts and huge profits.

It's hard to argue with those credentials or the collaborations they've inspired. Last month, for instance, Nickelodeon announced plans to launch an all-educational cable network in partnership with Children's TelevisionWorkshop, the company that produces "Sesame Street" for PBS. (This channel, set for release in 1999, will be called "Noggin", and will be part of a set of 3 new Nickelodeon-related channels. -- SM)

One way or the other, either socially or financially, what Nickelodeon touches, Nickelodeon enriches. the same goes for "Rugrats", a one-time cult hit that has seized the general American consciousness.

Nowadays, of course, Americans are constantly under siege from one well-marketed "phenomenon" or another. From "The X-Files" to Beanie Babies, from the Tamagotchi to "South Park", it's always something.

Top-Rated Show

Nickelodeon is cable's highest-rated channel on a 24-hour basis, and its top show is "Rugrats", which gets audiences unmatched by any other children's show on commercial or public TV. "Rugrats" episodes are being shown 14 times a week, and an average of more than 2 million children ages 2-11 are watching every time.

Week in and week out, the only regularly scheduled cable shows with better ratings are pro wrestling and "South Park", the crude but side-splitting cartoon on Comedy Central. "Rugrats", which is broadcast in 70 countries, sometimes accounts for three or four of a week's top 10 cable shows.

"Rugrats" merchandise is everywhere, and that may be a bigger measure of  popularity than ratings. Liking a show is one thing. Liking it enough to want the "Rugrats" pet feeding dish is another.

This spring has brought "Rugrats" displays to virtually every retail chain that sells books, toys or videos, yet they're still only a prologue to the movie tie-ins coming in the fall. It doesn't even matter that the film's basic plot has been divulged as part of the marketing. That's just minor collateral damage in the competition against other T-shirts, caps and posters.

The overall effect is to make "Rugrats" almost more prominent as a brand than a show. That is the objective, but it raises tricky image issues as the "Rugrats" characters are used to push bubble gum, fast food and key chains.

Nickelodeon bills itself as having only a secondary interest in product spinoffs, and "Rugrats" is trumpeted as a model of pure programming. It went on the air, say company executives, solely for its value as story-based entertainment, not as an extension of a toy line in the tradition of, say, "X-Men" or the ongoing variations of "Power Rangers".

Can Nickelodeon still defend that moral high ground while making the "Rugrats" a mega-commodity?

"Yes," says Ann Sarnoff, the network's executive vice president for consumer products.

"We're highly selective about the properties we license, but we're also offering choices. We take responsibility for finding high-quality, creative partners, and parents have a responsibility to decide what's good for their kids."

An elaborate stage musical, "Rugrats - a Live Adventure," will tour more than 100 U.S. cities, then be adapted for international audiences. It sold out 24 shows at Radio City Music Hall in new York, and it's projected to reach San Jose in September or October, with stops in other Bay Area cities as well.

A daily "Rugrats" comic strip made its debut last month in close to 100 newspapers.

And Now, the Movie

Beyond all the above, there's "The Rugrats Movie". It's scheduled to open November 25, and it's getting some of the same obsessive buzz on the Internet that's associated with topics such as "Star Wars" or "Godzilla".

(Edited out by the newsgroup poster is the description of the movie, which is described here.  For a description, click here to go back to the movie page. -- SM)

The official buildup will include new TV episodes that start in August, leading to one that sets up the movie.

(Edited out by the poster, "The Family Tree" will be the movie's prologue. -- SM)

Actors supplying guest-star voices for the film include Whoopie Goldberg, David Spade, Tim Curry and Busta Rhymes. Music is coming from - and these are just some of the names - Rhymes, Beck, Jakob Dylan, Iggy Pop, and Lisa Loeb.

More is going on than making Nickelodeon a player in feature-length animation.The reality-based nature of "Rugrats" offers a distinct contrast to the customary mythic-fantasy genre ( "Anastasia", "Quest for Camelot", "Hercules", etc. ) This gives Nickelodeon another chance to redefine kids entertainment, at a time when the network is reveling in a sense of momentum.

"Parents have always trusted Nickelodeon," say Cyma Zarghami, the network's executive vice president and general manager. "We made promises to be a great place and a safe place to watch TV. So, on behalf of their kids, they relied on us."

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