News is typically the last thing kids wants to see on TV, which is why a channel like Nickelodeon has been so successful as a safe haven from the boring and scary world of grown-up shows. But one of the longest-running programs on the network — a show that predates SpongeBob SquarePants, has outlived Rugrats, and has lasted more than two decades — isn't a cartoon, it's a show about news: Nick News with Linda Ellerbee.
And, yes, it's still on the air. And, yes, Linda Ellerbee still hosts.
"It's stunning to me it's still around," Ellerbee, 68, says. "[Nickelodeon] has understood and stood by us."
The program wasn't supposed to be anything more than a one-off special about the Gulf War, and it almost didn't happen. It was "an accident," Ellerbee says. In 1991, 24-hour cable television was still relatively new and consumer demand for coverage of the Gulf War was high. "The news of that short-lived war was everywhere. You couldn't escape it," Ellerbee says.
Several networks had done Gulf War specials for kids already, and Nickelodeon wanted its own. The network approached Ellerbee, whose résumé included Good Morning America and NBC News Overnight, to host. But she wasn't sure if she wanted to take Nickelodeon up on its offer. That night, however, she watched ABC's attempt at a Gulf War special for kids with Peter Jennings and made up her mind. "I think everybody in the country is aware that going to war has been hard on children, and I think it has confused children," Jennings told the Associated Press at the time.
But Ellerbee thought Jennings was confusing and scaring the kids even more. At one point in the program, he pulled out a gas mask. "He had a gas mask in his hand and he gave it to a kid!" Ellerbee says. "I knew what not to do." The kids of America were scared, and the grown-ups weren't making it any better. Linda Ellerbee had a job to do. She accepted Nickelodeon's offer.
Ellerbee grew up during the Cold War, and she remembered what it was like having duck-and-cover bomb drills every Friday in school. "Nobody talked to me about that. All I was left with was this awful fear of something I didn't understand."
Kids Talk About the Middle East aired on Nickelodeon on Jan. 1, 1991. It was filmed in a living-room set filled with kids wearing large name tags. A child psychologist was present. "Hi, I know this isn't what you're used to seeing on Nick, but this is a different kind of show. We're going to talk about the war," Ellerbee began. The program was mostly a discussion. Ellerbee asked the kids what they knew about the war and what they thought about it. And she had the kids point out New York City and Baghdad on a globe. "Rather than try to hide it from them, we should explain the news to kids," she says.
"Saddam Hussein does not have an airplane that can fly from there to here without stopping for refueling," she said during the show. "And the other countries of the world have said, 'We will not allow you to stop and refuel.'" There was no need for alarm, no need to try on gas masks. The kids of America could go to bed feeling safe that night.
About a year later, Nick News became a regular show, airing two times a month. To date, the program has won nine Emmys and three Peabodys, and in 2009, it became the first-ever kids' television program to win the Edward R. Murrow Award for best Network News Documentary. But not everyone liked the show. Today, a Facebook page called "I hated Nick News with Linda Ellerbee when I was a kid" has more than 81,000 "likes." The official page has 1,552. But at least people remember Nick News. "There were several kids' news shows that started that year, but we're the only ones still around," Ellerbee says.
That's an impressive feat, given how the competition has fared. The history of television news shows for children in the United States is "a history littered with failure," says Renne Hobbs, founding director of the Harrington School of Communication and Media at the University of Rhode Island, and who has studied children's media consumption. Hobbes says the support from Nickelodeon — which aggressively marketed the show to kids, parents, and educators — was key to the enduring success of Nick News "Kids don't consume news media," Hobbs says. "Kids get news incidentally. [Their] news media exposure is often coming through a human mediator."
Nick News had plenty of opportunities to explain scary — and controversial — things to kids over the years. It aired shows on war, guns, the Clinton sex scandal, and AIDS. Sometimes it did such a good job explaining these things for kids that the rest of the media took notice.
On Nov. 7, 1991, Magic Johnson announced he had AIDS. Ten minutes after his announcement, Nick News was on the phone and booked him for a show. Nick News approached the topic directly — kids asked Johnson questions, and Ellerbee showed them a condom. And then Ellerbee introduced two children infected with HIV, one of them 6-year-old Hydeia Broadbent. "Our shows are told through the voices of the people in them," Ellerbee says. The episode impressed ABC so much that the network called and asked if it could air the show in its entirety — and a few hours later, it was on Nightline.
A Nickelodeon representative wouldn't explicitly say that Nick News is its longest-running show, although no other program on the network has regularly been on the air for as many years. In press releases, it regularly refers to the show as the "longest-running kids' news show in television history."
That may be because Nick has slowly cut back on the program, raising the question of how much longer Nick will keep it around. The show doesn't air as frequently anymore — since the early 2000s, it's only been shown 10 times a year instead of twice a month. Last year, the original brick set for Nick News was replaced.
"I think the schedule of once a month is a graveyard," says Hobbs. "A show that isn't airing weekly can't attract an audience." Over the past two years, some episodes have attracted over 600,000 viewers, according to ratings. But some of Nickelodeon's most popular shows regularly get over 3 million viewers per showing.
Hobbs expects Nickelodeon will continue to hold on to Nick News for the time being, however. "I think it's a low-cost show that's connected to Nickelodeon's sense of identity," she says. "The fact it's the longest-running news show for kids, that's the only function it has for Nickelodeon. It's a throwaway so they can say they haven't lost their values." The slow decay of Nick News is a "tremendous loss," Hobbs says. "I don't think the show has had much of an impact on this [current] generation of kids."
Ellerbee seems hopeful about the future of Nick News, though. She says she's grateful for Nickelodeon's commitment to a show that will never get the ratings SpongeBob SquarePants does nor be able to be rerun like a cartoon can, and she hopes the show will go on after she retires.
"With the internet, it's not just 24-hour television, it's 24-hour everything," Ellerbee says. "[Nick News has] become more sophisticated because the kids have. We have to deal with the fact that it's not just schoolyard rumor, it's the internet."