By Elizabeth Jensen
Special to TelevisionWeek
News professionals spend an inordinate amount of time these days fretting about how to engage young people when it comes to the news. “Nick News” creator and host Linda Ellerbee has spent 15 years doing something about it.
The program, which started in 1991 as a way for kids channel Nickelodeon to explain the first war in the Gulf to its viewers has evolved into a weekly program that is in many ways the very model of how younger audiences say they want to get their news: through dialogue and interaction.
Often praised for not pandering or preaching to children, the program tackles serious topics, such as the ongoing refugee crisis in Darfur, that even some of the traditional news outlets have been criticized for underplaying.
It is successful because “It speaks to the way students like to learn now,” which is interactively, said Helen Soulé, the executive director of Cable in the Classroom. The format pioneered by “Nick News With Linda Ellerbee,” Ms. Soulé said, was “before its time.”
Ms. Ellerbee, 61, said in a recent interview that her goal has never been to create a nation of news junkies but to get the younger generation inspired to join in the dialogue. “It’s extremely important that kids have a choice,” she said. “Citizenship doesn’t start at age 18.” In her opinion, “It is the duty of every citizen to keep your mouth open. … This world is part of you. You can affect it.”
To those who object that children should be sheltered from the news and not exposed to the harsh realities of the world, Ms. Ellerbee said: “You’re the one living in the dream world, not the kids.” In her Cold War childhood, she said, with hydrogen bomb drills every Friday, “Even at age 10 it was fairly clear to me that getting under the desk was not going to protect us. But nobody spoke to me about my fears. I hope today that if kids are watching ‘Nick News’ they don’t feel alone or crazy.”
The show had its genesis at a frightening time for children, when then Nickelodeon President Geraldine Laybourne became worried that kids “couldn’t escape the noise” of the first Gulf war, which was getting wall-to-wall coverage elsewhere on TV, said Ms. Ellerbee. So Ms. Laybourne commissioned Lucky Duck Productions-owned by Ms. Ellerbee and her partner Rolfe Tessem-to come up with a show that would “explain war in age-appropriate terms and try to calm down their fears,” Ms. Ellerbee recalled.
A refugee from high-profile reporting and anchoring jobs at ABC News and NBC News, Ms. Ellerbee at that point had no experience in children’s television. “Because I didn’t know anything about producing for kids, writing for kids, I decided to treat them as if they had as much good sense as I did,” she said. The January 1991 program evolved into a series of specials, and from there in 1992 into a weekly show. Nick produces 10 to 12 new episodes each year, with repeat episodes filling out the weekly schedule.
The commercial-free program isn’t Nickelodeon’s most watched-about 946,000 viewers ages 2 and older on average for each of the three 2006 episodes so far-but it has been good for business. The channel “has a very strong pro-social philosophy, that what is good for kids is good for the core business,” said Jean Margaret Smith, Nickelodeon’s senior VP of public affairs. “Our goal is to provide kids with tools and information that they can use.”
Tackling Serious Topics
News needs to be a key part of the Nickelodeon mix, said Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon Television. Nick executives, she said, decided early on, “If we wanted to do right by kids and be responsive and pay attention to what’s important in their lives, then we needed to have a dialogue with kids about what is going on in their world, and we needed a dependable place to do it, a place to go when something came up,” rather than just dropping it in jarringly among the more “fun” programs.
“The problem kids have is hearing information in sound bites,” which they can’t process, Ms. Zarghami said. “What Linda wanted to do was tell stories, with a beginning, middle and end, and with a real, relatable component to it.”
The most serious, adult topics have found their way into “Nick News” over the years: AIDS, the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, even President Clinton’s impeachment.
The Clinton program came about after Nickelodeon polled children and found they knew much more about the topic than their parents thought they did.
Ms. Ellerbee was the sole TV journalist-reporting for adults or children-to be chosen to receive a prestigious Peabody Award for her Clinton coverage.
“They were impeaching the president of the United States, so we decided we couldn’t ignore the story,” Ms. Ellerbee said. “But that also meant we had to deal with the issues,” including the president’s extramarital sexual relationship. That turned out to be easier than first thought, she said: The show simply reported that the president had had an “inappropriate” relationship.
The word, she said, is “code for kids these days, as in, ‘You have a right not to be touched in an inappropriate manner.'” The program spent most of its time on whether it was ever appropriate for a president to lie.
While “Nick News” has generated plenty of feedback and criticism, the biggest controversy took place in 2003, when a show dealing with having respect for children with gay parents became a target of some conservative Christians.
The network received some 300,000 e-mails and what Ms. Ellerbee called “a great deal of pressure” not to televise the show. Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, who had been interviewed in advance for the show, came out and argued against televising it. Nickelodeon held firm. “Nobody is going to tell me I don’t have a right to talk to kids about respecting other kids,” Ms. Ellerbee said.
Her philosophy, she said, is, “If you get about an equal amount of hate mail from both sides, you’ve got it about right. … You can’t write and talk for any specific group.”
An Open Forum
In her 15 years doing the show, kids have changed-most notably in how much personalized technology surrounds and occupies them. “Nick News” has dealt often with media literacy issues, including a December 2005 show called “Ten Things Wrong With Television.”
The producers vary the topics, from politics to adventure travel in foreign lands to issues such as obesity and physical differences. The kids are recruited through schools, parent-teacher groups and community organizations. Most haven’t been on television before. “We’ll say, ‘We’re looking for kids interested in this subject. We don’t care what their opinions are as long as they want to tell us,'” Ms. Ellerbee said.
Each taping takes about 90 minutes, as the producers play taped reports for the kids to see and react to. Producers stress that “It’s not a classroom, it’s a conversation. If you have questions, ask them,” Ms. Ellerbee said. Most important, she said, “We tell them, ‘You will never look like a fool. … What they need to know is they are in a totally safe place. There is no right or wrong answer, and they can’t get hurt sitting on that set.”
Some highlights of the past 15 years of “Nick News With Linda Ellerbee” will be presented in a retrospective that premieres May 28. In the coming year, the show will go on a roundup out West and will look at media literacy and the Internet. Ms. Ellerbee is particularly excited about an episode using the midterm elections as a way into a discussion about the tone of public discourse in America.
“I’m just concerned that the level of discourse has sunk so low these days,” she said. So the program will explore, “How are we going to deal with one another, especially when we disagree?”
A paperback version of Ms. Ellerbee’s latest book, Take Big Bites: Adventures Across the World and Around the Table,” was just released and she is writing her first novel, a my
stery involving a 35-year-old former public radio contributor. She said she has turned down other opportunities in favor of continuing to do “Nick News” and plans to stay there for the foreseeable future.
“I’m the luckiest journalist in television and I am well aware of it,” she said. “For 15 years I have been forced to see the world through younger eyes and reassess all my assumptions on a regular basis.”