By Natalie Finn
Special to TelevisionWeek
For most networks, going dark for three hours in the middle of the day is not a hallmark of either international success or pervasive influence. Then again, most networks aren’t encouraging viewers to turn off the television, either.
But most networks aren’t Nickelodeon, which will hold its third consecutive World Wide Day of Play Sept. 30. The network will go off the air from noon until 3 p.m. Eastern/Pacific as part of its Let’s Just Play campaign, which, in partnership with the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation’s Alliance for a Healthier Generation initiative, encourages children and families to lead healthy, active lifestyles. The 4-year-old program has awarded nearly $2 million to more than 320 schools and organizations since 2004.
Nickelodeon has invested approximately $30 million in the campaign through on-air messaging, direct financial grants to communities and grass-roots Let’s Just Play activities around the world.
Last year Nickelodeon sent network talent to visit children in Baton Rouge, La., Mobile, Ala., and other areas affected by Hurricane Katrina. This year 40 kids who partnered with teachers or other leaders in their communities to enter the Let’s Just Play Giveaway on Nickelodeon.com, in which they explained why playing is important and what their schools or community centers needed to be a better place to play, received $5,000 each.
“For us it goes beyond the quality programming on-air and online,” said Marva Smalls, executive VP of public affairs and chief of staff for Nickelodeon/MTVN Kids & Family Group. “It’s also about what we leave kids with when the TVs and computers are turned off.”
Through focus groups and other ongoing research, she said, “We’ve learned that when empowered with information, kids can be a catalyst for constructive change in their own right.”
Nickelodeon’s dedication to getting kids off the couch, even if it means canceling a highly rated hour of “SpongeBob SquarePants,” was just one item on a long list of qualifications that the Walter Kaitz Foundation considered this year in making its decision to honor MTV Networks with its 2006 Diversity Champion Award.
The Kaitz Foundation, which raises funds for the National Association for Multi-ethnicity in Communications, the Emma L. Bowen Foundation and Women in Cable & Telecommunications, considered a number of criteria in the areas of programming, recruitment and corporate outreach.
From former Chairman and CEO Tom Freston’s initial support of NAMIC’s Executive Leadership Development Program to MTVN’s implementation of an in-house Diversity Council in 2000 and its appointment of Billy Dexter in October as executive VP and its first-ever chief diversity officer, MTVN’s long-term commitment to multicultural entertainment, creating a diverse and inclusive work force and serving as a leader in the communities it touches made the Viacom-owned company a logical choice.
“MTV rose to the top,” said Michelle Ray, program director at the Kaitz Foundation. “Their commitment to diversity was so pervasive. It’s evidenced by what they show on the television screen and extends to the people behind the camera and the management within MTV.”
To complement its worldwide presence (upward of 120 channels in more than 170 countries), MTVN continues to tap into new demographics in the United States, with MTV World launching three new digital music hybrid channels in the last 14 months-MTV Desi, directed at South Asian Americans, in July 2005; MTV Chi, targeted at Chinese Americans, in December; and MTV K, for Korean Americans, in June. MTV en Espa%F1;ol will relaunch as MTV TR3S later this year, directed at bilingual U.S. Hispanics ages 12-34.
MTV TR3S, which will feature bilingual VJs and both Spanish- and English-speaking artists, will “change the way young Latinos are served in this country,” MTV President Christina Norman said in April. Ms. Norman, who has been in her position since May 2005, was ranked the second-most-influential minority member in the cable industry last year by Cable World, behind only Time Warner Chairman and CEO Richard Parsons.
In terms of programming, a host of MTVN’s channels, from VH1 to Logo, could probably carry the Diversity Champion torch all by themselves. First of all, there are the music videos, which have an inherently diverse makeup and harbor both mass and niche audience appeal.
Then there’s the digital channel Noggin/The N, where shows such as “Degrassi: The Next Generation” and reruns of “My So-Called Life” and “Moesha” portray an eclectic assortment of teenage characters undergoing practically every coming-of-age moment and facing every crisis imaginable.
Comedy Central, where Dave Chappelle raged against what he thought of as the whitewashed industry machine, was the only multiple winner at the NAMIC Vision Awards ceremony in April, with “Mind of Mencia” and the talk show “Weekends at the D.L.” tying for best comedy honors.
MTV’s 24-hour college network, mtvU, won the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Governors Award last month for the channel’s Sudan Campaign-in conjunction with Amnesty International, the U.N. World Food Program, the International Crisis Group, Students Taking Action Now: Darfur, Save Darfur and the Genocide Intervention Network-which for the past two years has been mobilizing student involvement and educating viewers about the human rights crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region. mtvU is available in 750 colleges and universities across the United States.
And then there’s Nickelodeon, this country’s most-watched cable network, which also has set itself apart from the pack with its original programming and its involvement with a host of social causes.
The channel is available in 30 different languages in almost 300 million households around the globe, including 90 million in the United States, and has been honored with Emmy, NAMIC Vision, Imagen Foundation, NAACP Image, Parent’s Choice, American Latino Media Arts and Peabody awards for shows such as “Dora the Explorer,” “Little Bill,” “The Brothers Garcia” and the critically acclaimed “Nick News” series, all of which feature a diverse cast of characters or subjects and appeal to multicultural, multiethnic audiences.
“We don’t operate with a one-size-fits-all mentality,” Ms. Smalls said. “Rather, we pride ourselves on being global in reach but local and customizable in our approach to serving our audiences.”
In addition to their work with Let’s Just Play, Ms. Smalls and Nickelodeon also partnered with the Boys & Girls Club of America to spearhead The Big Help, an ongoing campaign that mobilizes kids to volunteer in their communities and sponsors larger projects on a grass-roots level. More than 40 million kids have pledged 400 million hours of service since the Peabody and Cable Ace Award-winning program took shape in 1994.
Another past recipient of the ATAS Governor’s Award was MTV’s “Fight for Your Rights: Take a Stand Against Violence” campaign, one in a series of multimedia initiatives championed by MTVN Chairman and CEO Judy McGrath that the network has implemented over the years to educate its adolescent and young adult viewership, and also one of the pro-social programs highlighted by the Kaitz Foundation. “Take a Stand Against Discrimination” and the Peabody- and National Emmy Award-winning AIDS awareness campaign “Protect Yourself” also utilized channel-specific programming (the MTV Video Music Awards and MTV Movie Awards, “MTV News”) as well as MTV’s Internet presence, celebrity connections and advertising resources to get the word out.
Since 1997, MTV has also partnered with the Kaiser Family Foundation to produce more than two dozen long-form documentaries on HIV/AIDS prevention, sex education, sexual politics and STD prevention and more than 50 public service announcements.
“Diversity has to be an ongoing, integral part of the leadership and business goals, not a one-off and not a sidebar,” Ms. Smalls said. “We have to reflect the audiences we serve in how we look and how we act. We have to be credible and r
elevant on a global scale.”