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How Nickelodeon Educated a Generation of Kids About AIDS During the 1990s

The same network that brought kids "Pete and Pete" and "Doug" ran a special featuring Magic Johnson that was one of the era's most compassionate, forward-thinking pieces of TV.

by Mike Pearl
Oct 14 2015, 4:00am

Millennials born in the early 80s have the AIDS crisis mixed in with the rest of our childhood nostalgia. We get this weird crossed-wiring effect where flipped-up cycling caps and neon-colored T-shirts mingle with memories of TV news stories about young artists dying in the prime of their lives.

We're also a little bit of a nostalgia donut hole. We were kids with one foot squarely in the analog past, and one in the mysterious digital future. We piloted giant computers that blooped like R2D2 to the dangerous, frontier internet via some weird thing called Prodigy rather than AOL. Our cutting-edge video games included the ones rendered in that hideous blocky 3D, and jarring live-action cut scenes that no one wants to remember, and for good reason.

But we had flawless children's TV.

Nickelodeon had gone through some growing pains on its ascent to Kids TV supremacy in the late 80s and early 90s. In 1980, when a former teacher named Geraldine Laybourne began working at the network as a program manager, the programming and branding were off the mark, and probably relied too much on mimes. "My son hid his Nickelodeon hat and told people that I was a housewife it was so bad," Laybourne told me.

But when she took the helm as network president in 1984, she began to rapidly change things. The era overseen by Laybourne, sometimes called Nickelodeon's "Golden Age," is remembered for the Saturday night SNICK block of programming, the so called "Nicktoons" such as Doug and Rugrats, and the beautiful weirdness of Pete and Pete. But it was also a full-service information center for kids' lives. Laybourne and other executives created a TV ecosystem with it's own outlook on the world: mostly fun and messy, but also well-informed. "Our goal was to give useful stuff to kids," she said.

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Linda Ellerbee, who has hosted Nick News for decades since it debuted in 1991, put it more bluntly: "Don't lie to them," she said. Where other networks might try to keep things positive all the time, Nickelodeon would point its cameras into the darkness, and find a kid-centric take. "Wherever you find bad things happening in the world, you also find good people trying to make it better," Ellerbee explained.

Nickelodeon had a minor competitor in the Disney Channel, but those choosing the programming there at the time had a gentle approach that contrasted sharply with the attitude at Nick in both its rebelliousness and its guiding principle of civic responsibility.

So in the lead-up to an election, there would be serious policy discussions on Nickelodeon, dealing with issues like the environment, crime, and the war on drugs. During SNICK, the musical sketch comedy show Roundhouse devoted an entire episode to gang violence.

For me, the most vivid example of this ethos was an interstitial documentary on the painter Keith Haring, that came along in the early 90s, playing countless times during commercial breaks between programs. It gave glimpses of Haring's murals and sculptures from 1990 and later. It skipped things like Haring's 1989 gay sex mural, but it didn't obscure the facts of Haring's death, even if it did, as Ellerbee said, find a way to inject optimism into the truth.

It closed with the line "Keith Haring did affect the whole world, because before he died of AIDS in 1990, he showed the world that art isn't just for adults. It's for everybody, especially kids."

Screencap courtesy of Nickelodeon / Viacom

"People were getting born with AIDS and being isolated, and it was an increasingly important topic to know about," Laybourne said.

At the time, I didn't know or understand what my biases were about AIDS, but I had previously thought of AIDS as something that killed people who were somehow sinister. I didn't know the name Keith Haring before I saw that short, but I knew and loved his work, and when he spoke, he looked kind and earnest. So through the repetition of that Keith Haring segment, I learned that AIDS killed people not unlike myself.

Whether because of, or in spite of, that kind of frankness, Nickelodeon was peerless when it came to afternoon and evening programming for school-aged kids, until the Disney Channel and Cartoon Network clawed their way to a little bit of market share in the late 90s. During her time there however, Laybourne said the network's dominance was unchallenged, and that she "only watched what the competition was doing so we would do the opposite."

And it paid off. According to Laybourne, Nickelodeon was seeing annual growth of 20 to 30 percent a year, and had 56 percent of all kids TV viewership by the end of her tenure. It also had an incredible 40 percent profit margin, she told me, partly thanks to staggeringly profitable and cheap-to-produce game shows like Double Dare. "There was one phase where we started doing too many game shows," she admitted.

So was the occasional issues-focused bit of programming some kind of soul-saving gesture, aimed at offsetting the company's unapologetic capitalism? Laybourne balked at the suggestion "Everybody thought we just did that for political reasons, or to be a good guy? It got good ratings. It was good stories. Kids wanted to know what was happening in Northern Ireland."

"We were pretty good at figuring out our audience. What was [parent company] Viacom going to complain about?" Laybourne asked. Seemingly with that in mind, they launched a potentially controversial project.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson shocked the country—particularly Lakers fans—when he announced his HIV diagnosis in 1991. At some point in 1992, according to Laybourne, he voiced his desire to educate kids about the virus. Ellerbee recalls Laybourne saying to her, "If he wants to educate kids, Nickelodeon is the place. Let's get him to come and sit down with a group of kids and talk about this. He will never find a better place to educate kids than our network."

Around that time, ABC News had aired a town hall-style AIDS special called "Growing Up In The Age Of AIDS," mostly about getting adults to talk to their high school-aged kids about condoms. Nickelodeon wanted something a little more intimate, focusing on everyday life with the disease.

But they were still a kids' network, so it did seem necessary to batten down the hatches and prepare for a shitstorm. "I had a consultant come in and train 100 Nickelodeon staffers to man the phones. They trained them in how to deal with angry people," Laybourne said.

Nick News booked Magic Johnson, and they also booked a bunch of kids, some of whom were HIV-positive. "We did not tell anybody on that set who was and who wasn't. Nobody but me knew, not even Magic," Ellerbee said. The plan was to stick them all in a small room together and get them talking. Ellerbee would host.

I watched it when it aired. The clothes were bright, and at first everyone was smiling, and they applauded when Magic came onto the set, but the subject of their conversation was a terminal illness. In 1992, powerful, life-extending antiretroviral meds didn't exist yet, and Johnson, along with anyone HIV-positive, was still staring death in the face.

Few people knew at the time, but Ellerbee was staring death in the face too. She'd recently been hospitalized with breast cancer, a fact she would later disclose when it wouldn't seem like hogging the spotlight.

"I asked everybody who was sitting on that set who was HIV-positive to raise their hands," Ellerbee said. "Astoundingly enough, the kids on that set who were HIV-positive raised their hands. Magic Johnson did not."

"I guess it's some kind of denial," Laybourne guessed.

In any case, the younger of the kids with HIV, Hydeia Broadbent, broke down crying. It was a display of raw emotion that could have derailed the whole show. For Laybourne, what happened next was just great TV. "He just rose to the occasion, with so much humanity. It was fantastic."

"He took her in his arms, and said 'You just want to have people sleep over at your house, right? You just want people to be your friends,'" Laybourne recalled.

"Aw, you don't have to cry," Johnson told Broadbent, "because we are normal people. OK? We are."

"That's when the show became something more than a television show," Ellerbee said. "That child erased the screen between her and the viewer." Indeed, TV reviewers at the time wanted to "reach out and hug her." (You might be relieved to know that Broadbent is still alive and working in AIDS advocacy.)

"And from that point on nobody could ever say again that they didn't know someone who was HIV-positive," Ellerbee said.

But the Nickelodeon special included some of the same medical information as the ABC special, which had been intended for an older crowd. In fact, it was even more detailed. "I remember sitting on that set and rolling a condom down two of my fingers and saying 'This is a condom; the man puts it over his penis before he puts his penis in the woman's vagina, and this is what constitutes safe sex,'" recalled Ellerbee, adding, "I can't believe we were allowed to do that. It's just that no one stopped us."

But was it really all that weird to tell kids how you can get HIV, and how you can't? Was it seen as offensive to acknowledge on a kids' TV network that Johnson contracted the virus during sex? Apparently not. Operators were standing by to deal with any complaints from America's pearl-clutchers. "We got, I think 99 calls that were positive, and one call from somebody who hadn't seen it but thought it was outrageous," Laybourne said.

After the special, called A Conversation with Magic aired, it circulated in clips and in its entirety on other TV shows. The executive producer of Nightline called Nickelodeon the day it premiered, and asked to just run it in place of that night's episode of Nightline. "Ted Koppel introduced it by saying, 'A remarkable piece of television happened today, and we've got permission to show it to you,'" Ellerbee recalled.

Still, the special didn't somehow make AIDS a popular topic for kids' TV. Why would it? "News that is news every day eventually stops being news and becomes fact," Ellerbee is fond of saying.

The issue itself didn't disappear, but the news topic largely did, and today people get wackier ideas than ever about how a person gets HIV, as we saw recently when people thought a story about Eazy E getting deliberately infected during an acupuncture session was somehow more of a plausible theory than his history of promiscuous sex in the late 80s and early 90s.

For my part, my uncle's partner died of AIDS four years after the special aired. It's hard to say what role Nickelodeon played in my reaction to his declining health, but I know his diagnosis never alienated me from him, and I'm certain I was never afraid of him. When I try to recall where I learned to respond that way, the only place that comes to mind is Nickelodeon.

As for introducing other, newer serious topics to kids on networks like Nickelodeon, Laybourne sounded pessimistic. In her day, she said, "our goal was to raise better citizens, and to introduce kids to lots of different things, and we never got stuck repeating ourselves."

In other words, Laybourne seems to be suggesting that 90s Nickelodeon's juggernaut status cleared the way for risk-taking. From its high point of 56 percent, Nickelodeon's market share is down, and expected to be around 37 percent by 2017.

"The problem with children's television today," she opined, "is that everybody's looking over their shoulder to see what the competition is doing."

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