Has anyone else been following the drama unfolding over Nick Jr.’s new NickMom programming lineup this fall? I am not a mom, and thus not the target audience for either of the channel’s primary offerings (preschooler-targeted fare during the day, mom-targeted fare at night), but found myself captivated by the kerfuffle surrounding the programming switch. I find it a beautiful example of what happens when a niche cable channel pursues a new opportunity that fits with its brand, but ends up missing the mark with a core segment of its audience. If the hallmark of the post-network era is increased narrowcasting, diversifying a brand now seems to be met with more resistance than glee, and the discourse that has arisen around NickMom highlights contemporary views on motherhood and its televisual representation.
The backstory: Nickelodeon subsidiary Nick Jr. has historically aired preschooler-friendly programming 24 hours a day. In October of this year, the folks at Nickelodeon decided to branch out a bit by turning over their overnight (10pm-2am Eastern) programming to a new block, called NickMom (tagline: “motherfunny.”) The new block features four series: What Was Carol Brady Thinking? (in which episodes of The Brady Bunch are overlaid with pop-ups indicating what Carol was really thinking–see image at right for an example), reality series Mom Friends Forever, comedy talk show Parental Discretion with Stefanie Wilder-Taylor, and stand-up comedy showcase NickMom Night Out. (Blogger Joyce Slaton offers a useful overview of the series here.)
Though the series are technically different, they all share a trademark sense of humor about 21st Century motherhood: kids are great, but they’re also a pain in the butt, so when they go to bed, have a glass of wine and laugh over the ridiculousness of raising kids in our modern times. This bump, aired as the channel switches from its preschooler content to NickMom demonstrates the way Nick Jr. conceives of the connection between these two program types, and the approach to motherhood NickMom has adopted.
Nickelodeon’s strategy here is clear: turn a slow daypart into a moneymaker by appealing to the folks who are already likely to be tuning into the channel. Once the kids go to bed, demand for preschooler programming goes down, but parents may already have the TV tuned to Nick Jr.–why not give them some “adult” programming to enjoy?
But NickMom has been met with quite a bit of resistance from audiences whose complaints illustrate the perhaps unanticipated flaws in such an institutional strategy, along with the current national sentiment on representing motherhood. The lineup has led to the creation of the Cancel NickMom movement, a group of parents committed to achieving one of two goals: getting Viacom to cancel the offending programming or move it to another channel. Their primary complaint is the unsuitability of NickMom series on a channel otherwise aimed at a preschool audience, highlighting audiences’ expectations for niche cable channels.
Parents have come to rely on Nick Jr.’s 24-hour cycle of kid programming for a variety of reasons: sick kids awake in the middle of the night, 2nd and 3rd shift parents whose families are on a late-night schedule, families in the Pacific time zone for whom this content is on not at 10pm but 7pm, and so on. Because NickMom shows are targeted to adults, their more grown-up themes (including sex, alcohol, and adult language) frustrate parents who previously viewed Nick Jr. as an ever-ready tool in their parenting arsenal. One parent, quoted on the CancelNickMom.com homepage, notes, “Why have you put garbage such as NickMom on a PRESCHOOL channel??? Sometimes, I do allow my child to stay up past 10 pm, and sometimes, she does wake up in the middle of the night. Used to, I was able to let her watch nickjr [sic] until she went back to sleep. Nick jr [sic] is the biggest reason I have kept the satellite plan I have. But if I have to tolerate this nonsense, she won’t be watching the channel at all.”
It would be easy to dismiss CancelNickMom as a small but vocal minority–indeed, many of the comments on their Facebook feed indicate that parents who dislike NickMom should simply switch the channel–but ultimately the programming block has not performed well for Nick Jr. The Wall Street Journal reports that ratings for the time period have decreased 74% from the same timeslot in 2011. Moreover, the movement has inspired several advertisers, including kid-friendly companies who should be Nick Jr.’s bread and butter (Green Giant, Cheerios, and Fisher-Price), to withdraw from the channel. Perhaps the increasingly dramatic narrowcasting strategies that are the hallmark of the post-network era have reached a point of no return when those extreme niche channels can no longer diversify.
Of course, this particular drama centers around two hot-button topics: kid-appropriate content and representations of motherhood. Though most of the complaints from parents center around the unsuitability of NickMom programming for the preschoolers who may be watching, media critiques of the NickMom block suggest that the real problem is the way the series portray modern motherhood. The New York Times‘ Neil Genzlinger calls the block, “a collection of shows both aggressively lowbrow and narrowly focused on a few areas of interest to the female audience, namely sex and children.” Indeed, as the promo below indicates, these topics do seem to form the bulk of the lineup.
Though the New York Times critique offers a perspective on audiences which is a bit too “passive sponge-like” for me, suggesting, “repeated exposure to NickMom’s two-note material will quickly turn otherwise smart women into zombies who can talk of nothing but sex and the mundanities of child-rearing,” the argument that the NickMom representation of motherhood focuses too narrowly on jokes about potty training, sex, and chardonnay is one expressed elsewhere, also. Slate‘s Jessica Grose had a similar reaction to Genzlinger’s piece, and so completed her own review. In her more nuanced critique, Grose indicates that her favorite series, Parental Discretion, stood out because, “That one half-hour of goodness nestled in hours of mediocrity made me realize what’s the matter with NickMom’s other shows. What worked about the nanny hidden camera was that, while of course embracing mommy culture simply by being a part of the NickMom block, it was also pointed criticism of the absurdity of it all, rather than bland, soppy reassurance that whatever you’re doing is just great because you’re part of that exalted category of human known as MOM. It’s the hardest job on earth, didn’t you know?”
Ultimately, the drama surrounding NickMom provides a wonderful case study of both institutional strategies in the post-network era and the ambivalence surrounding contemporary representations of motherhood. I, for one, will continue to watch the news surrounding the lineup, even if I rarely watch the lineup itself.