Children Of The '90s Nostalgic Over TV

Nickelodeon just announced its fall programming will include blocks of shows originally aired in the mid-1990s — everything from Rugrats to Pete and Pete. The network's effort appears to target a generation that may be the last to tie its childhood to television.

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So if you ever watch late-night television, you may have noticed something about the shows playing on those classic TV channels. On Nick at Nite, for instance, you used to be able to catch old shows like "The Brady Bunch." But starting this fall, Nickelodeon's late-night lineup will feature television so recent, most people over 25 haven't even heard of it.

Producer Brent Baughman reports on nostalgia for a time barely gone by.

BRENT BAUGHMAN: Hi, Dan.

Unidentified Woman #1: Hi, Dan.

BAUGHMAN: I'm Brent.

Here's a trick: Next time you meet someone born after - say, 1985, just mention Nickelodeon and the '90s. Instant conversation starter. That's because if you haven't done the math already, in the '90s, people now in their 20s were children - and arguably, the last generation to use television as their main cultural snorkel to the universe.

DAN MERICA: I specifically remember sitting in front of the TV...

Unidentified Woman #2: As close to the TV as I could.

MERICA: ...close enough that I could reach out and touch it.

BAUGHMAN: This very scientific panel of young people, by the way, is made up of a few interns here at NPR: Dan, Becky and Megan.

And you're how old?

MERICA: I am 22 years old.

Unidentified Woman #1: Twenty-three.

Unidentified Woman #2: I'm 21.

BAUGHMAN: They're all children of the 1990s.

Ms. CYMA ZARGHAMI (President, Nickelodeon): And kids' television, up until that point, was actually developed through an adult point of view, looking into a kid's world.

BAUGHMAN: That is Cyma Zarghami.

Ms. ZARGHAMI: The president of Nickelodeon.

BAUGHMAN: She's talking about shows like "Clarissa Explains It All."

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ZARGHAMI: The first show where a girl really spoke directly to camera about all the issues and comedy that goes with being a tween.

BAUGHMAN: Or "Pete & Pete."

Ms. ZARGHAMI: No, not a typo. A fabulously funny show, very quirky, about two brothers with the same name.

BAUGHMAN: And people in their 20s have a deep relationship with this kind of television. It's from their childhood. That's not unusual.

Ms. ZARGHAMI: In television, everything comes back approximately 20 years after it first existed. But I think this is the first time it's happened quite so young.

BAUGHMAN: And there could be reasons for that nostalgia. Children of the 1990s came of age in a time of constant war, economic anxiety, and a pretty depressing job market.

Professor ERIC KLINENBERG (Sociology; Director of Graduate Studies, New York University): Perhaps most importantly for this generation, it was a time before ubiquitous communication.

BUAGHMAN: Eric Klinenberg...

Prof. KLINENBERG: That's me.

BAUGHMAN: ...is a sociologist at New York University. And he says it seems significant that young people are nostalgic for a time barely 10 years ago.

Prof. KLINENBERG: I've been wondering whether it's possible that this is a generation that goes in front of the television and watches old shows precisely to get away from the media torrent.

BAUGHMAN: In other words, TV used to be part of the noise of modern life. But when you think about all the ways your attention is divided today...

Unidentified Woman #2: I have my radio that wakes me up...

STEVE INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Unidentified Woman #2: My smartphone that I check for email...

MERICA: Three email addresses.

Unidentified Woman #2: ...blogs on my Google Reader.

MERICA: A lot of news and politics.

Unidentified Woman #2: Listen to a podcast on the way to work.

Unidentified Woman #1: I don't have any sort of mp3 player.

BAUGHMAN: What do you do on your way to work?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MERICA: I check online; I answer emails.

Unidentified Woman #1: Four other email address...

BAUGHMAN: At the end of the day, compared to that, television almost feels like a relief.

MERICA: But I do think when I, you know, when I turn off my phone and turn off my computer and sit in front of the TV, I am very calm.

BAUGHMAN: It seems, in a weird way, that television is a way of shutting off the media. One paradox in all this is that new media led to Nickelodeon's programming decision in the first place. The network noticed huge enthusiasm for these older programs online. And which specific shows are broadcast will be voted on through social networks.

Ms. ZARGHAMI: We'll pick the - you know, four or five that we start with. But from then on in, we'll do it based on demand, and we'll have some fun with that.

BAUGHMAN: Nickelodeon is counting on the fact that people like 22-year-old Dan Merica will stay engaged with those shows. And he says he probably will because most people his age will.

MERICA: It's the fact that it's something we all relate to in a world that there's not many things that are so relatable.

BAUGHMAN: It's a connection when there are fewer ways to connect?

Ms. ZARGHAMI: Right. Yeah.

MERICA: Exactly. It's a connection when there's fewer ways to connect. Exactly.

BAUGHMAN: Isn't that kind of sad, in a way, though?

MERICA: I think so. I don't think it's a terrible thing.

BAUGHMAN: Again, Eric Klinenberg from New York University.

Prof. KLINENBERG: Perhaps the good news is that they're looking for a time when they can be by themselves and, you know, to let their mind wander and to develop some sense of themselves.

(Soundbite of music)

BAUGHMAN: Brent Baughman, NPR News.

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