NICK'S KNACK WITH KIDS Cable's Nickelodeon hopes to lure youngsters with lineup that's Saturday night lively


Chomp. chomp.

That's the sound of cable TV taking another bite out of the networks' hide, as Nickelodeon rolls out a prime-time lineup Saturday night aimed at kids and teens and anchored by two of the highest-rated shows anywhere on cable, "The Ren & Stimpy Show" and "Clarissa Explains It All."

"We're invading the broadcast networks' home turf," said Geraldine Laybourne, president of Nickelodeon. "We love challenging conventional network wisdom.

"Last year we challenged the wisdom that says kids won't watch animated characters that they aren't familiar with. . . . We created "Ren & Stimpy," and the kids love them. . . . Now we're out to expose the myth that there is no audience for kids and teen programming on Saturday nights."

The conventional wisdom at ABC, NBC and CBS has been that older viewers are the only ones available on Saturday night, because younger viewers went out. That's why for the last few seasons Saturday has been the night of shows like "Golden Girls" and "Empty Nest." While the traditional networks are introducing a few shows with younger appeal this fall, the emphasis is still clearly on older viewers.

"For years now, the networks have used Saturday nights to retire series or to program to 50-plus (viewers 50-years-of-age and older)," Laybourne said. "We know kids are there, and we plan to serve them."

Laybourne is talking market niche-talk: The strategy of highly focused programs targeted to specific groups defined by age, gender, race, education, religion or any of a number of other factors. It is the strategy that made cable and Fox so successful, and it is now being imitated to varying degrees by the traditional networks.

But, while the new Saturday night lineup is classic niche programming aimed at young viewers, it's most popular show, "Ren & Stimpy" has also found an audience of adults.

For those not familiar with "Ren & Stimpy," the first thing to know is that it's animated. It's a cartoon show created by John %J Kricfalusi, 36. It stars Ren Hoek, a bright but very high-strung Chihuahua that sounds like Peter Lorre, and his housemate, Stimpson J. Cat. Stimpy, who Kricfalusi himself calls an "idiot," is defined by such characteristics as loving the smell of kitty litter.

Which leads to the second thing it's important to know about the show: "Ren & Stimpy" can get a little gross. It oscillates between brilliant and gross, which is probably one of the reasons it is such a hit on college campuses where "Ren & Stimpy" fan clubs are starting to appear.

Kricfalusi said he doesn't mind adults calling it gross. "It's purely a kid's show," he said, "and that's why it has kid-type humor in it. That's why it's got boogers and stuff in it."

But some adults seem to love this brand of humor, too. About one-third of the series' audience, more than a million viewers, is between the ages of 18 and 35, according to Nickelodeon. Overall, the show has averaged about three times the audience of any other cartoon show on the network.

Laybourne said she believes that 'Ren & Stimpy" and the three other shows, which form the Saturday-night lineup Nickelodeon calls SNICK, will double the cable network's audience on Saturday night, adding as many as 650,000 to one million viewers.

While "Ren & Stimpy," which airs at 9 Saturday night, is SNICK's anchor, "Clarissa Explains It All" is the lead-off hitter that the network is counting on to bring in viewers at 8 p.m.

"Clarissa" is a sitcom starring Melissa Joan Hart in the title role as a 15-year-old who's bright, smart and confident. Hart plays Clarissa a bit too preciously, but, along with NBC's "Blossom," this is one of two girl's coming-of-age sitcoms in a sea of such shows featuring boys.

"Clarissa is independent," Hart said in an interview in Los Angeles recently. "She isn't a ditzy blond who has a wild crush on a different boy each week."

The show's ratings last year were almost as impressive as those of "Ren & Stimpy." "Clarissa" is connecting with a preteen and teen audience of boys and girls that NBC, ABC or CBS would love to have.

The two new SNICK shows are "Roundhouse" and "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" "Roundhouse," which follows "Clarissa" at 8:30, is a hip-hop musical comedy show from one of the creators of Fox's "In Living Color." Its content is "Saturday Night Live" for teen-agers; its look is that of MTV. "Roundhouse" could be a big, big hit.

SNICK closes each week on "Are You Afraid of The Dark?" an anthology series featuring kids telling scary stories around a campfire.

"We use classic stories and literature as our basis for scaring kids," Laybourne said. "We've known for years that kids want us to scare them. And, for years, we've tried to figure out a way to scare them and hold true to the Nickelodeon mission of being a non-violent network.

"Conventional wisdom in TV is that the way to scare kids is through blood and guts. We're going to scare kids the old-fashioned way: through good, old-fashioned storytelling."

Chomp, chomp.

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