Nicktoons is a collective name used by Nickelodeon for their original animated series. All Nicktoons are produced partly at the Nickelodeon Animation Studio and list Nickelodeon’s parent company, ViacomCBS, in their copyright bylines.
Since its launch in the late 1970s, Nickelodeon’s schedule incorporated animation produced by other companies. The channel did not invest into its own original cartoon series until 1989, when producer Vanessa Coffey visited Los Angeles to accept pitches from local animators. Geraldine Laybourne, the channel’s then-president, greenlit three pitches for full series: Doug, The Ren & Stimpy Show, and Rugrats. On August 11, 1991, the three cartoons premiered as part of a 90-minute block, becoming the first branded Nicktoons. In contrast to the merchandise-based cartoons that dominated the 1980s animation industry, Vanessa Coffey and Geraldine Laybourne agreed that the Nicktoons should be creator-driven: based on original characters designed by animators.
The first Nicktoons debuted to financial success, convincing Viacom to invest in original animated shows for its other network MTV. Until 1998, Nickelodeon’s animation division operated out of a rented office complex in Studio City, California. Production moved to an individual building in nearby Burbank on March 4, 1998. Among the first shows produced at this new facility was SpongeBob SquarePants, which by 2004 had become the most profitable program in Nickelodeon history. In 2002, a cable channel also called Nicktoons was launched, followed by multiple international versions. Several original shows have premiered new episodes on the Nicktoons network.
In the early 2010s, Nickelodeon debuted the first two Nicktoons based on preexisting TV franchises, as opposed to new characters: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Winx Club. These two revamped shows were developed at Nickelodeon Animation Studio following Viacom’s purchases of both properties. In 2019, Nick Animation debuted its first streaming-exclusive Nicktoon, Pinky Malinky, which was released on Netflix rather than television. Several months later, the studio announced a multi-year deal to produce animated content for Netflix, including new properties and spin-offs of previous Nicktoons.
Early efforts (1979–1988)
Nickelodeon’s first original animated program, Video Dream Theatre, was left unaired. It was produced over a half-year period in 1979, when the network hired its future president Geraldine Laybourne to make two pilots for the show. Video Dream Theatre used animation to visualize children’s dreams in different styles, such as color Xerox. According to an interview with Laybourne herself, Nickelodeon did not broadcast the show because it was deemed too frightening; she commented, “the trouble with kids’ dreams is they’re really scary. It’s a lot about abandonment, it’s a lot about suffocation. They don’t make very good stories.”
The network continued to only broadcast externally-produced animation until almost a decade later, when animator Ralph Bakshi pitched an original animated series called Tattertown. In 1988, a half-hour pilot episode was produced, overseen by Debby Beece (Nickelodeon’s senior vice president of programming). Nickelodeon declined to pick up a full series, and the pilot “Christmas in Tattertown” premiered on December 21, 1988 as a standalone Christmas special. The network’s next attempt at an original animation was Nick’s Thanksgiving Fest, which was composed of two shorts. According to Linda Simensky, the Thanksgiving shorts “gave Nickelodeon executives the confidence they needed to get the animation department started.”
During the production of Nick’s Thanksgiving Fest in 1989, Geraldine Laybourne held a meeting at her house to develop a philosophy for the channel’s original cartoons. She played tapes of current animated shows, which her colleagues viewed as merchandise-driven and overly commercial. The group decided that Nickelodeon should aim for the opposite of their contemporaries, producing cartoons that would keep their creators in a key creative role rather than prioritizing an efficient “assembly line” process.
Everybody else was doing toy-driven stuff and it was garbage. It’s hard to create a character out of a toy for a lot of reasons. You have limited time to produce because you have to get the thing out when the product hits the market. How about, instead, we do this radical thing of looking around the country for animators who have great characters living inside them?
—Nickelodeon president Geraldine Laybourne
Geraldine Laybourne laid out a set of rules for the network’s cartoons, most importantly wanting to “put the creator back, front and center.” She approached her fellow executive Vanessa Coffey to find artists in Los Angeles interested in pitching original cartoons. Coffey had experience working in animation and was the producer for Nick’s Thanksgiving Fest in 1988. Laybourne gave Coffey “pretty much free rein to look for properties.”
Vanessa Coffey rented an apartment in Los Angeles for two weeks and accepted hourly pitches. She mailed animators a call for submissions, which she summarized as “I’m looking for ideas, I’m looking for concepts. The less developed, the better. I want drawings, not a big pitch.” As Coffey accepted pitches, she decided that she did not want a “consistent look like Disney,” specifically searching for projects that had completely different styles from each other.
Of the pitches she accepted, Coffey decided to approve eight for six-minute pilots at a cost of $100,000 each. Laybourne would eventually select three pilots to expand into full series, meant to fill a programming block of an hour and a half. The first Nicktoon that Coffey approved was Jim Jinkins’ Doug, followed by Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo’s Rugrats. The final pitch that went to series came from John Kricfalusi, who presented a variety show titled Your Gang with a live-action host presenting different cartoons, each cartoon parodying a different genre. Ren and Stimpy were pets of one of the children in Your Gang. Coffey was dissatisfied with most of the pitch but did like Ren and Stimpy, singling them out for their own series. Both Coffey and Laybourne allowed the three shows to enter development. Between the pilots and series’ production, Vanessa Coffey was named Nickelodeon’s Vice President of Animation.
In fall 1992, Nickelodeon fired John Kricfalusi. Coffey and Laybourne asserted that Kricfalusi was in breach of contract for not delivering on time, creating inappropriate content, and going over budget. Kricfalusi suspected the real reason was that the network was uncomfortable with more crude humor. After Kricfalusi and Nickelodeon missed several promised new-episode delivery and air dates, the network—which had purchased the rights to the Ren & Stimpy characters from Kricfalusi—negotiated a settlement with him. Production on Ren & Stimpy moved to Nickelodeon’s animation department, Games Animation, and the show was put under the creative supervision of Bob Camp. Coffey soon stepped down as animation vice president for Nickelodeon to pursue her own projects. She was replaced by Mary Harrington, a Nickelodeon producer who moved out from New York to help run the Nicktoons division after Kricfalusi was fired.
At the time, the Nicktoons were produced primarily out-of-house at Jumbo Pictures (Doug) and Klasky-Csupo (Rugrats), with Nickelodeon’s executives overseeing development. Hoping to concentrate production under one roof, Nickelodeon greenlit its first fully-in-house series, Rocko’s Modern Life, in 1992. A budget freeze in 1995 at Viacom (parent company of Nickelodeon) resulted in Ren & Stimpy being cancelled that same year and the network passing on the final 13 episodes of their option for Doug. Jinkins sold Jumbo Pictures to Disney in 1996, moving Doug over to ABC and Disney Channel as a result. Nickelodeon retained the rights to the 52 episodes produced between 1991-1994 as a part of the agreement. In 1996, Albie Hecht, then-president of Film and TV Entertainment for Nickelodeon, met with Nickelodeon artists to brainstorm an idea for a new Nicktoons studio. Nickelodeon’s new facility, named Nickelodeon Animation Studio, would eventually open on March 4, 1998; Hecht said, “For me, this building is the physical manifestation of a personal dream, which is that when people think of cartoons, they’ll say Nicktoons.”
In June 1997, Nickelodeon began a five-year, $350 million investment into original animation. As part of this effort, the company doubled its animation staff and produced many new pilots, including one for SpongeBob SquarePants. Before commissioning SpongeBob as a full series, Nickelodeon executives insisted that it would not be popular unless the main character was a child who went to school, with his teacher as a main character. The show’s creator, Stephen Hillenburg, recalled in 2012 that Nickelodeon told him, “Our winning formula is animation about kids in school… We want you to put SpongeBob in school.” Hillenburg was ready to “walk out” on Nickelodeon and abandon the series, since he wanted SpongeBob to be an adult character. He eventually compromised by adding a new character to the main cast, Mrs. Puff, who is a boat-driving teacher. Hillenburg was happy with the compromise and said, “A positive thing for me that came out of it was [how it brought] in a new character, Mrs. Puff, who I love.”
According to Nickelodeon writer Micah Wright, the series pickups for both SpongeBob and CatDog were announced on the same day in 1997. Nickelodeon’s senior vice president, Kevin Kay, confirmed to the animation studio’s creative team that it had greenlit 100 episodes (200 individual segments) of CatDog and six episodes (twelve segments) of SpongeBob. Nickelodeon believed CatDog had the potential to be its next breakout hit, and their order represented an investment of $50 million into the series alone. Stephen Hillenburg was doubtful that his show would last, and he stated in 2009: “I was thinking if we could make a pilot, then we’d have one episode and have accomplished that. Then I thought if it did go to a full season that we’d get twelve chances to write stories and that might be it… that we’d make twelve shows and get cancelled.”
In 1998, Nickelodeon premiered Oh Yeah! Cartoons, which was intended as a “character laboratory” to test out cartoon characters. Creator Fred Seibert described the show as an experiment into a seven-minute format that Nickelodeon generally avoided; he said, “they were very willing to try an experiment to see how it would work.” The series eventually yielded three half-hour spin-offs based on segments from the show: The Fairly OddParents, ChalkZone, and My Life as a Teenage Robot. 1998 also marked the release of the first feature film based on a Nicktoon: The Rugrats Movie, which became the first non-Disney animated film to gross over $100 million at the North American box office. On December 8, Nickelodeon’s movie division greenlit theatrical adaptations of Hey Arnold! and The Wild Thornberrys, less than a month after Rugrats opened in theaters.
At the turn of the millennium, Nickelodeon noticed that a new competitor, Cartoon Network, was attracting some of its 11–15 year old demographic. Desiring a cartoon suited for older viewers, Nickelodeon producer Mary Harrington contacted Jhonen Vasquez for a series pitch after reading his Squee! comic book. Vasquez pitched Invader Zim, which satisfied Nickelodeon’s requests for “something ‘edgy’.”
Nickelodeon also sought out a new action-adventure cartoon after commissioning several anime-inspired pilots that “didn’t go anywhere,” according to a New York Times article. By 2002, Nickelodeon had rejected multiple Japanese series, considering them derivative or too mature for the channel’s target audience. In response, Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino pitched Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Nickelodeon ordered six episodes of the show. Avatar premiered in February 2005 to high ratings, after which Nickelodeon increased its order to 13 episodes and again to 20.
In the early 2000s, Nickelodeon briefly continued its strategy of adapting Nicktoon franchises into theatrical features. Executives at the company’s movie division decided to reconsider this approach after several films (Hey Arnold!: The Movie, The Wild Thornberrys Movie, and Rugrats Go Wild) were met with poor financial and critical reception. According to the Chicago Tribune, Nickelodeon believed the Hey Arnold! movie “didn’t just fail but actually tarnished one of the company’s best selling points: its trustworthy brand name.” Aside from SpongeBob SquarePants films, Nickelodeon Movies stopped producing animated theatrical features based on their shows.
In February 2005, high ratings from Butch Hartman’s two Nicktoons (The Fairly OddParents and Danny Phantom) convinced the network to sign a multi-year deal with Hartman. As part of the agreement, Hartman developed original animated and live-action concepts for Nickelodeon and its sister channel, Noggin. In a statement, Hartman said, “Working with everyone at Nickelodeon over the past several years has been hugely satisfying and I look forward to forging the same kind of terrific creative alliances with the folks at Noggin.”
In October 2006, DreamWorks Animation (who was then in a distribution deal with Nickelodeon’s corporate sister Paramount Pictures) announced that it would partner to co-produce animated shows with the channel. The partnership resulted in three CGI-animated shows based on DreamWorks’ character library: The Penguins of Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, and Monsters vs. Aliens.
Logo introduced for the Nicktoons channel’s 2009 rebranding.
In October 2009 and September 2010, respectively, Viacom brought Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Winx Club into the Nickelodeon family by purchasing both franchises. Nickelodeon Animation Studio produced a new CGI-animated Turtles series and new seasons of Winx Club with CGI sequences. TMNT and Winx were both inducted into the Nicktoons franchise after Nickelodeon launched them. The two productions comprised Nickelodeon’s strategy to reboot two established brands for new viewers: TMNT was intended to reach an audience of boys aged 6 to 11, and Winx was aimed at the same age group of girls. In February 2011, Viacom bought out a third of Rainbow SpA, the Italian animation studio that introduced Winx Club. The purchase was valued at 62 million euros (US$83 million) and led to new shows being co-developed by Rainbow and Nickelodeon, including Club 57 and a pilot for the Nickelodeon Animated Shorts Program called “Crazy Block”.
In the early 2010s, Nickelodeon executives searched for independent animations on the Internet, looking for original ideas. Chris Viscardi, who would later become Nickelodeon Animation’s senior vice president, stated that the studio desired to “[get] back to more creator-driven things.” Nickelodeon eventually came across two animations they enjoyed: The Forest City Rockers (a short series by Jay Howell and Jim Dirschberger) and Breadwinners (a stand-alone short by Gary DiRaffaele and Steve Borst). Howell and Dirschberger were recruited to develop Sanjay and Craig while DiRaffaele and Borst were asked to expand their Breadwinners short into a full series. Sanjay and Craig premiered first, on May 25, 2013. After its debut, Los Angeles Times critic Robert Lloyd optimistically compared the show to the Nicktoons of the 1990s, writing that “the goofy and delightful series … represents a positive step back for the network to where it once belonged.”
Since 2016, Nickelodeon has revived older Nicktoons as one-off movies, including Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie, Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling, and Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus. The first aired on the Nickelodeon channel, while the latter two premiered in August 2019 on Netflix. Jhonen Vasquez, the creator of Invader Zim, stated in 2019 that the studio’s support for the revival films waned due to a shift in management: “We had an immense amount of support throughout most of the production. Things just turn on a dime, people get axed, new people come in.”
In 2018, Nickelodeon began to shift from focusing on cable broadcasting to what it describes as a “studio model” that provides content for other companies. The decision was made based on a decline in cable viewership due to the rise of streaming services. As part of this strategy, Nickelodeon announced that the series Pinky Malinky would release on Netflix as “the first straight-to-Netflix Nicktoon.” The series premiered on the platform on January 1, 2019. On November 13, 2019, Nickelodeon expanded their relationship with Netflix with the announcement of a multi-year output deal, under which Nickelodeon Animation Studio will produce “original animated feature films and TV series based on both new and existing IP.” On February 21, 2020, Nickelodeon’s Glitch Techs premiered on Netflix, becoming the second Nicktoon to receive a digital release.