INTERNATIONAL NEWS: Nickelodeon speaks out to defend controversialshow

NEW YORK: Nickelodeon ended a three-month PR strategy last week by at last publicly defending its controversial news show that angered some parents with the subject matter: families with same-sex parents.

NEW YORK: Nickelodeon ended a three-month PR strategy last week by at last publicly defending its controversial news show that angered some parents with the subject matter: families with same-sex parents.

Since the show was announced in April, conservative groups, led by Washington, DC-based Traditional Values Coalition (TVC), have waged a fierce campaign to have the program cancelled by the kids TV network, arguing that it promoted homosexuality. The protest has included a petition, numerous press releases, and about 100,000 e-mails, telephone calls, and faxes to Nickelodeon - enough that the network created a special e-mail address to handle the volume.

"Parents feel completely and utterly betrayed by Nickelodeon, said TVC executive director Andrea Lafferty. "When you mix in homosexuality and kids, people get upset.

"Studies indicate that many kids in the Nick target age group are unsure about their sexuality, and that those in homosexual homes are more likely to experiment with homosexuality, she continued. "By having authority figures like a homosexual fireman, homosexual school principal, and Rosie O'Donnell on this show, it legitimized what are very dangerous sexual behaviors."

TVC also reacted strongly to news that the show was to run commercial-free. In a press statement released on June 7, the day TVC learned of the decision, Lafferty said, "The fact that they're willing to air this show without sponsors is evidence that they're pursuing a homosexual agenda - not providing wholesome entertainment for kids. It is my hope that advertisers will stop sponsoring programming on Nickelodeon until this network changes its ways."

But rather than respond to the criticism, Nick's PR staff decided the best strategy was to remain quiet until the content of the show, called Nick News Special Edition: My Family Is Different, was solidified. "There was a good month when opponents were mobilizing and we were silent, said Nickelodeon senior communications director David Bittler. "The PR plan was to let the show speak for itself. We chose, I think rather smartly, to remain quiet until we had a show and knew exactly how to talk about it."

Bittler adds that TVC was asked to recommend participants for the show, but declined.

The half-hour broadcast, which aired on June 18, largely avoided press attention despite the protest, until Nick sent out a release on June 6 announcing its airdate and offering advance copies to journalists and reviewers. Only then did mainstream outlets such as CNN and The New York Times begin to examine the program and the controversy around it. But what started out slowly grew quickly into a media madhouse.

By the time the program aired, CNN was running an interactive poll on the topic, and broadcast icons such as NBC's Today show were calling both sides for interviews.

Nick then broke its silence with a media blitz that included sending show producer Linda Ellerbee on dozens of interviews, stressing the program was an examination of bigotry rather than sexual issues, said Bittler.

"This is a responsible news story that will not offend anyone. If anything, it will illuminate issues of tolerance, he explained.

However, the show was moved from an 8:30pm time slot to 9pm to highlight that it was intended for teenage viewers.

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