Volume 94, No.5, September-October 2008

Books
Kids Rule!: Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship 
By Sarah Banet-Weiser.

Kids Rule!: Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship
By Sarah Banet-Weiser.
Duke University Press, 2007.
296 pages. $22.95, paper.

If we spent the first eight decades of the twentieth century building up the greatest consensus audience of all time through motion pictures and network radio and television, we've spent the last three decades breaking that audience into smaller and smaller pieces through cable television and, more recently, the Internet. Since the 1980s, American mass culture has been characterized by increasing fragmentation, as audiences are divided into ever more specific demographic categories.

There is one conspicuous case, however, in which this process has been reversed. Children's television, from the earliest days of network broadcasting to the age of cable, was a great bastion of regionalism. Although children throughout the country shared many of the same network shows on Saturday morning and the early prime-time hours, stations in every major city—and lots of smaller markets as well—offered local programming for kids in the morning, at lunch time, and during after-school hours.

From the late 1940s through the 1970s, children's lives were marked with a sense of place by the local TV shows they grew up with. Whizzo the Clown (Kansas City), Garfield Goose (Chicago), Officer Dan (Atlanta), Mr. Peppermint (Dallas): Most of these shows were low-budget, lowbrow concoctions of cartoons, puppetry, bad comedy, and maybe a little education, but they announced deep regional identity in an increasingly homogenized culture.

The emergence of cable TV, the very agent of audience fragmentation in nearly every other cultural respect, had the opposite effect on programming for children. Outlets like the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon consolidated and centralized kids' TV, ultimately bringing to a close the era of regional fare while at the same time creating a national (even global, to some extent) territory of children's culture.

Sarah Banet-Weiser's book, Kids Rule!: Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship, exquisitely reports on and documents the rapid rise and spectacular success of Nickelodeon, a relatively recent entry into the entertainment-industrial complex that has managed to define, package, market, and penetrate American childhood with extraordinary efficiency. She makes a convincing argument that Nickelodeon is more than just a cable TV channel; it's a lifestyle. Through TV shows, movies, new-media content, extensive merchandising, and even a theme resort hotel, Nickelodeon has created a comforting and appealing cultural space where kids feel like they matter.

At the heart of her argument is the notion of consumer citizenship. The book is neither an indictment against consumer culture nor a celebration of Nickelodeon's wild corporate success, but rather an examination of the complexity of the relationship between youth and consumption. Banet-Weiser acknowledges, with refreshing candor, that to "imagine citizenship existing outside the commercial world is not only unrealistic but, more importantly, it is limiting."

"Indeed, the distinction between consumerism and citizenship is spurious from the ground up—in the United States there is no citizenship outside consumption, and part of the pleasure of consuming is that the act itself constitutes one as a citizen, someone who 'matters' in this particular body politic and historic moment."

Of particular interest are the chapters on gender and race in Nickelodeon's programming. From Clarissa Explains It All, As Told By Ginger, Rocket Power, and The Wild Thornberries to The Brothers Garcia, Dora the Explorer, Kenan & Kel, and Hey Arnold!, Nickelodeon has consistently scheduled programs that include characters that are more "positive" representations of women and people of diverse ethnicity than those portrayed on most other American television outlets. Indeed, this is part of the channel's marketing strategy and corporate aesthetic.

The most fascinating chapter, though, examines the use of irony, kitsch, and camp in children's television. Banet-Weiser describes how Nickelodeon's programming is often "double-coded," containing multiple levels of meaning that appeal to different audiences. Although Nickelodeon's programs are designed for viewers between the ages of about five and fifteen, many of them are interesting and entertaining to audiences outside that core demographic.

No self-respecting kid beyond the age of eight would ever admit that she still liked Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and most parents would rather die than have to listen to Barney's theme song one more time. This is not the case with many of Nickelodeon's series.

Double-coding threw a lot of bones to older siblings and adults, who often continued to watch Rugrats or The Ren & Stimpy Show or The Fairly Odd Parents, even after the seven-year-olds had left the room. As a college professor, I can confirm the claims made by late-night comedians that SpongeBob SquarePants episodes once served as the entertainment focus of college fraternity parties.

The very fact that older sisters and brothers like these shows surely enhances greatly their appeal to the little squirts they're actually aimed at. Many of the people who might read Banet-Weiser's compelling and important book might also have enjoyed a lot of the programs it describes, and not necessarily as kids or even with them. 

Pennsylvania Avenue: Profiles in Backroom Power

Pennsylvania Avenue: Profiles in Backroom Power
By John Harwood '78 and Gerald F. Seib.
Random House, 2008.
272 pages. $26.

Some years back, while working as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, I was pulled aside by a senior editor who asked what I wanted to do next. I had just covered Congressional politics, and my next move wasn't clear. He asked me to pitch some ideas.

I proposed the "hidden hand" beat. It seemed to me there was a group of people in and around Baltimore who quietly set the agenda for the city. I wanted to know: Who are they? What happens when they meet behind closed doors? My editors, not without reason, figured the creation of that beat would trample all over the beats of other, equally aerobic reporters.

Now John Harwood of The New York Times and CNBC and Gerald F. Seib of The Wall Street Journal have tackled that question on a much larger stage in Pennsylvania Avenue: Profiles in Backroom Power. The two veteran political reporters glide effortlessly in and out of the antechambers, law offices, bars, and even BlackBerrys where decisions with far-reaching consequences are made. Their book makes for a worthy update of Hedrick Smith's The Power Game of 1990 about the same world in a very different era.

Harwood and Seib catalogue a new wave of influence-mongers: spinners and strategists, back-room dealmakers and netroots activists, a rising class of private investors and, to the authors' disappointment, a dwindling number of public-minded pragmatists.

In breezy vignettes, Harwood and Seib illustrate and lament the loss of the cozy bipartisan deal-making that characterized Washington before the Republican Revolution of 1994. Above all, Pennsylvania Avenue makes the case that Washington runs on the principle of mutual mistrust. They say that explains why things happen—and just as often, why they don't.

Take the case of Congressman Christopher Van Hollen of Maryland, a rising Democratic star. Van Hollen convinced some Republicans to buck their party leaders to support his legislation to restrict federal contracting as a way of protecting the jobs of government employees. But because he led the effort to raise money for Democratic House candidates, Van Hollen marked for defeat some of those very same moderate Republican lawmakers.

"With the two parties nearly equally divided," Harwood and Seib write, "both have concluded that unstinting partisanship ... is the only rational approach for both sides." The result, they add, "is a long chain of unresolved grievances that is now nearly impossible to untangle."

In Washington, many people happily exploit those grievances. Pennsylvania Avenue opens with the implosion of a plan for a well-respected company from Dubai to take over terminal operations at some U.S. seaports. Lobbyists for an American firm saw an opening to reverse the decision by publicizing the connection to the Arab world. Congressional Democrats wielded the issue against a shaky administration. Nervous Republicans rebelled. The well-connected and pragmatic deputy treasury secretary, Robert Kimmitt, could have safely brought the plan into harbor in an earlier era. This is no longer that era.

These days, the authors see greater hope—and influence—bubbling up outside government. They point to dealmakers like Andy Stern, the head of the nation's largest service-workers union and a frequent critic of corporate executives. Stern nonetheless fashions policy proposals in concert with industry leaders, when he can, in ways that help his members and pressure public officials into action. David Rubenstein '87, founder of the private equity investment firm The Carlyle Group, derives a different form of influence. The former aide to President Jimmy Carter realized that when major figures in politics and high finance collude, there is a fortune to be made, and Rubenstein's firm has redefined the way Washington conceives of commerce.

Harwood and Seib are known as careful chroniclers of Washington. At times, they show arresting restraint. They call the Iran-Contra scheme "a clever way around a ban Congress had imposed on aiding the Contras." Sure, it skirted that ban. Or, one could note, it broke the law and the Democrat-turned-Republican being lionized, Elliott Abrams, was found guilty of unlawfully withholding information from a Democrat-dominated Congress. Abrams was pardoned by President Bush's father. He was hardly a bystander in partisan skirmishes.

Two other quibbles: Some sketches of better-known figures, such as political strategist Karl Rove and MoveOn.org chief Eli Pariser, felt relatively cursory. And I couldn't help wishing for a bit more behind-the-scenes insight from these skilled reporters into the Bush administration's pivotal decisions on the war in Iraq, spying, and interrogation techniques.

Yet readers finish Pennsylvania Avenue with a far more textured understanding of how the government works. Like a Congressional page whisking Washington visitors inside the Senate chamber, Harwood and Seib provide a tantalizing glimpse into Washington life—but they steer you behind the scenes, too.

David Folkenflik