The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story

Movie review by
Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media
The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story Movie Poster Image
Millennial-targeted docu is sweet but lacks punch.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 102 minutes

Parents say

age 9+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Stands out for positive role models.

Positive Messages

Makes it clear that the executives and producers cared deeply about communicating with children in a way that connected with their experiences and made them feel better about themselves and the world.

Positive Role Models

The story hones in on the impact of Geraldine Laybourne, the woman who crafted all of Nickelodeon's programming for its first 15 years. Viewers learn that the network was run mostly by women. Early programming offered some diversity by hiring kids who looked like regular kids; the film notes that, in the 1980s and '90s, having even one or two actors of color on a major network was considered by many to be progressive. Clarissa Explains It All is singled out as a feminist series that upended norms because Clarissa is smart, scientific, and thinks independently.


Quick clips of Ren & Stimpy include violent actions, like a character hitting itself with a hammer. Story told without images about a child contestant who took a hard fall during a game show (he was OK, it seems). 


A news segment with Magic Johnson discusses HIV and AIDS and includes the words "how to have safer sex." Fash of Leonardo DaVinci's "Vitruvian Man," a classic drawing of a fully nude man.


Language includes "crap," "hell," and "oh my God," as an exclamation. Name-calling words not directed at a person: "Dummy," "idiot," and "stupid."


Discussion of how Laybourne held off on merchandising Nickelodeon shows so as to not take advantage of their young audience -- and how the network tried to get away from cartoons like Transformers, which were essentially commercials. But then, once they opened the door to merchandising, they exploded into selling Nickelodeon products, and same executives talk about it as if it's now helping build relationships with kids rather than exploiting and profiting from that relationship. Segment addressing a community of young adults who collect Nickelodeon products and throw Nickelodeon-themed parties. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Story shared humorously about how a rap star smoked pot near a show's young cast.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story is a retrospective documentary that's targeted squarely at Millennials. Covering the cable network's inception in the 1970s through its programming in the '90s, the history ends before the turn of the century with a brief mention of SpongeBob SquarePantsThe doc as a whole is unlikely to be interesting to today's kids, especially because many of the shows they're most familiar with -- like Dora the Explorer and Blue's Clues -- get limited mention. But the movie's deeper explorations of series like All That, Rugrats, and Rocko's Modern Life could prompt Millennials to cozy up in a Slanket and pour themselves a glass of Sunny D. While the content is strictly a skip down memory lane -- i.e. only positive reflections are shared -- parents and teachers may find some valuable insights on how Nickelodeon succeeded in connecting with kids. Iffy content is minimal, but there's a story about a celebrity guest's marijuana use near the kid cast and a discussion of a Nick News special on HIV that simply mentions the intention to discuss "safer sex." There are also a few instances of mild profanity ("crap," "hell").

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byjoannchilada April 17, 2021

For millennials and beyond

The brief and seemingly bitter review of this documentary is incredibly dismissive. I'm older than the millennial generation and therefore I probably remem... Continue reading

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What's the story?

THE ORANGE YEARS: THE NICKELODEON STORY reflects on how Nickelodeon got its start -- and eventually developed into a powerhouse cable network. Under the guidance of Geraldine Laybourne, the channel took an out-of-the-box approach to programming that explored how to talk with their young audience rather than down to them. It features interviews with Christine Taylor, Kenan Thompson, Drake Bell, Melissa Joan Hart, Danny Cooksey, and Coolio, among others.

Is it any good?

Nostalgic Millennials who love anything that sparks warm childhood memories will enjoy this love letter to the first kids' network, which offers tasty recollections without any sour grapes. It's meant to be an "I Remember That!" heart flutter with a side of "Wow, They Really Loved Us" attitude. Honestly, it's so flattering that you can imagine it being required viewing for new hires at Nickelodeon. While some of the information in The Orange Years might be helpful in understanding how to connect with young viewers, overall it's light on insights and heavy on behind-the-scenes tidbits. But unlike entertainment retrospectives that rack up views on YouTube, this one includes almost no inclusion of internal struggles, drama, or conflict. There's no recognition of how Nickelodeon countered the competition (*ahem* Cartoon Network and Disney Channel). Nor is there substantive self-reflection about some of Nickelodeon's flops or mistakes. The network's first two decades are examined through the glow of an orange lens, rather than from a journalistic point of view.

That might be enough for the Millennial demographic that this Indiegogo-funded doc was made for. But at the same time, those who lived through the era know that the movie's hearts-and-daisies perspective isn't entirely accurate. For instance, the development executive who greenlit Ren & Stimpy talks about her creation as a huge success and suggests that she didn't realize that its content was rude, violent, or offensive ("animators are very sneaky people"). And there's zero mention of the abusive and predatory behavior of that series' creator, John Kricfalusi. The execs also speak about Laybourne abstaining from merchandising for a long time, but once the network turned the corner (and, boy, did it do a 180), the move to tie-ins galore is framed as somehow being revolutionarily beneficial to their very young audience instead of profiteering. The movie's self-congratulatory tone overshadows its few acknowledgements of missteps. For today's kids, there's just not enough here to keep most of them engaged. Where it is relevant to them -- and their parents -- is that Nick is now rifling through its catalog and bringing back many of its '90s staples, including Blue's Clues, All That, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, and Double Dare. But as The Orange Years devolves into a timeline of Nickelodeon's greatest hits, it becomes the network's greatest nightmare: boring.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Nickelodeon's strategy in creating programming that acknowledges "the value and dignity in letting kids be kids." What does that mean, and do you think they achieved that with the shows you've seen? Does "being a kid" look the same to all types of children?

  • One executive praises her boss' management style of trusting her to do her job but then says because there was little oversight, inappropriate content made it to air and was watched by millions of kids. What do you take away from this? What does it mean to be held accountable for mistakes -- and what happens when people refuse to take responsibility?

  • Is this film a work of journalism? Why, or why not?

  • Do you agree with the interviewee who said that "all kids feel stupid and alone on the inside"? Is it comforting to feel that your peers might also be struggling with complicated feelings? Do you think entertainment programming succeeds in demonstrating that feeling awkward is a widely shared experience?

Movie details

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