Meet the man who’s killing Disney. Or, at least, beating Disney when it comes to supplying children with lighthearted sitcoms and wholesome teen stars. The real king of kids’ entertainment is Dan Schneider, a portly ’80s sitcom actor turned comedy mogul. Schneider is the creator and producer of iCarly, the most popular live-action kids’ show in the U.S. and Canada, and Victorious, a very similar show that’s on its way to similar popularity. The shows, which currently air on YTV and are preparing for an hour-long crossover episode this summer, are dominating the kids’ sitcom market; Jocelyn Hamilton, who supervises original programming for YTV, says that “iCarly is the No. 1 show on YTV,” and that the audience for Victorious has “grown immensely” in the year since it premiered. This follows previous Schneider hits like Drake & Josh and stars, like Amanda Bynes, who were discovered on Schneider’s shows. Disney may once have been the leader in this world with shows like Hannah Montana, but now it’s Dan Schneider who’s become, as one critic called him, “the Norman Lear of children’s television.”
Though Schneider has been at Nickelodeon long enough for some of his viewers to have children of their own, his biggest hit came in 2007 with iCarly, the broadly acted story of a girl making her own Web series. Its highest-rated episode drew 12 million viewers, millions more than any episode of 30 Rock has ever had. In Canada, Hamilton says the show started slowly but now rules every kids’ demographic, and the New York Times reported that “nearly eight per cent of England’s population tunes into iCarly.” And while Disney has shown an uneven track record trying to create the new Miley Cyrus, Schneider has built his own personal star factory. Miranda Cosgrove, who used to play a bratty little girl on Drake & Josh, got moved up to starring in iCarly, where she’s done such a good job of staying out of the tabloids that the Times called her “the good girl” compared to the misbehaving Disney stars.
Maybe Schneider knows how to keep young actors from acting up because he used to be one himself: parents may remember him as Dennis, a smart but overweight teenager in the ABC sitcom Head of the Class, where he also made his debut as a writer. Since then, he’s been working almost exclusively writing shows for kids (and one kids’ movie, Good Burger), and seems to enjoy it: unlike Disney sitcoms, which sometimes give the impression that they’re writing down to children, Schneider and his team are more of a throwback to the kids’ shows of the ’90s, which were filled with references only parents were likely to get: one episode ended with two of the kids re-enacting a scene from the finale of The Wire. The shows have fewer restrictions on language than Disney shows and sometimes allow themselves subtle sexual jokes, like a play on the sound of the word “angina.” Hamilton says the jokes for parents help these shows attract more viewers: “It means that parents don’t mind sitting down and watching the shows with their kids. Television viewing has turned into one of the No. 1 things families do together.”
Most of the gimmicks on these shows, though, are aimed directly at kids, and particularly their technological and media tastes. iCarly showed Schneider attempting to connect with the multi-media, instant-information world today’s children live in: as a show about a Web show, it incorporates the “real” icarly.com website, and the original content the producers make for it, as part of the experience. Victorious, premiering as Hannah Montana was winding down, grabs the tween-pop market by focusing on a girl named Tori (Victoria Justice) who’s in training to be a pop star and spins off a single from every episode. Several episodes of the new show have also tipped their hat to the popularity of online gossip, building one episode around a parody of TMZ.com and featuring a guest appearance by gossip blogger Perez Hilton in another. Disney shows, by comparison, can sometimes feel disconnected from the lives of the kids who watch them: the first episode of Shake it Up!, Disney’s attempt to do a dance version of Hannah Montana, revealed that its lead characters didn’t have cellphones yet.
Besides, while Disney stars mostly get into trouble off-screen, Schneider’s heroes please kids by being crazy and destructive onscreen. Disney shows, like many prime-time sitcoms, mix their slapstick scenes with messages about becoming a better person; Schneider’s shows frequently display a lack of sentimentality that rivals Seinfeld. On iCarly, the heroine is rarely punished for her zany schemes or for disobeying her guardian, while her sidekick Sam (Jennette McCurdy) can be seen hitting people over the head or using a fire extinguisher to smash things. “Sam does some things that would put her in jail or in juvie,” says Roberto Coutinho, who blogs about iCarly at robsp1derp1g.wordpress.com. Cosgrove herself spent the run of Drake & Josh playing a girl who liked to cause explosions and never got punished for it. That kind of vicious slapstick may be a good thing for the target audience: it makes them feel they’re watching something that just wants to make them laugh instead of teaching them how to behave. Other shows are now following the same pattern: Hamilton describes YTV’s popular original sitcom Mr. Young, about a boy genius who becomes a schoolteacher, as “just a really fun, crazy show. I don’t think we concentrate on the pro-social thing.”
Kids not only get to watch Schneider’s characters act like sociopaths, there also aren’t many authority figures around to stop them. Most modern kids’ sitcoms are about characters who live fantasy lives, but Disney usually tried to have at least one parental role model around, like Billy Ray Cyrus (who once claimed that playing Hannah Montana’s dad “destroyed my family”). The world of Dan Schneider is a world of absent or nonexistent adults. Carly has no mother, her father is on seemingly permanent military service, and her brother (Jerry Trainor) is too much of an idiot to discipline her. The heroine of Victorious does have parents, but you could be forgiven for thinking she doesn’t, since they rarely do anything useful.
If adults were around, one of the things they might do is stop these characters from constantly dating each other. While Schneider’s shows are comedies, their fans are dead serious about the romance aspect: “They’re into it in a kind of soap opera way,” Hamilton marvels. The most popular part of Schneider’s Zoey 101 (a vehicle for Britney Spears’s sister) was a surprising romance between a bespectacled genius girl and a boy who was originally set up as the villain. iCarly, the most popular of the lot, also has the highest number of “shippers,” fans who are invested in certain relationships. Most of the arguments revolve around whether Freddie (Nathan Kress) should get together with Carly or Sam; Coutinho explains that the two camps are called “Creddie” and “Seddie,” and that his own blog is part of the Seddie faction: “They have undergone major character development over the show,” he enthuses, “from enemies, to ‘frenemies,’ to friends, to best friends, and who knows, something more.”
Disney shows, perhaps trying to play catch-up, have added more romance to shows like The Suite Life, but they’re still lagging far behind Schneider, who is conscious of his fans’ romantic obsessions and spent an entire episode making fun of them for it. In an hour-long special last year, the characters go to a convention where a “fan war” breaks out over which characters were meant to be together; finally the heroes take the microphone and remind the world that “iCarly is about comedy.” Schneider has found a junior version of the strategy shows like Friends used to hook adult viewers: make them laugh, but also torment them with endless drawn-out romantic complications.
Having brought the style of big network sitcoms to kids’ programming, would Schneider ever venture into the world of “grown-up” television? He’s tried it once before, when he co-created the Warner Brothers sitcom What I Like About You for Bynes, and two of his staff writers have already left to join Canada’s most popular non-kids’ sitcom, The Big Bang Theory. But with Disney in less solid shape and the big networks pursuing adults only, Schneider may soon have a niche all to himself: shows that are not inappropriate for kids, but that parents don’t mind watching. “It goes back to the days of Happy Days and shows like that,” Hamilton says. “They’re fun, and they’re funny, but they’re not Two and a Half Men.”