Log In

Reset Password
  • MENU
    Tuesday, April 16, 2024

    Fallout from documentary about ‘dark underbelly’ at Nickelodeon

    “Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV,” a documentary on allegedly toxic working conditions for child actors at Nickelodeon during its golden age, has reignited criticism of the kids TV powerhouse.

    The four-part docuseries, which premiered Sunday on Investigation Discovery and is streaming on Max, interviews former writers, crew members and child actors who describe a volatile, dysfunctional and sometimes sexualized environment at some of Nickelodeon’s most successful TV shows in the mid-nineties and early aughts.

    “Quiet on Set” zooms in on former producer Dan Schneider, the creative force behind hit shows including “iCarly,” “The Amanda Show” and “All That.” Schneider was instrumental in launching the careers of teen stars such as Amanda Bynes, Ariana Grande and Drake Bell, who revealed in the documentary he was the unnamed victim in a child sexual abuse trial that sent a former Nickelodeon dialogue coach to prison in the mid-2000s.

    Some cast, crew and parents said they were afraid to push back because of the influence the child-star kingmaker wielded in the industry. Schneider doesn’t appear in the docuseries and didn’t respond to questions from The Washington Post. But he apologized in a 20-minute video with BooG!e, who played T-Bo in “iCarly.”

    “Watching over the past two nights was very difficult - me facing my past behaviors, some of which are embarrassing and that I regret - and I definitely owe some people a pretty strong apology,” Schneider said in the video, which was published on his YouTube channel Tuesday.

    Meanwhile, the documentary has brought a wave of scrutiny to Nickelodeon, which has arguably declined in cultural influence but continues to air new episodes of popular shows such as “SpongeBob SquarePants.” On social media, many say they feel sickened looking back at scenes and footage from their childhood shows.

    “Though we cannot corroborate or negate allegations of behaviors from productions decades ago, Nickelodeon as a matter of policy investigates all formal complaints as part of our commitment to fostering a safe and professional workplace environment free of harassment or other kinds of inappropriate conduct,” Nickelodeon said in a statement. “Our highest priorities are the well-being and best interests not just of our employees, casts and crew, but of all children, and we have adopted numerous safeguards over the years to help ensure we are living up to our own high standards and the expectations of our audience.”

    Here are some of the most disturbing allegations in the documentary.

    - - -

    Dan Schneider is accused of mistreating women and children

    Schneider often scared and humiliated his crew members and young casts, former workers recalled in the documentary. In the making of shows such as “iCarly” and “Victorious,” Schneider filmed behind-the-scenes videos in which he invades actors’ personal space and makes them uncomfortable, the documentary claims. Schneider also made female crew members give him massages at least every week, some workers said to the filmmakers.

    Schneider said he was “embarrassed” about the massages in his YouTube video addressing the documentary.

    “It was wrong,” he said. “I apologize to anybody that I ever put in that situation, and even additionally, I apologize to the people who were walking around video village or wherever they happened because there were lots of people there who witnessed it who also may have felt uncomfortable.”

    Many of the stars, generally between 8 and 15 years old, were new to the TV acting industry and didn’t want to jeopardize their big break by getting defensive, said Leon Frierson, who was on “All That.”

    “There’s a dark underbelly to child stardom,” said Bryan Hearne, an “All That” alum, in the documentary. “Children are just a dollar sign when they show up on set. Nobody’s taking anyone’s mental health serious, and that’s completely unfortunate.”

    Christy Stratton and Jenny Kilgen, who said they were illegally forced to share a salary as the only two female writers for “The Amanda Show,” detailed the sexism they say they faced during the show’s first season, including Stratton being asked by Schneider to act as if she were being sodomized in the writers room. (Schneider, in his YouTube video, apologized for the “inappropriate jokes” he made while leading the writers room.)

    “You always felt like disagreeing with Dan or standing up for yourself could result in you getting fired,” Kilgen said.

    After the Writers Guild of America told Schneider to give Stratton and Kilgen separate salaries, Kilgen said Schneider threatened to make sure she never worked on another Nickelodeon show again if he found out she tipped off the union.

    Jennette McCurdy, who starred in “iCarly” and “Sam and Cat,” wrote in her 2022 memoir “I’m Glad My Mom Died” about the abuse she faced as a child star from her mother and a Nickelodeon executive she referred to only as “The Creator.” The Washington Post noted before the book’s publication that she was “under the domain of Dan Schneider,” working with him on two sitcoms that altogether aired from 2007 to 2014.

    The Creator was “mean-spirited, controlling, and terrifying,” she wrote. He made “grown men and women cry with his insults and degradation” and pressured her to drink alcohol when she was 18.

    Schneider and Nickelodeon have never acknowledged the identity of “The Creator.” But in a statement in response to the book, Russell Hicks, Nickelodeon’s former president of content and production, said Schneider “cared about the kids on his shows even when sometimes their own families unfortunately did not.”

    “Every single thing that Dan ever did on any of his shows was carefully scrutinized and approved by executives at Nickelodeon,” the statement continued.

    Nickelodeon launched an internal investigation into Schneider around 2013, the documentary stated.

    Nickelodeon investigated Schneider again in the wake of the #MeToo movement, after a costumer complained about the work environment and massages on set. The network and Schneider then abruptly ended their partnership in 2018.

    - - -

    Drake Bell talked for first time about being abused by show staffer

    Most of the third episode of the docuseries focuses on Drake Bell, now 37, who publicly discusses being abused by his former acting and dialogue coach. Brian Peck was sentenced to 16 months in prison and had to register as a sex offender in 2004, but the court kept the child actor’s name anonymous.

    “Now that Drake Bell has disclosed his identity as the plaintiff in the 2004 case, we are dismayed and saddened to learn of the trauma he has endured, and we commend and support the strength required to come forward,” Nickelodeon said in a statement.

    Before his arrest for lewd acts with a child in 2003, Peck was a popular and persistent presence on Schneider’s sets. He even had a recurring bit on Schneider’s “All That” as “Pickle Boy.”

    As Bell’s star rose at Nickelodeon, first on “The Amanda Show” and then on his own series, “Drake & Josh,” Peck formed a close bond with the boy, who was 12 when he first appeared on “The Amanda Show.” He would eventually drive Bell to auditions and persuade Bell’s mom to let him stay overnight at his house. “Looking back,” Bell said, that “seems calculated.”

    When Bell’s father Joe expressed concerns about the relationship to producers, Joe said, he was told that Peck was gay and that his negative feelings about Peck could be “homophobia.”

    When Bell was 15, he said, he awoke one day to Peck sexually assaulting him on the couch. Bell recounted the abuse, which lasted six months, as “extensive” and “brutal.”

    “Imagine the worst thing someone could do to someone as sexual assault,” Bell said. “I don’t know how else to put it.”

    Bell said he turned to drugs and alcohol to escape his experiences after Peck’s conviction. Bell has since been arrested for drunken driving and has been accused of abuse himself. In 2021, Bell was sentenced to two years probation for child endangerment after a former fan accused him of sexual misconduct, which the documentary briefly noted.

    “Quiet On Set” detailed one other criminal case tied to Schneider’s shows. The mother of an 11-year-old guest star on “The Amanda Show” recounted how seemingly innocent email exchanges between her daughter and a then-Nickelodeon production assistant, Jason Handy, ended when she discovered a picture of Handy naked and masturbating in the girl’s inbox.

    Handy was sentenced to six years in prison in 2004 on two felony convictions - for lewd acts on a child and distributing sexually explicit material by email, and a misdemeanor charge related to child sexual exploitation.

    - - -

    Schneider’s shows are accused of sexualizing their child stars

    Several of the documentary’s interviewees spoke out against what they considered to be sexually suggestive jokes in Schneider’s shows.

    Frierson said he was uncomfortable wearing leotards on “All That” and recalled his costume as “Nose Boy,” in which he wore large noses that he said resembled male genitalia.

    “I was just a growing boy trying to fit into my body, and it was just out there for everyone to kind of look at and judge me,” he said. “I just felt very exposed.”

    Kilgen said Schneider routinely got away with veiled sexual material in his productions, including naming a Bynes character on “The Amanda Show” Penelope Taynt - an apparent reference to a part of the genital area.

    Alexa Nikolas, who starred in “Zoey 101,” said she remembered boys on set remarking that a scene in which Jamie Lynn Spears had goo squirted onto her face looked like an ejaculation.

    Viewers later scrutinized Schneider’s recurring comedy about pickles and feet, the latter of which helped fuel online rumors that the executive producer was “obsessed with feet,” said journalist Kate Taylor.

    In web-only videos produced for the Nickelodeon show “Victorious,” teenage Ariana Grande’s character moans as she tries to squeeze a potato for juice, puts her foot in her mouth, and pours water on her face as she hangs over the edge of a bed. Clips of the videos were shown on “Quiet on Set,” but went viral several years ago after a YouTuber compiled them under the title, “Ariana Grande being sexualized on Victorious for 2 minutes straight.”

    Representatives for Grande didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

    - - -

    Parents and child actors feared retaliation

    Schneider’s shows were some of the most successful at Nickelodeon, helping the network compete with Disney as a behemoth in children’s entertainment. Given his power to make or break kids’ careers, few were willing to push back against Schneider’s decisions for fear of jeopardizing their jobs, parents and former child actors said in the documentary.

    “Being close to Schneider was important,” former “All That” cast member Frierson said. And Schneider made clear who his favorites were, several former child actors added. Everyone else was considered “disposable,” said fellow “All That” actor Katrina Johnson.

    Hearne recalled being “uncomfortable” with a number of sketches: one in which he played a rapping fetus that required he wear a tight, flesh-colored bodysuit; a “Fear Factor”-esque segment called “On Air Dare,” in which he was covered in peanut butter and had to lie still as dogs licked him.

    Tracey Brown, Hearne’s mother, said she raised concerns about Schneider’s sketches to her son’s agent and production staff. Hearne was not asked to return the following season; both he and his mother said they believed Brown’s pushback played a role in the decision. Brown said that experience “ruined us.”

    Later, Brown learned about others’ experiences on Schneider shows. “I had no idea what I was saving my son from,” she said.

    - - -

    The backlash against Nickelodeon and others

    “Quiet on Set” has prompted viewers to re-watch Nickelodeon’s shows with a more critical eye, and even personalities who weren’t directly connected to the network have been scrutinized.

    Several celebrities who wrote letters of support for Peck during his sentencing in the 2000s have recanted, after the documents were unearthed in the process of making the documentary. People Magazine reported that on its podcast this month, “Boy Meets World” stars Will Friedle and Rider Strong backed away from their letters. “Back then, you couldn’t Google to find out what people were being charged with,” Strong said, adding that Peck had not disclosed the extent of his crimes.

    “X-Men” producer Tom DeSanto, whose letter of support was also revealed in the documentary, told People he wanted to “personally apologize to Drake and his family and emphatically state that had I been fully informed of all the accusations, my support would have been absolutely withheld.”

    Some viewers accused Bell’s co-star, Josh Peck (no relation to Bell’s abuser Brian Peck) of ignoring the revelations after he posted an unrelated comedic video on TikTok this week. Bell posted his own video defending Josh on Wednesday, asking viewers to “take it a little easy on him.”

    “Processing this and going through this is a really emotional time, and a lot of it is very, very difficult,” Bell said. Josh “has reached out to talk with me and help me work through this and has been really great.” Josh Peck later addressed the documentary in a statement on Instagram on Thursday, praising “the survivors who were brave enough to share their stories of emotional and physical abuse on Nickelodeon sets with the world.”

    Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.