In the tough world of commercial television, no niche is harder to fill than children's TV. Advertisers spend almost $800 million a year to sponsor kids' shows, often paying premium prices. In this seriously competitive business, one player dominates: Nickelodeon.
Since 1995, according to Nielsen ratings, Nick has been the most-watched cable network in the country. During the prime Saturday morning slot, more children watch Nick than watch any other network.
Ask how Nickelodeon approaches this cutthroat, high-stakes market, and the response is both simple and eloquent: Gak. Not the sound - the toy. Gak is a supergross, greenish substance that looks and feels like . . . well, like snot. Says Christine Heye, Nick's director of research: "Kids like Gak as much for its grossness as for the fact that when you push it back into its can, it makes this incredible farting noise."
Childish? That's the point! Nickelodeon is the first television channel to put kids front and center. "Kids are low on the food chain in the entertainment business - except for us," says Herb Scannell, Nick's president. "Here they're on top, and we really dig that."
Underlying all of Nickelodeon's shows, promos, toys, books, and videos is the Nick attitude, a smart-aleck personality that gives the brand its trademark irreverence. What makes that attitude a way of life at Nick is the office space - four floors of a Manhattan building that are designed for maximum fun. The design goal: to connect Nick's adults to every kid in its audience. The secret: five principles that make Nick's work space more fun than . . . well, a can of Gak.
1. Everything I learned about work, I learned in the second grade.
Viewed from the sidewalk, the Nick headquarters look as non-descript as any other glass tower. But the moment you step off the elevator on the 38th floor, you know something is different. First there is the explosion of bright, crayonlike colors. Then there are the kids crowding into the reception area. What with auditions for new shows and Nick's focus groups, kids are a constant feature of the office, and the network makes them feel right at home.
"Kids who walk onto the Nickelodeon floor are in awe," says Heye. "They're so excited to be here, they want to leave their mark." Of course, employees can play too. The walls, made of chalkboard, cork, and refrigerator-magnet-encrusted steel, invite them to register their jokes, random thoughts, and wild ideas.
2. Home is where the hearth is.
Traditional offices all tend to follow the same model. But traditional offices don't put the premium on creativity, originality, and family that Nick does.
"We opened the corporate kitchen off the lobby, so that you enter through the kitchen. The hearth is the heart of a house," says Richard Fernau, an architect at Berkeley, California-based Fernau & Hartman, which designed the Nick offices. "We built conference rooms in oddball shapes. We built mini-lobbies for the employees."
There are few straight lines or right angles. As you walk the halls, nooks and crannies appear, furnished with couches that help turn chance encounters into productive conversations. The in- between spaces are as important as the offices and meeting rooms.
3. All kids deserve their own room.
Nick is an exercise in branding: Each department or show is its own brand. Every department, from human resources to consumer products (where Gak was concocted), gets its own "neighborhood" with its own personality. The Web developers sit in an open bullpen, where they can easily discuss one another's work. At Nick Jr., where programs for the younger kids are developed, the offices have low ceilings - a constant reminder of the audience's point of view.
Nick at Nite/TV Land, the home of "I Love Lucy" and other beloved old shows, boasts the most evocative neighborhood ambiance. With its 1950s boomerang sofas and old wooden TV sets, the office could easily pass for the living room from "Father Knows Best."
4. It's only fair to share.
When she planned the new offices, former CEO Geraldine Laybourne got rid of all the big private offices in favor of more shared space. On every floor, public sitting areas have replaced luxurious private offices. "We had to bring along people who came from a corporate environment," says Marva Smalls, executive vice president for public affairs. "We said that private offices would be smaller and that assistants would get the windows."
5. Do your homework first - so you have more time to play.
Hanging around with kids and talking in the hallways - that's no way to run a network! At least not all of the time. Sometimes you need to hold a serious meeting or to concentrate on your own work. For privacy and quiet, each floor features one or more small meeting rooms, and each room has a door.
The variety in design, scale, and work style serves another purpose. "No two floors are the same, just like no two kids are the same," says Scannell. "Kids are forever changing. The idea at the heart of these offices is to create space that reminds you of that. You don't think of it as a place where you come to work. You think of it as a place where you come to play."
Michael Warshaw email@example.com is a senior editor at Fast Company.
A version of this article appeared in the February/March 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.