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From Bourbons to Viacom - How Louis XIV Created Nickelodeon

By Tom Anderson

For the next article in our series looking at chains of consequences in history (and the implications for alternate history speculation), we’ll look at a chain whose start and end seem absurdly unrelated. Nickelodeon is an American TV channel and network which began at the end of the 1970s but achieved breakthrough success in the 1990s, not only defining the childhoods of many Americans but also being exported to countries around the world. Combining both cartoons and live-action shows, it remains a successful media phenomenon to this day, even with its own theme parks and hotels. Yet it would not exist without a decision made in 1680 by Louis XIV, France’s most iconic King. (Never set a pub quiz question to which the answer is Louis XV or Louis XVI, as the quizmaster will always read it out as Louis the Fourteenth).

Louis was a leading architect of enlightened absolutism, who not only went to war with most of the rest of Europe (and won as often as not) to extend French power, but also centralised it within his own realm. This extended to decreeing in 1680 that Paris’ two existing theatre companies, those of the Guénégaud Theatre (itself descended from the company of Molière, France’s greatest playwright) and that of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, should merge. The combined company was called the Comédie-Française or Théâtre-Français, and it continues to exist to this day. The company moved between several theatres, but in 1779 construction began on a new theatre to be its new home. The interior was designed by neoclassical architect Charles de Wailly, who had received the commission after gaining the support of the brother of Madame du Pompadour, powerful mistress of Louis XV (who, thanks to a great number of deaths in the royal family, had succeeded his long-lived great-grandfather Louis XIV at the age of five). The exterior was designed by de Wailly’s former schoolmate Marie-Joseph Peyre. The new theatre was finished in 1782 and became one of Paris’ most impressive and is today one of France’s six national theatres. Today it is formally known as the Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe, but at the time was simply called the Théâtre de l'Odéon.

Odéon is a French rendering of the Greek word for theatre. While the term had already been known to classically educated Europeans, the success of the theatre helped popularise it—particularly in 1791 when Louis XVI attempted to proscribe a revolutionary play by Marie-Joseph Chénier, Charles IX, which split the Comédie-Française’s loyalties down the middle and escalated the French Revolution. The name Odéon (or Odeon in English) swiftly became a popular one to name theatres and similar buildings. Indeed, it can be seen today in the British ODEON cinema chain—though that was also chosen because its founder in 1928, Oscar Deutsch, could use it as an acronym: Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation.

Now fast forward. The year: 1866, the place: Washington DC. The United States of America had survived its bloody civil war, which had ended only the year before, but at heavy economic cost. As the nation’s coinage was depleted, it was decided that a new non-silver five-cent coin should be issued. Joseph Wharton, a powerful Philadelphia-born industrialist, had seen which way the wind was blowing and begun buying up nickel mines during the war, so that he eventually gained a near-monopoly over nickel production.

Wharton successfully lobbied Congress to legislate that the new five-cent coin would be made out of a copper-nickel alloy. Unsurprisingly, the American public swiftly nicknamed the coin ‘a nickel’, a nickname which survives to this day, as does the coin itself. Prior to that time, the silver five-cent pieces that had formerly been issued had simply been called ‘half-dimes’.

In America in the late 19th century, as in other Western countries, a movement grew to open museums and exhibitions that charged only a small amount for entry, so as not to deny knowledge to the working classes. These were dismissed as cheap lowbrow entertainment by the upper classes, but the reality was variable, from genuinely improving establishments to sensationalist, circus-like entertainments. In the United States, these institutions were known as Dime Museums, as they usually charged ten cents for entry.

Seeking to undercut the market, in the year 1888 Colonel William Austin opened a Dime Museum in Boston, but cut the price in half and only charged a nickel. Although his institution was not a theatre, he decided to use the popular Odeon name, and combined it with the price he was charging to coin the name Austin’s Nickelodeon.

Evidently the term remained in the popular memory, for 17 years later, in 1905, Harry Davis and John P. Harris decided to reuse it when they opened a theatre on Smithfield Street in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia. A new era was dawning: that of moving pictures. Silent films had been born at the end of the nineteenth century and had now become commercially viable. Davis and Harris’ theatre was one of the first specifically designed not for live plays but for showing films. At this point films were still a novelty spectacle, only a few minutes long, and they realised that success awaited if they showed films continuously and kept moving viewers through—which required a large audience and therefore a low price. Austin’s older name was revived, more logically as this was now a form of theatre rather than a museum. Davis and Harris’ theatre was called a Nickelodeon, and the name rapidly became popularised across North America in the next few years. Nickelodeon silent films were popularly associated with lowbrow humour such as slapstick violence and visual comedy, although their repertoire expanded as films grew longer. The name was also sometimes applied to the earlier ‘peep show’ kinetoscope machines that individual viewers would look into.

Though successful in the short term, Nickelodeons were a victim of their own success—they created a filmgoing audience larger than their small capacity could cater for, and large dedicated cinemas (or ‘movie theatres’ in the US) succeeded them. Furthermore, Nickelodeons had always maintained their low ticket price by extremely basic furnishings such as hard wooden seats, and this was not compatible with the advent of the feature-length film. Nickelodeons declined into irrelevant around the time of the outbreak of the First World War, but to a generation of Americans they symbolised a particular era, one which became especially rose-tinted in hindsight thanks to the war.

In 1976, over six decades after the Nickelodeon’s heyday, director Peter Bogdanovich made a film about silent movies, drawing on true stories told to him by their now-elderly directors. Although his film was set in 1914, at the end of Nickelodeons’ success, he used the iconic word as his title. The film bombed at the box office, but helped re-popularise the name.

Likely not coincidentally, three years later the name came to prominence once again. In 1977 Warner Cable piloted a new two-way interactive cable television system named QUBE, which came with ten bundled channels to encourage customer uptake. One of the channels was named Pinwheel, which only showed a single programme of the same name, a children’s variety show. The programme’s creator, Dr Vivian Horner, had formerly been director of research on PBS’ iconic “The Electric Company”, and now worked on transforming the Pinwheel channel into a true children’s channel with a diverse output. At this point, it is worth remembering, there was no single channel dedicated solely to children’s programming anywhere in the world. Warner saw this project as a loss-leader that would make it useful to franchise across the company, as the channel at that point lacked adverts/commercials. But the new channel needed a name. Enter New York-based creative consultant Joseph Iozzi, who took the—in hindsight rather peculiar—decision to use the name of a turn-of-the-century form of entertainment to appeal to the youth of 1979. Iozzi’s name was taken from 150 other suggestions, including The Rainbow Network. At first, the channel deliberately invoked the archaic image, with its first logo showing a boy in 1910s clothing looking into a ‘peep show’ machine coupled to a rather irony-laden slogan saying "The Young People's Satellite Network," and (lacking adverts) its programmes included interstitials that featured a silent-film mime dancing.

​At first the Nickelodeon channel struggled for success, and was operating at a loss of $10 million by 1984. By this point any deliberate nods to the 1910s origins of the name had long since been abandoned, leaving it as a mere historical curiosity. In 1984 the channel embarked on one of the most impressive rebranding efforts in history, and within six months had become the dominant children’s channel in the US (by now it was no longer the only one) and remained so for a remarkable 26 years. In 1986 it was sold by Warner to Viacom, its current owner.

And so we see that, were it not for a decision taken by King Louis XIV of France in 1680, no child would ever have looked at this logo in the corner of their screen and wondered what on earth it could possibly mean!

More ‘chains of consequences’ articles are on their way…



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