Nickelodeon benefits from an ultimately one-sided relationship, in which Steve from Blue’s Clues serves a manufactured comfort.
By Dede Akolo
As we all know, Steve from Blue’s Clues is very proud of you and everything that you’ve accomplished. At least that’s what he says in this video released on Nickelodeon’s Twitter account for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the beloved children’s show. Let’s be clear, I loved Blue’s Clues as much as the next kid, but I assumed that people knew that Steve Burns’ departure as host was made with no malice. Simply put, Steve saw himself getting older and as other staff he knew left, he reassessed his options. Burns famously “refused” to go bald on national television, and has dipped his hands into various artistic ventures over the last two decades. In 2003, Burns released his first album, Songs for Dustmites, which was produced by Flaming Lips member, Dave Fridmann. This connection stayed strong through many years and even led to a collaboration album with Steven Drozd, composer and multi-instrumentalist of Flaming Lips, under the band name STEVENSTEVEN.
The response to Nickelodeon’s celebration of Blue’s Clues silver jubilee was massive. At the time of this writing, the video sits at two million likes, nearly 530,000 retweets, and 275,000 quote tweets. While Steve has been very open about his departure. He sees no shame in his work and it is loved by many. So why would Nickelodeon post a video that contradicts these facts? One explanation could be that Burns and Nickelodeon wanted to keep all anniversary content within the universe of Blue’s Clues. The canon (or the original text) says that Steve left for college and had his younger brother Joe take care of everyone. A consideration for all the kids watching Blue’s Clues for the first time through reruns or by their parents’ request.
Blue’s Clues ran from September 1996 to August 2006 with six seasons, three hosts, and 141 episodes. If one was six when the first episode aired, they would be thirty-one years old this year. Burns’ video for the show’s anniversary, not only sustained the illusion of the universe this series takes place in, it also comforted the reality of the many nostalgic viewers. This all in all is not a bad thing, but it does ripple through to a very insidious quality of North American audiences: individualism. While seemingly unrelated, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the extent that people will go to maintain their individualism. The University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business conducted a study last year tracking the qualities of individualistic nations, namely Canada, the UK, and the United States, and its correlation to their compliance to social-distancing mandates. It found a difference of nearly forty to fifty percent of people who did not follow social-distancing mandates or reduced their activities.
Coming back to children’s television, the values of a society, as small as a household and as large as a country, can be seen through the media. Nickelodeon, a huge entertainment company, wants to make you, the viewer, feel special in hopes that you’ll buy into their product. Satiating and validating people’s individuality, a very popular idea right now, instills the idea that this media property, and others of this time, hold a moral importance in the viewer’s life. Not to disparage the importance and significance that art can have in society. This video, however, purposely addresses an older audience, the ones who were young when they watched Blue’s Clues. Steve too, was young, did things that may have hurt others, and wishes to atone for those mistakes now. An ultimately one-sided relationship, in which Steve serves a manufactured comfort.
What can we call this strange relationship? Sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl found that the best television established a false sense of intimacy, and they called this a parasocial relationship. As more and more homes filled with televisions, many important critics were wary about the effects of seeing some people only through a screen. Horton and Wohl saw the way TV presenters spoke to audiences as if they were close friends. Encountering presenters in real life, however, one comes face to face with reality: this person does not know you at all.
One-off viewers can keep themselves immune to the trappings of a parasocial relationship, but no executive wants one-off viewers. In terms of profit, “fandom”, “stans”, and “discourse” on Twitter are essential for the continuation of a media property. While I am not a Tumblr historian, I did sign up for the site in 2010, when I was fourteen. What is fascinating is witnessing the entire internet start enjoying media like Tumblr did (or still does, or is it worse?). This means enjoying media with a fervent passion and sense of ownership. Hosts and actors “owe us” an explanation for everything: their character’s on-camera action, the progression of the story, this one problematic line in the first season of a show that aired fifteen years ago, and so on and so forth. Accountability demanded online made some executives prioritize stories from marginalized peoples, and other executives started to sweat in their boots. This is net good. Critiquing “cancel culture” is neither cool nor interesting. What concerns me is how the general public analyzes all media like this.
Perhaps the general internet-going public was trained to feel this way about the media. Academia has been a part of children’s television for decades, most famously with Sesame Street, who employed developmental psychologists and education experts since its inception. Dora the Explorer, which aired in the same era as Blue’s Clues, is about Latina explorer, Dora, and her monkey friend, Boots, solving mysteries while audiences learn simple Spanish words and phrases. Dora and Boots also speak directly to their audience. In 2009, The New York Times ran a profile on children’s television and its effects: “Dora builds confidence in children because she shows them how to deal with different situations, and she gives them a chance to respond as if they were in the same room with her,” said Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, a research and advocacy group that focuses on children and the media. Conclusively, the call-and-response model on many children’s shows is conducive to proper cognitive growth in children. When done right children can become very active consumers of media while problem solving with their on-screen compatriots.
As children, executives and production teams seemed to experiment with this generation of Blue’s Clues and Dora the Explorer viewers. Vying for children as a profitable market needed to coincide with enriching their lives so as to not scare parents. Employing children to feel active in the shows they are watching ultimately coincides with a timely developing brain. What can concern the public now is the way the possession and activity from fictional characters carry into adulthood. Executives want to develop programming that incites a similar attachment and activity in adults. Perhaps they have become too good. Crawling into the innermost desires in our brains for individuality and purpose in this world that gets more monotonous, confusing, and dismal. What concerns me is not the good words of Steve from Blue’s Clues. His message uplifted me as it did for many others. Where problems emerge is the expectation that this sets. Keeping in mind that the Twitter-going public does not respect even a margin of the entire audience of any television genre or franchise. However, they are vocal. The power in being so loud means that these parasocial relationships with characters are more and more common, as people want to be validated externally in every part of their identity.
JOIN WEAR YOUR VOICE ON PATREON — We need to reach our goal of $15K/month by November 30th to keep this essential publication running. Uplifting BIPOC writers through your pledges is the direct community support that allows us to make more space for marginalized voices. For as little as $1 every month you can be a part of this journey to make necessary and positive change, and together we can keep growing.