During my second trimester bouts of pregnancy insomnia, I used to lie on the futon in my living room and binge-watch “That ’70s Show” on Nickelodeon. I’d never paid attention to the show when it aired in prime time, but I found it oddly soothing in syndication, after midnight. Because the stoner humor, all-white principal cast, and 1970s Wisconsinite nostalgia bore so little resemblance to my own experience, it was comfortingly escapist. I thought my TV preferences would continue trending toward escapism, but two years later, in 2012, Nickelodeon launched Nick Mom, a two-hour block of original programming airing on its toddler focused Nick Jr. channel, between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Eastern. I realized then that mom-centered television was something I never knew I’d needed.
Nick Mom’s early programming wasn’t an immediate fit for me. “MFF: Mom Friends Forever,” a reality series about two suburban mothers, one married and one divorced, seemed like a live-action representation of the predominately white middle- and upper-middle-class mom-blogger community I’ve rarely found relatable. The same was true of mommy memoirist Stephanie Wilder-Taylor’s “Parental Discretion,” a hybrid late-night/daytime talk show series. While her nightly panels of parents were multicultural and witty, Taylor’s opening monologues, along with the show’s skits, on-the-street interviews and other segments just didn’t appeal to me.
Nick Mom’s slogan, “Mother Funny,” also seemed impossibly cheesy. Every ad emphasized the premise that moms revert to would-be bar-crawlers, foul-mouthed and unscrupulous, after their kids were put to bed.
Over time, I did find two programming bright spots: “Nick Mom Night Out,” a stand-up comedy series featuring comics who were also parents, and “Take Me to Your Mother,” an amazing, one-of-a-kind docu-series that took neurotic new-mother and comedian Andrea Rosen across the country and overseas, interviewing mothers at their homes and places of employment. Rosen talked to NFL wives, NASA moms, and nudists. She even visited France to observe the structured, yet relaxed style of parenting championed in Pamela Druckerman’s book, “Bringing Up Bebe.”
It was “Take Me to Your Mother,” with its immersive look at the interior lives of women at various stages of parenting, that first made me aware that smart, incisive, mom-focused TV was an untapped market. “Nick Mom Night Out” further drove home the point, its comedy routines highlighting mothers and fathers’ different family structures and approaches to parenting. Divorce, single parenting, joint custody agreements, adoption, and unmarried parenting were all candidly, if lightheartedly discussed, and rather than feeling like a programming meant to “mindlessly entertain,” as one “New York Times” reviewer called Nick Mom’s lineup, “Nick Mom Night Out” could occasionally have a support-group-like tone, parents from dissimilar households commiserating over what they had in common.
Late in its original programming game, Nick Mom even rolled out a black family sitcom, “Instant Mom,” which centered on a stepmother (Tia Mowry) in a May-December marriage, whose carefree life recalibrates when her husband is granted unexpected full custody of his three children. Though the premise itself may not have been new — ABC’s “Trophy Wife” tread similar territory in 2013, the same year “Instant Mom” debuted — the decision to make the family African American was a refreshing take. “Instant Mom” preceded ABC’s “Black-ish” by a year, making it one of very few new black family series in its debut season.
Nick Mom was plagued with controversy and setbacks from the beginning. Mom bloggers were displeased with it, citing the network’s use of quotes from popular mom-centric blogs and social media accounts, as well as images of their children, without permission. Parents nationwide were appalled, pointing out that the show’s risque content, which included profanity and ribald humor, aired as early as 4 p.m. in some markets, thereby preempting their toddlers’ pre-bedtime cartoon-viewing. As a result, Nick Jr.’s ratings plummeted by 74 percent after Nick Mom’s debut, while fledgling competitor, Disney Jr., enjoyed a huge bump.
It’s worth noting that Disney Jr. has some nighttime interstitials aimed at mothers, including cooking segments and lifestyle clips focused on interests like interior decorating and photography. But its toddler programming is never interrupted.
Nick Mom’s early detractors argued that there are plenty of networks for adults, so the few cable channels aimed at preschoolers shouldn’t have to share their space. But it’s the mothers of preschoolers, who are as demanding as they are adorable, who would be particularly interested in programming committed to transitioning them from the minutiae and rigors of childcare to adult discourse and humor. And even for mothers of older children, there may be countless channels to choose, but none are marketed entirely toward satirizing and celebrating the work of raising kids.
There has to be a compromise between dry home-and-garden style tips for mom between toddler shows and a two-hour block of irreverent humor for mothers looking to unwind or blow off steam after their children are in bed. Of course, a big part of that compromise would be in ensuring that programming black aired at 10 p.m. or later in all markets.
These days, Nick Mom is all but a shell of its former self. Though the website is still regularly updated, its original programming has either been canceled or moved to other networks (“Instant Mom” will begin its third season on September 19 over at Nickelodeon sister channel TV Land). On weeknights, the two-hour block still referred to as “Nick Mom” airs “That ’70s Show” reruns. On weekends, it’s home to syndicated episodes of NBC’s acclaimed drama “Parenthood.”
Until some network makes another attempt at marketing specifically to moms whose children have finally dozed off for the night, our demographic will have to settle with escapism rather than genuine engagement.