Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV docuseries exposes toxic behaviour and sexual abuse at Nickelodeon

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
4 Min Read
Quiet on Set exposes sexual abuse, harassment, inappropriate content and a toxic environment that belies Nickelodeon’s public output of fun, wacky and kid-friendly.
Quiet on Set exposes sexual abuse, harassment, inappropriate content and a toxic environment that belies Nickelodeon’s public output of fun, wacky and kid-friendly. Credit: The Nightly

Cautionary tales of child stardom are not new.

Judy Garland was given weight loss, sleep and stimulant drugs so that by the time she was a mid-teen, she was already an addict. Drew Barrymore was an alcoholic by the time she was 11 years old.

Even if you were too old to have been obsessed with genre-defining Nickelodeon kids shows in the late 1990s and 2000s, the revelation that the network was a cesspool of bad behaviour is not as shocking as it should be.

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Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV is a four-part documentary which exposes sexual abuse, harassment, inappropriate content and a toxic environment that belies Nickelodeon’s public output of fun, wacky and kid-friendly. The docuseries aired in the US last month but is finally available to watch in Australia today on Foxtel and Binge.

Nickelodeon shows such as Zoey 101, All That, Drake and Josh, iCarly, Kenan and Kel and The Amanda Show were never as big in Australia as they were in the US (they were on Foxtel and in the pre-streaming days, local pay TV penetration never rose above 30 per cent).

But some of those who got their start on Nickelodeon would go on to be global household names, including Ariana Grande, Emma Roberts, Kenan Thompson and Amanda Bynes – although the latter is, at this point, better known for her personal struggles than her screen work.

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 12:  Ariana Grande attends the UK Premiere of Sam & Cat at Cineworld 02 Arena on October 12, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images for Nickelodeon)
Ariana Grande got her start at a child star on Nickelodeon shows. Credit: Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images for Nickelodeon

While none of those big names were involved in the docuseries (Thompson addressed the scandal after its release), there were many that appeared on screen to talk through their experiences, including Drake Bell, Bryan Hearn, Giovannie Samuels, Kyle Sullivan, Racquel Lee, Katrina Johnson and Leon Frierson.

The chief villain identified in Quiet on Set was Dan Schneider, the creator and producer of the network’s most popular shows. Schneider, the docuseries alleges, was a man unto himself, a princeling who apparently got away with a slate of disturbing conduct because he had the Midas touch.

The New York Times once called him the Norman Lear of children’s television, referring to the late pioneer behind defining sitcoms including Good Times, All in the Family and One Day at a Time.

Behind the scenes, it was a different story. Two writers, Jenny Kilgen and Christy Stratton, alleged on Quiet on Set that Schneider would show employees pornography and verbally abuse staff. He also asked for massages from female workers.

Quiet on Set also highlighted the sexual innuendo that was laced through Schneider’s productions, even though it was kids TV, such as scenes of Grande squirting herself with a water bottle while lying down, putting her toes in her mouth or when her character strangely fondled a potato.

Dan Schneider appeared on the DanWarp YouTube channel to respond to Quiet on Set.
Dan Schneider appeared on the DanWarp YouTube channel to respond to Quiet on Set. Credit: YouTube/DanWarp

Actors Hearn and Samuels also alleged racist treatment on their shows and being forced into stereotyped portrayals.

Despite a lawsuit filed in 2000 alleging a hostile work environment, which was settled out of court, it wasn’t until 2018 before Nickelodeon finally parted ways with Schneider.

Days after Quiet on Set aired in the US, Schneider responded in a 19-minute YouTube video in which he said, “Facing my past behaviours, some of which are embarrassing and that I regret, I definitely owe some people a pretty strong apology.”

But the more disturbing allegations were that of child sex abuse committed by dialogue coach Brian Peck. Peck pleaded guilty in 2003 for a child sex offences and sentenced to 16 months in prison. The identity of his victim had been suppressed but in Quiet on Set, Drake Bell reveals himself to be that person.

Bell said he was 15 years old when Peck assaulted him. He claimed in the series, “I was sleeping on the couch where I usually sleep and I woke up to him. I opened my eyes and I woke up and he was… sexually assaulting me. And I froze and was in complete shock and had no idea what to do or how to react.

“Anytime I had an audition or anytime I needed to work on dialogue or anything, I somehow ended up back at Brian’s house. And it just got worse, and worse, and worse, and worse, and I was just trapped. I had no way out. The abuse was extensive, and it got pretty brutal.”

DRAKE BELL AND JOSH PECK WHO STAR IN NICKELODEON'S TV SHOW DRAKE AND JOSH.
Drake Bell (right) with Josh Peck during his Nickelodeon days. Credit: Supplied

Because of the reactions to Quiet on Set, the producers have announced it will broadcast an additional fifth episode called “Breaking the Silence”, which will reunite many of those who spoke out on the original documentary, including Bell, in a discussion led by journalist Soledad O’Brien.

That extra episode will be released in the US on April 7 but will not be available in Australia until April 19.

Nickelodeon said in a statement: “Though we cannot corroborate or negate allegations of behaviours 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.

“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 high standards and the expectations of our audience.”

Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV is on Foxtel and Binge

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