The late-night programming block has been delivering throwback TV for three decades now

By Drew Mackie
Updated June 29, 2015 03:00 PM
Credit: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Did you grow up in the age of color TV but still learned to love Dick Van Dyke and I Love Lucy?

If so, there’s a good chance you have Nick at Nite to thank. Classic television reruns were plentiful in the ’80s and ’90s, but Nick at Nite – which launched on July 1, 1985 – consolidated decades of American TV into one place.

Thirty years later, it’s still going strong.

In honor of the programming block’s anniversary this week, we’re looking back at how the network came to be and how it’s changed over the past three decades.

Hey, remember ARTS TV?

Starting on Apr. 12, 1981, Nickelodeon’s daytime programming gave way to Alpha Repertory Television Service (ARTS) at 9 p.m., allowing an older demographic to enjoy opera, ballet, symphonies and other fine arts content. On Feb. 1, 1984, ARTS went away and was replaced by the newly founded A&E, and when A&E was deemed successful enough to get its own channel in January 1985, a new nighttime programming block had to be devised.

Eventually, Nickelodeon acquired the syndication rights to The Donna Reed Show and decided to build a first-of-its-kind “classic TV” mini-network around that. The name Nick at Nite was picked and it’s lasted ever since.

The original line-up probably isn’t what you expected.

For this writer, thinking about Nick at Nite’s golden years calls to mind shows like Mary Tyler Moore and The Jeffersons. It took a while for either to join the lineup, however. The first retro television series to air as part of the Nick at Nite lineup was actually the 1959-61 sitcom Dennis the Menace.

Next up, Donna Reed. With more than 200 episodes, the show remained a staple of the Nick at Nite lineup until 1994.

Then, if ever so briefly, was the teen-centric Canadian sketch comedy show Turkey Television.

And finally there was Route 66, an hour long drama and an outlier in Nick at Nite’s sitcom-heavy history.

But your favorites did eventually come along.

Before the end of 1985, that founding line-up would be joined by more classic shows, including Gidget, My Three Sons, Mr. Ed and I Spy.

The Patty Duke Show joined in 1988.

And Bewitched started airing on Nick at Nite in 1989.

In 1991, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mork & Mindy and Get Smart were all added.

Mary Tyler Moore joined in 1992.

And The Wonder Years became a Nick at Nite regular starting in 1997.

See Our Favorite TV Couples First Kisses

Nick at Nite has also been doing original programming longer than you might guess.

Almost from the beginning, Nick at Nite was throwing its own creations into the mix. Perhaps one of the most notable is the sitcom Hi Honey, I’m Home, which aired first as part of ABC’s TGIF lineup and then would air the subsequent Sunday as part of Nick at Nite. The series featured a host of classic TV actors – and Nick at Nite regulars – reprising their old characters, including Barbara Billingsley (June Cleaver from Leave It to Beaver), Ann B. Davis (Alice from The Brady Bunch) and Jim Nabors (Gomer Pyle).

Today, Sister, Sister alum Tia Mowry stars on the Nick at Nite original series Instant Mom.

The station IDs are just as rad as you remember.

Rather than be weighed down by a single brand aesthetic, Nick at Nite’s station IDs have long been fun, weird and varied, with a vibe that has more in common with MTV than TCM or other retro-leaning channels. In fact, these clips helped set the town for the programming block as much as the shows actually being aired.

Nick at Nite started a trend.

On April 26, 1996, Nick at Nite itself spun off into its own full-fledged channel, TV Land, which was originally branded as “Nick at Nite’s TV Land,” just so viewers would make the connection. However, the nearly 10-year-old Nick at Nite programming block remained in place on the back half of Nickelodeon. TV Land eventually dropped the nominal tie with Nick at Nite, but they remain “sister” stations.

Today, channels that specialize in classic reruns are plentiful, with Retro TV, My Network TV, Antenna TV and Me-TV all launching within the past decade. Each showcases the kinds of shows that Nick at Nite helped to re-popularize.