Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Minnesota journalist featured in ‘Quiet on Set,’ bombshell docuseries on alleged abuse at Nickelodeon

Rick Ellis sits on set of 'Quiet on Set' docuseries
Rick Ellis is the founder of the online publication "All Your Screens." His reporting on Nickelodeon landed him on the new docuseries "Quiet on Set."
Courtesy of Rick Ellis

The new documentary series “Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV” is creating shockwaves, exposing open secrets of abuse and harassment at Nickelodeon.

The docuseries created by Investigation Discovery will have a fifth bonus episode airing next Sunday, April 7.

The series includes interviews with producers, writers and actors who were part of some of the most iconic children’s shows in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.

It pulls back the curtain on the empire built by producer Dan Schneider, and the culture he created that includes allegations of abuse, sexism and inappropriate dynamics with underage stars.

Also featured in the documentary is Rick Ellis, a Minnesota freelance journalist who for years was one of the few writing about what was happening at Nickelodeon. Ellis is the journalist behind the website “All Your Screens,” and he joined MPR News Host Cathy Wurzer.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

When one of the big producers at Nickelodeon, Dan Schneider, left, why did you think that was a story at first?

Well, there’s always been rumors that there were problems on his set. If you talked to people in Hollywood there would be one of those little, “Oh, you don’t want to go over there” kind of things.

But he exited from Nickelodeon really unexpectedly to everybody. They bought him out, essentially, to leave. And at the time, I was just curious why. I wasn’t necessarily surprised that he had left.

I started calling people, just really cold calling, cold emailing people trying to get some kind of answers and slowly over about a year, I did seven or eight stories about various aspects of what life was like on his set and why he may have left.

It’s a really tough story to cover because people don’t want to talk about him even now, when they were working on this documentary, it was really difficult for them to get people to talk about it.

Was it an open secret with the harassment, some of the allegations of sexism? Were people talking to you about that?

Yeah, I mean, there was a couple different levels to it. There was the level of kids on the show. He was known to run a really difficult set, he was really abusive to people, cast and crew.

There were a couple of things that, lawsuits that people knew had been filed, but no one quite knew why. There was a lawsuit involving one of the female writers on one of the shows, but that was all sealed up.

There was these abuse allegations that everyone knew was someone that had some relationship to Nickelodeon, but of course because of the age it was all sealed; that hadn’t been identified. That turned out to be Drake Bell, who’s in the documentary.

But at the time, all people knew was this guy had been convicted of this. It was abuse of a minor; no one knew who the minor was. There wasn’t a lot of transparency about the whole thing.

Now was Dan Schneider charged with any crime?

He has not been. I think it’s really clear to say that he doesn’t have anything to do directly with the child abuse allegations as far as sexual abuse. One of the points that I made, and one of the points the documentary makes, is that environment Nickelodeon that made his abuse possible as far as, you know, abusing people emotionally — that also made this child abuse possible.

I mean, really until the third sexual abuser was uncovered at the network, they had never been doing background checks of anyone. So there wasn't a whole lot of guidelines in place and — it was almost a train wreck just bound to happen.

Do you think anything has changed at Nickelodeon?

I think some of it’s changed in that maybe they’re a little bit more aware. Parents are more aware. I mean, in theory, the network had guidelines in place that should have protected them from a lot of this.

But, you know, if you watch the documentary, you see parents talking about the fact that while they were sort of pushed aside, the producers would come in and say, “No, you don’t need to be here. It’s OK, we’ll be fine. We’ll take care of the kids.”

So a lot of that stuff really shouldn’t have happened to begin with. From the Nickelodeon side, none of those executives have talked to the press. They’re not likely to. One of the people who was a Dan Schneider protégé, they worked together really going back to “Head of the Class,” he runs a big part of Paramount now.

There hasn’t really been a whole lot of institutional responsibility. I think the only thing that really has changed is that it’s really unlikely that someone’s going to be able to come along like Dan Schneider and be this sort of Norman Lear of kids’ TV, it’s just a different business. Him being that successful gave him a lot of power that I don’t think you would find in most situations.

You have certain questions you want to find answers to. How hard will it be to find those answers?

I mean, I think it’s gonna be really difficult. The Nickelodeon executives, there’s no incentive for them to talk about this at all publicly. And for some of the child actors, like Ariana Grande, what incentive is it for you to say anything at all? Even if you had an incredibly positive experience, why open that up? It’s just easier for people not to say anything.

One of the things when I was reporting this out, I was able to talk to someone who was a star of one of his shows and she wrote this unsigned piece where she described what her life was like, after the fact.

We tried to get her to participate in the documentary, and she had no interest in it. It’s 20 years later, and her ability to really deal with a lot of this trauma is just — she still can’t, which gives you a pretty good indication of what some of these kids went through.

What was being interviewed for the documentary like for you?

It was interesting being on the other side. I have a face for radio, so I wasn’t really super, super comfortable — being on camera was tough. They talked to me for four-plus hours and you know, I was in the documentary maybe five minutes.

Some of that is just the function of it. They talked about a lot of things which ended up not making it in the documentary. As a reporter knows, there are stories where you have one person say something, but you can’t get that second person or you don’t get it to the point where you’re comfortable reporting it out.

I talked about a lot of stuff that for whatever reason didn’t make the cut. It was interesting, though — I really appreciate what people go through doing those things.

What have you learned as a reporter?

You’re certainly hearing some other actors from other shows coming forward, not so much from the sexual abuse side but just the emotional abuse side.

I’ve had a couple of people reach out to me wanting to talk and I think you’re gonna see more stories about that. Because, you know, even in the best possible scenario — I mean, I think back to what it was like when you were 10 or 12, and imagine being that age and having everything that you were going through play out publicly while you’re making more money than your parents could ever dream of.

If everything is perfect, it’s a really difficult situation. And unfortunately, most times things weren’t perfect.

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