- Source citation: Suzanne C., Ryan (July 13, 2002). "`SpongeBob SquarePants' absorbs a wide fan base." The Boston Globe. Retrieved October 28, 2013.
Soccer coach Rob Shepard knows something about child psychology. When his town's team, the Milton Machine, was practicing drills this spring, he didn't yell at poor performers. Instead, he called their wimpy shots "Squidward" kicks, their overly aggressive attempts "Mr. Krabs" kicks.
When they'd score, he'd give them the highest praise of all: "SpongeBob SquarePants" kicks. "They loved it," Shepard says. "All of them know about `SpongeBob."'
In the last year, Nickelodeon's animated SpongeBob SquarePants has become the No. 1 kids show on television, bumping "Rugrats" from its long-held perch. Along the way, this kind-of goofy, kind-of old-fashioned cartoon has grown into a pop-culture phenomenon. Besides becoming part of the language of kids, "SpongeBob" has reached well beyond its target audience to a cult base of grownups who watch the show -- with or without their children.
A merchandising tornado
The show has inspired fan clubs, Web sites and an inevitable merchandising tornado that has put the yellow sea creature shaped like a kitchen sponge onto key chains, snack boxes, T-shirts and bedroom sheets. More than 75 licensees are authorized to make products; total retail sales this year are expected to reach about $500 million, according to Nickelodeon.
Airing three times every weekday and twice a day on weekends, the program stars a good-natured sea sponge. He lives in a pineapple in an underwater village called Bikini Bottom and has a proclivity for getting himself, and everyone around him, in lots of trouble.
His best friend is Patrick Starfish, a dimwit who lives under a rock. Together, they have adventures with a handful of other sea-dwelling characters including Mr. Krabs (SpongeBob's greedy boss at The Krusty Krab fast-food joint) and Squidward Tentacles (SpongeBob's next-door neighbor and co-worker).
The oddball program has been around since 1999 but didn't gain attention initially because it was airing only on Saturday mornings. Last July, Nickelodeon began running the show four nights a week during prime time. Within two months, viewership exploded. About 61.1 million viewers tuned in during the month of May, the most recent ratings available.
While Nickelodeon was obviously pleased with the ratings, what the children's network didn't expect was that so many adults and teenagers would embrace the cartoon. Herb Scannell, Nickelodeon's president, says he was shocked to learn from his nephew that students at the University of Texas were singing the catchy "SpongeBob" song at parties.
Students at the University of Michigan had a "SpongeBob" Web site, he heard. "Then I got a call from Tony Bennett's office wanting some `SpongeBob' stuff. People were coming out of the woodwork!"
In May, about 20.3 million adults 18 to 49 years old watched the show, as did 9.3 million 12- to 17-year-olds. Together, that surpassed the 26.4 million 2- to 11-year-olds who watched.
Television experts say SpongeBob is a kind of "comfort-TV" star who is appealing to adults because he's an old-fashioned nice guy often placed in scenarios that adults can relate to. He has a tough boss (a crab), a neighbor who's a jerk (an octopus) and a love interest who's not interested (a squirrel).
Animator Stephen Hillenburg -- who had worked as creative director of Nickelodeon's animated series "Rocko's Modern Life" in the mid-1990s -- came up with the concept of "SpongeBob" after working as a marine science educator.