Nick: Just Say No to Zoey

Jamie Lynn Spears delivered kids-targeted Nickelodeon a nice and unexpected early Christmas gift yesterday with the news that she’s in a family way.

Now, Nickelodeon should make an early New Year’s resolution to its young, impressionable viewers and not air the fourth season of the 16-year-old Spears’ tween-targeted Zoey 101 series, set to debut in February. 

Spears’ pregnancy announcement Wednesday on the pages of celebrity tabloid OK! Magazine is not quite what the network was expecting from the star of the popular Zoey 101 series, who up to this point had avoided the public controversies that some teen and tween TV stars have gone through over the years – including her big sister Britney. In fact, Jamie’s bombshell pregnancy makes Disney Channel’s troubles this past September with High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens’ nude Internet pictures seem tame in comparison.

But unlike Disney, which stayed quiet and allowed the controversy over Hudgens to blow over and has re-cast the 19-year old actress in the next summer’s High School Musical 3 theatrical movie, Nickelodeon may not be able to wait out the media frenzy and potential backlash from parents and kids before it determines what to do with new episodes of Zoey 101, which is expected to debut in February.

There’s certainly temptation for Nickelodeon to leave the show on the air for business reasons if nothing else. You have to believe that the inordinate amount of press surrounding Spears will help boost viewership for the Zoey 101 third season finale Jan. 4, and the series’ fourth and final season would certainly generate significant interest and viewership as her pregnancy plays out in real life.   

But in this case, the network should pull the fourth season from the air. Whether right or wrong, millions of parents trust Nickelodeon to deliver age-appropriate, virtually controversy-free content to their tween and teen kids. And fair or unfair, many of those 9 to 17-year olds look at the characters on the various Nickelodeon shows as cool, funny, virtual brothers/sister role models whose actions they may aspire to follow.

Spears plays a level-headed teen on the series who balances the academic rigors of boarding school with the typical challenges and situations that teens find themselves in – with the notable exception of a Zoey pregnancy.   

But now Spears is the person front and center of the hot button teen pregnancy issue. As opportunities go, this could open up a much needed dialog between parents and their kids about the risks and consequences of teen sex, with Nickelodeon serving as a family-friendly, but neutral buffer. Indeed, the Associated Press reported this afternoon that Nickelodeon may develop one of its signature Linda Ellerbee-hosted Nickelodeon News town hall meetings around the issue.

That would provide a chance for Nickelodeon to deal with a real-life issue in a non-fiction setting where it’s less confusing to the network’s core audience than having to navigate through potential viewer unrest about new Zoey 101 episodes, which will feature a thin, innocent Spears on screen at the same time her stomach bump is plastered all over the tabloids.      

Nickelodeon has been the number one most viewed network in cable on a 24-hour basis for the past 13 years. While airing the fourth season Spears’ Zoey 101 probably won’t significantly alter the average 2 million viewers the network averages on a daily basis, Nickelodeon has to ask itself whether airing those remaining shows is worth the risk of damaging the trust it’s built with viewers that has led to such an incredible viewership run.

In the end, the answer should be no.