Keeping Score with Nick Arcade
“The principle is: Do not fear the small number of people. Better three people fully linked together, than more but always disagreeing with each other.” – Daniil Ivanovich Kharms
Phil Moore, host of Nickelodeon Arcade (or better known to you and I as Nick Arcade), would probably agree with me that talking with show creators James Bethea and Karim (that’s Ka-Rim as in The Secret of NIMH) Miteff is absolutely entertaining… but also… extensive. Technical. Exhaustive? Maybe.
Both Bethea and Miteff, friends since high school who remain close two decades after their video game-based show originally aired in the early nineties (perhaps the first of its kind in history, actually), are garden variety, down-to-earth guys who make you think that you’re talking to an ol’ buddy you haven’t heard from in a while. Or, as Moore put it, spending time with them is like hanging with the characters from The Big Bang Theory.
“They had all this technical knowledge of computers beyond regular familiarity,” Moore said. “But they also had personality: You could relate to them and have fun with them… despite the fact they were brainiacs.”
The most important thing you need to understand about Nick Arcade is something rather simple: No one had ever done anything like it before.
You remember the VR Video Zone that ended each episode, where the kids would actually find themselves racing the clock through a video game? Someone had to actually come up with that crap, and along with producing, directing, writing, and managing the show almost entirely on their own, Bethea and Miteff — both barely 25 at the time — had to design and program both the hardware and software that ran such elaborate technological tomfoolery.
All three primaries of the show — Moore, Bethea, and Miteff — would amenably admit that the show’s technology by today’s standards is passé; but back in the late eighties, there just wasn’t anything around that compared.
“You look at it now and it’s like, ‘Whatever,’” said Moore who has a technical background of his own. Right out of aeronautical school, he worked as a data center computer librarian before giving stand-up comedy a try at Florida’s Bonkerz Comedy Club, where he hung out with the likes of future SNL star Darrell Hammond.
“But when we were on the show,” Moore continued, “I was just kind of in the eye of the tornado and watched it happen around me. It was way over my head. Everything I had done in my field was about ‘science present,’ whereas they [Bethea and Miteff] came up with something that was ‘future science.’”
“James and Karim had created such an original, technologically-advanced show for its time, you couldn’t argue with them about stuff because you didn’t know it yourself. These guys just invented this, so how can you tell them they’re doing it wrong?”
Now, yes, we’re talking about a kids’ game show. On Nickelodeon. About video games. And, yes, everyone — even Moore — can admit that sometimes the show would get a little… silly. Nevertheless, in order to realistically inject contestants into a video game phantasmagoria, the show boasted what was then the largest blue screen set-up in existence.
“You know what was amazing,” Bethea told me, “was the scale — the thing people didn’t get to see. Our set was 10,000 sq. ft. 100×100. And half of our sound stage was dedicated to blue screen sets, full-scale. That was the awesome part, really, to see it from that side and look at the scale of what we had built. That was amazing to go back and see this blue wonderland.”
Bethea recounted to me an anecdote that placed that magnitude in contemporary perspective. Turns out that another lifelong friend of Bethea’s and Miteff’s from their Bronx High School of Science days was none other than funnyman-turned-director Jon Favreau. (Bethea in fact appears briefly in both installments of the Favreau-helmed Iron Man movies.)
Said Bethea: “For Iron Man 2, there was a massive set built for the Stark Expo. It was the largest blue screen ever used in a film. It was so funny being there and having Jon explaining that to me, realizing we had done the same thing years before.”
“When he was doing Iron Man , Jon had told us that he went over to the set where James Cameron was doing Avatar, and Karim and I were thinking, ‘Wow, that sounds like Nick Arcade!’”
“Certainly in a technical arena,” Bethea continued, “some ideas hang around and reemerge in different contexts. It’s still amazing to think about, in a very literal sense, how far ahead of the time we were back then.”
In addition to his traditional geek passions (comic books, Dungeons & Dragons, self-taught computer programming, et al — “I wasn’t necessarily an athletic kid early on”), Bethea was into what was going on in his home state of New York with independent film bursting forth from the minds of Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch. Regardless of his having attended a premiere science and math magnet school, storytelling and fantasy was a large part of his nonage.
“By the time I got to college,” Bethea said, “I had already been doing a lot of stuff in television.” He then told me of a friend of a friend of his’ parent who was a producer of a television show that ran on Nickelodeon from 1980 to 1985 called Livewire (a kid-panel type show similar to PBS’ Zoom and hosted by voice actor extraordinaire Fred Newman).
Bethea became involved in that show as one of the kid panel members, interviewing folks and so forth. During the summers, he would intern at the show, and in so doing really got a peek into the goings-on of the production side of things. Meanwhile, he was working on music videos with rap video maven Lionel C. Martin who worked with acts ranging from Big Daddy Kane to Public Enemy and, later, Boyz II Men and R. Kelly.
After graduating from New York’s Hunter College (with a degree in computer science, natch), Bethea was brought on to work at the Children’s Television Workshop (responsible for Sesame Street and The Electric Company), doing some PA work. In discussing his time there, Bethea was able to make even working with Big Bird actor Caroll Spinney sound like a complex technological feat I couldn’t understand involving an RF wireless something-or-other.
While there, he also “took it upon myself” to create a database for the entire CTW tape library. “I thought I would get the ball rolling on that,” Bethea said without a twinge of arrogance. The dude just really digs computers.
One of the producers/mentors at CTW with whom Bethea was working (Nina Elias Bamberger) had a husband — Andy Bamberger (who would also go onto produce Clarissa Explains It All and Get the Picture) — who was producing for Nickelodeon a three-hour variety show called Total Panic.
Bethea was brought on — still in his early twenties, remember — as a segment producer, doing some of the “pop culture” bits: Movie reviews and such. He thought it would be a perfect opportunity to bring aboard his ol’ high school bud Miteff to do some video game review segments.
“It was an odd thing,” said Miteff, “because we were down here doing Total Panic, Andy became Vice President of Production at the [Nickelodeon] studio, Total Panic kind of waned and became another show called Out of Here and that show kind of fizzled.”
“It was really very bizarre, and I started working on pilots down there because the studios were just available and all the resources were available and, when people were available, I could go down and talk with the engineers, brainstorm, talk to them about stuff; they were very open in that way.”
“At Nickelodeon at that time, there were directives but not a lot of direction. As long as things got done, everything seemed to be fine. There wasn’t a lot of pressure because things were getting done.”
“James and I were doing all of these different pilots and they just pretty much let us alone. We were resident guys coming up with stuff though we weren’t really part of the organization, per se.”
“While we were at Total Panic, we would experiment with different things and Karim would go and find things,” said Bethea.
(Techie alert): “And one of things he found was software called Mandala that had VR capabilities that could run from a Commodore Amiga. It had something called ‘edge detection’ built into its ROM.”
“Back then, a lot of graphics were sprite-based [8bit and 16bit objects], and the computer would look at things called sprites and make games, and this hardware had the ability to know where sprites were and could manage collisions.”
“The Mandala software allowed you to take a chroma key input and digitize it and make it into a sprite. You could get a high-contrast image – something shot against a chroma key backdrop – into the computer and it would treat it like a sprite, and this is how you had interactivity.”
“We were really blown away by this.”
With this mind-blowing technology that you and I will probably never understand, Miteff and Bethea were ready to rock-and-or-roll…
“So we pitched a show that would be a more video game-focused version of Total Panic,” said Miteff, comparing their original idea to G4’s Attack of the Show! and X-Play: More sketches and segments dealing with all sorts of elements of video games, interviews, hosts, the whole schmear.
“I couldn’t go to the meeting because of my baby or something at the time,” Miteff said, “but when James came back, he was totally dejected. Nickelodeon didn’t buy our show.”
Remember, this was a time at Nickelodeon in which although “anything was possible” and there were plenty of resources and just about anyone could go up to execs like Geoffrey Darby and Gerry Laybourne with an idea for a show or concept, game shows — hint: Double Dare — were still king. That’s what they wanted and that’s what they were getting.
“It’s funny,” Miteff continued, “because I remember James just lying on the couch saying, ‘Yeah, Karim. All they want to do is game shows.’ And he just kept saying that.”
“And I said, ‘James, why don’t we just give them a game show?’ His eyes started opening up wide and he was like, ‘Yeah, why not?!’ It was literally the birth of Nick Arcade at that moment because we hadn’t been thinking that way at all.”
Miteff revealed that the show went through various iterations in the beginning, the first of which involved total video game immersion throughout. With all the practical considerations that would go into such an undertaking — even with that Mandala thingy or whatever it was at their fingertips — it would just be too difficult to pull off.
And Nick wanted more of a common, accessible, familiar game show format. One that would allow them to efficiently shoot four to five episodes a day.
“We had to create a series that was still recognizable as a game show, that had the structure of a game show with this technology that could also be adapted to the studio. It had to be done pretty much in real time [live-to-tape, meaning little to no editing] that would not have this elaborate set up.”
“Although our set up was very elaborate, when it was set up, we were done.”
Bethea told me that even though video games during the late eighties had a certain stigma about them — too much of a niche market, too easily associated with the “couch potato” mentality — “We could see that video games were becoming a legitimate part of kids’ lives, replacing stamp collecting or whatever had happened before it.”
“This was something real, something they took seriously. They were acquiring a set of skills playing video games and watching television that created a knowledge base. And so the idea was that if you could tap into that knowledge base, you could create that play-at-home factor.”
“Then combine that with the end round where you actually go inside the video game, and you also serve up that other thing Nickelodeon was looking for: Fantasy fulfillment. It was an ultimate fantasy — you go inside the video game.”
“It all sounded great, but we knew it was going to be an enormous technological challenge if we could pull something like that off.”
“We would have to do it. There was no system at all that existed that could produce a show like this. It was Karim and I as the resident nerds. That was a huge challenge because, unlike today where all the equipment gets along on purpose — scan rates and everything are all compatible between television and film — back then, it didn’t. We kind of had to figure out how to make it work.”
Something else Bethea and Miteff had to find to make the show work was a fresh breed of host to bring something special to their new kind of game show.
Moore told me that as a 31-year-old living with his young family and working a fine job with AT&T, he was initially reticent to get into the entertainment industry. That is until a serendipitous strike occurred at his division, leading him to perform for the crowds… who turned out to be rather grateful, one member of whom suggesting that he get into stand-up comedy.
“I did and bombed,” Moore confessed to me. “But I had fun.”
“What I lacked in material, I made up for in improvisational stuff,” Moore said about becoming an audience warm-up comic. “I was the guy who was keeping the audience laughing and pumping.”
Going by the name of “Filmore” at the time, he worked in this specialized capacity on such shows as Disney’s The New Mickey Mouse Club and MTV’s Remote Control hosted by Ken Ober.
Moore would also do audience warm-ups for shows that traveled around on-location like Wheel of Fortune. But it was when he did the warm-up for a reboot of Let’s Make a Deal with original host Monty Hall, that a technical glitch in the production led Moore to have to keep the audience going for much longer than usual.
An unexpected encounter with a TV icon would then change Moore’s life forever.
Although he had been working in audience warm-up on Let’s Make a Deal for more than two months, he hadn’t met one of the show execs at the time, describing the moment that he “came down out of his Ivory Tower,” as: “Dick Clark went out of his way to come down and shake my hand, and it was in front of 600 people, whom he yelled out to saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for Phil Moore!’”
“After that, I went home and told my agent I wanted my own show. ‘Just like that?’ ‘Yeah, just like that. I’ll go out and play a blonde hobbit, I don’t care. Just put me out there.’”
“What Dick Clark did was he was the one who made me realize I was good enough to impress someone who was impressive. That’s really all that was. I knew I was ready for that next level.”
Moore went on to tell me that another issue he had had about getting into comedy back in the day was the clichéd notion that comedy came from pain and suffering. When he would look out in the comedy arena, he would see Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, whom he loved but knew he couldn’t emulate without coming off as “fake.”
It was when he saw the manically vivacious comics Howie Mandel and especially Steve Martin in the early years that he understood, “You can just go out there and bounce around and be goofy, and if you do it right, people will dig it.”
Along with his Dick Clark epiphany, it was while doing audience warm-ups that Moore would meet Ober who was happy to give the budding comic’s resume over to some of his folks over at MTV — under the same Viacom umbrella as Nickelodeon.
Moore’s resume got passed around and, to this day, he doesn’t know whom but someone recognized his name and an audition on the new show being developed called Nickelodeon Arcade came his way.
“James and Karim did like five call-backs after the original audition,” Moore said. “I was like vomiting every time the phone rang. Finally, after the last call, I got the thing.”
At the time, Moore was so elated to get his own TV show that he didn’t think to ask until years later what it was that made him stand out amongst the other candidates.
“I actually asked James, and he said, ‘You both did a great job, but the thing that made the difference was — when they would stop to change tapes or make a phone call, you would go over and hang out with the kids for the screen test whereas the other person you were up against just stayed there.’”
“Performances on camera were neck-and-neck,” Moore said, “but they saw I was really a kid person, who liked kids, and could communicate with them on an organic level. I didn’t even realize that was the thing that made the difference until the conversation I had with James years later.”
The one thing Nickelodeon asked of Moore was to change his name from Filmore back to Phil Moore because “they told me kids thought it was cool to call adults by their full names.”
“I took the gamble, rolled dice, and it worked out well for me,” Moore said.
True, the show would be a piece of cake for Moore — “At that time, not to be disparaging, I was ‘just the host’ and only needed to be on point, hit my mark, have fun with the kids, and talk to the camera” — but Bethea and Miteff had quite a lot of challenges in their way that would make them cringe regularly throughout the show, knowing — in their minds — that if anything went wrong with the production (theirs) and the technology of the production (also theirs), they would be “fired.”
Game play was a big deal from the get-go.
The character of “Mikey” on the show (the animated avatar contestants would control during the beginning Q&A portion of the show) would come from a simple “blood drop,” according to Miteff, that had arms and legs, and somewhat resembled comic hero Astro Boy in Bethea’s original sketch for Miteff to conjure up in the digital realm.
(The name “Mikey” was both a jab at Disney’s “Mickey” and also may have appropriated his name, in Miteff’s memory, from the “Mikey” character in the old Life Cereal commercials — “He likes it! Mikey likes it!”)
But, boy would that little fucker give the show creators more trouble than the kids playing would ever know about…
“Again, we had to create a new model for television production,” Bethea added.
“It involved this sort of branching logic to it. We wanted Mikey to go left or right, and depending on where the kids took him, there was a result, a square that would reveal what we would do next.”
“And in traditional TV at that time when you’re dealing with videotape, all of those elements had to be loaded. So you can imagine the number of tape machines you would need so you could roll the machine depending on four choices [not just left and right, but also up and down].”
“The tapes were cued by operators and tapes had to be swapped by operators; the show was logistically almost impossible based on traditional models, and Nickelodeon told us as much.”
“I created a system using a video disc player (something Pioneer had just made) where you could burn all your content on a disc and put it in a machine, and the machine had a lot of different inputs and outputs including going MIDI.”
“When we first did the show [during the three pilots produced], we had three tape operators running around in the back and someone controlling the scoring system. We then went from three tape operators — very expensive personnel — to one staff person with one computer. All of the tape stuff went away. We went tapeless.”
“We had another person next to the judge’s table who worked the scoring system and would enter numbers plus/minus. So the entire production boiled down from massive man power in terms of running it live to two operators, which you could then take on the road and do anywhere, which we did when Nick toured shows around the country, bringing elements of Nick Arcade and Guts together.”
“It allowed us to produce the show without fear,” Bethea said about such necessary technological innovation. “It was kind of like a puzzle that everybody got behind. I imagine, on a tiny scale, it was like what James Cameron does whenever he does something that becomes an engineering task where everybody gets involved in just to see if it goes.”
“It made it so that when you moved Mikey on the board, it would then trigger all of these other events on the show [lighting effects, sound effects, etc.]. It was a really amazing thing and we were so glad it worked.”
“There were times when it would look like it wouldn’t work. We were terrified, every time we would do a run-through and the executives would show up, we weren’t sure if it would work. But because it did, we were able to do this great show for kids and fulfill this fantasy.”
The real pressure of such issues as making sure Mikey’s moves would trigger events accordingly was a matter of FCC regulations involving statisticians and the like coming to the set making sure the game was played in line with traditional rules of broadcast game play: That there was no Quiz Show-esque shenanigans afoot with some players being given easy wins by computer operators or whatnot. Shit had to work or, aside from being fired, the boys could land themselves and Nick in a real game-over scenario.
Nick’s concern about “couch potatoes” being produced from kids playing and watching video games (which Miteff said broke out into yelling matches during some meetings: “No one wants to watch someone playing video games!”) became another problem that wouldn’t go away.
Bethea feels that the Video Zone end game answered the “couch potato” question for its sheer physicality (recounting to me that the show could have easily been called “You’re Not As Athletic And Coordinated As You Think You Are” and telling me that watching adults — especially Miteff who apparently took the game way too seriously with all his grunting and talking to himself “as though he had been dropped into a war zone” — was the funniest part of working on the show).
But what about the fact that the boys wanted to present not only their own video games that they designed and sometimes programmed themselves, but also a few of the commercial games on the market? Sounds easy? Not in 1989.
“We needed to go out, talk to all of these companies, bring them along and have them participate in show together, which they didn’t want to do,” said Bethea.
“Also, a lot of the companies wanted the show to be a lot more commercial than the show was. That was one of Nickelodeon’s concerns, that it not just be a long commercial, that there be enough real content.”
Miteff told me that the participation of the different video game companies was easy enough to manage. He just asked. Still, he said, this was an innovative idea that everybody had told Bethea and him simply couldn’t happen. Thank goodness Miteff had already amassed all the connections his partner and he would need for such a cross-promotional undertaking, receiving — excitedly as he told me — some pretty cool shit like beta versions of Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario sequels that the show creators had to keep locked in cases… in locked cabinets… behind locked doors.
Locking up video games was one thing, but the information that was locked in Bethea’s and Miteff’s head was something else altogether.
Said Bethea: “We were doing a show that nobody else understood except for Karim and I, which was a real fear. Justifiably.”
“We spent a lot of time perfecting a system that they could understand, so there was only a few things that were super-technical. But everything else, the rest of the production could understand. It was kind of cool to see people come around to what we were doing.”
“There was some apprehension, but there was also a lot of pride about the people who had designed and built the studio. And to me, that was a great story of a great engineering ‘love fest.’”
Continued Bethea: “What was great about Nickelodeon in that era especially: They were doing lots of soul-searching to try to get into the minds of kids, to see things the way kids saw them. Gerry Laybourne’s idea was this was the network for kids.”
“We were going to try to be these stand-ins for the kids in terms of their interest, in terms of their point-of-view. Which is an awesome idea that I think kids really responded to: They felt that Nickelodeon was their network, which it was, as much as that is humanly possible.”
It was the kids themselves — or at least half of them — that would bring up another issue for the show creators.
“One of the things was the ‘girls vs. boys’ aspect,” Miteff remembers. “Girls at the time tended not to be big video game players, so we had to figure out a way to make the show appealing to girls. We knew the video challenges [in which team members would face off against each other by way of video games] were probably the least appealing to girls because that really put them on the spot.”
Granted, though Miteff estimates that about one in eight kids just couldn’t handle the Video Zone for whatever reason (contestants were vetted for the ability to be on television and play video games with some capability so that they wouldn’t just fall totally flat on their faces), “Girls seemed to be less proficient in the end game than the boys. Could have been hesitancy to some degree — not as quick to perform.”
“James and I did our own focus testing. We started to see patterns in the testing. One thing that was really interesting was that girls definitely liked video games, but they liked the kind of games where you could discover things, or where there was some kind of magical device, or something that gave them power. So we incorporated that into the end game and that got the girls excited.”
One issue, surprisingly, that never came up — good or bad — was the fact that along with everything else that was new and different about Nick Arcade, they were also the only game show at the time with an African-American host.
Now, yes, it’s easy to make fun of Moore for some of his rather “flamboyant” wardrobe choices (which he told me is one of the only things he would adamantly explain to anyone who will listen that was not his choice — “Capital N.O. NO! I did not choose my clothes!”).
And there’s his rather — at times — goofy antics (which he also told me he can now look back on and laugh about, wondering “what kind of crack was I smoking,” explaining to me that he only would so indulge when he felt the kids were freaking out so bad about being on a nationally televised show that if he was weird enough, nothing they could do would embarrass them).
And, sure, there’s his notorious singing the instructions while bringing the kids over to the various challenges along with the music (which he referred to as a “Phil Moore remmmmixxxx!”, telling me, A) That when he didn’t do that, the producers would tell him to remember to do so, and B) A friend of his son revealed that watching the show for Moore’s singing has become a drinking game — “That’s my legacy now: the Future of America is getting wasted thanks to my song”).
But, on the real, even though they didn’t realize it at the time, Moore was the only black host of a show like this, and among the first on a Nick show.
“We didn’t think of ourselves as doing anything momentous in terms of having an African-American host,” Bethea told me. “I was an African-American producer, if you want to go that route. I didn’t think of myself that way: We were just making a show.”
“It never came up, it never did. If anything, it seemed to be a plus. Seemed to make sense. He was the right guy. Phil is just a big kid and he has an amazing glow, this amazing personality. The energy he brought to that show fit in perfectly, made it fun to watch.”
“I think Nickelodeon wanted to be more diverse. They were growing in every kind of way, reaching out and saying, ‘Let’s see if we can reach out to this game-friendly audience.’ I think they were reaching out to all kinds of people when they were building their network, and this went toward doing that.”
Moore told me that there was never a single instance of someone making trouble for his being black on his own Nick show and that he also never received any kind of “good job doing this for your people!” type of cloying comment. However, he does remember going to the award ceremony to get an Cable ACE Award…
“The NAACP Image Awards were happening at the same time when we went to California,” Moore said, “and they arranged for James, Karim, and I and few other people to go, and when got there, it was weird, I didn’t know at that moment in time (1991/1992), there was no African-American host of a show on TV.”
“It’s funny, we never really thought about where we were in history or what we were doing in this country at this particular time doing a funny little game show about video games.”
“I was the only African-American host on a game show at a time when game shows were really big. We were just having a good time, trying to make the best show we could.”
“We realized later we really blew it and missed out on that,” Moore said. “I call it my ‘Lt. Uhura story.’ When Nichelle Nichols [who played ‘Uhura’ on Star Trek] was thinking about leaving the show, Martin Luther King Jr. told her she couldn’t, because she was ‘the only one,’ there was no other ‘equal’ on television, and she just never realized it before then.”
Said Bethea: “To Karim and I, it was about who was going to be the best host for this show. And, ultimately, he was. I can’t think of a better host.”
“The only thing that was particularly challenging for me was pronouncing all of the names for everything,” Moore said.
“There were more and more games on the market and these characters had a lot of crazy names. Sonic, I could deal with. Super Mario, all the time.”
“One of the biggest mistakes that makes me cringe when I see it now is on Sonic the Hedgehog. It was Dr. Robotnik, not Robo-neck. But when you see it written, it’s Robo-neck and it’s like, ‘Awww I said it wrong!’”
“I feel bad because people who were into their games and their game characters, it was like their family.”
“It was a fun ride,” Moore concluded. “It was a show and a group of people where we got along. We had a good time.”
Bethea remembers his time at Nick Arcade with likened fondness: “We were two kids with an opportunity that just doesn’t come along very often. To not only do our own show but play in an area that we’d always dreamed of: Video games and technology and gadgets.”
“When we initially pitched Nick Arcade to Gerry, what we tried to convey was this brand could encompass not only the show but anything video game-related at Nickelodeon or Viacom going forward. Because I knew she thought in those terms in terms of brand and big vision. And she seemed to respond to that.”
“I think the phrase ‘Nick Arcade’ was something she had said at an earlier meeting and was something I had filed away. ‘Here is this thing you have inspired and here is why it’s bigger than this show.’”
“And I think they still use that term at Nickelodeon today. In that sense, there was a visionary aspect to it. In terms of the show, it has been quite a surprise that kids got what we were doing and remember it, for the most part, fondly.”
Miteff brought it home with a nod to his life then and now.
“I see what we did at Nick Arcade as a true personal accomplishment, definitely something that when I pass away will be one of the things they mention I’ve done. I know I did a good job. I did a lot of what I wanted to do and learned a lot.”
“When I started my family, my priorities really changed. I still write from time to time, I’m still involved, but I’ve really been raising my kids. And if my kids can say, ‘My dad’s cool’ for creating Nick Arcade, if that’s the worst thing that happens, I think I’ve done okay.”
Mathew Klickstein is the author of SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age, which is in stores everywhere and will tell you more about Nickelodeon than you probably should know.