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“Rugrats” turns 10

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Ten years ago, no one could have predicted that "Rugrats" would still be in production today, let alone be the most popular kids' show on television.

"Who would have thought 10 years ago (that) a bunch of babies would have stolen the hearts of millions, showed us the world from the carpet up, and claimed the No. 1 spot in children's television for five years, no less," said Cyma Zarghami, executive vice president and general manager of Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite.

"Honestly, I'm just completely amazed at what's gone down with the show," said E.G. Daily, the voice of Tommy Pickles. "It's just incredible. . . . None of us knew that we were going to be doing 10-year anniversary specials and feature films — that it was going to be on every rack of every toy store. I never thought I'd be the voice of toys and dolls and games."

But as the show approaches its 10th anniversary, the phenomenon continues to grow. Nickelodeon's "Rugrats" has been the top-rated kids show in all of television — broadcast and cable — for the past five years. (It's been No. 1 on cable for eight years.) It reaches 28.5 million viewers a week, and among kids the characters are more recognizable than the Simpsons, Bugs Bunny or even Mickey Mouse.

"We're both surprised," said Gabor Csupo, who, with his wife, Arlene Klasky, created and executive produces the "Rugrats." "We wanted to do funny cartoons and, hopefully, do it a little bit different than everybody else around us."

Expect ratings to spike on Saturday (6 p.m., Nickelodeon) when the show's 10th anniversary special airs. The hourlong episode is a delight and takes the show in a new direction — after 10 years as babies, we see Tommy, Chuckie, Phil and Lil 10 years in the future, when they're on the verge of becoming teenagers (and Anjelica is already an obnoxious adolescent).

"It is really in a category of its own in terms of the way that it has ranked over time," Zarghami said.

In 1998, "The Rugrats Movie" earned more than $150 million at the box office; the 2000 sequel "Rugrats in Paris" earned nearly $100 million. Both films were No. 1 on the charts when they went to video.

There was even a hugely successful touring musical production of "Rugrats."

In addition, the "Rugrats" have been turned into everything from toys to games to dolls to computer software — their images are on food items, clothing, books, comics, magazines and more. Annual "Rugrats"-related sales are in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The show is currently seen in more than 150 countries in 25 languages, and has won a slew of awards, including three Emmys and a prestigious Humanitas Prize.

All this for a show with the most unlikely of premises: "Rugrats" looks at the world from the point of view of a group of babies — Tommy Pickles (and more recently, his little brother, Dil), Chuckie Finster (and his new stepsister, Kimi) and twins Phil and Lil. And a couple of older kids — the ever obnoxious Angelica and sweet Susie.

The various parents and even grandparents are regular characters with lives of their own. But when they're not around, the babies talk to each other articulately, but with babies' sweetly naive understanding (often misunderstanding) of the world.

"It looks at the world from a kids' point of view," Zarghami said. "It does it with a sense of humor. It helps to make kids feel empowered. It is surprising and adventurous and fresh every time you see it. It's rich with characters and it really reflects what's going on in kids' lives today."

The popularity of the program, however, caught the folks at Nickelodeon by surprise. The original plan was to produce 65 episodes and then repeat those ad infinitum. But the show's popularity exploded.

"We certainly develop our properties hoping that they would have a long shelf life so that we could eventually pay for them," she said with a laugh. "But we did not necessarily anticipate the emotional connection that it would have with so many people for such a long time."

And it's an emotional connection that crosses generations. Not only are there a wide range of kids who watch "Rugrats" — 2-year-olds to 14-year-olds — but it's a program their parents also enjoy because it's both funny and smart.

"Even though the show was for kids only, we thought that we would write it for the parents as well," Csupo said.

"We can all turn it on and it's not a drag," Daily said. "We can be entertained. It's totally about family. We all can relate. And it's funny. The jokes that go over the kids' heads and right to the moms and dads just crack me up."

It's also a show that parents can feel safe letting their kids watch; not only is it entertaining, but it's not full of inappropriate material.

"We have figured out a way to be really good for kids and be incredibly entertaining at the same time," Zarghami said.

Klasky points to the "really, really positive messages for kids to empower them to deal with kids issues and to take chances, like we did with Chuckie getting a new mom."

And that makes "Rugrats" even more rewarding for the people who work on the show.

Nothing lasts forever, but at Nickelodeon they've learned not to underestimate the staying power of "Rugrats."

"I think that we'll keep making the 'Rugrats' until we feel like we have exhausted every storyline possible," Zarghami said. "But I think kids' lives change so frequently that that day may never come."

As a matter of fact, Nickelodeon is working on three possible "Rugrats" spinoffs — one that would follow the kids at the age of 12 (as in the 10th anniversary special; another that would feature Anjelica and Susie as preschoolers; and another that would take Susie and her family to her grandmother's house in Atlanta.

Which doesn't mean the original show is going away or running out of ideas.

"You never know what they're going to come up with. The features were, like, wow!" Daily said. "They're always topping themselves or coming up with a whole new concept or a whole new direction to go in. Which is really awesome because the show just constantly moves without changing the beautiful things that work about it."

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com