As a journalist, one of the worst things than can happen to you is hearing from a source who tells you that you've let them down. I received one of those this morning, from a well-known actress who asked me why I had decided not to run a piece about one of her former bosses. "You said you cared about this story," she complained. "I trusted you and you let me down."
When producer Dan Schneider and his production company Schneider's Bakery split with Nickelodeon in March 2018, the suddenness of the move came as a surprise to many industry observers. While Schneider had a reputation for being a difficult person to work with, he was also responsible for a string of hit teen-oriented shows for the network. In fact, that roster of hits - in many ways defined the network for nearly 20 years. Schneider's "Henry Danger" was doing well in the ratings and there were even plans for a spin-off series.
So what happened?
After nearly two year of talking to network executives, cast and crew for all of Schneider's shows, I find myself left with a "Rosebud" level mystery. I've reached out to over 100 people and done some level of interview with more than 40 former co-workers of Dan Schneider. And after all of that, there is a limited amount I can talk about publicly.
When I began research for this piece, what I didn't anticipate is that no one would be willing to talk on the record. Slightly more than 40 interviews, more than a dozen of them wider-ranging, extensive discussions and not one person wanted to be identified. To be fair, this doesn't mean that all the interviews ended up being negative towards Schneider. I spoke with people who raved about his talent and described him as a kind and generous writer and producer. But they didn't want to be quoted by name.
On one level, I understand their reluctance to attach their name to even positive comments about Dan Schneider. All sorts of rumors have swirled around him in recent years and while some of them are QAnon-level crazy, no one wants to take a chance that there might be some level of truth in one of the stories. No one wants to have to explain their positive comments about someone who might at some point be the focus of an unsettling story.
But I spoke with a number of people who were less kind about Schneider and their reasons for remaining anonymous were as varied as their stories. Some people were out of the business and weren't eager to publicly rehash an experience they considered to be unhealthy and unpleasant. In many cases, the people I spoke with are still in the business in some level and feared that airing their complaints in public would brand them as "difficult" in an industry that depends on trust and discretion. I also spoke with several former stars of Schneider shows and in their cases they feared that discussing their experience working with the producer would follow them around for years. "I've busted my ass to build the career I want since the show ended," said one actress. "The last thing I need is to have every interview for next ten years ask me about Schneider and his show. I respect and appreciate my fans from that era, but I also need to move on. Let those fans remember the show however they want. I'm done."
As a journalist, having sources on the record is vital for a story like this one. Part of the issue is credibility. I'm not Ronan Farrow. Despite the fact that I've been a full-time journalist for more than 20 years (more often that not doing hard news), there is no reason for the average reader to believe my reporting. Without sources on the record, it's difficult for readers to discern the trustworthiness of my reporting.
As a secondary reason for having sources on the record is more pragmatic. When you are writing about powerful Hollywood people - even if the story is only marginally unpleasant - you run the very real risk of being sued. While Gawker-type extinction events are rare in journalism, they do happen. What's scarier is the prospect of being sued and facing a legal bill so big my grand kids will be paying it off. I'm not a journalist at some big media outlet that has a team of experienced litigators in speed dial. I'm a one-man show who's only real legal advice comes from the free legal aid I can request from the local bar association. It doesn't matter if I'm right. Any level of a legal battle would ruin me financially and likely force me out of journalism. I'm brave and all that. But what I am not is financially suicidal.
So what can I tell you about the reasons why Dan Schneider and Nickelodeon had such a public split? I can tell you that from the network perspective that it was a long time coming. According to several executives I spoke with on background, Schneider's productions had increasingly been running over budget, due to long days of shooting that added overtime charges, meal overages and other related costs on a regular basis. They point to Schneider's increasingly belligerent interactions with the network, over everything from promos to script changes. "A network will swallow a lot of crap from a producer who is getting the job done," said one high-ranking network executive. "But there were signs his type of program was becoming less popular. And his response to the decision to wrap 'Game Shakers' after three seasons was the last straw for some of us."
According to several sources, Schneider reacted to news of the cancellation by screaming at several executives with such force that it left one executive "physically shaken." It was after that meeting, I was told, the decision was made to cut ties with the successful producer. That exit involved a financial settlement to Schneider, that was reportedly in the range of $7 million.
But there are several other components of the story that network executives I spoke with declined to address. Schneider's behavior had become progressively more confrontational over the years, with people I spoke with claiming he was emotionally abusive, vindictive and had an unsettling behavior around some of the cast. I was told multiple times that complaints had been made to the network or to what passes for the network's HR department. But while there seems to have been at least two incidences where a settlement of some sort was arranged, I wasn't able to independently confirm that was the case. This behavior was a barely-kept secret in the industry and network executives had to have known there were issues. But they seem to have been more than willing to let it go as long as the hits kept coming.
Schneider has also been the target of a number of more serious rumors over the years, due in part to his seeming fascination with the feet of some his stars. I had a number of discussions with co-workers of all levels trying to determine whether any of the rumors are true. And you shouldn't imply anything when I tell you this is a subject I so far can't discuss publicly. I can tell you that I was able to prove to my satisfaction that one well-known rumor about the star of one of Schneider's early shows isn't true. After speaking to the actress, family members and other cast, the rumor is just that. A rumor that sounds salacious.
There is a lot I wish I could write about. Both things I know and can't reveal at this point as well as questions I wish I had better answers for than "maybe." I've spoken to several longtime Schneider associates who have argued that while he can be "passionate," he wasn't abusive. And that any of the more serious rumors are just internet gossip from people trying to bring down a successful producer.
I wish Dan Schneider would talk to some journalist on the record about these stories. Even before the split with Nickelodeon, Schneider was one to give in-depth interviews. And from what I can tell, he hasn't spoken publicly to anyone in the press over the past two years. Until recently, Schneider wasn't even posting on social media but in recent months he has returned, albeit limiting his posts to mostly "Happy Birthday" wishes and mentions of highlights from his shows. He's also apparently lost weight an occasionally posts out photos of meetings he's had with former cast members. But it's interesting that at a time when the major streaming services are scrambling to develop more teen-oriented programming, Schneider seems to have decided for whatever reasons to sit things out for now.
It's a fair criticism to read this and decide that I didn't share any juicy details. That's fair. I wrote this because I wanted that young actress to know that I tried. And I will continue to try as much as I can with my limited amount of resources. I can tell that there is a great story here and I still hope I'll be the one able to tell at least some of it.