Hell for child stars: Documentary reveals the abuse behind the scenes at Nickelodeon

"Quiet on Set," a five-episode series on Investigation Discovery, reveals the traumatic experiences of multiple child stars while working on shows created by Dan Schneider.

Sexualization of children, racism, harassment, incitement to use drugs and alcohol... The horrific rumors about the children's television industry have been confirmed. All these crimes that have been flying under the radar at Nickelodeon and Disney Channel for years have come to light, and this time, names have been named.

What happened during the filming of iconic kids shows like "iCarly," "All That" and "Zoey 101"? Now we know. What were once rumors are now facts. From the pregnancy of Jamie Lynn Spears, the star of "Zoey 101" and sister of Britney Spears, to the notable absence of Jennette McCurdy (Sam Puckett in "iCarly" and in "Sam & Cat") at the 2014 Kid's Choice Awards, where the creator of both shows, Dan Schneider, was honored, as well as rampant eating disorders at Nickelodeon and Disney Channel. There were many theories about how terrible the industry was for children, but now the truth has been revealed.

The horrific reality at Nickelodeon was highlighted in a new tell-all documentary, "Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV," from Investigation Discovery and available on Max starting Tuesday in Latin America and Friday in Spain. The film shed light on the brutal treatment suffered not just by the young stars, but everyone who worked on the set of those series. Workplace harassment and inappropriate behavior are just the beginning the long list of reprehensible acts, and all roads lead back to the same man: Dan Schneider, the creator of "Zoey 101," "iCarly," "Victorious" and "Sam & Cat," among many other popular kids shows.

The stories told in the first two episodes are already shocking. Two women are forced to share the salary of a single screenwriter due to apparent lack of funds. They later find out that they are having to split their pay not due to lack of budget, but because they are women, though not until practically halfway through the first season of the series "All That." The same show was also a hotbed for racism, which was reported by several of the actors, as they saw their characters parody drug dealers. Young actresses in practically all the series created by Schneider were forced to kiss much older co-stars and were encouraged to dress in suggestive clothes to attract the eyes of more adult viewers.

Schneider encouraged risqué clothes and alcohol consumption

This environment was often traumatizing for young actors, as one of them, Alexa Nikolas, confessed. The actress, who played Nicole in "Zoey 101," was one of the first who dared to come out about her experience working with Schneider and did not hesitate to do so again in "Quiet on Set." She explained again how she was made to dress in risqué clothes and perform sketches that could easily be confused with sexual situations.

And the wardrobe for me was always very different than Jamie's. Mine was always like short... skirts and like fitted tops, even like off the shoulder. Dan Schneider would come in for the wardrobe fittings, I would come out, and I would do the spin. And then they would take a Polaroid of me and the he would say: 'Can I have the Polaroids at the end?' When I look back at that, that's weird. Why does it matter to him what I'm wearing?

Not only that, Schneider also encouraged them to consume alcohol even if they did not feel comfortable with it. Jennette McCurdy reflected on this in her book "I'm Glad My Mom Died," where she describes how Schneider was the one who encouraged her to have her first drink when she was just 18 years old:

-Come on, take a sip.
-No thanks.
-Come on.
-I’ve never had alcohol before. And I’m only eighteen. Couldn’t I get in trouble?
-No one’s looking, Jennetter. You’re fine.
-I dunno.
-The 'Victorious' kids get drunk together all the time. The 'iCarly' kids are so wholesome. We need to give you guys a little edge.
The Creator always compares us 'iCarly' kids to the kids on his other hit show, 'Victorious.' I think he thinks it’ll make us try harder.
-I don’t know if drinking is what gives a person edge.
I look at The Creator’s drink. He picks it up and sloshes it around. It’s some sort of whiskey mixed with coffee and cream. I do like coffee.
-One sip.

All of this, along with other reprehensible attitudes, caused, as McCurdy relates in her later writing, Nickelodeon managers to eventually ban Schneider from being on set. Instead, they locked him in an adjoining room, though, several of the workers explain, he continued to take advantage of the young performers. Alexa Nikolas was one of them, and she recounted in the Investigation Discovery documentary how participating in "Zoey 101" affected her:

Towards the end of season 2 of 'Zoey 101,' I wasn’t happy. I actually could not show up to set anymore without crying. A lot of my self-worth was deeply damaged from that set experience. Me as a person was altered for life.

Many of the former child stars who speak out in the documentary explain that they feared the consequences that could arise from exposing Schneider, which is why they decided to remain silent and follow orders. The situation continued until a scandal surrounding the executive producer uncovered the experience of both the young actors and the rest of the workers and caused Nickelodeon to decide to cut ties with him in 2019.

The horrific abuse suffered by Drake Bell during his time on Nickelodeon

Not everyone criticized Dan Schneider in "Quiet on Set." The executive producer found an unexpected ally in Drake Bell, who was the subject of perhaps the most tragic part of the entire documentary. Although, in his case, the culprit was someone else: Brian Peck. The actor revealed that he had been the famous "young actor" who was abused by the dialogue coach in 2003 and the reason why the pedophile was arrested and convicted:

I was sleeping on the couch where I would usually sleep. I woke up to him — I opened my eyes, I woke up and he was sexually assaulting me. I froze and was in complete shock and had no idea what to do or how to react, and I have no idea how to get out of this situation. I was 15 at the time, I didn’t know what to do and it became this secret because I knew that if I stopped going to Peck, people would ask questions. 

What is truly worrying is not only the story, but that Joe Bell, his father and manager at that time, was the only one who detected the strange attitude that Peck had with the young performers, since Nickelodeon management seemed not to notice anything. His concern reached such a level that, explains Joe Bell during the documentary, he was finally forced to notify the network's top executives: "I go, ‘I don’t see anything abnormal but it just doesn’t — I don’t have a good feeling,'" he warned.

His warning was of no use since, right after, Joe Bell was fired by his son Drake who, as he now confesses, acted at the insistence of his mother who, in turn, was advised by Peck himself.

Once again, fear prevented the actor from publicly confessing what happened. It also didn't help, he explains, that his mother, ignorant of the situation, took advice from Brian Peck. This caused Drake Bell to return to his abuser and, again, the situation was repeated:

He figured out how to convince my mom and everyone around to, anytime I would have an audition or anytime I needed to work on dialogue or anything, I somehow ended up back at Brian’s house and it just got worse and worse and worse and worse. I was just trapped. I had no way out. The abuse was extensive and it got pretty brutal. I don’t know how to elaborate on that on camera, really… Why don’t you think of the worst stuff that someone could do to somebody as a sexual assault, and then I’ll answer your question. I don’t know how else to put it.

The Peck trial

Bell was still trapped and continued that way for a while, until his then-girlfriend's mother showed up. She realized what was happening and quickly acted. She took Bell to a psychiatrist and also informed his mother, who alerted the police. After this, the authorities, with the help of the young actor, managed to obtain a confession from Brian Peck, who was arrested and brought to court.

That didn't end his trauma. There was still the trial. And there, again, the industry chose the wrong side. Bell tells how, after arriving at the courthouse, he found Peck's bench full of people from the industry. Important names from Nickelodeon and Disney Channel not only attended the trial, but also wrote and signed letters supporting Peck. On the contrary, Bell's side only had him, his brother and his mother -- nobody else.

But he won. Peck was sentenced to 16 months in prison and also had to register as a sex offender. It seemed that everything was over and that, thanks to him, Peck would not be able to hurt anyone in the industry again. The reality, however, was different. This is how Bell remembers it in the documentary:

I expected that the result would be that he would go to jail, be there for a while, and never be able to work with children again, which in turn would more or less mean that you are not going to work in Hollywood, because very few productions do not have at least one child on the set. That's not what happened at all.

A year later, Brian Peck was working on "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody," a Disney Channel series. Its directors were some of the people who signed letters in his favor, although they have now retracted that support.

Schneider has also publicly apologized for his actions, although many of those affected did not accept his apology. Nickelodeon, however, has yet to comment. The channel under which all these horrific events took place has preferred to remain silent and, instead, has issued the following statement, which was shared on all five episodes of "Quiet on Set":

Though we cannot corroborate or negate allegations of behaviors from productions decades ago, Nickelodeon as a matter of policy investigates all formal complaints as part of our commitment to fostering a safe and professional workplace environment free of harassment or other kinds of inappropriate conduct. Our highest priorities are the well-being and best interests not just of our employees, casts and crew, but of all children, and we have adopted numerous safeguards over the years to help ensure we are living up to our own high standards and the expectations of our audience.

However, doubt is still present. These are decades of improper practices and alleged crimes, years in which both Nickelodeon and Disney Channel could have done something and did not. This begs the question: what has changed? Will the stories from all these young actors help make the children's television industry truly safe? This answer may be long in coming.