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Student Blog Series: The Dark Truth of Exploitation in Children’s Television

Posted: May 7, 2024

Children’s television is supposed to provide opportunities for those with passion and talent at a young age. It is meant to give children a safe space to explore the world of acting and what they can bring to it. However, this is far from the case. The recently released documentary, Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV, reveals the dangerous nature of Nickelodeon during the late 1990s and early 2000s while featuring first person accounts from the victims themselves. Many of the child actors expressed discomfort with the conduct taking placing on set and the sexual nature of some of the scenes, but one of the most shocking revelations comes from Drake Bell, most famous for his role in the beloved Drake and Josh. Bell suffered grueling sexual abuse at the hands of Brian Peck, a dialect coach at Nickelodeon. In the documentary, Bell only comes forward to share the horrors inflicted upon him as a child, shedding light on the exploitive, predatory nature of children’s television.

Bell entered the world of acting when he was only five years old and at fifteen he began his career with Nickelodeon, staring in several hit children’s shows such as The Amanda Show and Drake and Josh. Since he spent so much time on set, he became close with many of the other actors and those backstage, including Brian Peck. Peck created trusting relationships with the children and their parents, inviting them over to his house for barbecues and the like. Peck used this trust to manipulate those around Bell and create an environment where he had extensive access and control over his life. Peck groomed Bell and ensured that Bell was always accessible to him. For example, Bell lived all the way in Orange County, so when he would go to Peck’s house for acting lessons and it got too late to go home or he had early auditions, Peck would have Bell sleepover.

One morning, after sleeping on Peck’s couch, as he had done many times before, Bell awoke to Peck sexually assaulting him. According to Bell, “[t]he abuse was extensive and got pretty brutal.” He continued “why don’t you think of the worst stuff that someone could do to somebody as a sexual assault, and that’ll answer your question.” Once the abuse started, it didn’t stop, and Bell had no escape. He explained that “anytime [he] had an audition or anytime [he] needed to work on dialogue or anything, [he] somehow ended up back at Brian’s house…and it just got worse, and worse, and worse, and worse.” Bell had no way out.

One night Bell’s girlfriend’s mother inquired about Peck when Peck incessantly called her house to ask Bell why he missed their plans. She recognized this was concerning behavior, so, she called Bell’s mother, and it escalated from there. Bell worked with the police to secure a wired confession and eventually Peck was arrested, tried, and convicted. Despite Peck’s conviction, the punishment demeaned the trauma he inflicted on Bell. Peck only received 16 months in prison and mandatory registration as a sex offender.

Sixteen months in prison for what Peck did to Bell is offensive enough, however the public support shown to Peck was even more alarming. When Bell walked into Peck’s sentencing hearing, he was shocked. Members of the acting community filled the courtroom, standing in support of Peck. Bell then had to sit and tell his story in front of people who believed in his abuser, someone who violated him in the worst ways one could possibly imagine.

On top of the support shown to Peck at the sentencing hearing, forty-one separate friends, family members, and colleagues wrote letters to the judge defending Peck’s character and providing justifications for his unjustifiable abuse. Many of the letters shifted the blame off Peck and onto Bell, who again, was fifteen at the time of the abuse. Actress Kimmy Robertson stated “I believe with all my heart that Brian was pressured and pushed beyond belief before he caved in.” Joanna Kerns, another actress, wrote in her letter that she “can only believe there must have been some extreme situation or temptation exerted upon him to influence his actions.”

Many of the authors of the letters went so far as to say that they would be willing to work with Peck again. Rich and Beth Correll, director and stage manager of Drake and Josh, both wrote letters in defense of Peck, with Rick Correll noting “it would be my pleasure to work with Peck again.”

Following Peck’s measly sentence, Bell hoped, as one would, that Peck would “never be able to work with kids again.” However, that did not happen. Instead, Disney Channel, the number one competing station, hired Peck to work on The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, working again with the Corrells, When asked about the case, Peck stated “the problem had been resolved,” and then continued to work on a number of projects from 2006 to 2018.

Peck is not the only predator to have been employed by Nickelodeon throughout its “glory years.” Jason Handy, a production assistant on the set of All That and The Amanda Show received a six-year sentence in 2004 for sexually assaulting two girls. Animator Ezel Channel, was a registered sex offender when hired at Nickelodeon, and continued to sexually abuse teenage boys at the studio. A community like this where children are celebrated, encouraged to have fun and be silly, leaves room for adults to blur boundaries of what is appropriate, placing children in situations where “it is hard for them to have agency and to feel comfortable speaking out.”

Peck may have served his sentence, but he changed Bell’s life forever, and for the worse. Someone who violates a child the way Peck violated Bell should not receive this kind of support, and certainly should not be allowed to work with children again. Studios should hold predators like Peck accountable, not reward them with continuous employment opportunities. However, this seems to be the nature of the “mini-Hollywood” created for children, which has provided a legitimate playground for abusers if they can find their way in.

While Drake Bell suffered a horrific trauma which illustrates the environment of abuse and exploitation that exists in the world of children’s television, the CSE Institute recognizes that does not excuse Bell’s own criminal behavior in adulthood and the child endangerment he has engaged in. The CSE Institute stands with survivors of sexual violence and exploitation.  If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline offers free, confidential, 24/7 support to survivors and their loved ones in English and Spanish at: 800.656.HOPE (4673) and 

The CSE Institute will provide updates as they become available.

This piece is part of our first-year law student blog series. Congratulations to Elizabeth Ellick on being chosen!

 All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.

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