LOS ANGELES (AP) – Twenty years ago, Nickelodeon discovered the answer to that age-old question: What if you gave out awards and nobody showed up to collect them?

The show was called “The Big Ballot,” which would eventually morph into the “Kids Choice Awards.” But back then it was just a little peashooter of a program that nobody paid much attention to.

“We awarded a lot of prizes, but nobody came to pick them up,” Nickelodeon Television President Cyma Zarghami recalls with a laugh. “It was a little bit pathetic, but it made us feel like we were getting in the game.”

On the eve of Saturday’s 18th annual “Kids Choice Awards,” Nickelodeon is clearly in the game.

Chris Rock, who hosted February’s Academy Awards is scheduled to make an appearance at this year’s “Kids Choice Awards.” So is Oscar winner Halle Berry and Cameron Diaz, last year’s co-host. The 2002 “Kids Choice Awards” burping contest champion, plans to be there, as does Will Smith, who will debut a song from his forthcoming album “Lost and Found.”

At some point in the show, when awards in such categories as favorite actor, actress, singer and athlete are handed out, some celebrity will have a huge bucket of green slime dumped over their head – as much to their surprise as that of the audience. Past recipients of that dubious honor have included Tom Cruise, Jim Carrey, Pink, the Olsen twins, Mike Myers and Adam Sandler.

“Jim Carrey hugged me the year after he got slimed,” Zarghami recounts.

So why do celebrities line up to expose themselves to such silliness?

“I think there’s something very real about it. I think that’s the whole thing,” says Ben Stiller, who will host the show this year from the University of California, Los Angeles.

“If you connect with kids who have seen movies you’re in, you can feel that connection they have to you and it’s a very real thing,” Stiller adds. “The enthusiasm kids have for what they like is very genuine. In that way it just feels very good to be a part of that connection. … You can actually have fun and be a part of something that is very not cynical.”

It’s safe to say that the award, a large orange blimp, looks like no other piece of Hollywood hardware.

“I’ve still got it at home,” Kenan Thompson of “Saturday Night Live” says of the one he collected as 2000’s favorite TV actor.

“Oh yeah, it was nice,” the star of the movie “Fat Albert” remembers about finally getting one after coming up short four years in a row. He won during his last season on the children’s variety show “All That!”

“I was old and ready to leave and they finally gave me one,” he adds, laughing. “And I was like “Thank you. Now I can go. Now I have my blimp. I’ve been waiting for five years.”‘

Award winners are picked by fans who vote online, by phone and through Nickelodeon’s magazine. Last year, according to the network, 17 million ballots were cast.

The show is broadcast around the world, and that kind of exposure, network officials say, has helped make it a popular draw for young celebrities, particularly those building an audience among the teen set. Thus Hilary Duff of the rival Disney Channel’s “Lizzie McGuire” and Amber Tamblyn of CBS’ “Joan of Arcadia” are slated to appear this year, along with rapper Lil’ Romeo, actress Amanda Bynes and TV and film star Frankie Muniz.

Stiller says he’s fascinated by the bond fans establish with stars such as Muniz, who was only 14 when his show “Malcolm in the Middle” debuted in 2000.

Stiller’s wife, Christine Taylor, was a teen star herself when she appeared in the series “Hey Dude” in the late 1980s. He says people still approach her to talk about the show.

For himself, the 39-year-old star of “Meet the Fockers” is hoping his brush with kid celebrity will give him some cachet with his 3-year-old daughter.

“Maybe in a couple years I’ll be able to show her the tape and say, “Hey, look at what I did once,”‘ he says.

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