Why Most Of The Things Your Kids Watch Suck

From sparkly visual junk food to thinly-veiled marketing campaigns, kids TV these days is bad. Don't let the 16:9 aspect ratio fool you; modern kids shows suck! Here's why.



Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Entertainment Creative Group Productions, Inc. or any of its subsidiaries. However, the author is objectively correct and differing opinions will be dismissed out of hand as nonsense. Get off my lawn!

At 36 years old I’ve already fallen victim to the cliche of idealizing my childhood experiences as compared to those of the kids of today: playgrounds were better (READ: more dangerous), people spent less time staring at screens, and when we DID gaze slack-jawed into our glorious tube television sets on a Saturday morning, what was playing was far superior to just about anything available across the myriad platforms children use to consume content these days.

“But everything looks so much better now” some of you are surely thinking. Shut up for a minute. Resolution and aspect ratio aren’t everything. The most common problem plaguing most children’s programming today is the shallowness of the material referenced. Sure, modern-day nods to text messages and tweets are cute, but they’re really just reinforcing what the kids watching are surely already aware of, never pushing them beyond their comfort zone by keeping everything both simple and familiar. Today’s writers seems so enamored with current pop culture that they’re almost unable to see beyond it. Great for making lots of content that young viewers will eagerly consume, not so great for learning anything worth a shit from said content.

Looney Tunes Cast

Compare that to the rich cultural material that forms the backbone of your average Looney Tunes episode: ancient Rome, the plays of William Shakespeare, classical music, the battle of Waterloo, Italian opera. My first exposure to “The Barber of Seville” wasn’t in school; it was when I first saw Bugs Bunny lathering up Elmer Fudd for a shave. Once I was old enough to learn about the classics I found that, time and again, I had already been exposed to them, at least on some level, because of cartoons. I’d hear a Bach sonata and be able to hum along with instant recognition. The first time I read about King Arthur facing the Black Knight in lit class I was already familiar with Yosemite Sam’s highly nuanced take on the character. I don’t think anyone would call Merrie Melodies educational programming, but placed beside the bulk of current kid’s shows it seems downright academic. Most importantly, the young viewer is none the wiser that they are not only being entertained, but also learning a thing or two in the process.

This isn’t just about Looney Tunes, though it is an excellent example. Fraggle Rock (Jim Henson being the grand master of educational entertainment) frequently tackled surprisingly deep material rooted in contemporary psychology, like a young Doozer questioning the default expectations of her cultural heritage, or Wembley realizing that her inability to say “no” causes her to frequently be taken advantage of by her friends. Or consider Ren & Stimpy, the undeniable precursor to an entire genre of unorthodox Adult Swim-style animated content. Ren & Stimpy’s approach might seem scattered and random on the surface, but there is a strong foundation of cultural material – with references to everything from Phillip Marlowe pulp novels to classic literature like Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood. Ren & Stimpy proved you could appeal to an audience’s baser childish instincts in a highly intelligent way.

Fraggle RockAll this to say that what made the cartoons of my childhood great was that they deftly walked the line between entertainment and cultural relevance. In the current age of highly targeted marketing and content tailored directly to the maximum bottom-line, the “luxury” of culturally rich content seems to have largely gone by the wayside, replaced by the low-hanging-fruit of overly familiar storylines delivered in a familiar vernacular. The bulk of modern children’s programming falls firmly on the entertainment side of the fence and is certainly in no way above pandering to earn loyal viewership.

I don’t have to look any further than the screen of my iPad on a Saturday morning for proof as I see what my daughter is watching. Granted, there are notable exceptions that aren’t entirely vapid, though most of these are, interestingly enough, retreads or reboots of things that were on when I was a kid (Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, My Little Pony, etc.). For every decent show there are three that were clearly conceived in a boardroom based on market data rather than written with any sort of care for what young audiences would take away from a viewing. I do my best to stay as hands-off as possible and let her make the decisions she wants to make, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t cringe at some of the mindlessly shallow content she’ll sometimes choose. Thankfully there are still pantheon shows like Sesame Street (Henson again) in the rotation that have held the bar high over the years.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you want pure entertainment value…in the same way you sometimes want to eat a giant bowl of Cap’n Crunch – sure its horrible for you, but it also tastes pretty great – provided you don’t eat it every day. What saddens me a little is that I sometimes feel like my kids are missing out on the bonus of being entertained AND being exposed to culturally relevant material. To paraphrase a KMFDM lyric from a bit later in my childhood: sometimes I fear that pop culture is the only kind of culture we’re ever gonna have. We’re already bombarded with it around the clock, so I don’t think its too much to ask to have children’s programming options that aren’t so inundated with nothing but shallow characters, current references and cheap gags.

On the flip-side, it does offer me the opportunity to share my favorite shows from my childhood with my kids while telling them “things in my day were much better”…and in the end, isn’t that what parenting is really all about? I take great joy in snuggling up with my daughter to watch an episode of Fraggle Rock, seeing the skepticism in her eyes when she sees the relatively blurry picture and 4:3 frame, but then watching her inevitably fall in love with the characters just like I did. Every preceding generation invariably takes issue with the trappings of the new, be they television shows, technology or just general demeanor. Google “Millennials” and you’ll find no end of diatribes detailing the moral decay of the current generation and the death of hard work. If our parents’ parents had Google I’m sure they would have found a plethora of similar rants about the rising generation.

Get Off My Lawn!Rejection of the new and elevating of the “good old days” is cyclical, because it’s all relative. And yet I think we can all agree that today’s childrens’ television programming is going to hell in a hand-basket and we should take every opportunity to show our kids a thing or two about real quality shows. Now seriously…get off my lawn or I’m going to turn the hose on you!

The main purpose of this post is to spark discussion. The above is obviously just my opinion, albeit one I feel strongly about. I’d love to hear what YOU think, so please don’t be shy in the comments section.
As always, thanks for reading!


4 Responses

  1. I completely agree with you, my neice watches a show called “paw patrol” she loves it I hate it because every single time its the same plot, same thing everyday. I prefer the classics like mickey mouse and a few other ones. Enjoy your week, sir

  2. I’ve always wondered exactly what it is that make modern kid’s shows suck so much, and why it is that older shows are superior. But now that I’ve read your points on cultural relevance, everything is starting to make sense.
    If there is one old TV show that is particularly inspiring to me, that would be the first few seasons of Thomas the Tank Engine. Now I understand that some of you may see Thomas as just another brainless baby show made to sell merchandise, but here’s the thing: it wasn’t like that in the beginning, it only became that in the 2000’s when the corporate figureheads started to take more and more control, turning the show into a shell of its former self.
    With that being said, why do I like Thomas the Tank Engine? Well, there are a few reasons.
    1. Because of just how well-rounded it was. Nearly all aspects of the show were consistent when it came to quality, high quality at that. The music is outstanding, the narration was great in both the UK and US dubs, the characters were relatable and full of personality, the visuals (although dated) had a unique charm with the excellent modelwork, the lessons were actually practical and inspiring, the continuity of the stories was mostly consistent, many different genres of stories were presented (spooky, action-packed, emotional, comedy, etc.); and the fact that despite Thomas the Tank Engine being a children’s show about talking sentient trains, the universe in it is surprisingly realistic.
    2. When I was a kid, I would always watch the Thomas VHS tapes I had. I also had a big Thomas book with these illustrations that looked very different from the show. When I came back to show about 8 or 9 years after I stopped watching it, I discovered that Thomas the Tank Engine, a show created by a woman named Britt AllCroft, is actually based off a series of books from the 40’s called the Railway Series. And I also learned that the big book I had all those years before was a collection of Railway Series stories written by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, who was the original creator of the universe. Many of those stories have been adapted for the show.
    3. When I went back to Thomas a few years ago, I discovered not only the rich history behind it, but the massive internet fandom that sprung from it. Just like with most other fandoms, there are tons of dedicated fans who have done one thing or another to Express their love for said thing. But there’s so much source material to draw from decades of books, TV episodes, movies, and more; that the sheer amount of creative and unique stories that are currently out there (and to come in the future) is insane. One such example is Sodor Fallout, a fan-made storyline where a nuclear fallout occurs on the Island of Sodor, and all hell breaks loose as all the people and vehicles try to escape and survive. A little much for a show designed for children, I know. But there’ll always be mature content in any fandom revolving around kid’s media.
    Need more reasons why Thomas the Tank Engine might be worth a shot? Just go ahead and watch the show yourself! All the classic episodes can be found somewhere on YouTube. And if you want to find a place to start, I suggest looking up the Definitive Episodes playlist by a YouTuber named The Unlucky Tug. And while you’re at it, reply to me down below and tell me what you think! Until next time, peace!

  3. I watched a few episodes of Happy Days recently. It was a remarkable crapfest of actors clearly in their 30s playing highschoolers. Thirty-something grease monkey Fonzie trolling for high-school girls at the after-school hangout was just creepy. All the acting was cringey overdone, and the plots just unbeleivable.

    This was my favorite show…….. when I was 10.

  4. My two oldest girls (2 and 4) are watching The Land Before Time right now. They are glued to the TV! This is the original, dark and gritty Don Bluth masterpiece and not the vapid, musical sequels.
    These dinosaurs aren’t all paleontologists like in the modern Dinosaur Train show: they call themselves stuff like long necks, three horns, and sharp tooths. You enter the world of the dinosaurs on their terms rather than peek into it with the objective, sterile eye of Dr. Scott.
    These are the kinds of raw dinosaurs you could imagine Conan the Barbarian fighting and nearly losing his life, not the T-Rex that goes “ok Dino Dana, go and take a potty break at the library and I’ll wait to chase you when you’re done.”

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