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.
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.
All 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.
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!