Bringing Action Back, Part 2

Regarding the current state of action cartoons, most notably the recent and abrupt cancellations of shows like The Secret Saturdays, Sym-Bionic Titan, Generator Rex and the recent Thundercats reboot, and the relocation of many of these action cartoons to Saturday morning (DC Nation was placed on SatAM from the start), many action cartoon fans believe that network execs have had it in for action for a while now. “These shows are wasted on Saturday morning!” they complain. “Why don’t these shows air at night? They should be airing at night! It’s like they want these shows to fail!!” To which I say, the notion that The Powers That Be actually set these shows up to fail is just plain ridiculous; if the Suits in charge had no desire to keep these shows going, then they wouldn’t have bought them and greenlit them in the first place. But I do agree that shows like these are better suited for nighttime. However, here’s the thing: networks like CN have already tried airing action cartoons at night (first with You Are Here, and again with Night of Action), and they all failed to strike ratings gold.

It could be that their competition is just that good; I personally feel that Disney Channel’s live-action kidcoms (which typically air their premier episodes during prime time) are not funny and you can’t tell them apart, but they’re not aimed at me. However, I tend to think that the reason is partially due to the reasons listed in Part 1: that stand-alone comedies are easier to follow and have greater replay value since they don’t have to be shown in a specific order. The prime target audience for channels Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and The Hub are kids, and by and large, kids aren’t interested in following long, ongoing sagas and overlapping story arcs; that sort of thing is more enjoyed by hardcore action fans and comic book readers, and they tend not to want to get up on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons. Networks could try to market these shows towards the older, more secular action-loving crowd, but the problem with that is that adults don’t buy toys, at least not to the same degree that kids do. (On a semi-related note, it’s worth pointing out that the reason Animaniacs‘ run on Kids’ WB! was terminated by the network after 99 episodes wasn’t because of low ratings, but because the show was much more popular with adults than it was with kids, not a good thing for a show which airs on a block called KIDS’ WB). Unless action is to be restricted to adult-oriented programming blocks like Adult Swim or be simplified to a form that’s more appealing to younger audiences (like Batman: the Brave and the Bold or the upcoming Teen Titans GO!), this trend is likely to continue.

There’s another fly in the ointment regarding putting action on top again, a fly the size of an allosaurus, and that’s money. The harsh reality is that action shows don’t sell anymore. They are awesome and fun and cool and deep and intricate and all that good stuff but they don’t make money, plus they cost a truck load per episode to make.

Back in the 80s and 90s, the shows we watched had a lot of money from toys and merchandise coming in. Kids today don’t buy action figures like we did. More accurately, their parents don’t buy them, so the companies don’t get all of that revenue. Also cereal companies used to be the prime investor in these shows because they could advertise all of those great commercials selling sugar cereals to kids. That is illegal now. So when the government stopped that, it devastated the industries’ income. They had to start making cheaper, simpler shows. Studios take massive risks trying to make action shows that they know they can’t sell toys for or get money from commercials for. The market has changed dramatically and action shows, which typically involve more complex character designs, backgrounds and plots, are very expensive to produce, too expensive to produce if only a handful of people are going to watch and studios and networks aren’t going to make that money back in the form of toys, games and other assorted merchandise.

Times have changed, eras change, and yes, kids do watch comedy, they love it. Like it or not, more money is made from kids comedy than kids action. Times may have been different when we were kids, but it’s changed. The people working at the studios (artists/directors/writers) may and in all likelihood do want to tell these awesome action stories, but the fans don’t buy the back packs, toys, DVDs, or even watch the shows on cable anymore to give action shows the desired ratings. How can action survive when there is no money?

Finally, I’d like to pose a question: am I a bad person because I’m not particularly upset that Green Lantern and Young Justice may be going away? I’m admittedly not really an action cartoon person, though I can take action in small doses. That said, even at it’s best, I’ve always felt kind of “eh” about GL: TAS , probably because I could always take or leave the GLs in general, and I enjoyed YJ a lot more when it was just the 6 core sidekicks; I didn’t like how it went the Justice League Unlimited route and added a bunch of new characters. First, I’m not into time-skips to start with, and YJ has this ongoing plot which never seems to end, and too many characters, sub-plots and twists for a lazy person like myself to try and keep track of.

My feelings about this whole action cartoon debacle can be summed up in how I typically view shows of this nature:

“Hey, look. A new action cartoon based on a popular franchise, with deep, intricate plots and elements of drama and deep storytelling. Pretty cool.”

*Watches for a few minutes*

“What else is on?”

*Switches to some check-your-brain-at-the-door comedy cartoon with big-eyed kids, talking animals and rainbows*

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6 Comments

  1. That was very insightful, but also very depressing. I could go on another rant about government being the reason why we can't have nice things, but you also make A very good point about how most action shows are to complex, and serialized for today's kids. Perhaps the best way for action cartoons to survive is to go back to the single episode format of self contained stories so that new comers won't get lost, or confused when they jump in. However, I have to say this. While every action cartoon can't be 'Young Justice', I certainly don't want every action cartoon to be 'Ultimate Spider-Man'.Which I consider the worst example of modern action cartoons, and I'm still bitter over the cancelation of 'Spectacular Spider-Man'. You can have some story arcs, or call backs to earlier plots, but only in very small doses. 'Legend of Korra' is probably one of the few action cartoons to still work with that formula.

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  2. Eh, I wouldn't call it depressing; notable, sure, but not depressing. I've been an animation fan my whole life, and in the 45 years I've been on this planet as a cartoon fan, I've seen trends come and go, so this really isn't anything unusual. Truth is that the genres of comedy and action have ebbed and flowed variously over the years and decades, with one sometimes dominating the other and vice-versa. In the late 90's, Toonami (led by Dragon Ball Z) and Pokemon sparked the anime boom here in the US, giving way to a heavy slant towards action cartoons, and comedy cartoons were largely pushed to wayside. Right now we're in a comedy time.

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  3. ThunderCats is getting a new series, and it looks like OK K.O.
    http://ew.com/tv/2018/05/18/cartoon-network-thundercats-new-animated-series
    I’m not sure how I feel about this weird mashup of art styles.

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  4. I was never a ThunderCats fan, which might be why I have no problem with a comedic take on the ThunderCats, but I’m tired of that So-Cal drawing style full of simply drawn figures with ping-pong ball eyes. I read that this series is supposed to cross over with OK, K.O., Let’s be Heroes (a show that I can’t get into and stopped watching after three episodes) at some point, hence the similar art style, but how many of Cartoon Network’s new shows are going to look like this? If the producers want to go the silly parody route with ThunderCats, why not have art similar to The Super Hero Squad Show? Those characters looked like squashed figurines because the show was based on a line of toys. Cartoon Network’s last attempt at a ThunderCats reboot wasn’t great, but that series at least looked good.

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  5. So, hello there. I know this article is over 5 years old, and I’m not sure how relevant this is, but I feel this is worth noting. In October 2017, when Craig Gerber was talking about how he does serialized storytelling for Sofia The First and Elena Of Avalor, which are both Disney Junior shows, he talks about how each episode can’t have a fully open ended cliffhanger. They must have some type of character arc while still pushing forth the larger story. This seems to be the method for shows that are rated TV-Y, the preschool show rating, when you look at other serialized TV-Y shows, including My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Transformers Rescue Bots, and The Lion Guard, where they have episodes pushing a larger story, yet still make sure to emphasize the positive elements to bring forth a happy ending. I think this is a good method to help serialized shows stay around longer. I’ll break it down.

    MLP speaks for itself with currently 8 seasons and about to have at least 195 episodes, among other things. It’s rated TV-Y, the merchandise sells like hot cakes, and it still has its fans.

    Transformers Rescue Bots ended on 4 seasons and 104 episodes, making it the longest running Transformers cartoon. It’s also TV-Y.

    Sofia The First started in November 2012 with a pilot movie, is currently near the end of season 4, with over 105 episodes. Between it and Gravity Falls, it managed to get double the seasons and over 2.5 the amount of episodes.

    I think you get the picture. For shows that are rated TV-Y7 and above, they generally have more leeway to go darker, and can have some stories end on depressing notes or open ended cliffhangers in order to tell these stories. This might me be another contributing factor as to why older skewing serialized shows tend to get screwed over, in that they take advantage of trying to maintain longevity too much. I mean, how many Adventure Time or Steven Universe or Star Vs The Forces Of Evil episodes have you seen that don’t immediately resolve their conflicts within the same episode.

    I think the method Craig described is what serialized shows in general need, putting in a strong character arc and a happy ending (or a bittersweet ending with the happier elements emphasized more). To give a non-spoilery example for the latter, the Sofia The First episode “In Cedric We Trust” ends with the season 4 arc villain getting what she wants, but the episode goes to great lengths to show why repairing Cedric and Roland’s friendship is important, and has that arc resolved in that same episode, making the ending bittersweet in the right way. To give an example for the former, the Elena Of Avalor episode “The Scepter Of Night” ends with the main characters getting the first piece of the titular scepter, but also emphasizes Mateo’s personal growth.

    I feel that if serialized shows are to survive, they should be sure to give greater emphasis to character development and make sure not to get too dark.

    As for the topic of action shows, the reason why things like the Lego Justice League DVD movies and DC Superhero Girls franchise have such longevity is how the a hat tends to be toned down, and they up the comedy and lighthearted elements.

    What do you think?

    https://mobile.twitter.com/_CraigGerber/status/920670851892051968?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fs9e.github.io%2Fiframe%2Ftwitter.min.html%23920670851892051968

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    • Well, I think that one reason why TV networks tend to favor comedy cartoons right now is because comedy cartoons more often than not will feature stand alone episodes. Shows with ongoing sagas such as Legend of Korra or Total Drama Island tend not to do well in reruns, as not many people have any desire to re-visit a saga once it’s complete. It’s like playing an RPG; most people don’t want to go back to the beginning and start over once they’ve beaten the game. Comedy cartoons by contrast (usually) have simpler plots and each episode is (again usually) a self-contained story, so networks can rerun them in any particular order and viewers can tune in to any episode at any point in the series and not be lost. With the average short, you have a premise, a series of gags and a punchline, whereas with a saga, you set up a more complicated story and each new episode continues where the previous one left off, so the episodes always have to be shown in chronological order and it’s often neext to impossible to understand the plot if you haven’t been following the series from the first episode.

      Also, younger viewers usually lack either the ability or the desire to follow a deep, intricate story line; they just want to be entertained. Sagas tend to be more popular with older viewers, many of whom are outside the right demographic that channels such as Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Disney Channel are tying to attract.

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