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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2 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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