June 26, 2013

No laughing matter

Last week’s TV Guide offered an interesting glimpse into the state of children’s programming circa 1968, one that deserves a closer look. By 1968, most children’s shows were confined to Saturday mornings, with the exception of local kids’ shows, which were to continue in their morning and late afternoon slots for a few more years, and Captain Kangaroo, the only remaining weekday network children’s program from a genre that had once included Howdy Doody and The Mickey Mouse Club.*

*Sesame Street wouldn’t premiere for over a year, and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood had yet to move into the Minneapolis-St. Paul market, where it would eventually bump such shows as Managers in Action.

But as we look at this Saturday morning, Mickey Mouse – as well as Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, Alvin, Popeye and other classic cartoon characters are nowhere to be seen. What do we see?

CBS: Frankenstein, Jr., Herculoids, Shazzan!, Space Ghost, Moby Dick, Superman/Aquaman, Jonny Quest

NBC: Super 6, Super President, Young Samson, Birdman, Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel, Cool McCool

ABC: Milton the Monster, Casper, The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Journey to the Center of the Earth, King Kong

With the exception of a few standards, such as The Flintstones, we are left with, in the words, of Robert Higgins, the “Weirdo Superheroes.” As Higgins notes in an article from the March 23, 1968 TV Guide, “three-quarters of the cartoons being aired on all three networks fall into the Weirdo Superhero category.” And it’s successful business for the networks: Higgins notes that they expect to make over $50,000,000 from these cartoons in 1968 alone.

I’d describe this lineup of cartons as “creative poverty.” The animation is often bad, the stories lame, the voice dubbing atrocious. Most of all, though, they’re all alike. Even for a medium like television, which has often found itself on the wrong end of arguments regarding originality, the children’s programming genre as we see it here is creatively bankrupt.

To understand the development of children’s programming in this era will take more time and space than I have today, which is why I’ll be coming back to the subject next week. But the roots can probably be seen as far back as the late 1940’s and the advent of Howdy Doody. With this show, according to Steven Stark, came "a vast expansion of marketing to children" that had the byproduct of creating "the explosion of products designed to fuel the demand the ads created."  The strategy was wildly successful, as the sales figures indicated. By 1968 sponsors were paying nearly $10,000 a minute to advertise to an estimated audience of 14,000,000 kids.

Cartoons were profitable; that, we get. But where did the “Weirdo Superhero” come from? To a great extent, from where you’d expect it to come: comic books in general, and Marvel in particular. Said Stan Lee, who helped create (among others) Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and Iron Man), “Superheroes had been around for a million years. We revitalized them.” The “revitalized” superhero included character traits that kids could identify with - “hang-ups,” as Lee called them, such as acne, sinus trouble, and dating girls, problems that even their superpowers couldn’t overcome. Within the superhero genre was a sub-category – the “ugly hero,” such as The Thing. “People can identify with someone who’s not beautiful,” Lee said by way of explanation. “You say, ‘That guy could be me.’ But you still feel superior to him.”*

*It’s interesting, isn't it, how much this parallels the product in movie theaters today? I wonder how much of that is coincidence?

The angst-ridden superhero was designed to appeal to the growing awareness and sophistication of modern kids, who were growing up as the space program was reaching its cultural zenith. “Children today are highly sophisticated,” said Ed Vane, head of ABC’s daytime programming. “They don’t suspend that sophistication on Saturday morning.” The superhero was then grafted onto a format that had been a staple of children’s programming since the days of the Saturday matinee serial – the action-adventure genre. The result - well, you saw the result above.

It’s safe to say there was a fair amount of controversy about these cartoons, much of it centering on their violent content. Dr. Wilbur Schramm defended the content, saying that the true question revolved around “the kind of child we send to television, rather than television itself.” In other words, TV content can’t cause a problem that doesn’t already exist within the child. On the other hand, Dr. Fredric Wertham counters that “Television – and its display of violence – comes to the child with adult approval,” and that it’s foolish to think this doesn’t have an impact on the child. As I mentioned last week,* this is television’s eternal conundrum, with what might be TV’s version of Schrödinger's Cat: is it plausible to posit that viewers can be influenced by commercial content and not by the content of the program itself?

*Note that Higgins’ article comes before King, before RFK, before Chicago – would the reaction have been different if it had been written that fall, rather than that spring?

I’d interject here that there’s violence, and there’s violence. Violence has always been relative – NBC’s Larry White points out that “when we were kids, our parents had no idea what we were seeing in the movies on Saturdays.” I would strongly resist the idea that watching Bugs Bunny or the Road Runner or Tom and Jerry makes children more violent. That is, literally, “cartoon” violence, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to agree with Dr. Schramm here that any child who’d look to drop an anvil on his playmate because he saw it happen to Wile E. Coyote probably has a screw loose somewhere anyway.*

*I would include The Three Stooges in the category of “cartoon” violence even though it was live action, for a reason I get to below.

But if the “Weirdo Superhero” is supposed to relate to children in a different, more relevant, more realistic (or “sophisticated,” if you prefer) way, does it then stand to reason that the child sees this violence in a different, perhaps more malignant light? And isn’t it interesting to note how much this argument parallels the current argument about video games? Does the violence in the stunning realism of today’s video games somehow influence the effect it has on children, inuring them to the impact of the violence?

For all this, there’s only a brief mention of what struck me from the very outset when I looked at that Saturday schedule. I dubbed it “creative poverty,” and Higgins gives a specific description of what’s lacking: comedy. There’s no comedy in these cartoons. The Flintstones, which continued to run on ABC, is of course based on a sitcom, and Bullwinkle creator Jay Ward’s George of the Jungle (also on ABC) probably comes the closest to a new cartoon that’s simply funny. The Three Stooges, violent though it may be, was slapstick comedy. Take away the comedy, and you’re left with The Sopranos. Ward acknowledges the dearth of comical cartoons but acknowledges that “They’re [Weirdo Superheroes] getting the ratings and that’s all the networks care about.”

The burning question, I think, is this: why is children’s television so awful? Programs from Captain Kangaroo to Bugs Bunny to Mickey Mouse have demonstrated that it doesn’t have to be that way. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, there’s a very interesting answer to that, as we’ll find out next week.

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