The Downfall of Cartoon Network by Jerry Whitworth
In the past weeks, many several websites have discussed the last minute and surprise hiatus of the DC Nation block of programming on Cartoon Network and some months ago the channel’s Toonami block returned as a virtual whisper. These however have only been the latest in a series of missteps made by the network which has turned away much of its audience and reportedly has seen the station limp along in attempting to be relevant again. In 1992, Cartoon Network started out as an avenue to broadcast the vast library of animation owned by Turner Entertainment including that from Fleischer Studios, Hanna-Barbera, and much of the Looney Tunes/Merry Melodies as well as Tom and Jerry (the station’s role in this capacity would later largely filled by sister station Boomerang). The network would slowly dip its toe into new content including the late night series Space Ghost: Coast to Coast before the formation of Cartoon Network Studios in 1994 which largely took the creators from Hanna-Barbera (as well as others including from rival network Nickelodeon) and allowed them to begin developing what would eventually be known as the Cartoon Cartoons (examples include Dexter’s Laboratory, Johnny Bravo, Powerpuff Girls, and Samurai Jack). Headed by Jim Samples, the new content proved to be popular with viewers and the network began to set itself apart from the likes of Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. In 1996, Turner would merge with Time Warner generating arguably the largest library of animated content in the United States. This meant DC Comics, home to international icons like Superman and Batman (who in some years prior were provided a fan favorite animated universe largely from the mind of artist Bruce Timm), could now be showcased on the channel culminating in the wildly popular Justice League animated series. What more, Japanese animated series licensed by Warner could air on the station which would eventually end up on the afternoon animation block Toonami that started in 1997 and would prove to be yet another hit. Though, the network’s next programming block would revolutionize the channel and sustain them even today.
Ghost Planet Industries, creators of Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, would create a new format following (at least in part) their original creation for Cartoon Network which would come to be known as [adult swim]. Changing their name to William Street Studios, the company would eventually be the producers and programmers for [adult swim] generating programs such as Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, Sealab 2021, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and the Brak Show. Not only would the concept prove remarkably successful, it would also be extremely cost effective (i.e. cheap) by using flash animation (in place of hand drawn or polygon-based CGI) and a small stable of voice actors across the various shows for brief ten minute segments (DVD sales for the content alone would qualify the success of the shows). Also due largely to the format’s success, [adult swim] generally has acted as its own entity (which has often protected it against many of the poor decisions made by the network in recent years). However, [adult swim] would in part help create the shift that has lead to the decline of Cartoon Network.
In 2007, as part of the campaign to raise awareness of the [adult swim] film Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters, Lite-Brite-like LED placards depicting Mooninite Ignignokt giving the finger were placed in cities across the United States but some misconstrued the devices as bombs in Boston. In the backlash from the marketing nightmare, Turner Broadcasting had to pay two million dollars to the city and Jim Samples, one of the major creative forces behind the network, felt responsible and stepped down. In his wake, Stuart Snyder ascended to the absent position. Under his regime, a despicable new tactic started gaining traction that has agitated longtime Cartoon Network fans. To run a cartoon in syndication, companies today tend to produce a minimum of 65 episodes (equaling thirteen weeks, or three months, of episodes at one a day per weekday). Cartoon Network in recent years notoriously orders shows until they get to the “magic number” of 65 where they can cancel it and run the series in syndication. In theory, it means making the minimum investment in hopes viewers will continue to watch the show in repeats where you generate viewership/advertisement revenue without having to pay for additional content (the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon have also become closely associated with this tactic). Further, Cartoon Network has drifted further from thoughtful content of the past towards more silly shows like Total Drama Island and 6teen in hopes of increasing its appeal to younger viewers (something Disney and Nickelodeon did earlier with some examples of success). However, despite more children watching television, audiences for Cartoon Network, Disney XD, and Nickelodeon has declined. From 2010 to 2011, Cartoon Network’s viewership has dropped 12% according to the Wall Street Journal (with Disney and Nick not fairing much better with a loss of 1% and 11%, respectively).
Nickelodeon has made attempts to regain its audience, ordering a sequel to their wildly popular series Avatar: The Last Airbender in The Legend of Korra and airing series based on properties like Kung Fu Panda, Power Rangers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Disney XD, trying to capture some of the success of Cartoon Network’s DC Nation, took advantage of the parent company’s acquisition of Marvel Comics to generate the block Marvel Universe. However, this measure has run into its own issues. As mentioned, Cartoon Network has fought back with the DC Nation block with series Young Justice and Green Lantern: The Animated Series as well as animated and live action shorts where new series Beware the Batman and Teen Titans Go are down the pipeline. However, after three weeks into the block’s latest season following a four month hiatus, it went on a three month hiatus without warning or reason. Further, after only a season on-air, the new version of Thundercats was left in limbo as the network has started airing live action programs like Destroy Build Destroy, Dude, What Would Happen?, Tower Prep, and Level Up to mixed results. Following an April Fool’s Prank where the defunct Toonami block was resurrected for one night resulting in a lot of buzz, Toonami was brought back but in a bare minimum fashion. While these three networks flounder, however, a new network has emerged to much fanfare in the form of the Hub. A cooperative effort between Hasbro and Discovery Communications, the network has seen viewership up 50% from 2010 to 2011 with new series like G.I. Joe: Renegades, Transformers: Rescue Bots, Transformers: Prime, and the wildly popular new series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic alongside classic series like G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, Transformers, Batman: The Animated Series, and Jem.
While Cartoon Network isn’t necessarily in peril as they continue to produce series like Regular Show, Adventure Time, and Ben 10 (as well as, obviously, [adult swim]), its level of mismanagement in recent years is disheartening. It’s obvious the station realizes it has problems but its measures to try and fix them have been band-aids when surgery is required. If viewers know their new favorite show is only going to last no more than three seasons or are lucky to make a single season, it becomes nearly impossible to become invested in the content. It would appear the concept of a show that does well (or is developing a strong base) being canceled for the sake of the syndication tactic can only make sense to a corporate executive, where it is quickly becoming apparent this maneuver is turning off the audience and hurting the bottom line. Further, the network’s turn towards live action content for a channel devoted to animation could likely have to do with the rising cost of hand drawn animation. While American animation studios died out in the 1980s moving to Japan and then Korea, the animation industry has further seen costs rise as studios have started gaining steam in countries like China and India in an effort to remain affordable. It’s likely the prominence of flash animation and polygon-based CGI has become a result of the rising costs, as well (not to mention, hand drawn animation in movie theaters has all but died out in favor of CGI so it has become accepted content by younger viewers). While there maybe no magic bullet to fix Cartoon Network’s problems, it’s apparent they need to evolve or die out. If this means a shift in management, entering new markets, spending money in order to regrow its base, or simply listening more intently to the fans, it needs to happen soon else its freefall will only increase.