Note: Originally posted on toonzone animation blog.
In 1992, millionaire media mogul Ted Turner decided to put his massive animation library to use and he created a revolutionary new cartoon network. He imaginatively titled it Cartoon Network, and later ran off to one of his four ranches in Montana to retire. The cable channel would be dedicated to showing animation 24/7. Over the years, a tiny experiment grew into a moderately successful outlet for original and acquired animation. This, along with Nickelodeon’s successful and growing stable of Nicktoons had turned cable television into the most important outlet for animation in the country by the dawn of the new millennium. During the late 90’s and beyond, more companies were jumping on Ted’s train of thought and creating animation stations of their own, from Nickelodeon’s Nicktoons TV to Disney’s Toon Disney. These channels often went global, bringing localized versions of themselves to new frontiers. Some countries decided to make their own cartoon networks, such as Canada’s Teletoon and Asia’s Animax. Bringing the situation to newer absurdities, broadcasters began to create newer niche networks out of the already existing animation niche, like classics-only Boomerang or the now-defunct but self-explanatory Anime Network. So where are these networks now? Most of them still exist, but in name only. With the exception of Boomerang and handful of smaller stations, live-action has been aggressively encroaching on animation on networks that claim to be dedicated to it. How did cartoon networks become an endangered species?
As with most examples of network “gentrification”, it all began slowly. In 2005, Cartoon Network began to show live-action movies here or there, regardless of their relation to animation. At the time, the higher-ups gave the excuse that these movies were “cartoony in spirit” or “had animated special effects”, suddenly making it acceptable to show anything on Cartoon Network as long as someone could tangentially relate it to animation. Cartoon Network’s raunchier late-night cousin Adult Swim similarly dropped all pretenses of being animation-only in 2007, when they greenlighted several live-action original series. To this day, Adult Swim airs and produces much more live-action than its daytime counterpart. Despite several attempts to popularize live-action on CN (including several original movies and a failed sitcom), the offensive came in full force in the summer of 2009, with six reality shows, in contrast to the whopping zero original cartoons that premiered that year. Despite the best efforts of the Turner hype machine, pretty much every attempt to put live-action on a cartoon network has failed, but that certainly hasn’t stopped them.
And it’s not the usual suspect that’s at blame here. Toon Disney began to show Power Rangers and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody before Disney simply retired the brand altogether. Nicktoons shows various Nickelodeon shows and is set to get Power Rangers this fall. Even other countries are not immune, with international versions of these networks picking up live-action series of their own. Some channels have fallen prey without the influence of an American mother station, like Animax in South America, which now runs That 70’s Show and Clueless nightly. Why is this practice becoming so prevalent today? It’s not like animation is suddenly unprofitable. Some of these stations haven’t even found great success with their experiments but keep pushing anyway, like Cartoon Network, who presumably thinks that “this time things will be different”.
There are a lot of little answers that factor into this. Part of it is the top men in charge. Just as an auto mechanic should not be running a bakery, a person (for example, Stuart Snyder at Cartoon Network) with expertise working at World Wrestling Entertainment should not be running a television channel about animation. Companies often pick “star executives” based more on track records rather than actual experience. The problem is that instead of adapting to a new environment, the exec simply runs the job like he would run his old one. Another part is corporate policy. Viacom, master of corporate synergy, has been doing this for years with Nickelodeon’s sister network Nicktoons. Nickelodeon shows like Big Time Rush and The Troop have found homes on Nicktoons simply because of this practice. (Nickelodeon has yet to return the favor.) In some cases, the fans haven’t been too helpful either, considering this practice is okay in a lot of circles given it’s live-action they like. Case in point: Power Rangers‘ move to Nicktoons. Cartoon Network not picking the series up was considered a “missed opportunity”.
But the major underlying cause for all of this is the way television is being run today in general. Cable television has begun to categorize networks by demographics instead of niches, and it shows. Most “changed” niche networks have become that way because of attempts to capture so-and-so demographic. MTV is no longer Music Television, it’s a network for “hip and edgy” teens. Syfy is no longer science fiction, it’s television for geeks. And Cartoon Network and its ilk are no longer animation channels. They have been classified by the television industry as generic kids networks and treated as such.
While it’s disheartening to see live-action on networks dedicated to animation, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. There are ways to include live-action on a television network without losing the network’s original vision or integrity. For example, live-action based on or about animated properties like Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Alvin in the Chipmunks could be fair game to show. There’s also the possibility of actual programming on the animation industry. One example that would fit classics station Boomerang like a glove would be a series of documentaries on animation and its history. Whether or not channels are willing to respect their own format is up to them.
Unfortunately, this mentality will never change if the industry never changes. The current focus on strict sets of demographics and nothing else is threatening diversity on television as a whole and turning cable into a mass of gray goo where you can catch repeats of shows like Law and Order on every other network and dozens of carbon copies of popular shows because “men ages 18-34 like this” or “girls ages 7-15 like that”. Even Nielsen themselves say not to take up too much stock in that type of thinking.