Has the Rise of the Children’s Networks Contributed to Obesity in Kids?

It’s something I want you to dwell on for right now (I’ll do a full post in a wee bit), but does the fact that there are three networks broadcasting children’s TV shows 24/7 (for the most part) form a contributing factor when it comes to childhood obesity?

I’m not talking about the content or the advertising (although that has long earned the wrath of concerned citizens) I’m talking solely about the fact that children nowadays have unmetered access to content aimed at them.

What are your thoughts? Would limiting the hours of operation of children’s channels make a difference?

Fart Humour Done Correctly

‘Son of Stimpy’ is one of the standout classics of the series. Not only is it completely absurd, it also caused a ruckus at the time for its plot. In it, Stimpy farts and believe that the offending gas has been transformed into a character, a ‘son’ if you will, whom he calls “Stinky”. Stimpy spends much of the episode searching for Stinky and convincing Ren that he exists.

At the time (and apparently still to this day) controversy surrounds the episode. Naturally, much of it centers on the potty humour of the episode and the central theme of farting.

Which is sad in a way because as supposedly rock bottom as Son of Stimpy is, the whole farting aspect is just one small part of the overall episode. The rest is about Stimpy searching for his long lost ‘son’¬† and the struggles he faces in his quest. This is where the real humour of the episode lies and supports the over-arching absurdity that people will often search for something that cannot be found.

Is it appropriate for kids? I can’t see why not. I mean, flatulence is a natural and essential bodily function. We make fun at crying and burping, why not farting too? In hindsight, Son of Stimpy is almost quaint in a way. The controversy around it serves to remind us of a different time, a time before fart gags and before they permeated animated features to the extent that they have.

While it may not be the greatest or most clever cartoon ever broadcast, Son of Stimpy nonetheless represents the high-water mark for toilet humour on TV that has never been equaled before or since.

Cy Schneider on Children’s Television: How 20 Years Really Is A Long Time

The book is dedicated to Walt Disney, the greatest Pied Piper of the all.

A couple of weeks ago, I picked up Cy Schneider’s book, ‘Children’s Television’ at a used book sale. I didn’t know much about it and I certainly hadn’t heard of the author, but it seemed to have some stuff about animation in it so, for the money, I figured, what the hell.

Long story short, it was a fascinating book to read. Not so much for what it says but for how dated it now appears. Published in 1989, this book was released right on the cusp of the last animation revolution, and it shows.

That same year, The Simpsons debuted on FOX, which irrevocably altered the perception of animation among adults; no longer was it the sole preserve of children. Not long after the three original Nicktoons burst onto the scene and the bar for animation was raised yet again. Nineteen eighty-nine also saw the release of The Little Mermaid, which heralded a new age for animation at the cinema as well.

In most aspects, this book was outdated even before it was published. It was written for the status quo and just could not foresee the dramatic changes that were literally months away. With that in mind, it does provided a great look at what the industry was like and is useful as a yardstick for how far it has come.

First of all, who is Cy Schneider? He was an advertising man who was instrumental in creating the first set of commercials that appealed directly to children, he successfully launched and developed the marketing¬† for Barbie and he also was on board when Nickelodeon was launched. What is notable about his career is that he was consistently involved in the area of children’s programming, which is why he wrote the book.

Children’s Television is intended as a guide to the industry for the uninitiated but seems to offer tips that are aimed at would be professionals. There are chapters on the history of children’s television, how television affects children, how to communicate with children and the licensed character. The last chapter is titled “The Boom Years” but it talks mostly about Schneider’s predictions on the future of the business, most of which are more related to the industry itself and the technological developments rather than the content.

In the first chapter, Schneider asserts that children’s television is first and foremost a business. This is sobering because we all like to think of it as a good-natured, well-intentioned industry that provides entertainment for kids but in reality, it is a business. It is a theme that is often repeated throughout the book and is hammered home that businesses will seek out the most economically efficient answer, not necessarily the right one, even when kids are involved.

Perhaps no difference is more striking or noticeable than the shift from shows based on existing toys to original characters. In addition to the seismic shift to children’s cable channels, the relative lack of licensed cartoons today is indicative of the change in attitudes among executives. The book contains plenty of references to the likes of He-Man and G. I. Joe who are held up as models of the new era and how they can represent the same aspects of quality that original characters can. Hindsight shows that that is not the case and that networks have come to value the fact that original characters can put much more money in their pockets than licensed characters can.

Playing into this is the parallel change in the characters of children’s TV shows. While Schneider talks at length about the ‘noble savage‘ who has populated children’s (in particularly boys) stories for over a century. He does offer some tips when it comes to characters that are generic at best. I would like to focus on his tips for girl’s heroines, which he offers in the following five characteristics:

  1. The are young, either children or girls, seldom women.
  2. The are innocent. Feminine but never sexual.
  3. They are usually pretty, clever and gifted.
  4. They have high morals and exemplary behaviour.
  5. They are admired by adults as well as children.

These attributes can pretty much describe any female lead in any cartoon prior to the 1990s but they are rather vague.

The book devotes an entire chapter to the various “do-gooders, politicos, pedagogues and assorted other axe grinders” who inhabit the cultural landscape. The chapter is little more than a rant against these various groups and only attempts to see their point of view in a very token sense. Seeing as it is written by a guy whose career depended on such programming it is understandable why such ‘interference’ in his business would cause his blood to boil. Why it is included, I do not know, but it makes for interesting reading and does emphasize the point that you can’t please everyone.

Overall the book is worth sussing out, if only to gain a perspective on how much children’s television has changed and improved over the last 20 years. It has also made me eternally grateful for the vast and varied choice of animated programming that we have today, and how healthy competition in the business has promoted the steady upward increase in the quality of the programming.

The Wall Street Journal on The War Between Disney and Nickelodeon Over Pre-Schoolers

Thanks to Cathal Gaffney for tweeting this interesting article from the Wall Street Journal. You might want to grab a cup of tea (or coffee) before you read it. I’ll wait.

Back? OK, good.

The point of the article is that Disney and Nickelodeon differ on how they think pre-school children should be programmed for. Nick believes firmly in educational programmes whereas Disney is soon to switch to more story-based shows. The article makes it out like the two are locked in an epic battle for eyeballs that have absolutely zero purchasing power. Although that is not telling the full story, is it?

Of course not. it’s made quite clear that parents are the real ones being courted. Yes, there are the Jesuit ideals at work (get them young and they’re customers for life) but the networks seem to be pandering to parent’s wants even more. As is pointed out, there has been a shift in what parents desire for their kids. A decade ago, they wanted them to be well educated, now they want them to be happy.

What I think is that as parents, they should be spending more time with their kids! Why? Well, the programming may have a lot of educational content, but as pointed out in the article, the top advertisers during said programmes are the fast food and toy companies. Now there is nothing wrong with that, per se, however knowing how much TV kids in the US seem to watch, it can’t be a good thing.

Something that I admit kind of floored me was that 40% of Nick Jr’s viewers watch between 8-11p.m. What the #$%^(*&? When I was that age, I was lucky to stay up past 8, let alone up to 11!

I am not trying to disparage the idea of educational, pre-school TV shows, I did after all, watch Sesame Street religiously for years until I went to school.However, I also watched plenty of Postman Pat and Thomas the Tank Engine too. The point is that I enjoyed a good mix of programming, it wasn’t skewed heavily in either direction.

On the other side of the fence are the networks, who will come up with the relevant facts to prove that their content is beneficial, such as this from the article.

“Jake and the Never Land Pirates,” a new series launching in February, follows a group of kids who get into adventures with Captain Hook. Even though Hook is a bad guy, Jake still invites him to play at the end of the episodes, an important social lesson, Disney says.

Yeah right. From my own recollection, kids on the playground will heed their peers when it comes to including and excluding other kids from play. I did it and I was on the receiving end of it too and all the time I don’t recall using what I saw on the TV as a guide as to my behaviour.

Well, I take that back. once I told another kid to “get lost” as in an Oscar the Grouch way and man, did I get hauled up to the teachers desk, from where I had to make a very, very public apology to the entire class. I learned my lesson after that experience!

What worries me most is that the whole point and benefits of pre-school programming will be lost in the scramble to win parent’s affections and dollars. Responsibility for a child’s upbringing should rest with the parents. Networks are in the unenviable position of having to balance the need for high-quality programming with the need for earnings from advertisers. So far they’ve done relatively well. Should a war break out, we all know who will suffer the most.

The Live-Action Version of the Failry OddParents

The Fairly OddParents is a show we all know and love. Not only has it lasted a heck of a long time on Nickelodeon, it also proved to be pretty popular with grown-ups to boot. I myself used to try and get home from college a wee bit earlier on Thursday afternoons to catch it on CBBC.

The show has gone through the usual twists and turns that long-running series’ go through, namely TV movies, crossovers and most notably, the addition of a new character. Which leads us to today’s announcement that the show will receive the live-action treatment in the form of a straight-to-TV movie.

Long story short (or for fun, read the full details over on AWN), the film will feature a 23 year-old Timmy Turner rather than the little scamp we have become familiar with. This stands in contrast to that other well known cartoon that was turned into a live-action movie, Ben 10, where the ages were kept pretty much the same.

I won’t spoil the plot (suffice to say it is surprisingly mature for a kids TV station) but I can’t help but feel that the inherent feeling of the cartoon will be lost, not just because of its transition to live-action, but because the characters will be radically different.

Personally, I am not a fan of taking cartoons (or anything in animated form really) and turning it into live-action. The point was made long ago that King of the Hill could so easily have been done in live-action that money was needlessly wasted on animation. However that would be missing the point, which is that that show could not have worked as live-action. The style of humour as well as the pacing would have rendered it far too boring, but in animated form, we tend to tolerate it.

Besides the nature of turning animated characters into actors, the whole basis of the cartoon was that Timmy could do anything he wanted. The very nature of animation facilitated his wishes, with humongous changes made in the blink of an eye. Such antics are again tolerated in animation because the audience accepts that what its seeing is not real. In live-action, everything must look and move as if it were real, otherwise the audience is reminded that it is not, which would defeat the purpose of making it live-action in the first place.

I do not mean to belittle the production seeing as nothing of it exists just yet. It will undoubtedly be of no worse quality than any other TV movie/kidcom. I just wish that producers/executives would look for more creative ways to expand their properties. Turning something into live-action seems bone-achingly lazy in the face of how many creative people there are out there who are just dying to get something on the air.