‘90s Kids TV Was Great. What Happened?

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February 5, 2013 by jarednewmansports

This is a conversation between Jared Newman, Founder of Forrester Report, and Aaron McCoy. We talk about the development of programming for kids from the mid ‘90s through the 2000s. Can you DIG IT?

Jared: Aaron, I have not watched a cartoon in a long time. Scratch that. You were watching a new Spiderman cartoon last week and I sat down and became completely engrossed in it.

But that’s what got me thinking…What cartoons are kids watching these days? I feel like we were one of the luckiest generations for cartoons growing up from the mid ‘90s to early 2000s.

dougWe had “Hey Arnold!,” “Doug,” “Dragon Ball Z” and a million others.

But when I think about today’s cartoons, I just imagine lots of explosions and fast cuts from one action scene to the next. I know I haven’t watched enough of them to truly know if that’s the case…But I’m getting the feeling that there’s no real substance to these cartoons. That there’s no learning lessons or actually identifying with the characters. Yet, that was almost a necessity for a ‘90s cartoon on Nickelodeon.

Could it actually be that cartoons are being dumbed down and commercialized for kids? If that’s the case, why is this happening?

I feel bad for this generation of kids. Back in the day, we had cartoons where there were plots…where characters faced dilemmas…where you could actually take something away from each episode.

greenArnold learned so many lessons from his grandfather’s tenants and I’ll never forget the episode where Harold tried to steal meat from Mr. Green’s butcher shop. As punishment, Harold had to work in Mr. Green’s shop and he actually developed a work ethic. How about that for a lesson a kid should learn.

As for Doug, he had such a crush on Patti Mayonnaise that you had no choice but to root for him to get her to like him. She’s gotta be the coolest cartoon tomboy ever created. Roger was a dick, but we had Quailman and Silver Skeeter to look up to.

As for “Dragon Ball Z,” I feel like I tried to just sneak that in there. As incredible as it was, an entire 30 minutes would go by and you’d realize that Goku and Frieza had exchanged only two words. Maybe “Dragon Ball Z” was my guilty pleasure, though I’m guessing that just about every 12-year-old boy was hooked on that show.

Fair to assume you watched some “Dragon Ball Z?”

freieadAaron: Jared, I definitely watched “Dragon Ball Z.” 22 glorious minutes filled with grunting muscle-bound men flying through the air throwing flashing lights at each other. Every 12-year-old boy’s fantasy, am I right?

Kids today are drawn to even zanier antics than we were, seen through the cartoons currently on TV. I wonder what made us enjoy “Hey Arnold!” and “Doug” so much. Despite the antics, are today’s cartoons made of the same stuff?

We kept coming back to P.S. 118 to hang out with Arnold and the gang because they amused us. In hindsight, we’re able to see that we learned something from them as well. You gave a great example about Harold; I’d like to offer another. Do you remember when Arnold accidently told the school that Iggy wore pink fuzzy bunny pajamas to bed? Arnold, the consummate good-guy, tells Iggy he’ll make it up to him however he can. Iggy decides to get revenge on Arnold by making him walk in front of the entire city wearing the bunny pajamas. Arnold does it to prove his friendship and Iggy regrets it, realizing Arnold never meant to hurt him in the first place. Man, I get chills just retelling it.

Of course there were shows around the time of “Hey Arnold!” that weren’t speaking to kids. Take “Rocko’s Modern Life” as an example. That show was known for its innuendos and off-color hijinks. Funny enough, the showrunners of “Rocko” went on to make “Spongebob Squarepants.” Like “Hey Arnold!,” “Spongebob” amuses the viewer, but there is a difference between the two. You might have chuckled when Arnold fell in front of Helga, but you’ll laugh your ass off when Patrick rolls out from under his rock without his pants.

Are cartoons being dumbed down? I’d say so. Making kids laugh has been prioritized over teaching them life lessons. “Hey Arnold!” was able to provide both entertainment and substance, but that balance isn’t an easy one to strike.

advBut I don’t want to completely short sell modern cartoons. I recently dabbled in “Adventure Time” (though I like to keep myself on a regimented diet of “Ultimate Spiderman” and “Young Justice,” a healthy balance of Marvel and DC) and there’s some good stuff in there if you watch closely enough. The yellow dog on the show, Jake, at one point says to his buddy Finn, “Dude, suckin’ at something is the first step to being kind good at something!” I’d say that advice is pretty solid, but the show on the whole definitely gives more amusement than substance.

Do you think there is even a place on TV for a show like “Hey Arnold!” anymore? Would kids even watch it?

Jared: Could a cartoon like “Hey Arnold!” could air today? I don’t know. If I had to give an answer, I’d say I don’t think so, even though I wish that weren’t the case.

heryarnI want to think that the majority of 10-year-old kids would sit through an episode like “Arnold’s Christmas,” a story where Arnold finds Mr. Hyunh’s long-lost daughter, because I firmly believe that it demonstrates the power of human kindness as effectively as any other TV show or film ever has.

But I’m not sure that kids today would get the same experience we did, and the reason for that is there are so many ways they can be distracted. Either they’re watching the episode in the car—while they’re probably also looking out the window—or they’re at home on their living room couch, half-watching the show and half-playing with their mom or dad’s iPhone or iPad.

Now I don’t mean to say that every 10-year-old kid would be distracted. I think there would be plenty who would watch it and be happy as can be afterward.

From the networks’ perspective though, development executives at Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon wouldn’t be dumbing down most of their shows (although, there are exceptions as you pointed out) if they didn’t think kids would be satisfied with the end product.

Further, the networks will do whatever the masses want in order to get ratings, so at some level, that must mean that kids aren’t as interested in story and character as they once were.

But then again…I don’t think that we ended up at this point because we were never interested in the kinds of cartoons that provide lessons. Clearly, that isn’t the case since you and I both love those shows.

So then the question becomes, who/what caused this decline in quality for children’s entertainment?

Is it fair to blame the development of technology? It certainly has brought a lower culture to adult programming with reality TV, but has there been a trickle-down-effect to TV shows for kids?

Obviously, the era that you grow up in shapes what your interests are. 100 years ago there was no such thing as TV or Nintendo, so kids had to spent most of their time reading books, listening to the radio and playing outside with a stick in the dirt.

But maybe playing in the dirt isn’t all that much better for you than watching a cartoon with a poorly constructed narrative.

A huge part of me thinks that it is, but I guess I’m wondering how much it actually matters. Sure, what your hobbies are can affect your personality since you’ll make your friends doing those activities, and what they say and do will rub off on you.

But how much can what you watch on TV impact who you are as a person?

Some people will say that as humans we have a responsibility to be constantly thirsty for knowledge. I don’t know if you agree or disagree with that. Personally, I don’t think I do. But if that’s the case and we no longer have TV programs for kids that teach them anything then we’re off to a pretty bad start if we want them to be absorbing knowledge.

darkAaron: Do you think we were aware of the lessons we were learning in these shows we’ve grown to love? Did we consciously think, “I’m ready to learn something from this show today?” It’s not impossible. I do that with a lot of shows I watch now. There were some shows I didn’t watch to learn from, so that couldn’t have been my only criteria. There wasn’t much substance in my all-time favorite cartoon “Darkwing Duck.” Now I might be able to mine out some higher purpose from it, but that may very well take the fun out too.

It comes down to balance. Everyone’s got their shows that they like just because and their shows they like because they learn from them. We have to have both.

We really are what we watch. I don’t think it’s a good thing that the balance these days has shifted toward more hijinks and fewer life lessons. Where’s the understated goodness of “Recess” and “The Weekenders,” through which I learned so much about how to be a better friend to the people I cared about? Where’s this generation’s “As Told By Ginger,” the show that helped me navigate that horrible time of being not quite a kid, not quite a teenager? Kids need to see reflections of themselves on the screen so they can better process their emotions and make sense of the world around them. We loved “Hey Arnold!” because it was our group of friends. I loved “Doug” because for a lot of my life, I was Doug. I don’t know what current shows kids could say that about.

But speaking of emulating, I do see a lot of boys pretending to be superheroes, Captain America and Iron Man. The only catch with them is that they are unattainable archetypes. A kid can look up to a grown man, but he can’t relate to him. The only show I can think of that might even fill this void is “Phineas and Ferb,” but that’s not a good example by a long shot. Maybe the tables have shifted to live-action shows. But I have a feeling if we dug into that we’d find the same problem existed.

Do you think it’s necessary for kids to see a reflection of themselves on television? What would it take to get some more wholesome shows through the networks?

Jared: Yeah, the balance you’re talking about is key. It’s terrible that the trend has shifted almost completely to shows that don’t teach anything whatsoever, but it would have been miserable if every single show we watched when we were 10 was trying to send us a message.

As you were saying though, live-action shows have taken over when it comes to characters that kids can relate to. Most of those programs are geared toward teens, but I’m sure that younger children catch episodes when their older siblings are watching.

adrobFor us, “Clarissa Explains It All,“ “The Wonder Years” and “Boy Meets World” were popular when we were growing up. What made those shows so great is that the characters were so easy to relate to because they lived in a normal world. Thus, their typical problems were easy to identify with because we all had to face them on a daily basis when we were their age, whether it was dealing with pimples or annoying siblings.

Now there are shows out there like “Pretty Little Liars,” “Switched at Birth” and “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” and just by the titles of these programs, you can tell that they’re outlandish and begging for attention.

In particular, I’m fascinated by the existence of the “The Secret Life…,” which is a sensationalized soap opera for teenage girls about high schoolers who are dealing with the fact that they keep getting each other pregnant.

If Mr. Feeny got frustrated with Shawn for ditching class and Eric for being more interested in girls than schoolwork, what would he say to these kids?

prettylGoing even further, if the teens in “The Secret Life” would have given Mr. Feeny an ulcer, the girls in “Pretty Little Liars” probably would have forced him to quit teaching. Although I consider him to be one of the greatest mentors to ever appear on a television program, I strongly doubt he’d be able to work at a school where a girl was threatening to expose the secrets of a clique of girls after their Queen Bee disappeared and DIED. He’d never be able to help those girls and hate himself for it.

Looking at this more broadly, it’s a shame that these family-friendly programs are centered on stirring up drama. When you grow up with characters that are like you, it’s comforting when they struggle with the same problems that you have because it confirms that what you’re going through is normal. Kids don’t have that with their shows today, so it’s possible they wish that more drama were going on in their own lives to match what they see on TV.

What I’m starting to wonder is…15 years ago we had shows like “Hey Arnold!” and “Boy Meets World” that had easily relatable characters, who lived in an ordinary world and had typical problems. Now we have ridiculous shows that are full of drama because they are pandering for attention. Any ideas on where this is ultimately leading or what the next trend will be? I don’t think we’re going back.

Aaron: You know, I liked Mr. Feeny, but never really watched “Boy Meets World” until the end of its run. I’ve always been drawn to more fantastical storylines and supernatural characters. So when I think of what would Mr. Feeny say to the kids of “The Secret Life…” or “Pretty Little Liars,” I wonder what Dumbledore would say to them if they were students at Hogwarts, or what Gandalf might say if they were a part of the fellowship.

All three of those characters share the qualities of humility, patience and wisdom. These characters are mentors and role models, something sorely missing from television these days. Could Cory and Topanga have survived their school years without the compassionate presence of Mr. Feeny? Maybe we’ll find out in the upcoming “Girl Meets World” with their daughter Riley. Will that program be a return to the days of “Boy Meets World” or it will be the next “Pretty Little Liars?”

Granted, the shows we’ve mentioned still have teachers and parents in them, but they are not the moral centers of the show. In fact, more often than not, these characters are deeply flawed themselves. That’s been an ongoing trend in television—the introduction of flaws to the role models of children. Most of the time, those flaws get in the way of the mentor helping the child, like in the popular MTV show, “Awkward.”

momJenna, the protagonist, struggles with typical teenage drama on the show—lots of boys, lots of sex, a little bit of drinking. Her mother doesn’t want Jenna to make the same mistakes she did, getting pregnant at a young age. She also worries that Jenna is too much of a wallflower. Naturally, she is concerned about her daughter’s future. Rather than sitting her down for a conversation like Mr. Feeny might, Jenna’s mother writes her a letter:

Jenna,

As you are now, you could disappear and no one would notice. Below is a list of suggestions that you should seriously consider:

Number 1: Stop being a p****

Number 2: Your instincts suck. Second guess them.

Number 3: The only people more pathetic than you are your friends. Drop the dead weight.

Number 4: When you’re pretty, you’re happy. And clearly you’re not happy.

Number 5: Pull your head out of your a** and stand out.

Number 6: Nobody likes the pitiful. Stop being such a drag.

Number 7: You have to be cruel to be kind.

Number 8: Make amends.

-A Friend

So sure, Mr. Feeny couldn’t have been perfect. We know Dumbledore wasn’t, neither was Gandalf. But I’m willing to bet they would not approach someone under their wing like this. They used the hard-learned lessons of their own lives to instruct the youth in their charge. I cannot say the same for the mentors in today’s shows. Mr. Feeny is too practical to have a serious role in today’s world.

As much as I want us to return to this style of storytelling on TV, I agree with you, I don’t think we will. The world is too different today than it was when Feeny was changing lives.

rodSo where are we going? I can’t say for sure with absolute certainty, but I am encouraged by one of my favorite animated shows of all time, “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” The show revolves around a young boy, called Aang, who is tasked with saving his world from a century-long war.

Aang has a connection to his past lives that he hopes will help him learn how to defeat his enemies. His immediate mentor is a man named Roku. Throughout the series, Roku instructs Aang on how he should consider going about saving the world. As the series comes to a close, Aang realizes that he’s got to take what Roku says with a grain of salt. Roku’s advice comes from a different time, and though it’s well-meaning and logical, it might not fit in Aang’s world. This is Aang’s journey, to discern the advice of the past, couple it with his own experience and apply it to his modern world.

I think this serves as a model for the future. We might not be able to follow future Mr. Feeny’s blindly, but we can learn from what they have to say and work together to synthesize a better future. I hope shows start depicting this type of relationship between mentors and young people. Then we might get some more quality stories being told!

The television is a mirror, Jared, as far as I can see it. The issues with it are the issues that are plaguing our youth and the society they’re growing up in. There’s some good stuff on TV and some bad stuff too. I’m hoping we can all start watching the good stuff more often than we do now.

Please provide us with your opinions. What do you think?


2 thoughts on “‘90s Kids TV Was Great. What Happened?

  1. […] everyone. So a while back Aaron and I wrote about how cartoons changed from the ’90s to the 2000s. And now Aaron and I are back at […]

  2. […] as the original series, but that’s because current shows of this nature are focused mostly on stirring up drama i.e. “Pretty Little Liars,” “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” […]

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