One would think that Cartoon Network is, obviously, the channel to go to when you’re craving cartoons.
But, if you’re a huge cartoon fan, you’ve probably been surprised and taken aback at some point about how culturally-savvy and adult Cartoon Network has become. I’m not even talking about Adult Swim. I’m talking about shows like Adventure Time and Regular Show. These cartoons are raucous, sophisticated, mind-bending and strangely grown-up. What’s interesting is that Nickelodeon used to have the stronghold on these types of cartoons.
During the ‘90s, Cartoon Network’s main cartoons were The Flintstones, The Jetsons and Looney Tunes. The most risqué stuff they had on the network at one time were Steven Spielberg cartoons such as The Animaniacs and Freakazoid (both of which had, admittedly, adult humor, but the humor was generally tame). The really “hardcore” stuff was Wait Till Your Father Gets Home. In the late ‘90s, the “hardcore” stuff was Space Ghost Coast to Coast, The Brak Show and the truly scary O Canada block of programming.
Meanwhile, on Nickelodeon, adult cartoons were the order of the day. From Ren and Stimpy (which was laden with sexual innuendo, violence, and twisted humor) to Rocko’s Modern Life (which had innuendo, sly double-entendres, satire, and even an off-color gag relating to masturbation), cartoons were meant just as much for the adults as they were for the kids.
Then, as we jumped into the 21st century, the shift happened. Nickelodeon became less and less edgy, while Cartoon Network started filling the vacuum for racy cartoons. Sure, Nickelodeon can still claim some edge with SpongeBob SquarePants and the amazing Avatar: The Last Airbender, but Cartoon Network has MAD, Adventure Time, Regular Show and The Looney Tunes Show. Jokes about boobs, a focus on ‘80s culture and today’s hipster culture, existential and surreal storylines, allusions to sex, same-sex relationships and even pregnancy are all the orders of the day at Cartoon Network.
Of course, same-sex relationships shouldn’t be an off-limits topic for today’s children’s show, but the fact that it’s addressed at all is a telling sign about the shift in Cartoon Network’s programming. Even talking about pregnancy is huge—the biggest cartoon to discuss pregnancy was The Flintstones, and even in the ‘60s, it was probably very controversial.
But why, exactly, has Cartoon Network taken its shift from “family-friendly” cartoons to cartoons such as the ones mentioned above? Well, there are a few reasons, chief among those being:
Children are more cosmopolitan – Today’s kids aren’t like yesteryear’s kids. Today’s kids aren’t even like my generation when we were young, and I’m just 24 years old. The children of the 21st century have seen and felt the effects of the turbulence of our society—events like war, demonstrations, revolutions, increased gun violence. In fact, many children growing up today were just babies (or not even born) when 9/11 happened. This world that is scary to us older people is normal to them. Thus, the idea of thinking about existential concepts such as death, infinity and the universe isn’t all that foreign to this generation. It’s reflected in some of the crazier episodes of Adventure Time and Regular Show, which involve going to different dimensions, mistaken killings and other actions with dire consequences. Heck, Adventure Time itself is set in a post-apocalyptic version of Earth.
Also, many of these children are being raised in different types of households. To go along with the two-parent, heterosexual household, there are two-parent homosexual households, children raised by single parents (gay, straight or otherwise), children raised by their grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. The children in these households are much more aware of how society views them, and that creates a culture in which children are sometimes more culturally-aware than the adults.
Cartoon Network’s demographic – Cartoon Network has always catered to boys in general, what with The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, SWAT Kats, the Toonami block of programming, etc. But they’ve only recently seen an uptick in older males who tune into their network. To cater to the 18-34 demographic that are watching more cartoons than ever before, Cartoon Network has ramped up their programming to have more Gen Y-ish, culturally-relevant shows.
A decrease in cartoon competition – What is funny is that Nickelodeon used to cater to that same audience. However, Nickelodeon has done the opposite of Cartoon Network and has sought to increase their female viewership with shows like the recently-ended iCarly. Also, Nickelodeon is owned by Viacom, which also owns VH1 and MTV. Across the board, Viacom’s main networks have shown more interest in reality-based or scripted programming, so cartoons (along with music videos) have fallen along the wayside, which is a shame.
Cartoons have come a long way. At one point, they were only considered entertainment for babies and small children, and now they’re entertainment for today’s sophisticated children, tweens and young adults. I suppose the next question to consider is how cartoons will serve the next generation of kids. We’ll just have to wait and see.
What do you think? Are cartoons getting a little too adult for kids programming? Post your comments below.
Images: Cartoon Network