Look, I’m one of the first people to complain about the state of some kids shows today. They seem to be made more for adults and maybe kids will like it, something still a bit too “grown-up” (and yet somehow still immature) to even qualify as “all-ages” when you really see what’s going on. With Disney execs outright admitting in investor meetings that their goal is to introduce more “minority representation” rather than tell good stories with good characters–and certainly not doing a proper adaptation to introduce a new audience to a cultural icon–it can seem like kids are at best an afterthought in their own entertainment. I’ve talked about how few comics there are for kids and none for kids and adults to enjoy together unless you’re someone like me who could watch Paw Patrol and an actual rescue show with the same excitement. I however am weird.
While there seems to be less and less kids show not made for fanshippers, token promoters who embrace stereotypes, and insist on making things “edgy” while insisting kids shows of the past shouldn’t be kids shows today it may seem like there’s nothing good for kids on television these days. Yeah, I can do without the kids drag queen show and wish American Ninja Warrior Junior was back on Universal Kids instead of Peacock so I can watch it with my dad (who has not seen anything else in the Ninja Warrior franchise), but to say nothing good is being made for kids or has in the past few years is to not really pay attention to what’s being made. Among the crap made by people who hate kids and think they’re stupid enough to accept anything just because they’re more accepting than adults every now and then something good comes out.
Try telling that to Bounding Into Comics contributor Jacob Smith. In his recent commentary “Three Ways To Make Children’s Entertainment Great Again” Smith makes the case that Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, the two big names in kids networks so that’s what he mostly calls out, are not making good shows for kids anymore. I do agree they’re making a lot of crap and politically motivated crap but to say there’s nothing good is to miss out on some good shows.
I’m going to zoom past his introduction. I do agree that the tokenism over writing good characters who happen to be women or people of color, and I’m not getting into the gay debate or the non-binary stuff outside to say we’ve apparently erased tomboys by embracing every stereotype my generation tried to undo about them as being lesbians or “wanting to be boys” just because they’d rather see monster trucks than a ballet or something. No straight girl will be shown as a someone happy with being a girl who just doesn’t like dresses but does still like boys in today’s mainstream storytelling. This represents as political as I want to get on this site because to me the root cause of the problems go beyond the current sociopolitical climate and started before “SJW” was ever an abbreviation, though I am now on the record agreeing with him on that. SheZow was meant as a joke; the kids drag queen show he mentions is a bit overboard. Let’s just move on.
This may be difficult for people born after 9/11 to understand but television wasn’t always like this. There used to be a time in this country when the same networks we look down upon today created some of the best shows of our childhood. But those shows have become relics of the past. That style of entertainment no longer exists and if it does, it is nowhere near as mainstream as it used to be because the agenda of multinational corporations has changed.
It does appear to be a dying art. Outside of the current social climate you have creators who just want to use cultural icons as marketing to push their own story that vaguely resembles what they’re stripping the name from or are convinced they can “do it better” than the original when what they end up with is something completely new but either way don’t have enough faith in their own ideas to make it a new property. No, just use the aforementioned social climate to attempt to shut up detractors because they’re version is “just so much better you guys”. Seriously, I don’t think the more right-leaning commentators realize just how much SJWs are being played by people who just hate old things and want to take over their spot in the cultural zeitgeist because their egos can’t handle being #1 without remotely understanding why what they’re trying to replace was big enough to use a cheap marketing ploy from in the first place.
Fun hasn’t changed, kids still want to have fun, we just aren’t producing it for them. What are kids of today missing that kids from an older generation enjoyed for years? We haven’t lost the ability to produce great entertainment for kids, we have simply lost the drive to create it.
That’s more right than he realizes. These are creators who hate kids and probably only took the job to have a writing credit to pad out their resume. Kids entertainment is looked down upon. It’s why there are Superman stories that kids should never read…officially produced ones. It’s why we get these aged up versions of He-Man and Voltron. And it’s why some kids show seems so rock stupid because they think that kids being more accepting under “kid logic” means you can thrown any bright shiny trash at them to keep them quiet and are surprised when it fails, or that kids shows need to appeal to adults on some level. I’d put Bluey over Rugrats any day on that front. From there Smith comes up with his three ideas to improve kids programming.
1. Focus On Creative Live-Action Programming
Already I have thoughts because it seems live-action is all he brings up. He doesn’t talk about better cartoons. It’s all live-action, meaning he’s already part of the problem and joining the media pecking order. Oh don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not going to put down live-action shows for kids. I was born in 1973 and by 1979 I was enjoying not only shows like Shazam!, The Secrets Of Isis, and numerous other live-action shows (a couple of which I have to question today but others I’ll still watch in a heartbeat and even posted to Saturday Night Showcase) not only on my Saturday morning schedule but syndicated reruns of Superman, Sid & Marty Krofft, and old time black and white serials. I saw live-action kids shows slowly disappear until Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers made it cool again. However, he seems only interested in live-action shows and not in animation. Why not talk about the lack of animated action shows for kids outside of the preschool market, where the “action” is understandably limited? Apparently Smith is also a child of the 1990s because he doesn’t mention any kids shows from before then, when live-action kids TV predates color and if you don’t want to haggle on terms predated TV itself with serials and radio shows.
The early days of cable television gave birth to a wave of creativity as networks needed content to build loyal fanbases. But unlike the current era of streaming, writers and showrunners in the 90s were good at captivating an audience.
In the summer of 1998, Disney Channel rebranded itself to compete with rival children’s networks Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. This led to the creation of numerous live-action shows aimed at a young teenage audience.
1998 saw the creation of one of those shows called “So Weird,” a drama about a 14-year-old girl named Fiona who would travel with her musician mother played by Molly Philips as she dealt with paranormal phenomenons across small towns in America.
“So Weird” was a very unique show for its time. For many kids, it was their introduction to the world of sci-fi and horror but the reason it stands the test of time is because the showrunners didn’t treat their audiences like children when it comes to their material.
So it was like Eerie, Indiana on the road? I mean fine, but that wasn’t my kind of programming so I didn’t watch it. I also didn’t watch The Jersey, a show about kids using a magic jersey to play in sporting events and I guess learn about sports. Admittedly it does sound a bit more interesting than The Baseball Bunch yet I watched that for some reason and I was never even big into baseball. Yeah, why focus on cable and not syndication? Stick a pin in that one for later.
When was the last time you saw a children’s show that wasn’t a sitcom? When was the last time you watched one that didn’t have a laugh track? Live-action programming for kids is no longer a priority for networks as these types of programs have been discontinued due to cost-cutting measures. In the past, they were known for being a great first step to introduce younger fans to more mature programming that they would love as adults.
I’d usually put this in Saturday Night Showcase after having watched it but….
The Secrets Of Sulfur Springs is a mystery time travel show in which two kids from the present find a secret chamber in a hotel the boy’s father owns, containing a doorway that takes them back to the past. Together the kids try to solve a missing child mystery that rocked the small town of Sulfur Springs in the time period they travel to using present day information as well as figure out the secret of the chamber itself. Meanwhile Nickelodeon just lost the Power Rangers license where their odd rules messed with the seasonal flow established by Saban (twice) and Disney before them just as Hasbro took over the franchise. It’s moving to Netflix, where I can’t see it, and I’m curious if in either this or the next show they get a bit more leeway. Considering Netflix works on the binge model I’m guessing no.
Nickelodeon also had Tower Prep, a show about strange happenings in a British prep school (or could be Australian, it wasn’t my thing any more than So Weird or Eerie, Indiana), and The Astronauts, a show about kids being taken into space by a crazed computer who insists they’ll do a better job on a mission than the trained astronauts they’re connected to. I lost the last few episodes so I don’t know if that was ever explained. Sure they’re imports, but Nick had success with that in the 1980s with various stories used for their anthology shows The Third Eye and Special Delivery as well as straight up importing The Tomorrow People and later rebooting that show when Nickelodeon opened a version of their network in the UK, plus all the shows they imported from Canada. They may not make any of them themselves but they’re not just sitcoms.
Speaking of those sitcoms, Disney did their superhero sitcoms better than Nickelodeon. While Nick’s shows are usually just wacky hijinks type stuff Disney’s super comedies actually had at least the occasional crimefighting that was a good action piece. Outside of the “Batman and Bibleman did it better” Kid Danger/Danger Force shows there isn’t a lot of that but Disney had Lab Rats and Mighty Med, later combined into Lab Rats: Elite Force as well as Zendaya’s big break K.C. Undercover. Even their sitcoms are better with shows like Girl Meets World, a sequel to Boy Meets World that other shows should look to as a good example. While hijinks continued they still had good writing and character development. Nickelodeon keeps using the same people that suck while Disney has one or two different companies that are actually fairly decent.
2. Embracing Factual Television
Some of you may read this and think I’m advocating for a children’s version of Jersey Shore…absolutely not.
Of course not, Jersey Shore isn’t factual. I’m not even convinced it’s realty TV. Compare it to something like Survivor if you really have to.
Reality television has become a part of our culture for better or worse and most of the time it is worse. However, there is a form of reality based television out there that would be very beneficial to the younger generation and that is factual television.
But we aren’t talking about creating shows for the sake of drama and fighting. Factual television is a model that has been perfected by networks such as Discovery Channel and HGTV. Adults love to see houses get remodeled, cars being built, and they love taking trips to flavor town.
This form of entertainment would be great for kids to get them to embrace community and traditional Americana. If you look at a show like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, the draw is being able to visit different parts of the country (and sometimes the world) come together and tell their stories through food. It’s a great travel show, an educational show, and a great show for foodies as well as families.
Umm…that exists. Get Out Of My Room has kids who share a room getting their own room and the siblings try to give each other their dream bedroom with the help of reno experts, and that’s just one example (again, this does include imports but so what?). Food Network has a bunch of kids cooking competitions. I mentioned American Ninja Warrior Junior earlier but Universal Kids (though they seem to be hooked on Masha And The Bear the way Cartoon Network has been for Teen Titans Go!) and Discovery Family have shows like both of those examples as well as reruns of some of the shows he mentions. Cake Boss has chef Buddy Valastro making cakes and cooking with his kids. Did he do any research or did he just randomly turn on the two stations he grew up with for a few minutes? I grew up with both networks (once my cable company at the time finally got them in and Disney stopped being a premium service, though I would catch Nickelodeon at my grandparents’ house who had a different company) and that wasn’t the limit of kids entertainment. He does mention Saturday morning shows in passing but no complaints about syndicated TV…oh, hello Mr. Pin. Almost forgot about you.
Yeah, there’s a bunch of those shows for the networks and local channels to continue to follow the “E/I” guidelines that basically killed Saturday morning. There are shows from museums, shows about making TV and movies, nature shows, they brought back the before-my-time Wonderama (I don’t know if that’s still on)…everything he talked about. Most of them are boring unless you have an interest in those topics. Maybe move away from streaming services long enough to check into these things.
3. Bring Back Competition/Game Shows
Americans love competition and those old enough to remember the Clinton administration are old enough to remember when every kid wanted to be on a Nickelodeon game show. From the late 80s to the mid-90s, Universal Studios Orlando was the undisputed home of Nick content that has stood the test of time.
And yet for some reason the CW brought back Legend Of The Hidden Temple as a show for grown ups. Why? No really, someone explain that to me. There are better physical challenge competition shows for adults. It’s like making an adult version of GUTS when the Ninja Warrior series or Wipeout are still making episodes, or will if we ever agree the pandemic is over.
The early 1990s saw a resurgence of game shows aimed at younger audiences. The popularity of these shows showcased a vastly different America then today. An America that grew up wearing shoulder pads, shoes that lit up with every step, and thought a super soaker with a backpack was the coolest innovation to date.
When the 90s ended so did the game shows and thus an entire genre of kids entertainment went up in flames. The attempts to revive their game shows over the last 20+ years have had the impact of a wet fart and ultimately the network moved on to sitcom style shows as their bread and butter.
I’m not sure why the various Double Dare revivals didn’t do better, because you’d think at least one of them would get this right. I have to agree with him on this part though. Nickelodeon did try to make a game show where kids ran around a hotel on a scavenger hunt and that was pretty cool, but it’s kind of rare.
You would think in an age where eSports are at an all time height in popularity that someone would jump at the opportunity to create game related content that fits the competitive niche while serving the entertainment need for kids.
He uses G4’s old Arena show as an example, though I’m surprised Nick Arcade wasn’t brought up once, but I grew up with Starcade and I think one other video game and trivia competition show that wasn’t The Video Game (anybody remember that nightmare? It even had Harvey from classic Double Dare, showing that he actually went up in his career). The 90s would also give us Video Power, with the second season ditching it’s old formula of tips and a cartoon for a more interesting game show format. Also interesting is that Johnny Arcade was better in that format and he didn’t always seem like he knew what he was doing on occasions. You’ll never make Whomp ‘Em sound exciting, man. Stop trying! And of course there were the two Carmen Sandiego game shows.
They did try doing a Star Wars-themed game show on YouTube, but it didn’t go any further than a few episodes. Maybe forget the drag queens and do a Who’s Line Is It Anyway? type improv game show? Speaking of that, Wayne Brady has suggested a kids version of Let’s Make A Deal and they’ve even done episodes with kids and kids with their parents. Outside of the aforementioned cooking competitions and kids version of Ninja Warrior (where kids actually will help out their competitors and offer moral support, which you never see in the adult version) where are the kids game shows? It’s cheaper to produce if you get the companies to accept free promotion for offering their product.
If we are ever going to recapture entertainment and turn the clock back to what once made society great, independent creators are going to need to step up and fill the gaps left by the multinational corporations.
If new creators are looking to renew the arena of children’s entertainment, perhaps they should start by bringing back the missing pillars of entertainment that defined a generation and could be the tool that guides the next.
I don’t disagree but it’s not like the shows aren’t out there. Just find them and show them to kids, let the parents know they exist, and try to push for more shows like that and less subpar kids shows. Learn what kids like and make that. Also, don’t deny cartoons to them the way comics have been. Comedy is fine but get more action shows for kids out there in both live-action AND animation. Look into bringing back the game shows but don’t ignore the kids competition and teaching shows that exist, even if the latter is too often an insomnia cure. Give kids the same variety we did, make them for kids instead of for adults, put the same care that made “30 minute commercials” like Transformers, GI Joe, and He-Man/She-Ra so beloved today that someone thought they could make the Bay films, the live-action Joe movies, and the Netflix nightmares of the backs of good stories of the past with half the effort at best. They do still make good kids TV, but with so many options now between streaming, numerous kids networks (even PBS has a kids network, with some surprisingly decent shows), and those parents who still cling to home video the adult shows disguised as kids shows and “kids are dumb” crap just have more outlets to ruin modern children’s entertainment.