As of late, a new trend is forming within the children’s cartoon industry. The industry is seeing more creatively liberal cartoons that contain darker undertones and flawed (yet likable or understandable) characters rarely (if ever) seen in children television cartoons before, which we can see with shows such as Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Over the Garden Wall, Gravity Falls, and Legend of Korra. These smart cartoons are paving a brighter future for the children’s entertainment medium, and two of the big three channels, Disney XD and especially Cartoon Network, are latching onto this concept with open arms.
Yet, for such positive advancements, one channel, Nickelodeon, remains oblivious to the direction that the children’s entertainment medium is heading. With The Legend of Korra, the company has had the opportunity to use it as a jumping off point to follow the rising trend, but instead they have chosen to inhibit such opportunities. With a long line of poor marketing decisions (with a complete lack of marketing for The Legend of Korra) and most recently a budget cut for the show, Nickelodeon has sabotaged itself by perpetuating an atmosphere that is very toxic for the future of cartoons. Such toxicity is obvious when one is to look at the rather terrible and creatively-depraved line-up (with the exception of Legend of Korra).
Let’s start with the live-action television shows that Nickelodeon so enthusiastically greenlights. There is no doubt that for years, the channel has desperately sought to ride the live-action sitcom train for as long as they can, trying to sustain the success that they had with the surprisingly popular Drake & Josh series, and it is easy to see that such a strategy is doing much more harm than good. The current programs broadcasted are The Haunted Hathaways, The Thundermans, Henry Danger, Every Witch Way, Max & Shred, 100 Things to Do Before High School, and Nicky, Ricky, Dicky, and Dawn. Just reading the titles provokes a sense of dread and dullness of what these television shows entail, but unfortunately for the viewers, the actual content does nothing to change those sensations. With forced and mega-cliché humor, one cannot help but cringe as the actors put on their best performance of “horrendous 80s sitcom character” that they can muster. In fact, all of these sitcoms represent some of the worst aspects of 80s sitcoms, with god-awful dialogue and an over-reliance on tasteless, outdated clichés. In Max & Shred for example, we see the characters depicted as the “nerd,” who is intelligent and socially awkward, being paired with the “cool kid,” who is an idiot and the ladies’ man, a concept that is incredibly uninspired and as culturally relevant as Beanie Babies in the face of today’s overly competitive scholastic environment. Nicky, Ricky, Dicky, and Dawn depicts intelligent kids as socially awkward as well as Henry Danger, which depicts a similar scenario with the “nerds” (particularly focused on the Asian student, Oliver Pook) who are incapable of any athletic ability along with displaying social awkwardness. In the shows The Haunted Hathaways, Henry Danger, and 100 Things to Do Before High School all have main black characters (Henry Danger’s Charlotte, The Haunted Hathaway’s Louis Preston, and 100 Things to Do Before High School’s Fenwick Frazier) whose dialogue is always sassy, a cliché that is incredibly overused in modern television. I am not here to tell the producers of this show if such clichés are wrongful depictions of minorities or individuals with intelligence (even though it could very well be- a consequence of the entertainment industry’s constant depictions of different subsets of people), rather these criticisms are used to point out the severe lack of creativity, effort, passion and originality of all of Nickelodeon’s live action shows. While the current state of Nickelodeon’s live action lineup is incredibly worrying, the cartoon lineup (except for The Legend of Korra and TMNT) is inexplicably even worse.
Within the lineup, we see Spongebob Squarepants, a cartoon that has been beaten to death because of its bafflingly high ratings, with none of the love and care that had once fueled the creative team in seasons 1-3 as well as the first movie. The same goes for The Fairly Odd Parents, which has also been milked to abusive degrees and is no longer the labor of love that it once was from 2001-2004. The Penguins of Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, and Rabbids Invasion are TV shows created purely as a means to capitalize on “popular” franchises as much as possible, lacking any form of enthusiasm by the development team.
Perhaps the biggest offense by Nickelodeon however, is the lack of respect the company has towards its targeted audience, in that it severely underestimates the mental capabilities of said demographic. All of the cartoons (besides Legend of Korra and TMNT) lack a sense of plot coherency and focus. Nothing is ever alluded to, nothing is ambiguous, and none of them have any themes within the narrative. These aspects are not always required for a show to be considered ‘good,’ but only comedies with truly clever dialogue and scenarios can really successfully sidestep them, something none of these cartoons have. Instead, these cartoons rely on the belief that kids have short attention spans and aren’t able to understand anything that isn’t visible; with “plots” and “narratives” moving at a lightning fast pace, making them an incoherent mess. While such a belief may have bearing with some portions of the demographic (the 6-8 or 9 year olds), it acts as a disservice to a large amount of the intended audience (the 9+ year old audience). Sanjay and Craig, Spongebob Squarepants, the Fairly Odd Parents, the Breadwinners, and Rabbids Invasion are especially guilty of such assumptions, relying purely on cheap humor based on spontaneity, low-brow humor, and crude toilet humor. Both the cartoons and the live-actions television shows share this problem, treating the viewers like completely incapable idiots who aren’t worth the effort.
Unfortunately, the most recent cartoons to be greenlighted signify a continuation of Nickelodeon’s terrible trends for the known future. Sanjay and Craig and the Breadwinners are products of Nickelodeon’s Animation Shorts Program, in which individuals can pitch cartoon ideas. What could very well be beneficial to improving Nickelodeon is hindered especially by one portion of the pitch guidelines- the 2 minute length of the short. 2 minutes is obviously not a lot of time, even for a short (which are generally at least 4 minutes in length), and certainly not enough time to make any sort of story. Having a coherent plot is vital to any story, and the ability to craft a compelling narrative is a necessity for any successful television series. When the end product of this program is a multi-episode (and possibly multiple season) cartoon that has a 15-30 minute runtime, it is truly baffling as to why the animated short for an idea is limited to two minutes max. Instead of judging the value of an idea through its characters and narrative, a short is greenlit purely through its ability to make spontaneous and in-the-moment entertainment and humor.
For Nickelodeon, its business practices are incredibly short-sighted, only focusing on the here-and-now rather than the bigger picture, that bigger picture being that what is popular today will certainly not be popular tomorrow. While its competitors place remarkable faith in the artist, resulting in the creation of more sophisticated shows that treat the audience as intelligent human beings, Nickelodeon keeps its artists at arm’s length, signaling a distinct lack of trust in the capabilities of said artists through every step of the way. Looking at Cartoon Network (and to a much lesser extent, Disney XD), it is obvious that that company realizes that in order to be a successful television channel, they must observe where current paths may lead to in the future (beyond 1 to 2 years), and then produce business strategies that can remain feasible for that future. Whereas its competitors are adapting to the ever-changing entertainment trends, Nickelodeon instead opts to try to latch onto old fads for as long as it can, refusing to adhere to rising trends until it falls behind of the pack. If Nickelodeon continues to disregard any long-term investments and focus purely on the decaying remains of past (increasingly irrelevant) fads, then the company certainly won’t exist for much longer.