Sunday, October 05, 2014

Childhood's End

As reported in Gizmodo,

Now, the current Cable Generation is saying, "What are you talking about? There are cartoons all the time!" That being the case, a little explanation is in order.

In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s there were three big commercial television networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- and the government-backed public broadcasting system (PBS), plus (in big markets) a smattering of independent stations. On the Big Three, Saturday morning television was the exclusive province of children. With no school and no church, you'd sit glued to the set and watch Johnny Quest, Scooby-Do, The Jetsons, Super Friends, etc., etc. etc.. This wasn't just a low-rent parking spot for the kids. The networks competed aggressively for those eyeballs with full and half-page newspaper ads and ads in top-selling comic books. Witness (click on an image to "embiggen" it):

This once lush market is now completely barren. No broadcast channel devotes any time to cartoons as of this weekend. Saturday morning cartoons started to die out in the 1990s, were all but dead by 2002, and gone the way of the dodo as of today.

Now, this is interesting to me for a number of reasons beyond the plain nostalgia of it. After all, the cartoons are still around on cable, on the Cartoon Network and Boomerang. If you, Reader, have some confusion about their non-disappearance, it's probably because you grew up in a world of cable television. Not too long ago I actually had a discussion with someone who, like 90% of you, doesn't even have a television antenna; and who did not believe that free broadcast television even existed anymore. Well, it does, and it's now digital, and every channel is basically two, and you still don't have to pay a monthly fee or TV Tax in America. Any mook with an antenna can get receive television for free. I can receive about a dozen free broadcast stations at my house, but I digress...


The first point of interest is that Saturday morning cartoons were there for a reason. It was the very capitalistic, commercial reason that they were amazingly lucrative. Saturday morning was when the kids were both attentive and not competing with their parents for the only television screen that most households had. It kept them busy when Dad was mowing the grass and Mom did mom-things. So it was a natural time-slot for child-centric programming. But more than that, with all the little darlings in one spot (ok... three spots), the advertisers knew exactly what demographic was watching each show, and how old the audience was likely to be. Also, the children of Baby Boomers were a very spoiled influential group. If you were Kenner, or Mattel, or Post or Kellog, you wanted those ad spots, because they absolutely sold product. As a result, every commercial was for some toy or some sugary cereal. Kids saw the products, wanted them, put them on their Christmas and birthday wish lists and begged their parents for them. Those ad dollars really got competitive in the pre-holiday sales seasons. The kids wanted that programming because it was entertaining: they didn't want to come home from a work-week of being force-fed education at school only to have the same done at home. It's intuitively obvious that they need some down-time. It was great for advertisers, and they wanted that programming. The government, not so much. Also not so much... weak-willed parents who were constantly nudjed by their little heirs. Rather than saying "no" to temptation they lobbied the government to remove the temptation.
Here, have a study: [PDF]. This one's about the quality of food advertisements on Saturday morning. It's one of a quintzillion studies that bolster the victim mentality of those indulgent parents. It's so much easier to blame someone else than take responsibility for what you yourself buy and put on the table. And the first conclusion that a reasonable person might draw when faced with the fact that "thousands of children spell relief R-O-L-A-I-D-S or can name more beer brands than U.S. presidents" is that perhaps we should look at ways to employ the obviously effective techniques of advertisers in the classroom. Is that even considered in this study? Read and find out.
Nah, I'll save you the trouble. Ads work by rote. Rote is not fashionable in education, although it absolutely, undeniably, demonstrably works
There has long been a rule regarding public airwaves that a certain portion of them be devoted to educational programming. A condition of the FCC granting a television broadcasting license is to require at least three hours of educational programming. And for this bit of discussion you'll have to set aside the obvious questions like, "so what is PBS for, if not for that?"  We'll get to that later. Just know that the rule exists. Now in the 1970s, programs like Shazam and Isis were introduced. Not only were they cheaper to produce than animation, but the stories often revolved around some moral. By the end of the show the characters (and the viewers) "learned a valuable lesson", which made such programming "educational". Animated shows like Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids were similarly morality-based. Perhaps you were aware that Bill Cosby holds a doctorate in education. Well, that show is how he got it.

Oops... did I say "morality"? Scratch that. Let's say "life lessons" instead.

But in the 1990s the climate changed. As you've already read in the Gizmodo piece, the FCC cracked down and more strictly enforced the educational programming rule. Bound by the rules, and unwilling to give up Prime Time, something had to give, and that was cartoons. BUT... by this time, cable was becoming ubiquitous. The Cartoon Network was launched in 1992. It's no coincidence that this channel became commercially viable at the same time as the broadcast networks were forced aggressively encouraged to give up the Saturday morning slots to educational programming. Cartoon Network was started by Ted Turner, who himself was one of those independent broadcasters I previously mentioned before he saw the potential of cable and launched CNN and TBS on the wire.

So. The Cartoon Network launched. The broadcast networks gave up kid's programming on Saturday mornings. Nobody noticed but the networks because of the economics, which went as follows:
  1. government intervention stifled the broadcast market,
  2. competitors saw an opportunity and began competing on cable,
  3. customers ran like rabbits from broadcast to cable,
  4. broadcasters lose money on three hours a week just for the privilege of staying in business.


Here's the funny thing about this... educational programming doesn't have to be forced on anyone, and in the right timeslots, with the right audience, it sells itself. Nothing about the government's intervention was necessary.

Don't believe me? Just put a good show on and see. PBS struck gold with shows like Masterpiece Theater and Carl Sagan's Cosmos, and struck a limitless vein with Sesame Street. But the government has long told us, and still do during the yearly beg-fests on PBS, that "if we don't air programs like these, no one will".

And don't get wrapped around the axle because I call the yearly fund-raising telethon a "beg-fest". I'm a contributor, and yes, they beg me for it far more strenuously than is required to separate me from my money. Most people don't realize that the majority of funding for Public Broadcasting comes not from the government, but from the public. PBS stations are restricted from showing advertisements, but are allowed to acknowledge contributors, which they do with short statements like, "Cooking With Kelp is made possible by a generous donation from the Soylent Corporation, and by the support of viewers like you." The long list of corporate sponsors who are willing to fund the programming; coupled with the vastly larger pool of individual viewers who are moved to contribute, puts the lie to the claim that " one will". But more than that, cable television is filled to the brim with entire channels devoted not only to educational programming, but are devoted to specific subjects.

Let's do this alphabetically, shall we?
American Heroes Channel; Animal Planet; Create; Discovery Channel; Investigation Discovery; FYI (the Biography Channel); History; H2; Military History; National Geographic Channel; Nat Geo Wild; NASA TV; PBS Satellite Service; Pivot; Science; Smithsonian Channel; Velocity; World.  Those are specifically listed as educational channels. Channels with mostly educational content include A&E, Bravo; Cooking Channel; Destination America (Planet Green); Food Network; Hub Network (Discovery Kids); TLC (The Learning Channel); Turner Classic Movies (for historical content);.
Each of these channels is staffed by people who not only would do what PBS do if PBS didn't, but who actually do do it despite the fact that PBS exists.  And the government didn't have to make them do it. And that's generally the case, not just with education. Given today's perspective and the ubiquity of cable news channels, it's easy to overlook the fact that a 24-hour news channel was a completely revolutionary thought in 1980. Of course, the "Big Three" have long believed their own press, that the press (meaning newspapers and themselves) are "the fourth branch of government"; so the idea that someone could swoop in and report the news on their own terms was a complete surprise to them. At the time, we heard complaints that they weren't "legitimate" press, as if some stamp of legitimacy even exists. It does not. Anyone can observe and report on what they see and hear, and what they state is "news". How much legitimacy there is to that is entirely dependent in how much you trust them. The advent of Internet news sources has revived that tired old worthless debate. A reporter is someone who reports. Get over it. Again I digress...

Commercial broadcasters very happily put on educational programming of their own when left to their own devices. People used to watch the shit out of shows like Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, and a king-sized helping of everything that aired on The Wonderful World of Disney was educational. A National Geographic Special was indeed a special event, as was The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Education sells if it's packaged right. The reboot of Cosmos aired on the Fox network, not PBS. But when the government gets involved the government inevitably, invariably screws it up. Hence the commercial broadcasting dead zone that is now Saturday morning. On our first cartoon-free morning, at 9:30,
  1. ABC aired Ocean Mysteries with Jeff Corwin, which explored how similar exotic sea creatures are to humans (not very); 
  2. CBS aired CBS This Morning, which no one watched; 
  3. Fox and NBC magically agreed to air local programming, having completely given up; 
  4. CW aired The Brady Barr Experience about why animals steal food from humans, which presumably concluded that they were HUNGRY; and 
  5. PBS aired Dinosaur Train, a highly educational depiction of pteranodons embarking on a world tour.
The children weren't there to watch them... they were off watching Boomerang and Cartoon Network.


So we have a rule that basically tries but fails to solve a problem that never existed. Not only does every television have a font of free educational television in the form of PBS, but that font is funded most directly by public contributions. Those who are not receiving terrestrial broadcasts have a firehose instead of a font, in the form of numerous channels dedicated to education. There is not now, nor has there ever been a need for the FCC rules that ineffectually mandate educational programming on commercial networks. Once again, the private sector does it better. Where educational programming is good, then it's sought after and watched. When it's forced, then no amount of regulation will get viewers to watch. They'll vote with their channel selectors.

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