I want to talk about a disturbing trend that has emerged in animated programming over the past few years and specifically the absurdity that is the DC Nation programming block on Cartoon Network (CN). But to do that I have to lay the groundwork of evidence that exemplifies CN’s apparent mismanagement.
DC Nation has been running as a one-hour block on CN since March of 2012. Over that time we've enjoyed animated gems like Young Justice (YJ) and Green Lantern: The Animated Series (GL), only to have them go through several periods of hiatus before being unceremoniously cancelled. Fans of these shows were outraged. Filling out petitions and writing angry emails to CN for months. At one point the creative staff behind some of these shows were even exploring crowd-funding options. Even today people are still calling for the return of Young Justice. Unfortunately, these cries seem to fall on deaf ears. We eventually got an answer to the mystery of why these shows were pulled, though it never came directly from CN. Apparently CN tracks toy sales as a key metric in the success of their shows and YJ and GL just weren't stacking up. Here's the kicker though, they never even made toys for GL. Rumours were swirling that due to the poor performance of the Green Lantern feature film toy stores still had GL toys in stock, refusing to buy anything new with the Green Lantern name. As for Young Justice, well it seems it was skewing too old. That brings us to 2014 with history repeating itself all over again. Beware the Batman, one of the shows selected to replace YJ and GL along with Teen Titans Go (check my review of the premier of both here and here), is facing the same unscheduled hiatus as the two previously cancelled shows. Additionally, in a move that seems almost purposefully insulting, CN has released a Beware the Batman DVD, with the gall to put "Season 1 - Part 1" on the cover, as if they intended to create more content. Of course I have to mention the slim possibility that Beware the Batman will still be renewed, but all the evidence points to the contrary.
So here's my take; CN is going about things backwards. Judging a shows worth by its toy sales is like judging a sports team by its merchandise sales. Sure it seems like a good way to gauge popularity on the surface but in reality the information you're getting is only skin deep. The questions CN needs to be asking, and to a large extent DC as well, is how well is the show resonating with the audience and is it creating the DC fans of the future. Batman: The Animated Series was a touchstone for me as a child. It’s why I have the drive to write this article today. So when I see smart, complex shows with a passionate fan bases stripped from the programming I question CN’s current reasoning as well as their foresight. For every DC show CN cancels there becomes one less opportunity to expose young people to characters that we as fans know to be worth more than just the toys on a shelf. Beyond all of that, they just don't seem to understand what seems obvious to those looking at all this from the outside: A show is not, and should not be used solely as a vehicle to sell toys. To treat it as such is an insult to the medium, the fans, the creators and in the case of DC the brand. The characters are complex and the portrayal of them should reflect that. Kids are smarter than we think and offering them mindless dribble like Teen Titans Go does nothing to enrich our children's minds. From a business perspective it does little to enrich their interest in characters that can only thrive with the injection of new fans. Now in full disclosure, I don't know the intricacies of the television industry. What I can tell you is that when I was kid, when a quality show managed to crawl out from the swamp of poorly conceived programming that was the 80s and 90s it survived and lasted. Contrast that with the last few years and you will see that many high quality, expertly animated and acted series’ have been cancelled for seemingly no good reason. Just off the top of my head, beyond YJ and GL, I can think of Avengers Earths Mightiest Heroes (EMH), Wolverine and the X-men and Tron: Uprising. All of which were some of my favourite series’ during their short-lived runs. Other than early cancellations, these shows have something else in common; they didn't pander to the lowest common denominator. In some ways this appears to have been their downfall. Which brings me to what I believe to be the greater issue at hand; a drastic shift in the ideology of animated programming.
The first thing that alerted me to this shift was about half way through the run of Avengers: EMH when Jeph Loeb took over as Executive Vice President, Head of Television at Marvel. Early on in Avengers: EMH you could tell that they had a strong belief in serialized storytelling. This approach lead to full season arcs that tackled the vast swaths of interesting, complex stories from the comics. When Loeb came on board, with him came an edict for more “Done in ones” and less “To Be Continued”. Around this time Avengers: EMH shifted its story telling away from serialized content followed soon after by its cancellation. Loeb has since discussed his reasoning for this saying that “research that was brought to us showed that people were more willing to commit to an animated series when it was not in a true serialized form.” Its this kind of research which comes from the same types of people who think that toy sales are a good metric of a shows success. The fact is in today’s television landscape audiences are gravitating towards more serialized content, not less. With on-demand services and DVRs so prevalent now it’s almost impossible to miss an episode of your favourite show. Its backwards thinking by those like Loeb that have led us into the position we're in today; a shift towards dumbed-down, simplistic storytelling. Without serialization it’s near impossible to create complex stories. If everything resets itself each week how can the audience engage with the characters? In real life things and people change, even kids know that, so to create a world where few things ever change feels fake.
I’ll finish on a bright note. Even with all these cancellations we have still been lucky enough to enjoy shows like Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which having just been released in its entirety on Netflix exemplifies the direction that animated programming should be headed. We live in a time where the television landscape is shifting. It’s giving more power than ever to the creators and less to the executives who only see demographics and ratings. In time the cream always rises to the top, I just hope that when it gets there a studio head isn't still waiting to push it back down.