Up until the time I was in 10th grade (2002-2003), my family did not have cable. This, combined with the fact that I lived in a neighborhood with no kids, had no pets until 3rd grade and no siblings ever, confused and confounded my elementary school peers. “What do you DO all the time?” was the most common inquiry made by my grade school friends. I usually responded with something along these lines: “Play outside, ride my bike, play with my Barbies and stuffed animals, and watch TV.” Most of my friends did these things too, but when I said I watched TV, they often asked “What do you watch if you don’t have cable?” My answer? “PBS.” While my colleagues grew up watching “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”, “Doug”, & MTV shows, I spent my afternoons watching “Square One,” “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?”, “Wishbone,” “Lamb Chop’s Playalong,” “Shining Time Station,” and “Reading Rainbow.” Eventually I think the local FOX syndicates picked up some of the Disney Channel shows, like “Duck Tales” and “TaleSpin,” (both of which I intend to buy on DVD if I ever see the full series in a boxed set) and I watched those too. But there was something about those PBS shows that made them awesome. They knew the ultimate trick to education: If you’re having fun, you’re more likely to learn and remember. “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” sparked an interest in geography for me, while “Ghostwriter” taught kids about writing and how useful it is. “Wishbone” and “Reading Rainbow” both encouraged my love of reading, and “Shining Time Station” reinforced ideas like friendship, patience, and how awesome Ringo Starr is.* Unfortunately, “Square One” went off the air while I was still pretty young, so I don’t remember a lot about it, other than their series-within-a-series, “Mathnet,” a clever little “Dragnet” parody where detectives used math to solve crimes in LA. These shows were educational, but also fun and entertaining. They made you laugh and had endearing charachters, much like many of the 1990s cartoons my friends were watching on cable (and which I watched on ABC on Saturday mornings until the time I was 12 or 13).
It seems to me that cartoons/children’s shows (and maybe TV in general) were better in the 1990s. As I mentioned in my post about “The Princess and the Frog,” most cartoons on TV today are visually unappealing. Nickelodeon seems to be particularly egregious in its proliferation of ugly cartoons (“Sponge Bob”, “Hey Arnold”, and “Rugrats” were some of the earlier ugly cartoons, though “Hey Arnold” and “Rugrats” were at least fun to watch [at my friends’ houses]). These shows, which are now quite lovely compared to some of the newer ones on Nick and Cartoon Network, had characters with WILDLY disproportionate heads and bodies, ugly faces, and unappealing backgrounds. The quality of the animation has only gotten worse. In addition, there are less cartoons on TV nowadays, good OR bad. TV channels that typically played all (or mostly all) cartoons, like the Disney Channel & Nickelodeon, all rely almost exclusively on live-action shows now. Cartoon Network has even started showing live-action shows outside of the Adult Swim block. Traditional Saturday morning cartoons that millions of Americans grew up watching have vanished. None of the major networks show cartoons on their local affiliates anymore.
It makes me a little sad to know that my kids are going to grow up watching lame kids’ shows. My generation has already started having kids, and many young parents that I’ve talked to agree that there aren’t many kids’ shows they like to let their kids watch. Even my other non-parent friends say it makes them sad that kids don’t have good shows to watch anymore. I say it’s time for a cartoon revolution! Boycott the new shows & support syndication and reruns of the old ones. It’s time for animation studios and children’s programming executives to look back to old shows for inspiration. Combine the fun and education of old PBS kids’ shows with the good animation of 1990s Disney/Warner Bros animation.
*Ringo Starr, for a while, played The Conductor on Shining Time Station. He was, for some reason that I cannot remember, about a foot tall in the show. Everyone else was a normal height, but he was pocket-sized.