The TV wasteland has never been more vast for children.
A recent article from Bloomberg discusses the disastrous situation confronting cable and broadcast networks when it comes to child viewers ages 2-11. The article notes that “the amount of time that the youngest watchers spent viewing conventional TV fell 30 percent between 2010 and 2017.” What the article fails to note is that the reason for the decline in young viewership can be laid at the feet of the networks themselves – for utterly failing to create programming appropriate for and appealing to children.
It wasn’t always so. Once, nearly everything on prime-time TV was suitable for, or at least not harmful to, children. Westerns, situation comedies, police and medical dramas, even spy shows didn’t cross the line into inappropriate content; and, as a result, generations of kids watched, and learned that TV was a great place to be. The networks were even able to air some “edgy” programs which pushed their preferred social agendas in shows like All in the Family and M*A*S*H…yet managed to do so without being offensive.
Some networks weren’t even ashamed of programming prime time specifically for children. The Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk…These shows weren’t buried on some niche science-fiction or superhero network or program app. They were broadcast network programs, aired in prime time, where everyone could receive and see them. As a result, they were shared and loved by millions of viewers – especially kids. And also as a result, those kids grew up accustomed to watching traditional TV, because the lesson they had learned as kids was that TV provided programming that interested them, shows worth watching.
But as TV – first cable, and now broadcast – became enamored of emulating as far as possible the graphic sex and nudity, extreme violence, explicit profanity, and dark, disturbing themes of HBO and Showtime programs, they steadily pushed children out of prime time – and eventually, out of mainstream television – entirely. This is a mistake that streaming services like Netflix have not made. Even as it has created shows with clear appeal to adults and older teens, Netflix has also invested in new, creative, interesting, and age-appropriate programming for kids.
The Bloomberg article documents how each of the major players are now trying to catch up to Netflix, by pushing out their own streaming services. But focusing on the technology involved, rather than on creating programming compelling to children (which is exactly what Netflix IS doing), is a classic example of not seeing the forest for the trees. Yes, by all means, invest in streaming technology if you think it will help; but ALSO create more programming that is age-appropriate and that kids care about, and put it on everywhere…broadcast, cable, and streaming.
Reviving a Saturday morning cartoon block might be a good place to start. For more than 50 years, Saturday mornings were the exclusive domain of child viewers. Over time, the networks chose to eliminate Saturday morning kids’ programming. (The CW was the last holdout, cancelling its Saturday morning cartoon block in 2014.) The networks cited declining ratings in their decisions to get rid of Saturday morning kids’ programming…but in eliminating a dedicated block of programming for kids, they essentially told children, “There’s nothing for you here.”
Saturday morning TV today is a wasteland of infomercials and cheap, nearly identical E/I programming devoted to animals. Yes, E/I programming for children is important, and the networks should air it; but why can’t it be creative and fun? Don’t our kids deserve even the effort to create such programming? According to the big entertainment conglomerates, apparently not. But the money wasted on a single failed broadcast pilot could go to fund genuinely creative (and maybe even educational) shows for kids. Failing that, the networks could at least show classic children’s programming, instead of the dead air populating Saturday mornings now.
When it began, Cartoon Network showed a plethora of past animation, everything from Warner Brothers’ classic Looney Tunes shorts to Hanna-Barbera’s Scooby-Doo. But today, as the article notes, Looney Tunes are consigned to Cartoon’s sibling channel Boomerang…which is only available on a higher (read: more expensive) tier on most cable systems, or through yet another online subscription. According to the article, Disney at least is going to create new programming capitalizing on its Star Wars and Marvel superhero franchises…but why bring those shows only to streaming? Why not put them on Disney Channel or Disney XD, too? Or even on ABC Saturday mornings?
For decades now, child viewers have increasingly been herded into an ever-shrinking cable ghetto. For the last two decades, a tiny handful of networks were the only choices available to kids…and now, even they are facing serious problems. “Viewership of the three most-popular networks for the very young — Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel and the Cartoon Network — is down more than 20 percent this season,” says the Bloomberg article.
Well, no wonder. Over time, even the three “child-friendly” networks began pushing kids away with more and more content intended for adults. The Adult Swim block on Cartoon Network originally was strictly confined to late-night; today, it starts at 8:00 p.m. Eastern/7 Central – the very heart of prime time, when millions of kids are in the audience. Nickelodeon’s co-branded network Nick Jr., intended for younger children, was effectively destroyed by the decision to program prime-time with the unbelievably raunchy NickMom block – which resulted in a complete debacle for Nick Jr. and its owner Viacom. Disney, at least, created the Disney XD network to appeal to a action-craving boy audience, as Disney Channel appeals to budding princesses; but Disney’s simultaneous decision to push graphic sexual content onto the former ABC Family network (now renamed Freeform), and even on the Disney Channel itself, has likely pushed away as many or more kids than it attracts.
First broadcast, then most of cable, and now even cable TV networks supposedly intended for children, have spent years essentially pushing children online, by refusing to program for them…and now, the networks are suffering the consequences. Even children are smart enough not to go where they’re not wanted, and to go somewhere they are.
The bottom line is this: the major networks – broadcast and cable – don’t care about kids, and haven’t for a long time. But in their decision to cut lower-performing kid-friendly fare for short-term gain, they’ve cut their own throats over the long term.
Children today largely don’t watch traditional TV because there’s nothing there for them to watch — and there hasn’t been for decades. They therefore have no habit of, no affection for, and no loyalty to, traditional TV. And why should they, when the networks haven’t programmed anything they want to, or even can, watch?
The Bloomberg article opens with the words, “Kids are killing cable TV.” But when it comes to attracting and retaining kid viewers, cable and broadcast TV have long since committed suicide.