Cartoon Network to Showrunners: Sell Toys or Perish
March 7, 2013 3 Comments
TV animation fans are still coming to terms with recent announcements that Cartoon Network had canceled two Saturday morning series, both part of the DC Nation programming block — Young Justice after two seasons, and Green Lantern after a single season. Cancellation isn’t unusual for the basic-cable channel — their programming history is a long shopping list of short-term productions. In fact, if you set aside the frequent Ben 10 reboots (the Scooby-Doo of a new generation in its own way), their longest-running series outside the Adult Swim block (i.e., still producing new episodes and not existing solely as reruns) is Adventure Time, which will celebrate its third birthday next month. The minds behind Young Justice should probably count their blessings that they were allowed two entire seasons instead of being truncated after six episodes.
Typical Cartoon Network cancellations tend to come and go without a public post-mortem or much of a protest. However, the curious circumstances surrounding these shows’ unforeseen terminations was addressed last weekend at the Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle, where longtime Warner Brothers Animation producer Bruce Timm was asked about the cancellations at a Q&A. In the wake of a January article about Young Justice ending due not to low ratings but to anemic toy sales, multimedia news/rumor site Bleeding Cool followed up with Timm’s response regarding Green Lantern, referencing weak merchandise sales as the primary cause of death:
Since the Ryan Reynolds’ film, retailers were stuck with film merchandise that just wasn’t selling. This led to those retailers being very reluctant, if not downright refusing, to any carry merchandise from the Animated Series. Therefore, a lack of sales on that front lead to a lack revenue for an admittedly expensive CG series.
In reading the paraphrasing of Timm’s comments, I couldn’t help feeling a little naïve and a whole lot disappointed. Though the shows weren’t quite for me, I can respect the efforts that went into them and the fan bases they garnered. The part that struck me in the worst way was that, if those two articles linked above are to be believed — and I’ve seen no evidence that anyone in authority disagrees with them — then the crews of both shows essentially lost their gigs regardless of the quality of their own work. If the stories were engaging and the animation was suitably competent, it didn’t matter. Even though Nielsen commoners didn’t exactly boycott the show, ratings were seemingly a secondary consideration. The bottom line, as I understand it: they failed as toy commercials.
(Full disclosure: I’m not currently following either series. I avoided Young Justice at first because the initial press releases seemed bland. I caught a later episode, thought it wasn’t bad, lamented that the show was built for multi-part story arcs just like today’s DC Comics, and considered adding it to my DVD want list if it merited such a release in the distant future. As for Green Lantern, I’ve soured on Hal Jordan’s universe in recent years because I miss the days when his job was to patrol Space Sector 2814 to confront all manners of trouble. I get the impression that the job of today’s Green Lantern Corps is limited to babysitting or smacking down other Lanterns. If its name doesn’t end in “Lantern”, if it wasn’t a former Lantern, or if it possesses not one single power ring, then it’s free to do as it pleases, because our heroic ring bearers don’t have time for it. They’re too consumed with waging the costly, detrimental War on Lanterns. Also, that movie: ugh. Technically that makes me part of the problem.)
As I understand it, Genndy Tartakovsky’s short-lived Sym-Bionic Titan was canceled on similar but more extreme grounds, in that the show was canned for the crime of having no toy line at all. One wonders why execs even allowed it to air in the first place. I can only imagine how many other late, lamented CN staples faced the same heartbreak.
This is a depressing precedent in place. If you’re an animation producer dying to work with Cartoon Network, apparently it’s in your best interest to ensure that your characters are designed with other media in mind, particularly how they’ll look as three-inch action figures. You’ll need to craft your storylines so that viewers are so inspired by them, they’ll be overtaken by the intense desire to own their own copies of those characters so they can reenact your stories or create their own at home. If at all possible, it might not be a bad idea to find ways to coordinate cross-promotional efforts with your merchandise licensees, encourage transmedia synergy, and turn your show into a weekly product placement parade, as well as you can within the confines of FCC regulations.
By the same token, it seems it would be in the producers’ best interest if they called the licensees three times a day to ensure all merchandise was likewise attractive, functional, and generally awesome in its own right. If I were an animator and my show’s life depended on how well Wal-Mart moved my animation’s ancillary products, you can bet I’d have an intense interest in becoming Super Quality-Control Guy and staring over the toymakers’ shoulders while they work to confirm that they’re not ruining my career by putting together cut-rate garbage with my intellectual property’s name on it. If my livelihood is in your hands, I’d better see zero paint errors, some sparkly packaging, results more than three inches tall, and way more than four measly points of articulation.
All of this sounds like a terrible way to make art. I suppose it’s all in the game these days.
Consider this a cautionary tale to you Adventure Time fans out there: if you want your show to last beyond 2013, you and your millions of closest friends need to consider tracking down and purchasing at least one of every single object you can locate with Finn’s and Jake’s faces on them. Remember in old episodes of The Simpsons when Bart’s bedroom was made of Krusty junk? Now’s the time to refurnish your own bedroom into a veritable Adventure Time museum filled to the brim with hundreds of AT objects and products, whether or not you need or want them, even if they’re carcinogenic and prone to spontaneous combustion.
Keep the ultimatum in mind: buy it all or else your beloved show dies. Oh, and Cartoon Network probably thanks you for watching.