About a week ago, this happened. Paul Dini, the man responsible for some of the best cartoons and animated series in the past two decades, talked with Kevin Smith about why Cartoon Network canceled some of their shows. In the interview (which is well worth listening to in its entirety), Dini states “[TV execs] do not want girls watching this show” because “girls won’t buy toys”. The crux of his belief for why his – and many other popular shows – were canceled is because the female viewing audience had grown too high for the TV execs to tolerate. The reason why female viewers was bad was attribute to girls’ disinterest in toys.
This is troubling for almost more reasons than I can count, but I want to tackle at least a few of these reasons today. Since this is such a staggeringly awful world view, I want to throw out a few topics to discuss at another time. For starters, let’s just dismiss sexism. Is this a sexist view of things? Abso-goddamn-lutely. It is blatant, rank sexism to assume that girls in a large enough demographic to be an economic force won’t be interested in the merchandise for a show they enjoy. It is blatant sexism to just assume by virtue of their gender that girls simply will not have any interest in the toys of a show they clearly love a great deal.
I won’t be addressing that aspect of things – the sexism – because A) oh my god, there it is, it’s RIGHT THERE and B) there are plenty of other people online and in the media who already doing an excellent job addressing that. Since I feel like that corner of this topic is being adequately (and deservedly) addressed, I want to take a few other lesser but still important points to task.
The justification for the cancellation of these shows is just the absolute laziest excuse for creative corruptness ever. The preconceived insistence that an existing audience will not buy pre-made merchandise and therefore the audience must be disbanded is as patently selfish as it is short-sighted. It is putting your work ahead of the fans; it is insisting the fans buy what you make, not for you to make what the fans want to buy. It is professional laziness of the most deplorable sort.
First off, there is not one great success story in marketing and business that doesn’t involve reaching an unexpected demographic. From Nike’s realization that ‘women like sports too, maybe we should make women’s sneakers as well’ to the success of the Wii (and its ‘non-gamer’-friendly games), every marketing professional wants to be the one that bridges some kind of a gap and reaches out to a previously untapped demographic.
There’s a legend in marketing and advertising about how GI Joes came into being. The story goes that Merrill Hassenfeld (of Hassenfeld Brothers, aka Hasbro) entered into a bet with his wife that he could not sell ‘dolls to boys’. At the time (the 1960s), it was conventional wisdom that boys did not play with dolls, so Hasbro simply rechristened them ‘action figures’. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that ‘action figures’ have been one of the single biggest driving forces in children’s entertainment ever since.
Finding yourself with a demographic you didn’t expect (much like Cartoon Network did with a whole cadre of their shows) isn’t a problem: it’s an outstanding success! That isn’t a failure; it’s a dream come true! Refusal to see that is refusal to understand even the most basic elements of marketing and merchandising success.
Secondly, if the show’s success hinges on the selling of toys, then the goal is to sell toys. You cannot refuse to sell toys. If you have an interested demographic (and they did, based on the viewership numbers), they WILL buy merchandise connected to their favorite shows…if they think said merchandise is worthwhile. So if they aren’t buying merchandise that’s being made, the problem isn’t with the audience; it’s with the merchandise. They are obviously fans of the franchise and a century of capitalism has proven that they will spend money on what they like. Maybe the reason the action figures weren’t moving isn’t because girls don’t like action figures; it’s because the action figures were shoddy or overpriced.
And lastly, there is a larger issue at play here: the purpose of TV shows is not to ‘sell merchandise’. That may seem like a strange thing to say, coming from a die-hard Transformers fan, but the truth is that TV shows that are just commercials for the toys rarely – if ever – last more than one season.
TV shows that are closely connected to merchandise exist to generate interest in the franchise and there is a distinct difference between generating interesting a franchise and shilling toys. The show cannot exist solely as a commercial for the toys. It must be able to stand on its own rights and virtues as an independent (though connected) artistic venture. To make the shows fundamentally subservient to a different art form (toys, in this case) is to thoroughly undercut if not completely undermine the medium.
What this means is that cancelling the show because the toys weren’t selling – or worse, because there was fear the toys might not sell – is the work of artistic cowardice. The idea that the show has no reason to exist except to move merchandise is artistically bankrupt, and it destroys whatever possible credibility the show and the network might want to retain.
In this day and age, memories are long. Firefly’s been off the air for well over a decade, and yet it continues to be a topic of discussion at conventions and on forums, keeping pace with long-enduring franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek. Forgotten kids shows are no different. The Mysterious Cities of Gold has been off the air for three decades and yet there was a new video game released for it on Steam.
Shows connected to enduring franchises, like those Cartoon Network just canceled which are connected to DC Comics, will be long remembered indeed. And those who remember the heartbreak of their favorite shows being canceled will remember this when Cartoon Network tries to woo them back with future shows. This short-sightedness – rooted in blatant and deplorable sexism – that girls simply won’t buy the toys already made for these shows is as troubling as it is fundamentally wrong.