Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Half-Hour Commercials

Animated TV shows and toys have a long history together though not as long as you might think. Today, shows based on toy properties are quite plentiful. Flip through a couple of channels of kids’ programming and you’re bound to come across at least one series based on a toy line, a video game, a card game, or some other product available at your local toy store. Given how common such shows are now, it can be hard to believe that not too long ago, such shows did not exist in the U.S. In fact, they were pretty much against the law.

The concerns about program length commercials started around 1969. Toy company Mattel had started promoting its miniature car toyline Hot Wheels with a Saturday morning cartoon. This move prompted Topper Toys, one of Mattel’s competitors to complain to the FCC that the show gave Mattel an unfair advantage and was really just a “half-hour commercial” for Mattel’s product. The FCC agreed with Topper’s claims and eventually adopted a rather vague set of guidelines for what constituted a program length commercial. Commercial programs were defined as those where the goal of selling the sponsoring company’s product took precedence over either entertaining or informing the public. These shows were therefore counted as part of the station’s commercial time, which had to be limited to a certain amount of time per hour.

The FCC’s change in policy regarding shows based on products came about in the 1980s. The Reagan administration favored deregulation in various sectors of the economy, including television. Under Reagan, the FCC took less of a role in insuring that television served the public interest over commercial interests. Annual specials based on the Strawberry Shortcake line of dolls began running in 1980 and the syndicated series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, featuring the characters from Mattel’s action figure line, debuted in 1983. By the middle of the decade, the FCC had revisited its previous decision on commercial programs and removed their previous restrictions on such shows.

The debate over the effects of the deregulation of children’s television programming is something I will leave to the experts in that field. Suffice to say, the worries about shows aimed at children based on products marketed to children have not gone away. Again, I am not an expert in advertising, child psychology, or any other field that would allow me to talk knowledgeably about the issues on both sides of this ongoing debate. What I am is an animation fan and what bothers me is the argument from groups concerned about the amount of advertising children are exposed to that these shows really are nothing more than “half-hour commercials” and are devoid of merit because of it.

The problem with this line of thinking can be seen even in the FCC’s original attempts to define what a program length commercial is. While it may sound like an easy distinction, it is actually pretty difficult to determine whether a show’s primary goal is to sell product, mainly because television shows are seldom created with a single, primary goal in mind. The modern television show has to accomplish a lot more than just entertaining or informing the viewers. Between the need to convince a production company to make the show in the first place, the need to court networks, and the need to woo advertisers, a show needs to convince any number of people of its merits beyond its intended audience. Even the public broadcasting shows aimed at children must always strike a balance between entertaining and educating their young viewers. It is impossible to educate children through television if they don’t enjoy the show enough to watch it. The same is true of shows that are designed in part to advertise a product. If the kids don’t enjoy the show, the advertising opportunity is lost. So how do you determine whether one goal trumps the other, whether entertainment or advertising is the primary objective? He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was clearly entertaining to the children it was aimed at and the series has fans to this day. Does being based on a line of toys diminish its value as entertainment?


Certainly there have been TV series that do little beyond selling the product they are based on, where character and plot are completely subservient to showcasing the toys available for purchase. But at the same time, there are shows that are much more than overlong advertisements. Beast Wars: Transformers is one such show. The second part of the title leaves little doubt of its connection to the world of toys. Beast Wars was created to promote the new incarnation of toy company Hasbro’s line of transforming robot figures of the same name. Right from the start, selling toys was part of this show’s mission. It could easily be defined as another half-hour commercial, except that it’s actually really good. Over the course of its three season run, Beast Wars entertained its faithful viewers with complex characters, exciting and rich plotlines that played out over multiple episodes, and what at the time was top notch computer animation for television. (The show was among the earliest computer animated series produced for TV. Mainframe Entertainment - now known as Rainmaker Entertainment, the studio that created the first completely computer animated TV series ReBoot, handled the animation.) The heroes had genuine flaws and the villains were strong and smart enough to be a credible threat. Since computer animation was expensive at the time, the cast was kept small, allowing the show’s writers to focus on real character development rather than trying to cram in every single figure from the toyline. While the show did help to sell toys, it also accomplished much more by telling good stories, seldom talking down to its intended audience, and introducing original concepts and even characters that served the show rather than just reflecting the product.

Sometime in the 1990s, a toy company approached an animation studio. They were planning to produce a line of model spaceships and wanted an animated series to base their models on. The show could be anything the studio wanted, but it had to include spaceships. Sounds like the formula for another half-hour commercial, right? Well, only if you would call Cowboy Bebop a half-hour commercial.


Yup, that’s right. This smart, sophisticated, and extremely popular anime was born partly from Japanese toymaker Bandai asking anime studio Sunrise to create a show that Bandai could use to kick off their model spaceship line. Bandai took a very hands-off approach to the show beyond insisting on the presence of the spaceships, which are an important part of the show, but not nearly as central as the characters. The show was a big success in both Japan and international markets. This is a case where the show has eclipsed to product it was meant to sell, to the point where virtually no one thinks of Cowboy Bebop as a series created to pitch model kits.

The question posed by product-based TV series is less “Can they have value beyond advertising the product?” than “Could series of equal quality be created without being based on existing product?” In an ideal world, he answer would be “yes.” The “secret ingredient” that makes a good product-based TV show good is not the toy concept, but the talented people who can take that concept, flesh it out, and make it capable of supporting seasons’ worth of stories. A crew that produces a great toy-based series should be able to do just as well – if not even better – with a completely original concept. But children’s television is a business. Having another company helping to finance the production of an animated series can look like a pretty good deal to the animation studio. On top of that, networks tend to look for shows and concepts that have already enjoyed success or gained a following in one medium or another. Take another spin through the channels and count how many of the shows are based on anything pre-existing: a movie, a comic, a book, an older TV series. Shows based on original ideas still do happen, but shows based on concepts proven successful are still seen as a safer bet. With toy-based shows, the benefits can go both ways: kids who like the show will buy the toys and kids who are excited about the toys will want to watch the show.

I do believe that a show’s connection to a product for children is something parents should be aware of when looking at what their kids are watching. But it is a factor in determining the value of a show, not the only one. A show that is based on a toyline is not automatically going to be garbage, just as an original concept is no guarantee that a show will be good. Whatever its origins, a good animated series can be genuinely entertaining and even educate its audience about what elements make a compelling story at the very least. Toy-based TV shows might be trying to sell you something, but the best of them are way more than half-hour commercials.

DISCLOSURE: The author’s husband is an employee of the toy company Hasbro. No, he can’t get you free toys, get a particular toy made for you, or tell you what toys are going to be made. So don’t ask.

All images are copyright their respective owners.

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