Monday, April 21, 2003

The Commerce of Cartoons

Instead of starting the day resolved not to watch CNN, like I do on some mornings, in the name of TV Turnoff Week, I decided to take another route. Having read a listing of anime currently aired on American TV stations in Animerica, I decided to set my alarm clock a little early, get up a little early, and turn on the television a little early.

This morning's targets? The anime Medabots. Released stateside by ADV Films, Medabots is an anime skewed at younger viewers that incorporates an evident toy line tie-in. This morning's episode on ABC Family at 7 a.m. was "There's Something About Miss Mimosa", a simple tale about three men warring over the affections of Ikki's teacher, Miss Mimosa. The animation isn't that solid, and the Medabots are used almost as afterthoughts. That said, the multimedia evolution of the Medabots is intriguing. Initially launched as a video game in Japan, the Medabots then spawned a toy line that features 2-inch figures and two-piece Ro-Battle kits. Each Medabot comes complete with Ro-Battle statistics and fighting specialties. While it's clear that the anime was introduced to the States to help market the toy line, the battle and competitive aspect of the toys and game don't really communicate well in the cartoon. Regardless, this isn't your standard fighting anime. The romantic aspect of this episode, and the occasionally Rumiko Takahashi-like character designs give this a little more depth. But just a little. (Extra credit for the student journalist character Erika.)

At 7:30, Medabots was followed by Beyblade, another fighting anime aimed at younger viewers. Done more in the style of Dragonball Z, this anime also has an evident toy line tie-in. This morning's episode, "The Race Is On" carries a light message about teamwork, trust, and patience, but for the most part, it's a tense, bide-your-time approach to a straight-ahead stadium-battle. It seems rather silly that someone could base an anime on competitive tops -- at least in Medabots, the 'bots can be fleshed out as characters -- so even though the animation is better here, the story stops short of interesting. Unless you're into fighting narratives where a team faces an ever-changing line up of competitors. Of the two toy lines, Beyblades seems more fun. In some ways, the Beyblades toys fit into the collectible toy and card game menace a la Pokemon, but, come on... battling tops? If someone wants to gift me a Griffolyon A-28, I wouldn't say no.

Why is all of this interesting? Cartoons have long been used to market toys. It's not that cartoons spawn licensed toy lines, but that the toys almost always come first. The horribly designed "He-Man Vs. the Advertisers" page indicates that many characters and plotlines in the Masters of the Universe cartoons were catalyzed by the introduction of new toys. And Norma Pecora's The Business of Children's Entertainment suggests that this effect might be best seen in the light of a market exchange model. Media organizations are suppliers. Advertisers are the source of the demand. And what do they want? An audience. Children. This is nothing new, but it highlights the fact that this has nothing to do with anime or toys.

So if cartoons and children's programming are at base advertisements, stateside or otherwise, wherefore the future of children's programming? Are kids consumers? To a certain age, their parents are in their stead. How do you reach them? One Web writer offers a brief analysis of the G.I. Joe cartoon series that aired in the '80s, positioning it within a broader cartoon cultural context -- and in a post-911 light -- barely touching on the educational and occasionally ethical messages that capped each episode. Those messages were the result of Congress intervening in children's broadcasting in the '80s as part of the Children's Television Act. By couching an otherwise commercial program in an apologetic, educational afterthought, networks could better guarantee that affiliates would air a given program.

Medabots and Beyblade have no such educational aspirations or apologies. They are commercials pure and simple. Is the CTA on the wane? Does it matter less on cable? Do international imports fall under different guidelines in the name of cultural exchange? All food for thought on the first day of TV Turnoff Week.

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