The last weekend of September 2014 was also the last weekend a broadcast network aired Saturday morning cartoons. Is this the end of an animated era, or is it a sign of a long trend coming across multiple genres of children's entertainment? Children's programming used to be a highly lucrative television market, but now it seems as if the bottom is completely falling out even for what a few years ago were huge, unquestioned moneymakers and network tentpoles.
iCarly image sourced from Nick.com
As Robert Sorokanich points out, networks have been pulling the plug on animation for not years but decades, going back all the way to NBC throwing in the towel in 1992 (around the time the network's own The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air entered into its second season). If anything it should be both a surprise and a miracle that holdouts like The CW have lasted this long. And it's not just the free airwaves that are reeling from a new television economic reality - just before The CW canceled its Vortexx block, Nickelodeon shoveled one of its signature animated properties, The Legend of Korra, to online viewership only (after, bizarrely, making a big deal of Korra being viewable only on Nickelodeon itself). Even the live-action "KidCom," once the bane of cartoon lovers everywhere for displacing animation in favor of cheap, mass-produced production values has suffered, and perhaps has experienced the greatest crash of all.
Shake it Up was one of Disney Channel's biggest draws up to its unexpected cancellation, routinely drawing in more than 4 million viewers per new episode along with supplemental revenue streams in music and clothing lines. Image from fanpop.com.
Live-action programming has been a part of the tween and teen demographic landscape since at least the 60s and 70s in some form or another, even enjoying some success during the heyday of Saturday morning cartoon blocks and especially during the 90s on cable outlets such as Nickelodeon with classics like Salute Your Shorts and The Adventures of Pete & Pete. Where live-action tween/teen programming, and especially the multi-camera situational "KidCom" really came into dominance however was when The Suite Life of Zack and Cody premiered on Disney Channel in 2005 and Hannah Montana in 2006. The ability of these shows to generate immense fandoms based around almost personality cult-like fervor for specific actors and actresses, and especially with Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus' singing talent guaranteeing very strong additional revenue streams completely rewrote the children's programming landscape as far as both Nickelodeon and Disney Channel were concerned. Both networks commissioned new shows and renewed them based on their ability to build a synergy between fantastic and ultra-escapist high-concept premises, photogenic and appealing actors and actresses and said players' ability to croon the type of pop music the tweens can't help but gobble up. In this manner The Suite Life of Zack and Cody gave direct birth to The Suite Life on Deck, another Disney mega-hit, with spiritual spin-offs A.N.T. Farm and Jessie giving greater consideration to music production. Wizards of Waverly Place, perhaps the most fondly remembered Disney Channel KidCom thus far, perhaps represents the most successful execution of this synergy launching Selena Gomez into super-stardom and lasting over a hundred episodes with a train of CDs and other merchandise following. But perhaps the most blatant display of the escapist-personality-music synergy was Disney Channel's Shake it Up, about a pair of besties (played by Bella Thorne and Zendaya Coleman) who suddenly become dancers on Chicago's hottest televised tween sensation, the eponymous Shake it Up (a bit of self-reflection indeed becomes inevitable). Nickelodeon premiered VicTORious at around the same time, once again blatantly following the escapist-personality-music synergy formula in the most straightforward way possible with Victoria Justice and her band of musically talented friends attending the elite Hollywood Arts high school-cum-creatives factory; and before that with mega-hit iCarly, with Miranda Cosgrove and Jennette McCurdy gaining fame and recognition through their own set of rules and play displayed for everyone to see online. At the height of the Disney/Nick KidCom in 2011-12, 4 million viewers and higher per new episode became the expected norm.
When Wizards of Waverly Place on Disney Channel and iCarly on Nickelodeon ended their runs in 2012, it represented a watershed point in tween/teen viewing demographics. Image from Disney Channel South Africa.
Then something strange happened during the 2012-13 television season. Having been renewed for an extra season, early 2012 was Wizards' time to bow out and Selena Gomez's turn to explore acting roles and recording opportunities outside of her Disney-backed comfort zone. The following Thanksgiving season, iCarly said iGoodbye (and yes, that is the actual series finale's episode title). Almost instantly ratings started to take noticeable hits across the board for both networks. For example, Disney Channel's Friday night lineup, which could be counted on to hit the low 4 million mark, started struggling to just make it, and routinely dipped into the high or even mid 3 million range. Still, this was hardly a bad place to be in, and Disney Channel's Sunday night kept on the level with Shake it Up, the similarly-themed Austin & Ally and most notably the network's only low-concept comedy at the time, Good Luck Charlie. The real hits were over at Nickelodeon, with VicTORious dropping all the way into the 2 million range all the way into its unexpected finale and a number of high profile "one season wonder" cancellations from 2012 into 2013 including Bucket and Skinner's Epic Adventures, How to Rock, Marvin, Marvin and Wendell and Vinnie. It seems that as soon as iCarly left, it took Nickelodeon's viewerbase with it. Even the much anticipated dual iCarly/VicTORious spin-off Sam & Cat ended its one-season run over the summer of 2014, although that cancellation comes mired in rumored backstage production problems. As it currently stands for Nickelodeon, the struggling sophomore series The Haunted Hathaways and The Thundermans, each garnering only about 2 million viewers each in their first seasons, are all that's available to help prop up freshman series Henry Danger (the latest from iCarly/VicTORious creator Dan Schneider) and Nicky, Ricky, Dicky and Dawn - the latter two most notably aiming for an even younger tween and even pre-tween demo.
Disney Channel's I Didn't Do It, new for the 2013-2014 television season, has posted struggling ratings in the wake of Shake it Up's cancelation. Image from Disney Channel UK.
Come Thanksgiving season 2013, Shake it Up would air its last episode on Disney Channel. Just as with VicTORious, the lack of renewal comes with no explanation and much speculation and rumor-milling (mostly focusing on show expenses and the network wanting to move in a direction away from the high concept formula). And just as with iCarly, it would take a huge chunk of Disney Channel's viewerbase along with it. Those mid to low-3 million viewer ratings from the season before now seems impossibly lofty as even stalwart Austin & Ally, left to fend for itself alone and bolster newcomers Liv & Maddie and I Didn't Do It, routinely bottom out in the mid or even low 2 million range. It's the same story on Friday night despite long-running favorite Jessie, surprisingly solid (despite the title) Dog With a Blog and the highly anticipated Boy Meets World spin-off Girl Meets World (along with one of the few holdouts left for an animation block on the network rotating between Disney XD series such as Phineas & Ferb, Gravity Falls and most importantly of all, Star Wars: Rebels).
So the big question is: what happened, exactly, to cause the bottom to fall out? Did a few key shows ending their runs really kill the audience along with them? Or is this an inevitable slide reflecting changing trends and viewing habits?
It's worth noting that VicTORious' ratings slide happened around the time its final season was announced, so its difficult to tell if it's the result of viewer fatigue or viewers deciding it no longer worth watching a show they know is coming to an end (although I'm inclined to believe the former). Likewise, Good Luck Charlie's mega-ratings were starting to slip around its final extended season. It's difficult to keep a show, even a good running show, running for a long time (naturally) so sooner or later the show must come to, well, an end. The real secret is to make sure you retain the audience for the next show coming after that.
And perhaps that's where both Nickelodeon and Disney miscalculated. Disney Channel in particular may have felt that the high concept escapist-driven KidCom's time had come and gone (perhaps inspired by the success of Good Luck Charlie) and invested in more low concept fare like I Didn't Do It and Girl Meets World. The actual demographic, on the other hand, might not have outgrown the ultra-escapist high concept as much as the network thinks. It could also reflect an honest shift in and lack of quality in scriptwriting - A.N.T. Farm in particular succumbed to a mediocre season 2 and an especially lackluster season 3 that relied on comedy and juvenile tropes perhaps more in vogue early in the Carter administration, at best. Likewise, viewers on IMDb for example complained about the declining quality of Jessie and Austin & Ally and returning iCarly and VicTORious fans were equally disappointed at the comedic and plot direction of Sam & Cat.
It can also reflect changing tastes, changing expectations about media and perhaps even fundamental changes and shifts in the very nature of the demographic itself. Just as what helped kill the Saturday morning cartoon block before it, tweens and teens may be turning to other sources outside Disney Channel and Nickelodeon for their comedy fix - namely, their own generated content on YouTube. After all, who understands the kind of content kids will gravitate towards better than other kids? And provided free and on demand, no less. This also has the powerful effect of transferring that star power directly to the audience members themselves - why fantasize about the rock star protagonist when you can simply and quite literally be him or her, Justin Bieber or Austin Mahone-style? That's not to mean that competition from traditional sources should be discounted - although they come with a heavy adult peripheral demographic, shows aiming for a more mature or intelligent viewer like Cartoon Network's Regular Show and especially Adventure Time certainly maintains strong kid appeal, especially if said kids feel insulted by the directions being taken by the live-action counterparts on Disney Channel and Nick.
And speaking of adults, it could be that they're simply having less children. This has been something that's been observed for a while, with a number of explanations forwarded including those economically-based. Fewer children to begin with naturally means fewer children to watch TV. And it's possible the parents of those children exercise tighter control over what they watch, excising TV viewing completely until they've mostly matured out of the intended Nickelodeon and Disney Channel demos with educational interactive media taking their place. Adults have actually made up a huge portion of the demos of both Nickelodeon and Disney Channel back in the day, especially with iCarly - as those shows ended, the audience members they took with them may have been far outside the demos the network execs were hoping for anyway.
In either case, it looks like the low 2 million range and under is the new norm for Nickelodeon and Disney Channel viewer ratings, and it seems to be a reality the head honchos of both networks have come to terms with. Whether or not these numbers continue to spiral downward will remain to be seen, but it has to be on the mind of at least one person in charge of programming. Whether dedicated children's networks disappear entirely isn't something that should be met with fraught regardless, as providing imaginative content to children is as important as play and imagination, and something will arrive to fill in the gap. With everything constantly evolving on the entertainment front, it just remains to be seen what that gap filler will look like.
H/T to CadeeLovesTV for ratings and programming insights!