Kid Stuff: Cartoons

by Doug Muir on April 4, 2024

Thesis: in the English-speaking world, the last 50 years has seen a dramatic increase in the quantity *and quality* of text and visual mass media intended for children.

Let’s define some terms.  I’m talking about books, cartoons, TV, and movies. Music is not included; comics and graphic novels are a special case. When I say “intended for children”, I am talking about mass media that is targeting children aged 4-12 as the primary audience. So, yes Disney movies are included here, no the original Star Wars movies are not. Kids absolutely watched Star Wars — I watched it as a kid — but they weren’t the primary audience.

Stuff aimed at the youngest children is excluded here, as is Young Adult stuff. (I agree that the boundaries of the latter category are very slippery.)

Detail to the thesis: this transformation was not smooth. To simplify, from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, text and visual mass media products for children were generally mediocre to bad. There were individual works that were good or excellent, but the average was dismally low. And the quality was not much better at the end of this period than at the beginning.

But starting in the back half of the 1980s, kids movies, TV, books and cartoons suddenly started getting /better/. And they got steadily better and better for the next 15 or 20 years, until by the middle 2000s they had reached a new plateau of excellence, from which they are perhaps only now just starting to descend. The period 1970-1985 was a dark age of kid stuff; the period 2000-2020 was a golden age. There was a massive cultural transformation here.  And it happened fairly quickly, and it’s been discussed much less than you might expect.

A personal note: I was a kid in the 1970s, watching standard American kids TV and movies, reading typical kids books.  And then in the early 2000s I had kids of my own.  So I had first-hand experience of both the Dark and Golden Ages.  And I repeatedly had the experience of watching a cartoon, TV show or movie with my kids and thinking, good lord — this is /so/ much better than the stuff I had when I was a kid.

I’m going to start with a discussion of kids cartoons, here defined as animated stories for kids, aged 4-12, broadcast on mainstream television.  I’m starting with animated kids cartoons for two reasons.  First, they’re a fairly clearly well defined genre.  Archer, South Park, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force are animated, but they’re not aimed at kids 4 to 12.  The Electric Company and The Muppet Show were aimed at those kids, but they weren’t animated.  There are a few edge cases — I’ve seen people argue over The Simpsons and Bob’s Burgers — but by and large we can sort most TV shows into Clearly Are or Clearly Aren’t.

Second, the jump in quality is just staggering.  Watching Avatar: The Last Airbender with my kids was a profoundly different experience from watching Wacky Racers when I was their age.  A: TLA is a kid’s cartoon, with a plot that a six year old can follow without difficulty.  I know this, because my six year old followed it.  But it’s a very intelligent kids cartoon with clever writing, witty dialogue, beautiful animation, interweaving storylines, and some fairly complex narrative techniques.  And it’s one that touches on some very deep and dark issues.  (Starting with the fact that the protagonist is a genocide survivor, and no I’m not kidding, and yes this is handled in a way that is thoughtful but age-appropriate.)  Even lighter and sillier fare — Phineas and Ferb, say — was just infinitely smarter and funnier than anything that was being produced during my childhood.  

The transformation was astonishing and extreme.  I have met people who’ve tried to claim that kids music hasn’t gotten that much better, or kids books.  I haven’t met anyone who disagrees that cartoons from the 1970s and early 1980s mostly sucked, while the ones since 2000 are just ridiculously better.  

I said above that this stuff hasn’t been much discussed, but animation in TV and (especially) movies is a partial exception.  There’s general agreement in the academic world that there was a First Golden Age of American animation (roughly 1930 to the early 1960s), followed by a Second Golden Age (traditionally dated to begin with the release of Disney’s _The Little Mermaid_ in 1989). 

What comes between is less discussed.  That’s because this was the age of Hanna-Barbera.  Hanna Barbera had produced some mildly okay stuff in the 1960s — the Flintstones, Jonny Quest, the original Scooby-Doo.  But by the 1970s they were cranking out D-list garbage:  The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan, Jabberjaw, Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels, Speed Buggy, the Funky Phantom, CB Bears, Super Friends.

Understand that I’m talking here about stuff /created/ in the 1970s and early 1980s.  There were a few good animated cartoons on TV back then.  But almost without exception, they were from an earlier period — Bugs Bunny from the 1940s, Road Runner and Rocky and Bullwinkle from the 1950s, the Pink Panther and How The Grinch Stole Christmas and the Peanuts Christmas and Halloween specials from the 1960s.  If you go to and look for “best cartoons of the 1970s”?  10 out of 12 are actually from earlier decades.  (The remaining two are The Muppet Show and Schoolhouse Rock.)

What wasn’t Hanna-Barbera back then was relentlessly recycled IP.  Version after version of Scooby Doo; version after version of Tom and Jerry.  Spinoffs — the Flintstones gave rise to a bunch of them including the inexplicable Pebbles and Bam-Bam Show, Yogi Bear gave us Yogi’s Gang and Yogi’s Space Race, the Wacky Races somehow gave rise to three different spinoff shows.  There were something like five different versions of Super Friends.  /And they were all terrible/ — bad animation, weak voice acting, formulaic writing, predictable plots.

Were there bright spots?  A very few.  I mentioned Schoolhouse Rock.  The animation was terrible, and the politics were sometimes questionable (google “elbow room” for an example) but hey, civic education plus catchy memorable songs.  But the overall standard was miserably, dismally low.  

Okay, so let’s compare the 1970s to… oh let’s say the decade 2001-2010.  We turn on the television and —

Phineas and Ferb.  Samurai Jack.  Danny Phantom.  Kim Possible. Sean the Sheep.  Invader Zim.  As Told By Ginger.   Fairly Odd Parents.   Justice League.  Justice League Unlimited.  Jimmy Neutron.  Charlie and Lola.  Teen Titans.  Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends.  My Life As A Teenage Robot.  Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars.  Ben Ten.  Ben Ten: Alien Force.  X-Men: Evolution.  My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy.  Avatar, The Last Airbender.   

/And I could keep going/.  Even the mediocre shows from the 2000s were far better than anything from the 1970s.  Like, my kids enjoyed Spectacular Spider-Man, which ran for a few seasons starting in 2009.  Objectively this was a by-the-numbers superhero cartoon.  But it had very good animation, complex stories with multiple plotlines, more-than-competent writing, and solid voice acting.  You put it next to Super Friends and… yeah, there’s literally no comparison.  Or, The Secret Saturdays was a throwaway C-list show to fill half an hour on Saturday morning. It was basically Jonny Quest updated for the 21st century.  But it had decent animation, clever dialogue, a racially mixed tween protagonist and an antagonist who was just ridiculously meta.*

Sure, there’s room for criticism.  A lot of the 2000s stuff was very gendered.    (Sometimes you can see exactly what they were thinking, like the Token Girl in the boys adventure — looking at you, Ben Ten.**)  A lot of it was “toyetic”, there to sell toys and video games.  There were some duds — there are always some duds.  Nobody is getting too nostalgic over Skunk Fu, Bratz, or Mr. Bean: The Animated Series.  And a lot of it was reworking of old IPs, particularly of superheroes.

But on the other hand, a lot of it was breathtakingly original.  Like, who ever came up with Invader Zim?  Foster’s Home?  The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy?  “A grumpy tween girl and her idiot little brother win a bet with Death and force him to be their best friend forever.  Death has a strong Jamaican accent.”  What?  And a lot of it had positive messages about tolerance and acceptance:  As Told By Ginger had the first BM / WF relationship on an American kids show, the X-Men cartoons leaned hard into the “metaphor for being a minority or queer”, Avatar: TLA was an extended discussion of dealing with trauma, Danny Phantom has become a gay / trans icon***, and don’t even get me started on My Little Pony.  

And even when a show was just a superhero cartoon designed to sell action figures, the quality of the writing and animation was often astonishingly high.  My Little Pony was supposed to be a throwaway show about plastic toy ponies.  It ended up having, let us say, some large and very unexpected cultural impacts. Even the stuff based on weary, tired old IPs could be good — 2010’s Scooby Doo: Mysteries Incorporated is universally agreed to be the best of the dozen-plus versions of Scooby Doo.****

— Okay, so at this point some of you may pause and say, well, the best of the dozen-plus versions of Scooby Doo?  Gosh, that seems like an important cultural phenomenon!

To which I respond, this is froth, but the froth is outlining the wave.  There was an immense cultural shift in children’s entertainment; it happened very quickly; both its causes and effects are underdiscussed and poorly understood.  And kids cartoons were at the extreme edge of that shift.

Now, to be clear, television in general did get better during this period.  The 2000s were the age of The Wire, Six Feet Under, Arrested Development, Deadwood, Dexter, The Thick Of It, The Street, both versions of The Office, and New Who.  So, perhaps it’s just that television generally was improving, and the rising tide lifted all boats?

Two problems there.  One, the gap simply isn’t as large.  There was some damn good TV back in the 1970s.  All In The Family, The Carol Burnett Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Colombo, Kojak, The Rockford Files, Barney Miller, M*A*S*H, Taxi, the amazing first six seasons of Saturday Night Live.  Our British cousins had Coronation Street, Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers, Are You Being Served, Monty Python.  A lot of that stuff is still watchable today — hell, a lot of that stuff is still *watched* today.  Colombo has been enjoying a modest revival recently, and my teenage children are at least vaguely familiar with Monty Python sketches that aired decades before they were born.

Yes, there’s definitely a quality gap between Colombo and The Wire.  But it’s a lot smaller than the quality gap between Jabberjaw and Samurai Jack.  At least Colombo is good for what it is, you know?  The Office is better than The Bob Newhart Show, but it’s not “so much better it’s really a completely different sort of thing” better.

Second, as I said at the start, it wasn’t just kids TV.  It was kids movies and books and all sorts of other things.  We’ll get to that, but here’s advance notice: over the period 1970-2020, when an adult mass medium or genre improved in quality, the associated kids mass medium or genre usually improved in quality more and faster.  I’ll try to address some of that in future posts, if my strength holds.

 I’ve picked the 1970s and the 2000s as examples because (1) they’re just 30 years apart, (2) the quality gap is literally breathtaking, and (3) I personally experienced both those decades, as child and then parent.  But I could expand the focus and the thesis would hold.  Move back into the 1990s and, although there’s still great stuff — Batman: The Animated Series, Courage the Cowardly Dog, The Magic School Bus, Sponge Bob — the quality begins to fall rapidly.  Duck Tales?  Rug Rats?  Tiny Toon Adventures?  Not terrible but not great either.  Gargoyles and Animaniacs were ground-breaking at the time, but they pale in comparison to the stuff that was coming out a decade later.  Compared to the 2000s, there’s much less excellence, much more schlock.

In the other direction, move forward past 2010 and, whoo.  Gravity Falls?  Steven Universe?  Trollhunters?  Infinity Train?  Amazing World of Gumball?  Regular Show?  Adventure Time?  You don’t want to get me started on Adventure Time.  Let’s just say that if the golden age of kids cartoons has a local peak, it’s probably somewhere in the years around 2016.

Anyway, to recap: in the US/UK, the last 50 years have seen a dramatic increase in the quantity and quality of text and visual mass media intended for children.  This is a rise across the board, but it is perhaps most astonishing in the specific field of animated television shows — kids cartoons. 

More in a bit, perhaps.

*  The Secret Saturdays: a family of cryptozoologists hunts cryptids.  The villain, V.V. Argost, is the host of a horrible wildlife / reality TV show about cryptids.  The Saturdays want to save the cryptids, Argost wants to capture them.  His awful television series is a recurring show-within-the-show, often used to comment on the action and/or to satirize bad television.  As a villain, Argost is ridiculously campy and over-the-top, prone to monologues, self-congratulation, and literally mugging for the camera while he drops quotes from movies and TV shows. 

Plot twist: it turns out Argost is himself a cryptid, a highly intelligent yeti.  The reason he acts that way is, he’s a highly intelligent yeti who spent the entire decade of the 1980s watching cable TV.  He’s a walking pile of bad cliches because that’s how he learned human culture.

**Ben Ten was literally designed to capture the zeitgeist and — quite explicitly — to make its creators a pile of money by selling toys to tween boys.  (My tween boys owned several of them.) But even so, it was generally good, occasionally excellent, and had one of my favorite one-liners from any TV show ever:

Gwen:  Bad idea, Kevin.  He thinks you’re still evil.
Kevin:  I’m not evil.   [smugly]  I’m… nuanced.

***Queer-coding:  Danny is an adolescent boy whose parents are famous ghost-hunters.  An accident turns Danny into a half-ghost — so he can turn intangible, float, deliver chilling screams, and so forth.  Supernatural superhero fun, right?  Except he has to keep his powers secret — not to protect his loved ones, but to protect himself from them, because everyone knows that ghosts are monsters.  A recurring situation is Danny fretting about which of his friends he can trust with his secret.  A dark recurring gag is that Danny’s enemies all know what he is, while his parents remain clueless.

****That’s the one featuring an elderly Harlan Ellison voiced by elderly Harlan Ellison.





Mr_Spoon 04.04.24 at 7:36 pm

I think you’re onto something! I have two notions about the why. Firstly, Anime. Extended plot arcs and ongoing character development were characteristics of 1970s and 80s English dubs because the Japanese originals were age-agnostic, and mistakenly treated as kiddies shows because they were cartoons. I believe the majority of creators in animation nowadays grew up loving these. And secondly, because YA and childrens’ shows can’t rely on spectacularly CGIed violence and naughty bits as audience hooks, they have to be better at story and character.

My picks would be Bluey, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, and the Tales of Arcadia trilogy.


Kent 04.04.24 at 8:08 pm

I can’t confirm the 2000’s were good but I can confirm the 1970’s were absolute dogshit.

Since I appear to have missed out on some good stuff: do you have any particular favorites that would stand out and be interesting to an adult (50something) today? Thanks.


John Q 04.04.24 at 8:18 pm

I agree with this 100%, except that having been born in 1956, I’d date the decline a bit earlier. Our family first acquired a TV in the early 1960s, and kids cartoons were already dire then. Bugs Bunny reruns were the high point.

Maybe this was partly technological: high-quality traditional animation was too expensive to fill the viewing slots and computers were still confined to doing payrolls


Edward Gregson 04.04.24 at 8:40 pm

I saw the early seasons of Adventure Time. As I recall, it had the problem of seeming to be made more for stoner college students than kids, but you could say the same about Spongebob and I loved that as a kid (classic Spongebob, I haven’t heard great things about the later seasons).

I saw Gravity Falls recently, and thought it was pretty good.


MisterMr 04.04.24 at 10:32 pm

IMO: this is largely due to the influence of japanese animation in the 80s.


Matt 04.04.24 at 11:01 pm

No strong disagreement with the general claim here, but on this:
Kids absolutely watched Star Wars — I watched it as a kid — but they weren’t the primary audience.

I suppose it matters who we count as “kids” here, and also how strongly/seriously we take these sorts of statements, but Lucas has said repeatedly that his target audience in making the Star Wars movies was kids. For one discussion, see:
(I think he has in mind the top end of the age range you’re interested in, though, from other things I’ve seen – but they are meant to the equivalent of the saturday matinee shows he loved to see himself as a kid, at least according to his own statements.)

I’m sorry to not see the “new” Mighty Mouse (i.e., from, I think, the early 90s) included in the “good” shows. It was great! Especially any episode with Bat Bat, a bat who dressed up like a bat to fight crime.


Doug Muir 04.04.24 at 11:36 pm

“I agree with this 100%, except that having been born in 1956, I’d date the decline a bit earlier.”

Sure, the decline started in the 1950s. It’s just that the 1970s were the nadir.

As noted, the 1960s had a few bright spots: the original Pink Panther, some decent late-period Road Runner and Tom and Jerry, the two best Peanuts specials, the original Scooby-Doo. (The original had bad animation and was incredibly formulaic, but it also had surprisingly good voice acting and a couple of inspiring messages, viz., ghosts and monsters aren’t real and the real villain is some old rich guy.) Oh, and the very last gasp of the Golden Age came in 1966: Chuck Jones and Boris Karloff in How The Grinch Stole Christmas.

That said, these were dimming lights in a darkening sky.

“high-quality traditional animation was too expensive to fill the viewing slots”

I think this is a partial answer — cheap crappy animation was certainly central to Hanna-Barbera’s business model. But it doesn’t explain why the plotting, writing, direction and voice acting were all so dismal too. It was perfectly possible to have cheap animation with clever writing and competent voice acting; Rocky and Bullwinkle (1959-64) would be Exhibit A here.

Doug M.


J-D 04.05.24 at 12:15 am

I have no comment to make, but I want to thank you for this anyway because it immediately made me think that this is something I have to show to my daughter.


oldster 04.05.24 at 12:26 am

“As noted, the 1960s had a few bright spots….”

I’d add the 1962 “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” for the voice-work by Jim Backus and the music by Jule Styne. The script is good because largely faithful to Dickens. The animation is only so-so, but the entire effect is laudable.
And, yes, Hanna-Barbera were execrable.


Scott P. 04.05.24 at 1:02 am

Were Bugs Bunny/Loony Tunes really designed as kids fare? My understanding is that they were originally adult filler material in movie theaters later shown to kids in lieu of anything specifically made for younger viewers — thus their relative quality. Same for early Flintstones, which, like the Simpsons, was an adult show.


Mike Huben 04.05.24 at 1:12 am

It always seemed to me that Hanna-Barbera had significant monopoly power for children’s broadcast TV during the 60s and later. Was that the case?
My first guess at an explanation is that cable television expanded the market: channels such as Cartoon Network. My second guess is that the very competitive anime/manga world provided real competition and inspiration, with plenty of opportunity for new product based on stripping out the Japanese culture and subbing in American culture. My daughter (b. 1990) was so inspired by manga that she learned Japanese so that she could read the original manga which were available long before the translations.


Harry 04.05.24 at 1:54 am

You missed HB’s finest of all, Top Cat (62?).

I don’t watch British kids tv from recent years, but you don’t prove your thesis re: UK children’s TV. There are no examples here from the so-called Golden Age (62ish – 81ish) which was pretty golden. I can believe there’s better stuff now than catweazle, bagpuss, timeslip, children of the stones, magic roundabout, grange hill, I could go on, but it’s surely the gap isn’t wider than between Columbo and The Wire or between The Office and The Bob Newhart Show. Phineas and Ferb is indeed great, but not degrees of magnitude better than Dogtanian (81) or Do Not Adjust Your Set

Also. A lot of great US adult TV was shown as kids TV in the UK. Bewitched. Star Trek. Batman. Well. Maybe just those.


TF79 04.05.24 at 3:00 am

Every 6 months or so my kids get a hankering to watch Avatar TLA/Legend of Korra/Dragon Prince and I get very excited. Incredibly higher quality stuff than what I watched when I was their age.


John Q 04.05.24 at 3:01 am

I was thinking the same thing about Rocky and Bullwinkle.


BBA 04.05.24 at 5:41 am

I think a big part of why animation declined so far is that it became seen as, well, “kid stuff.” You see this with the Flintstones, which started out as an animated sitcom in prime time trying to attract an adult audience, and ended up on Saturday mornings next to all the other disposable kids’ schlock. If kids like it, it’s kid stuff. If it’s kid stuff, grown-ups won’t watch it, and if nobody old enough to know good from bad is watching, why bother putting in the effort to make it good?

And Hanna-Barbera was close to a monopoly in the 1970s, and when you’re a monopoly you don’t need to put in effort. In the ’80s when they were losing their dominance, they started to put in effort again. One of their last shows before the sale to Ted Turner was the fantasy adventure “Pirates of Dark Water”, a hidden gem sadly cancelled in mid-story due to high production costs and low viewership. (I consider the “Hanna-Barbera” under Turner/Warner ownership to be a new company that bought the old one’s name, and frankly a much better one. I’m glad Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera lived long enough to see their names associated with “Powerpuff Girls” instead of only being known for crap like “Jabberjaw.”)


KT2 04.05.24 at 6:13 am

I read this article about Nickeloden 1minute before seeing your OP Doug. May be of interest if you do “More in a bit, perhaps.” for…”Kevin:  I’m not evil. [smugly]  I’m… nuanced.”

“In the docuseries, Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV, audiences get a behind-the-scenes look into the unsavoury and sometimes illegal practices of Nickelodeon. 
“Quiet on Set is a docuseries featuring Nickelodeon cast and crew who share their personal stories about on-set experiences working alongside Dan Schneider.Two days after the series premiered, Schneider broke his silence by posting a 19-minute video to YouTube.
“Schneider, who has kept a low profile since going on “hiatus” in 2021, apologised for the behaviours exposed in the documentary.”

Sean the Sheep. My now big teenager and me too, occasionally when a burst of remote control is in order, stop and watch. And Horrible History’s Stupid Deaths segment.

And for a detailed informed Australian perspective:
“Patricia Edgar on Children’s TV: Part One”
Posted on August 17, 2017
“Many readers will have heard of Patricia Edgar who was a giant force in Australian cultural life from the 1970s. She more than anyone else was responsible for lifting the tone of children’s TV in Australia. In any event I was talking to her recently about the current woes of children’s TV and out of our conversation came a three part essay from Tricia the first part of which is below: Nicholas Gruen

“Commercial Networks Versus Producers – Quotas for Children’s Television

“Patricia May Edgar AM is an Australian author, television producer, educator and media scholar, best known as the founding director of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation.”

+1 Rocky and Bullwinkle.


Alison Page 04.05.24 at 10:06 am

Gosh I think there were lots of good kids’ programs in the 70s, but admittedly most of it was live action or an older-style of animation/puppetwork. Blue Peter, Jackanory, Basil Brush, Trumpton, Play School, Rentaghost, Bagpuss, Tiswas, Doctor Who, Grange Hill, Noggin the Nog. I wouldn’t call any olf those ‘dogshit’.

And there were short dramatic series like Penda’s Fen and Children of the Stones, that I don’t think we really get any more.


Kevin 04.05.24 at 12:16 pm

I also grew up in the 70s (in the UK) and had kids growing up in the 2000s (in the USA).

I remember the shows aimed at 6-year-old me in the UK were quite good. The animation quality was awful but the themes were often sophisticated (for a 6-year-old). But once I made it past about 7 years old, I personally never watched TV as a kid because I was out playing all the time. I think that’s the biggest difference — my kids never left the house. Maybe the cartoons in the 70s were terrible but who knows? I watched adult comedies and dramas with my parents in the evening and they were mostly excellent.

Now you mention it, the kids’ shows in the 2000s really were amazing. I used to watch many of the shows with my kids and even at the time, I remember telling friends how good Jimmy Neutron, Avatar and Kim Possible were (also Powerpuff Girls, CatDog, Fairly Odd Parents, Sponge Bob and Naruto). I agree with the commenter above who said that the influence from Japan was significant. I watched all of the Miyazaki movies with my daughter, for example.

I disagree about the quality of TV dramas of the 2000s though. I think if you were to make a Top 10 Dramas of All Time list, most of the entries would be from this period. From the Sopranos to the end of The Americans, the TV dramas were among the greatest contributions to culture and certainly better than anything at the movies.

I have barely watched TV since the end of Breaking Bad and The Americans.


Harry 04.05.24 at 12:40 pm

As implied above I’m completely with you Alison but…. was Penda’s Fen for children?
And, I loved and still love Rentaghost, but it did go off a bit pretty fast.
Though Penda’s Fen reminds me — The Owl Service, The Changes, Carrie’s War. I don’t think that the thesis holds at all for UK tv.


SusanC 04.05.24 at 12:44 pm

I’m going to put in a word for Bagpuss (1974) and Danger Mouse (1981). Absolute classics.

In other news, Susan is an old person. I can even remember Shari Lewis.


SusanC 04.05.24 at 12:50 pm

I thought Star Wars was for older kids (12 and up).


Trader Joe 04.05.24 at 12:56 pm

Thanks for a very thoughtful piece.

My inclination here is to follow the money – Kids programing isn’t inherently profitable unless the kids can convince their parents to spend money on the ads they are exposed to. In the 1970s the economy sucked and discretionary spending was falling – accordingly less ad dollars available and less dollars available for studios to pursue quality content.

Beginning, not coincidentally, in the mid 80s economic growth rebounded and this was coupled with a notable and visible rise in 2-income families. This both improved the level of available discretionary dollars and likely created some guilty moms willing to buy branded merchandise and sticky-sweet breakfast cereal.

As a child of the 1970s I’d agree 100% with the limited content. Pink panther and Bugs-Bunny roadrunner were the only 2 cartoons I watched and quite surprisingly these have held up fairly well (Bugs less so).


Peter Dorman 04.05.24 at 4:54 pm

I’ve watched very little television in my life, either out of my own interest or as a parent, and I have no thoughts about the general thesis of the OP. What I’d like to suggest, however, is that, if there’s a there there, instead of or in addition to speculating on the causes, it would help to have some evidence. This sounds like the sort of topic that could be pursued through structured interviews with the principals — writers, animators, etc. I suppose it should happen quickly while there are still some of the earlier creatives to interview. Ask them about the criteria for being hired, how their work was evaluated, etc. And talk to the financial/managerial layer above the creatives, of course. This is potentially an important topic in cultural history, no?


oldster 04.05.24 at 7:49 pm

SusanC —
Shari Lewis — now that’s a name that I have not heard in a long, long time.
Also, Lambchop.
I think of them along with Captain Kangaroo as running along a different track from the animation question — more like the antecedents to Sesame Street, with the mixture of live human performers and puppets.


Ebenezer Scrooge 04.06.24 at 11:11 pm

Yo Gabba Gabba (semi-animated).


nastywoman 04.07.24 at 12:19 am

how could you have forgotten the utmost successful children program in Europe at the beginning of the 90th – The Disney Club – with all it’s Cartoons?


Phil H 04.07.24 at 2:53 am

Yes to this. Living overseas we missed out on the TV, but the quality of books for young children astounded me when I had my kids (2007 & 11). Emily Gravett and Julia Donaldson were the best, I think, but there were lots of other great authors and illustrators. There were great kids books in the past, of course (I think Anthony Browne started in the 80s?), but the volume of really impressive things that I enjoyed reading seemed very high.
Maybe that’s why the young gen Zers all seem so smart and well-adjusted!


Alan White 04.07.24 at 5:17 am

Ok, in the late 50s I remember Romper Room. It taught a lot of etiquette–the please and thank you indoctrination certainly stuck!


divelly 04.07.24 at 7:50 pm

Kukla, Fran and Ollie!
Best TV show ever!


sfm 04.08.24 at 7:44 am

Right about everything except Rugrats, which crawled so that As Told By Ginger etc could run.


Ted 04.08.24 at 8:58 am

I agree that kids’ animation is a lot better than it was, but the UK had a little flourishing of very silly, parodic animation in the 80s: Danger Mouse, Bananaman, Count Duckula, also Terrahawks (if you’re counting puppetteering – it’s the last Gerry Anderson show). Trap Door was a fun comedy-horror, stop-motion show for kids.

Not very good, but different in that they used long-form storytelling, were a bunch of Euro-Japanese collaborations that got dubbed and released in the UK: Dogtanian and the Three Muskerhounds, Ulysses 31, Myterious Cities of Gold.


Phil 04.08.24 at 9:03 am

Agree with Harry; I think it’s a real phenomenon, but very specifically a problem of US kids’ cartoons. As a kid in the late 60s (in the UK) I remember distinguishing quite clearly between the cartoons that were really good (the Jetsons, the Pink Panther), the mid-tier watchable/missable (Top Cat, the Flintstones) and those that were utter dreck (Scooby-Doo, the Space Kidettes, the Hair Bear Bunch…). These are all HB shows; I’ve listed them in rough chronological order, early 60s to early 70s, but I think the key difference was that the first four targeted an adult or family audience; Scooby-Doo etc were squarely aimed at kids, and it showed. (Although 9-year-old me did quite like Wacky Races).

As for the benign influence of anime, I’m not convinced, at least as far as this period’s concerned – I remember Marine Boy, and that looked even cheaper than Scooby Doo.

So the question is, when did US animation studios start respecting kids’ intelligence?


engels 04.08.24 at 1:33 pm

As a kid in the late 60s (in the UK) I remember distinguishing quite clearly between the cartoons that were really good (the Jetsons, the Pink Panther), the mid-tier watchable/missable (Top Cat, the Flintstones) and those that were utter dreck (Scooby-Doo…

They would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for you meddling kids.


steven t johnson 04.08.24 at 5:00 pm

My earliest memories of children’s animation was a childish ire at that bald guy preempting Mr. Cartoon (a local news personality who introduced assorted cartoons.) That annoying bald guy was Eisenhower.

It is not clear how The Flintstones and The Jetsons differ in quality inasmuch as they were both knockoffs of The Honeymooners (though I didn’t know it then.) Nor is it clear to me how one rates Rocky and Bullwinkle given that the show also included Fractured Fairy Tales and Mr. Peabody and his Boy Sherman. Don’t think there’s anyone else who actually liked all parts. And the Underdog series seems in retrospect to have a lot of what Rocky proper had.

Then a long gap until the kids brought back kids cartoons. They loved He-Man (took them to a live action He-Man stage show) and liked Thundercats when a little older. But when younger Rainbow Brite was amazingly charming.

The cartoon movie seems to me to be functionally inseparable from the cartoon series?


MisterMr 04.08.24 at 6:13 pm

@Phil 32

I don’t know Marine Boy, I think it never ran here in Italy, however googling for it I see it’s from 1965.

Being a kid in the 80s I remember a veritable deluge of japanese animation, not all of them good but some good, and then when I went to high school there was the boom of japanese comics, that presumably happened because a generation of kids who grew watching japanese anime liked the same aesthetics (and at times the same characters) in their comics.
Age-wise I’m probably the same generation of those who created new kid cartoons in the late 00s.

Also those japanese cartoons weren’t all for kids, but people in the west often threated all cartoons as stuff for kids well into the 90s, that meant that kid would watch stuff that was aimed at say 16y olds; this might be problematic for some but in terms of plot means more dramatic plots, that on the whole is a good thing: often writers of kid shows self-restrain too much IMHO, at least from an artistical point of view.


MisterMr 04.08.24 at 6:21 pm

About american animated shows, the ones I remember as good from the 80s are: Masters of the Universe (with its sequel She-Ra), the Transformers and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
All three spawned big franchises that are still alive today, in particular the first two were initially vehicles to sell pre-existing toys, so this is were the money came from.


steven t johnson 04.09.24 at 4:09 pm

Ninja Turtles! How could I forget all those figures I stepped on?


Mike Ralls 04.10.24 at 4:19 pm

“Mike Huben 04.05.24 at 1:12 am
It always seemed to me that Hanna-Barbera had significant monopoly power for children’s broadcast TV during the 60s and later. Was that the case?”

The figures I’ve seen put Hanna-Barbera s production being somwhere between 70% to 80% of all Saturday Morning Cartoons at their height.


pouncer 04.18.24 at 4:01 pm

Hi Doug,

My kids are of similar ages to yours, so your TV habits overlap mine some. I wonder if you’ve considered the Kids’ TV offerings on US Public Television in the same period. Reference list on Wikipedia:

We liked Sagwa. We liked the live-action series Wishbone. And we liked the books that had inspired the Magic School Bus, though the TV cartoons were no longer broadcast in the years analyzed, and the VHS availability was limited. Otherwise, PBS animated “educational” offerings were not to our tastes.

Arguably, theoretically, shows designed to appeal to advertisers selling toys and sugared breakfasts would be worse than shows chosen by professional educators unmotivated by profits. But somehow the animation quality, story lines, characters and general artistry of the PBS-Kids stuff seems, to me, not worth air time, let alone our family’s time.

Your thoughts?

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