I was born in 1990, and didn’t start choosing my television until around eight or so. I mostly watched Nickelodeon or Disney Channel, with very few cartoons, because at the time most cartoons were terrifying. For whatever reason, my mother thought "Ren and Stimpy" was hilarious, and tried to get my two older sisters and me to watch it, but we were always horrified. I still have no idea what those characters were supposed to be, animal or otherwise.
If I did watch cartoons, they were ones with a very clear sense of reality, like "Hey Arnold," which was definitely about children in New York, and "Ahh! Real Monsters," which was definitely about monsters that lived in the gutters. The more experimental characters -- Spongebob, Catdog -- were all too much for me, too much chaos, not enough base reality. But beyond that, my TV watching habits were typical of the time: "All That," "Boy Meets World," "Ghostwriter." "All That" ended up creating a handful of spin-offs, most notably "Kenan and Kel" and "The Amanda Show."
As noted in a recent article in The Atlantic by Jake Flanagin called "The Quiet Radicalism of 'All That,'" the shows were diverse and smart. Because I was a child and had yet to understand what the need for a diverse storyline was, I assumed this was just how stories were told -- not by expanding upon what I already knew to be true in my own world, but in as many ways as possible, with as many characters and situations as they can find.
1999 marked the start of the Disney Channel Original Movie explosion, most of which became franchises. "Zenon, Girl of the 21st Century" became both a zequel and Z3 before being laid to rest, and many of the movies were based off previously existing shows, like "Even Stevens" and "The Famous Jett Jackson," both of which were fine enough television with fairly standard plots.
"Even Stevens" was about two siblings, a type-A older sister and her wacky younger brother, played by Shia Labeouf; "The Famous Jett Jackson" was about an action star who moves his hit series about being some sort of teen spy back to his country hometown because he misses his family or his farm or something. The casts on both shows were less diverse than those on Nickelodeon, but still maintained a wide range -- Jett Jackson and his starring family were black, one half of the Stevens kids was a young woman.
Nothing really fought against stereotypes, but nothing really fed them too deeply either. The characters got into weird, sometimes difficult predicaments and eventually learned lessons. It was all pretty typical stuff.
It wasn’t until I started babysitting in high school that I dipped back into the world of children’s television, and was shocked at what it had turned into. All valiant attempts at mirroring a realistic outlook on life had been thrown out and replaced with a headache-inducing whirlwind of vibrant colors, scraped-together dialogue, and hyper-unrealistic lifestyles. This was the start of the Dan Schneider reign -- "Zoey 101" and "iCarly." It was the beginning of "Hannah Montana," and the end, as far as I can tell, of good TV for kids.
The formula for these shows is simple: Take a teenage girl, put her in an insane situation, and make everyone else in her world a complete and utter idiot. All of her friends are morons, with weird hobbies and weird attitudes. All of the adults in her life are utterly incompetent and completely unfit for parenting or dealing with kids in any capacity. When given a moment without kids, these adults are always interested in doing the wackiest activity possible -- mambo dancing, salsa dancing, hula hoop dancing, really just any form of dancing because dancing is very wacky -- and immediately check out of the kids’ lives. Which is great, because the kids are the ones running the show.
And the show generally stars a girl who is secretly a pop star, or runs a high production web series, or has moved to LA at the tender of age of 16 and rented an apartment and started her own babysitting business.
The dialogue is 85 percent abstract noises and phrases like “DEE-UHHH, DAD.” Everyone is conventionally beautiful, and, while the cast should be technically able to fill in a few different brackets on a census, they all look as white as possible, and have as suburban a dialect as possible. It’s a low-cost, low-work, low-brain production that makes millions and millions.
Watching the trajectory from smart, interesting television into insane, in-your-face nonsense –- it’s as if the networks suddenly decided, out of nowhere, that they could no longer be bothered to find out what children are actually like. The standard for what kids should be watching became loud noises and dumb ideas, and no one ever seemed to stop and ask whether any of this seemed accurate.
In reality, though, kids are growing up faster than ever. Your 4-year-old probably knows how to use an iPad, your 8-year-old might have a blog. Kids are frighteningly good with technology, are becoming more articulate faster, and are more interested in new things sooner. They see more of the world, and they know more about what’s real. Why, then, do we continue to set up fast, loud, out-of-touch realities for them to watch on TV? Is children’s television scared of delving back into the real world, or just so completely out of touch that they don’t think they need to?
Kids are obviously not adults, but they’re not complete morons either. Almost every other medium has caught up to the fact that children on the whole are interested in the real world, and where they belong in it. And while there are certainly bright spots -- "Adventure Time" always come to mind -- on the whole, children’s television is failing.