Watching last night’s premiere of "Wolverine and the X-Men" reminded me once again of an egotistically stupid argument I had nearly twenty years ago. It forever ruined a friendship.
By early 1993, the Fox Kids Network (FKN) was well on its way to becoming the number one place for kids on Saturday morning. From a rather forgettable beginning in 1990, FKN had, with careful programming choices and a keen understanding of the changing children’s marketplace, catapulted itself into a position of ratings dominance over the other three broadcast networks. Two shows truly magnetized the viewers to FKN: "Batman, the Animated Series." which premiered in September, 1992 and "X-Men: The Animated Series." which began its the regular episodic run in January, 1993. I was the network executive in charge of both of them. "Power Rangers" would not make its juggernaut presence felt until September, 1993.
The success of FKN defied the pundits. They argued that the idea of a fourth network on Saturday morning was a very foolish, financially stupid proposition. Fox Television was having enough worries in the late 80's with their prime time schedule: Why add to their headaches with series from a time period already smelling like a musty relic?
Kids had been abandoning Saturday morning for years; advertisers were putting their top dollars into the toy-based children's syndication marketplace. Rumors abounded that all three networks were tired of the kids business and wanted out. The overall ratings were decreasing from year to year; the chronic lack of any substantial hits made jettisoning this daypart that much more appealing.
Pitching children’s programming to the three networks during the 70s and 80s was akin to being pistol-whipped, hog-tied, body-slammed, ridden hard and hung out wet -- and then saying "thank you" afterwards. Independent producers pitched to executives who had been glued to their positions for centuries: While pleasant enough individuals over a martini, they all failed to recognize the changing landscape brought on by syndication, video games, and the slow inexorable rise of cable. Kids were doing other things on Saturday mornings than waiting around to watch cartoons.
While "Scooby Doo" might have worked in the 70’s to attract viewers, it was more Scooby Don't by the mid to late 80’s: Don’t bring us anything that was too boy, too girl, too hip, not hip enough, too well-known, too unknown, too personality driven, not personality driven enough. In the end, the program homogenization was so safe one could store the family jewels within it.
Thanks to the National Association of Broadcasters decision to disband its Code Authority Board in 1983, advertisers suddenly found themselves bereft of any moral scruples, let alone any self-regulating obstacles to introducing toys, candy, and other enticements into the now free wheeling marketplace of children’s programming. A once-a-week offering of "Dungeons and Dragons" or "Muppet Babies" or "Saved by the Bell" was not competitive when advertisers could get more eyeballs with a Monday through Friday series of "GI Joe," "Gobots," "My Little Pony," "Jem," or "Strawberry Shortcake."
Throughout that time, parents and pressure groups were constantly confusing the toy-based syndication programming seen Monday through Friday -- and conveniently airing right before and right after school -- with that of Saturday morning fare.
Well enough of the boring minutiae. The argument was all about the X-Men in general and Wolverine in particular. What better place to have a donnybrook than at a festive children's television industry luncheon? Over some rubber chicken and rock-hard boiled potatoes, the conversation turned to the Fox Kid's Network's sudden rise in popularity.
I knew why we were successful: The design of our comedy shows was hipper, the writing was funnier, the editing was brisker. The action shows were beautifully constructed, wonderfully animated, and the story-telling was sophisticated and multi-layered. Our programs were classier and had more kid appeal than the retreads on the other networks. I thought the case was obvious.
No, my friend argued, the reason Fox was winning the Saturday morning ratings war was due to the lack of any decent broadcast standards and practices. The action shows on FKN were all but running red with blood and gore. Wolverine was a psychopath who had no business being on Saturday morning kids' television: What were we trying to do, turn every boy into a unbridled lunatic? The Fox success was based on how much we had bent the normal network rules of censorship. She questioned whether we had even hired any broadcast standards people at all.
She called "X-Men" a cheat, a show her network would never put on the air. The stories were too adult, too frightening, and incomprehensible for children. The irresponsibility of airing this program and saying we had a legitimate Broadcast Standards and Practices (BS&P) department was, to this person, a mind-boggling lie, and she said I should be ashamed of myself.
Of course we had a BS&P department. Fox Broadcasting was a legitimate network. Rupert Murdoch would not have had it any other way. The key difference was our BS&P officials had not been born in the 19th century. They weren't old biddies scared of their bloomers flapping in the wind. Our BS&P people were younger, smarter, and far more attuned to the goings on in the marketplace than their ancient counterparts at the other three networks.
Did they let us get away with more? Hardly. We could stage action sequences more forcefully and have our heroes in more jeopardy and dispatch our villains with more clever means; but no, there were no punches to faces, no torture sequences, no ongoing cries of pain by either hero or villain, no dispatching anyone permanently, no blood ever, no pointing of realistic armaments at anyone, no first person shooter points of view, and definitely no blowing up anything other than robots and vacant buildings. Any planes, trains, and automobiles involved in mayhem were empty upon impact -- piloted by robots, or safely brought down with no loss of anything except animation time. The list was endless. We knew the rules. We played by them. We made exciting programming viewed by millions.
I found her remarks stunning. Her network was spiraling downward faster on Saturday mornings than my GPA did during science classes. The shows on her network had, over years, become formulaic, slow, and tediously timed and edited. I told her that no animated human characters were hurt during the making of any of our boys' action adventure shows. She did not seem amused.
Even back then I was more worried about the continuing presence of 24/7 cable concerns like Disney, Cartoon Network and NICK, not the feeble competition of the other broadcasters. Cable was the wave of the future for children’s programming. Funny I wasn’t smart enough to ever get a position with any of the new comers.
I tossed out a few quips to lighten up the conversation: Her programming was so bad it drove kids outdoors faster than anything other the San Francisco Earthquake. Her shows were so bad kids begged their parents to drive them back to school. Watching her schedule could bring any kid down from a sugar rush. Okay, none of my quips were A material; they were churlish, I admit; but I was working extemporaneously and when I do, I rarely think before I speak.
Cooler heads eventually prevailed and we went back to eating and networking.
We never spoke again after that day.
Coming soon: My thoughts on the NICKTOONS, "Wolverine and the X-Men" series.
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