Is Batman too serious to sell toys? Cartoon Network seems to think so.
On Kevin Smith’s Fatman on Batman podcast last week, longtime Warner Bros./Cartoon Network writer and producer Paul Dini spoke up about studio pressure he’s felt lately to not only make sure cartoons appeal to boys but to actively exclude girls and, for that matter, older audiences of either gender. Why? Because they don’t buy action figures. The subject came up in relation to Dini’s work on the just-cancelled Beware the Batman show on Cartoon Network. Prior to BtB Dini worked on two other two-season-wonder DC Comics-related superhero shows: Green Lantern: The Animated Series and Young Justice. In fact, Dini’s work on superhero cartoons goes back to the much-loved 90s classic Batman: The Animated Series, which brought a maturity to afternoon cartoons that the 80s had lacked. That series remained a huge influence on DC’s cartoons specifically and action cartoons in general until… Well, until now. The big case in point is the new Teen Titans Go!, which takes the characters made popular in 2003’s alternately silly and serious Teen Titans cartoon and strips it all down to just the silliness. Why? Because, according to Dini, the only audience the network is interested in is “boys who are into goofy humor, goofy random humor.” Another victim of this mindset was a Dini-created show called Tower Prep, part of a push by Cartoon Network to create live action programs for a family audience. When the show started emphasizing the female cast it started catching on with girls and their parents – as Dini says, “too many girls” for the network execs. It was replaced by Level Up!, a live action show in which a group of teenage boy gamers fought CGI monsters accompanied by a girl who wasn’t a gamer because she had to be attractive. Presumably the producers found it more believable that monsters from an MMORPG would find a way to invade the real world than that a conventionally attractive teenage girl would play computer games. The saddest part of this is that it’s simply wrong. Older geeks are one of the few remaining groups who do buy action figures, and girls buy plenty of other toys. Over on competing network The Hub, owned in part by toymaker Hasbro, the girl-focused My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic became a surprise hit when older audiences of both genders found it to be a genuinely well-written, likable show. Rather than cancel the show like CN did with Young Justice, Hasbro focused on making other things for people who liked the show but didn’t necessarily want little plastic ponies with brushable hair. The success of The Hub in general is a sign that Cartoon Network’s execs may well have things backwards: Rather than focusing only on shows to sell toys, Hasbro has been successfully branching out by focusing on entertainment in its own right. Toy lines such as Transformers and G.I. Joe have almost become secondary to the movies and TV shows based on them. Action figure sales simply aren’t what they used to be, and instead of branching out like Hasbro, Cartoon Network’s just doubling down on one tiny sliver of a demographic that does still buy them – at the expense of everyone else.

Appears in Issue: