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Does Serialization Really Hurt a Cartoon’s Ratings?

Does Serialization Really Hurt a Cartoon’s Ratings?

After just two
seasons, Disney cartoon and creation of Craig McCracken, Wander Over Yonder has
officially ended. The conclusion of a great cartoon is not all
there is to the story however, as a second post by McCracken reveals the rather interesting
reason why the show retained a more episodic nature compared to its
contemporaries.

Televised cartoons can
trace their roots back to the classic shorts of Hollywood’s golden age. After
their initial life on the big screen, they found a second life on the small one
being packaged up and syndicated to the newly-launched TV stations as a form of
cheap time-filler. The advent of more formal syndication rules in the US led to the classic 65-episode TV
series that was adapted by every major studio that produced for the medium.

The rerun became a
staple of kid’s entertainment that proved to be extremely durable despite its
audience’s notoriously short attention spans. It continues to this day, as
cartoons on all three major US networks are broadcast continuously even in the
off-season.

Serialization (or
series with story arcs spread across multiple episodes) are rare in children’s
television for precisely this reason. Networks can rerun episodes out of order
and the effect on the audience is imperceptible. This makes it all the more
interesting that serialized shows have begun to creep into American networks
that until now have proven resilient to that kind of storytelling.

Adventure Time,
Stephen Universe
, and Gravity Falls are three of the most recent shows to
embody this trend. Going back a bit further, you’ll find the trailblazer that
is Avatar: The Last Airbender. So have episodic shows simply fallen out of
style, or are there other forces at work?

According to
McCracken:

Historically,
Networks do not like serialization in comedy cartoons because serialized
cartoons do not rate as high in the repeats as the stand alone cartoons do.
They have found that once a viewer has watched an episode and got the next part
of the story, they tend to not watch that same episode when it repeats. But if
the show was just a simple funny cartoon they will watch it again, because they
want to laugh at the jokes again.

This line of reasoning
suggest that viewers of serialized shows are not watching for the sake of it,
but are instead somewhat invested in seeing the story progress. This results in
the situation that McCracken describes; namely that such a viewer that sees
their viewing time as an investment in the story and a rerun does not produce
any additional value for them. On the other hand, a viewer that is watching for
the humor will still find value in seeing a funny joke again.

There’s a simple way
to test this theory, and that’s to compare the Nickelodeon shows Spongebob
Squarepants
and Avatar: The Last Airbender. Both are hit shows that enjoy(ed)
enormous ratings success, but they differ in that one is a comedy show while
the other one is an action one. They also differ in that Spongebob is episodic
whereas TLA is an epic story spread across three whole series. Which show is
still rerun (perhaps ad nauseum) on Nickelodeon today…? The larger animated
shows on Fox are also decidedly episodic as well, and unlike their cable
cousins, they are almost certainly likely to enter syndication during or after
their series runs. This seems to imply that there is favoritism among networks
for episodic shows that will bring in the desired ratings after their initial
broadcast.

One form is not better
than the other. Both deserve room on television schedules, but the nature of
the audience and what happens to the series after broadcast have a large
influence on whether a studio or network chooses one over the other. Perhaps
storytelling series’ naturally skew towards an older audience that appreciates
it more. Adventure Time and Gravity Falls had significant portions of their
audiences and fanbases that were above the target demographics of their
respective channels. Viewers in such age ranges are more likely to skip a rerun
because there’s a good chance they have another show or activity they would
rather attend to, hence the lower ratings. This possibility suggests that
complex, serialized shows deserve to be split from the remainder of the network
programming that is aimed at kids. Cartoon Network already addresses this
somewhat with their Toonami block of shows.

Given the current pressures on all three of the US kids’ networks, it
perhaps isn’t surprising that they would favor a more traditional,
episode-based show, but McCracken’s frustration is understandable when other
creators are being allowed to push boundaries while he is being, in a sense
held back, and there is some evidence that serialized shows don’t hold up as
well in reruns.

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