The 90’s were more than funky haircuts and bleached jeans, they were home to The Great Cartoon War. Saturdays had kids scrambling to find the shows they loved and networks fought viciously for that limited heart space. PowerPuff Girls fought Rugrats and Dexter worked around the clock in his lab to squash those pesky Thornberrys. In the end neither side held victory and the war lasted decades. New shows were made, others scrapped for ideas or killed all together. In the end it became clear that Nickelodeon had been the first to run out of steam. While Cartoon Network never stopped innovating Nickelodeon began a trend of remakes and reruns. A cycle that gave birth to Splat! This new programming block is an entire channel dedicated to 90’s themed reruns, commercials, and game shows. Splat! is not only lazy, it is devoid of creativity or caring. It is a straight up attempt to cash in on nostalgia; a refusal by Nickelodeon to make any meaningful change to the way it creates cartoons. Instead of working with the original creators of these shows to do something new and interesting they chose to create “Nostalgia the Channel.” A cheap repackaging of all the cartoons and kids’ programs that made them famous in the first place.
For years adults and kids alike have been lamenting the loss of the now legendary Nickelodeon cartoon block. Shows like Rocko’s Modern Life, The Wild Thornberrys, Rocket Power, Hey Arnold, and Rugrats hold a special place in television history. These cartoons wereoften viewed as having been the perfect blend of childish shenanigans and adult humor, were some of the ultimate Saturday morning cartoons. In their absence Nickelodeon has struggled to find suitable replacements. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, not everything needs to be replaced. Rugrats and Rocko’s Modern Life were unique to the time period. Their humor came from satirizing some of the more absurd aspects of the 90s. Rugrats critiqued the ever changing nuclear family. The rise of technology in the household fundamentally altered families and the Rugrats talked about this through the adventures of Tommy and friends. Rocko’s Modern Life was more straightforward and adult. There are entire characters whose names, Heffer, are related to sex and pop culture. The show’s entire draw was critical commentary through comedy and it was brilliant. Recreating the mood and culture of these shows is impossible. Nickelodeon’s golden block of television was the product of time period, ratings, creativity, and audience, all coming together at the perfect time and place. It was a fantastic time for cartoons but nostalgia hides their age and imperfection well. Nickelodeon’s dry spell is the result of its absolute resistance to change. A fact Splat! only serves to reinforce.
If we compare Nickelodeon to its modern day competitor, Cartoon Network, it becomes clear which channel values creative risk. Cartoon Network is the wild wild west ofcartoons. From Anime to Metalocalypse, it is a mixed bag of fantastic, good, bad, and horrible cartoons. Without Cartoon Network’s belief in taking risks shows like Adventure Time and Rick and Morty would have never been given the time and space to grow. If we are being real, each of their stories sounds terrible on paper. Adventure Time is the story of a boy and a magic dog who live in a world full of anthropomorphic clouds, candy, animals, and mountains. The main villain is a lonely magic grandpa named Ice King who despite his age only plots to kidnap young princesses. The show not only sounds weird but is super weird. Yet it works. Cartoon Network understands that success only comes with the possibility of defeat and because of this they have dominated kids’ television for the past fifteen years and have created some of the most memorable cartoon characters and worlds in the twenty first century. Meanwhile, Nickelodeon struggles to create even the most basic of stories. Outside of Spongebob, which even I have to admit is a work of art, there is not a single show worth mentioning.
The funny thing is that Cartoon Network has been there. There was a time when the channel was riddled with reruns. In the early 90’s it seemed like Tom and Jerry, The Roadrunner, and Looney Toons were all the channel would air. Where Nickelodeon finds itself now is where Cartoon Network started out. The thing is, there is one significant difference in how each of them strove to solve their problem. Cartoon Network took creative risks and tried new things. It licensed anime. It created a slew of original cartoons and TV shows. Out of late nineties came Dexter’s Laboratory, Johnny Bravo, The PowerPuff Girls, Ed, Edd n Eddy, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Courage the Cowardly Dog, and more. These were shows that featured an original art style, distinct characters, and all of which were wildly popular and beloved. Nickelodeon on the other hand has done the opposite. They started out as a powerhouse of original kids programming and cartoons. I mean entire theme parks were built upon the initial success of ideas like The Slime Zone. And yet the success was somewhat short lived.It seems that their strategy is to ride the wild popularity of a few shows rather than create a diverse and time resistant portfolio of work.
Which is why Nickelodeon wants to resurrect its past success. They took the easy way out. Splat! is essentially a copy and paste from the past. They took old commercials, old cartoons, old TV shows, and cut them into a TV block and called it a day. Don’t get me wrong, I love that I can watch these shows on TV without having to find them illegally online – that is seriously cool. What sucks is that the creators of these shows are still around and working. What sucks is how massive a missed opportunity this is. Just two years ago in an interview done for Comicbookmovie.com the creator of Rugrats and Wild Thornberrys, Arlene Klasky, admitted to being open and willing to help resurrect the long finished shows. She talked about how every single day she gets mail from fans talking about their love of the shows, asking her to bring them back. Instead of capitalizing on this almost fanatic level of fandom to create something new and memorable, Nickelodeon turns our love into an easy way to make bank. All of the different variables are still alive and kicking and yet Nickelodeon chooses to make Splat! An appropriate name given that they are essentially shitting on loyal fandom.
The sad thing is that the move by Nickelodeon mirrors the status quo. Big name brands from all walks of media are being brought back from the dead. New doesn’t always translate to dollar signs and rather than take the risk it has become the trend in Hollywood to bank what they know works. 2016 looks to be a year full of such attempts to cash in at the nostalgia bank. From Independence Day 2 to the more recent Point Break, big name studios are scrambling to remake and sequel any and every beloved property they own. Which translates to guaranteed money for them but a distinct drop in quality for us.
Nickelodeon was the pioneer of not only American cartoons but kids programing in general. Shows like Legends of the Hidden Temple and GUTS were the first and only of their kind. They were immensely popular, Nickelodeon was responsible for creating an entire genre of kids game show. I can distinctly remember how excited those shows made me as a kid. They were the epitome of fun and involved unique and revolutionary ideas. From the Super Agro Crag teams had to scramble up in GUTS, to the Indiana Jones themed temple runs that were the hallmark of Legends of the Hidden Temple. It was weird to find a kid that did not watch Nickelodeon every Saturday and dream of running or jumping across these themed obstacle courses. The point is that Nickelodeon used to be creative. They understood what kids wanted and how they were going to bring that to them, knowledge they seem to forget more and more with the passing years. Splat! is an affront to not only their current fans but to the legacy they have established. It is lazy, manipulative, and disappointing. For a company whose domination was once based on thinking big you would think they would have the balls to try something new.