As it turns out, half may be an overstatement



Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to

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55 Responses

  1. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Disclaimer: Not a parent.

    Despite my work with young children, I don’t know much, if anything, about children’s programming. However, based on what is described here, I think I can fairly comment on a broader trend in media and products for children that might be a contributing factor. In a nut shell, we’ve reached a point where nearly everything a child interacts with is supposed to work towards some greater end or noble goal. Shows can’t simply entertain, toys can’t simply be fun, and food can’t simply be tasty. SHOWS MUST TEACH, TOYS MUST STIMULATE, FOOD MUST NOURISH! All in all, I think this leads to a lowering of the quality of quite a number of products, as they attempt to shoehorn in elements that are otherwise antithetical to the item itself (Exhibit A: The linked Cookie Monster song).

    Yes, it is good if SOME shows and toys and foods and whathaveyou promote a “greater good”. But it is also good, important, NECESSARY even that not all do.Report

  2. Avatar Plinko says:

    I guess my frame starts in the early 80s, probably the nadir of commercial children’s programming (everything was a commercial except Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street!), so I can’t say what things were like before, but children’s programming is pretty awesome right now. Well, at least the stuff for little kids is, we just let baby girl watch age-appropriate things.

    Say what you want about it as a show for adults (it’s nauseating), but Barney is a great show for little kids. Yo Gabba Gabba! is a lot of fun. There are a bunch of good music shows that she’ll jump up and around for. I’m not sure if she’s “learning” a lot but my daughter gushes about every episode of Dinosaur Train. She’s entranced by Dora the Explorer.

    But the really great thing about TV for kids is Netflix streaming and On Demand programming. We let our daughter watch an hour or so of TV a day and there’s always something there – tons of good old things, tons of new things, we’re not tied to her TV time being when her show is on, it’s when we need to keep her occupied for an hour so lunch can be cooked or a shower taken.Report

  3. Avatar Fnord says:

    Other than Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street themselves, was there any pre-CTA television that measured up to the standard set by those two classics?Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      Reading Rainbow!

      “IIIIIIIIIII CAAAAAAAAAN GOOOOOOOOO ANYWHERE! Just take a look! It’s in a book! It’s Reading Rainbow!”Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      That seems quite the “other than that” exception to be making.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        But I’d put “Schoolhouse Rock” in that category, definitely. I don’t think I learned more about civics until I was in High School.Report

        • Avatar Fnord says:

          Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood are the two most beloved children’s programs ever. If there’s was nothing else in those decades to compare to those programs, then lightening probably just struck twice in the late 60’s.

          As for Schoolhouse Rock, you’re the one who used scare quotes when calling it educational. It wasn’t really in my experience (except on the handful of occasions when it was shown in school).Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            No, no. It was Schoolhouse Rock that made the rest of Saturday morning “educational”. We had the Superfriends and Pac Man and The Littles and, let’s face it, nothing but Saturday Morning Goodness.

            It was Schoolhouse Rock that made it educational. Not anything else.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater says:

              JB, I gotta thank you for this post. Because of it, my wife and I spent a fabulous half hour youtubing all those great Schoolhouse Rock segments: Lolly’s Adverbs, Conjuncion Junction, I am only a Bill, five-ten-fifteen-twenty-twentyfive-thirty…, the Preamble Song, etc.


  4. I’m gonna have to respectfully disagree, my friend.

    “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” were stand-outs in a vast wasteland of drek. (I also have fond memories of “3-2-1 Contact” and “The Electric Company.”) Most of the cartoons I watched as a child with delight are unwatchably bad in retrospect.

    On the other hand, there are lots of shows on NickJr and Sprout that are charming and well-written. I am not a fan, but “Yo-Gabba-Gabba!” certainly has its admirers. “Blue’s Clues” and “Dora the Explorer” are both fun, and are paced perfectly for small children. I find “Little Bill” genuinely enjoyable. And most of the remaining programming is at least as good as what we grew up on, much of it better.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      So, to use inequality as a metaphor, those two (or four) stood out not only because of their quality but because their contemporaries were of such low quality (and, today, we’re in a situation where the mean is much higher across the board)?

      It still seems to me that if Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers came out today, they’d be in the top tier and would remain in a category unto themselves… for reasons above and beyond nostalgia, though.

      I’ll check Little Bill out.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck says:

        They’re still good. We just have the idea that everything back then was equally good because we’ve forgotten everything that was bad.Report

        • Avatar MikeSchilling says:

          It’s like thinking that Monty Python and the Avengers (the original, with Diana Rigg. Diana Rigg. Wow. Um, what were we talking about?)

          It’s like thinking that Monty Python and Upstairs, Downstairs meant that British TV was all great.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          Oh, I know that the Hair Bears and the Super Harlem Globetrotters and Kwicky Koala (RIP, Tex Avery!) were pretty much awful.

          But let’s invoke Sturgeon and note that 95% of *EVERYTHING* is crap.

          It’s that 5% that I’m looking at and the cream then was creamier than the cream now. (But the argument that the crap was crappier is one that looks like it may hold up if the Crap Quotient Mean has shifted in the appropriate direction.)Report

          • Avatar Plinko says:

            I’m pretty sure that’s just perspective bias, JB.
            The cream then wasn’t any creamier.
            I’m not even sure how you score Sesame Street, it’s been on for over 40 years, well over half the lifespan of teevee as a mass medium, does the current TV crop get credit too?

            It’s entirely probable that a lot of the kids’ programming today is actually more enjoyable for kids than the TV of your childhood (even the *best* stuff), how will you know? You’ll never be able to experience it as a child does. Maybe kids’ like Barney and Dora way more than they would have liked Mr. Rogers. Heck, since they can still watch Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street, why would anyone try to imitate, the new shows do different things. It’s like making a new soda, there’s no point to trying to sell anew mass-market cola when there’s already a Pepsi and a Coke out there, you need to make something else.Report

          • Avatar MikeSchilling says:

            And novels were better back when Don Quixote was the only one.Report

  5. Avatar dhex says:

    there’s definitely some gems out there. in addition to some of the above, i’d give high marks to the octonauts, which was only picked up by disney this year. (it’s australian) my two year old is really big into cuttlefish now.Report

  6. Avatar mark boggs says:

    Thomas the Train was one of my kids’ favorites and it always seemed to have a moral dilemma in it for Thomas to work through. And, it had George Carlin narrating. Without saying any of the seven words you can’t say television.Report

  7. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    What is this “My Little Pony” of which I hear so much? Daughters and fathers seem to particularly enjoy watching it together. Is it merely entertainment or is there a “there” there?Report

    • Avatar North says:

      Bronies forever!
      MLP and Avatar are some good examples of quality childrens television programming. For somewhat more pure entertainment value the Thundercats reboot has been pretty sweet as well.Report

      • Avatar Plinko says:

        I know way too many “adult” males with no children who are into this for me to be comfortable with the whole MLP situation.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi says:

          cripes. you should see 4chan. Proving that Rule 34 applies to everything… including children’s TV. (nothing new there, a Simpsons character got axed because people drew too much p0rn of her)Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        I haven’t really sat down to pay attention to it (though the animation style is appealing, and people I trust say that it is a quality show), but I can say that my 3-year-old boy digs MLP.

        He also really likes some of the ‘classics’ – Muppets, Tom & Jerry, Schoolhouse Rock (he loves the songs).Report

        • Avatar North says:

          Well now it’s unfair to compare anything to The Muppet Show. Compared to Henson’s opus the entirety of modern television is junk; but compared to TMS all of the rest of television when it was running was junk too.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            Thinking more about it, Jim Henson might be the largest outlier, like, ever.

            The Muppet Show
            Sesame Street
            Fraggle Rock

            Dark Crystal

            Heck, even Dinosaurs demonstrated that his memory creates better stuff than the vast majority of active people in the business.

            This weird tension of creation on his part and trust in the audience.Report

            • Avatar North says:

              Agreed entirely Jay. I get goosebumps just reading the words “Dark Crystal”. I read an “Art of Dark Crystal” book that gave all the background on the world of that movie; enrapturing. His mind was a national treasure.

              Oh and *fistbumps* to Glyph.Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          Tom and Jerry seems to have a timeless appeal. It was my son’s favorite for years, along with Sponge Bob (which is both awesome and achieves a level of weirdness that the cartoons of my childhood would never have even attempted) and Sesame Street. He also enjoyed Barney and the Teletubbies, which sucked for me, because for an adult those two shows are well nigh unwatchable.

          I haven’t watched Sesame Street in years, but I remember being very disturbed, when my son was young enough to watch it regularly (early 2000s mostly), that Elmo had basically taken over the show.

          Relatedly, I think young adult cartoons these days range from much, much better than the ones when I was a kid to God Awful advertisements for card games.Report

          • Avatar Chris says:

            I wanted to add that I was very disturbed, recently, when scrolling through Netflix Kids because my son’s little brother (his mom’s 3 year old with a different dude) was over, I learned that my son had never seen a single episode of Woody Woodpecker. Now, to some extent, this is not so bad, because Woody Woodpecker (and to a lesser extent, the old Tom and Jerry cartoons) has some serious race issues, but I still found this upsetting for some reason. My childhood was as filled with cartoons from the 40s as it was with cartoons from the 80s, so his should be too, damnit.Report

          • Avatar Glyph says:

            I have no love for Elmo, and Grover appears to have been largely pushed aside in his favor (and Grover, particularly super-Grover, is awesome) but I will say that they have hit on something that very small children respond to with Elmo’s design.

            Whether it is the bright color or the high-pitched voice, both my kids stared and smiled. They even did this when very small (< 1 year) and even before they had ever seen the TV show (they were fascinated by Elmo dolls in the store).Report

  8. Avatar Glyph says:

    Hear, hear.Report

  9. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    So far the only modern cartoon that has stuck is Lego Ninjago, undoubtedly for marketing purposes. Jack went through a brief period of enjoying Yo Gabba Gabba, but it was pretty brief. Sesame Street was huge in the 2-4 bracket in our house, but neither of them watched it much past four. Dora was Hannah’s favorite for a long while though, and Jack liked it as well when he was in the right age wheelhouse.

    The other long-term favorites in my house were mostly reruns of things. The old Johnny Quest cartoons actually hold up pretty well, although there’s a couple of cringeworthy moments in there, usually Race yelling at some bad guy’s flunky. I have the Schoolhouse Rock stuff of DVD, and every once in e awhile we marathon through them. Hannah *loves* the Perils of Penelope Pitstop.

    Spiderman and his Amazing Friends was a huge hit with both of them, as was the old-school Transformers (the reboot they haven’t watched at my house, anyway). Jack burned through DVD copies of Starblazers in the space of a couple of weeks when he was 6, but he hasn’t watched it since – some interesting conversations from that show.

    For slapstick, they both think Popeye is a riot.Report

  10. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    I don’t know if its still around or not, but when the oldest spawn was wee he would be pretty entranced by Blue’s Clues, and would answer the TV when Steve would ask him questions. I thought it was pretty great.

    I’m assuming that the cartoons I might watch with my kids now, like The Venture Bros., don’t really count in this context.Report

    • Avatar Plinko says:

      I bear a more than passing resemblance to the dude from that show. My wife says that was part of the attraction. I try not to think about it much but I won’t watch the show with my daughter as a result.

      I’m not sure how old my daughter would have to be before I’d let her watch Venture Bros., maybe 17 or 18? I’m getting chills just thinking about it!

      Now, Adventure Time, I kinda want to watch it with her now, but I worry it will mess her up a little, maybe I’ll wait until she’s four or five.Report

  11. Avatar Erik Kain says:

    Simply put: Children’s television is getting less good, though Sesame Street (despite some minor changes) is still excellent and mostly tolerable, certainly compared to Barney and The Wiggles (all of whom surely have prices on their heads at this point.)

    However, movies for kids are way, way, way better than ever before. You have Pixar, stuff like How To Train Your Dragon, and a whole bunch of other great movies. Even Disney has gotten its stride back after a post-Lion King spiral into mediocrity. So, not sure why this is, but there you have it.

    That being said, we still watch a lot of Wizard of Oz and Annie in our house, so there is plenty of evidence in favor of good old-school kids’ movies as well.Report

  12. Avatar Shannon's Mouse says:

    Father of a five-year-old girl checking in:

    The really good stuff that she likes: Octonauts (already mentioned upthread), Super Why, Sid the Science Kid, Dora the Explorer, Sesame Street.

    There isn’t much stuff that she likes that I think is actively harmful. Barney bugs the crap out of me, but she’s mostly outgrown him. Jake and the Neverland Pirates is mostly empty calories, but seems to inspire a sense of adventure in her and serves as inspiration for some of her make-believe playtime in the back yard. Ditto the Backyardigans.

    And as Erik says, movies now are simply way better than before.Report

    • Avatar Marchmaine says:

      Father of five, including a five-year-old girl piling on:

      We were early adopters of Tivo precisely for *children’s* TV… the problem as I recall it was not so much that this show or that show *might* have been ok, but that I sat in front of the TV and watched them all without any sort of discretion – and most were pretty horrible. Tivo helped us to give the children the idea/habit that TV is for watching a specific show, not something that you just do.

      Oh, and Little Bear is positively therapeutic… I make them watch it in my office with me.Report

      • Avatar dhex says:

        jake and the neverland pirates are indeed empty calories. plus they have that weird collecting doubloons narrative mechanic, which is both nonsensical and kinda venal.

        new sesame street is just clownshoes compared to old sesame street. it’s the elmo show, and elmo is probably as close to a charismatic cult leader that small children not born into charismatic cult leader-led cults can have.Report

  13. Avatar Anderson says:

    Golden ages fallacy, perhaps? Maybe, but that doesn’t answer your question. In my mid ’90s childhood I always enjoyed Arthur, Doug, and Recess. Shockingly, none of those have been mentioned. Of course, I watched Sesame St. a fair deal as well…All good memories. I also didn’t have cable–unlike many of my peers–which made for a lot less television viewing. In general, I think children just have so many more options in this day and age. Educational and children’s computer games are a great new venue, boosted by the internet and iPads. Back in the day, there were far fewer channels, much less any of the aforementioned computer supplements. None of this makes any difference on the childhood though. The main substantive difference is that there are so many attractions for kids to stay inside all the time. Is that becoming a problem?Report

  14. I’m not at all certain children’s television is getting any less good so much as, let’s be honest, it just seems that way because we all have sentimental attachments to the children’s television of our youth.

    That said, one thing that’s really weird about American children’s television right now is that a huge percentage of it is not American at all. Most of the stuff on Nick and Nick, Jr. certainly is (as is Disney, if you want to count Disney), but by and large the majority of everything else is not:

    Here’s the weird thing about Canadian children’s television – it’s fishing everywhere on US children’s television; in fact, now that I think about it, a substantial portion of US children’s television is foreign-produced content, maybe with the notable exceptions of most stuff on Disney (if you want to count Disney, and I’m not sure I do). For about a year and a half, my daughter was obsessed, obsessed with a show on Sprout called “Caillou” that is wholly Canadian. And of course, you’ve got the whole DeGrassi High and DeGrassi Junior High series, which is in the pantheon of children’s television (albeit slightly older children, but still…). Then there’s The Berenstain Bears, Franklin (including the current iteration on Nick), Dino Dan, Dirtgirlworld (which I thought was Aussie, but no, it’s Canadian), Max and Ruby (the show my daughter is currently obsessed with), Mike the Knight, The Mighty Jungle, Franny’s Feet, and probably a bunch of others, all Canadian.

    Then, just off the top of my head: Fireman Sam and Peppa Pig – British.

    The Wiggles – Australian

    I’d wager that when you add it all up, the majority of programming on Sprout and Nick Jr. is foreign-produced. This strikes me as odd. Then again, one of the shows I grew up on was You Can’t Do That on Television (also Canadian), and others my age grew up on DeGrassi, so maybe it’s always been this way.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      We do not talk about the Canadian overlords hold on American Childrens minds Mr. Thompson eh. Now if you’ll just focus on this maple leaf dangling from a string, I’ll hit you over the head with a hockey stick until you forget this unfortunate line of conversation. Thankyou kindly.Report

  15. Avatar Kidvidkid says:

    Background: 30 years working in children’s media, in the US and worldwide…pre-CTA and post.

    The CTA is a poor inflection point for measuring the quality of children’s TV. It was a weak political fix to an economic and creative problem. In the US, when we get anxious about children and TV, we throw “education” at it, and that’s what we did here – demand that broadcasters make some minor affirmations of learning content on 3 hours per week of programming, in an environment where the only channels under the requirement had already lost their audiences to cable and public TV. Hence, there was no economic incentive to make it *good*, and as it was unlikely to be profitable, the 3-hours became a ceiling and not a floor.

    A better inflection point is the emergence of “Barney” and “Teletubbies” as highly-profitable preschool programming. While both shows are anathema to adults, they were well designed and entrancing for kids…and networks realized that one could do well by doing good, at least for preschoolers. The industry became competitive for quality, with an (ongoing, I believe) “golden age” for preschool TV on Nick Jr., Disney Junior, Sprout, and especially PBS, fueled by unique and creator-driven series like “Blue’s Clues,” “Dora,” “Wonder Pets,” “Super Why,” “Curious George,” “Dinosaur Train,” “Jake and the Neverland Pirates,” “Charlie and Lola”…the list goes on and on.

    Not every program will appeal to every child…not should it. Even in preschool, children are different from one another, and they come to TV with different needs at different times. “Sesame” and “Mister Rogers” were elemental series in early child development, and that broad foundation – and the fact that they emerged before the multi-channel era – accounts for their longevity. Looking at today’s media environment, it’s more important to develop sharply-focused shows for niches of early learning. They aren’t made to last 40 years; however, no show sets out anticipating a run like that…if you’re thinking about year 10 while producing year one, you’re sure to stumble.

    We still need more quality children’s TV for older kids – 6-11 – but the preschool world is doing very well, and doing just what it ought.Report