You Bet Your Aspirational Programming!
I need a hero! I’m holding out for a hero ’til the morning light/ He’s gotta be sure and it’s gotta be soon /And he’s gotta be larger than life!
– Bonnie Tyler, “Holding Out For a Hero” Footloose soundtrack
We don’t need another hero./We don’t need to know the way home./All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome
– Tina Turner, “We Don’t Need Another Hero” Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome soundtrack
Sorry, Tina. Bonnie’s got it right. If you’re writing for a North American kids’ cartoon series, you need your lead character to be a hero.
It doesn’t have to be a hero with a capital H (secret identity, cape, spandex unitard), but in today’s animation market, it’s got to be someone the viewers can ASPIRE to be, hence the industry term ASPIRATIONAL PROGRAMMING – the kind of programming producers tell us that the network execs tell them that kids want to watch.
We’re told that kids tune in to see a character who isn’t like them, but someone they’d like to be – or someone they’d like to hang out with. (Just like James Bond 007: women want him; men want to be him!) Sure, your main characters can have a flaw or two, but we’re told that overall, they must have special qualities that make them likable and admirable. They need to be “proactive.” They’ve got to “bring it!” and be tenacious, brave, resourceful and/or athletic, magical, or even musical.
Funny is also acceptable but it’s got to be the kind of funny you laugh with, not at. Nerdy, geeky, twitchy, put-upon characters (you know, like animation writers) need not apply for your series lead…although they may fill out an application for the position of friend, sidekick or comic relief.
Just how aspirational your characters have to be depends on the broadcasters you’re writing for. Some networks have a higher tolerance for an oddball or underdog central character. Take Nickelodeon. How many kids actually aspire to be a Sponge, albeit a SquarePants-wearing one? Yet who can dispute the popularity of that nutty porous big-eyed optimist? So it’s a good idea to know what kinds of characters are already starring in the shows the network already airs.
Of course, it’s a moving target. Networks are always tweaking their “brand” to better connect with their viewers. Now they’re narrowing their focus more than ever by branching out into specialty channels that cater to certain age groups and even genders. They have specific ideas of what their viewers want to watch. And where do they get these ideas? Well, one of the tools in the network exec’s utility belt is, of course, focus testing.
The Simpsons episode, “The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show” famously skewered the use of focus groups to find out what kids’ want from their favourite cartoon shows:
Focus Group Moderator: Okay, how many of you kids would like “Itchy and Scratchy” to deal with real-life problems, like the ones you face every day?
All kids: Me! / I would.
Moderator: And who would like to see them do just the opposite, getting into far-out situations involving robots and magic powers?
All kids: Me! / I would.
Moderator: So, you want a realistic, down-to-earth show that’s completely off the wall and swarming with magic robots…
All kids: (general agreement)
Later in the episode, in a bid to improve ratings, the Itchy and Scratchy studio exec has the writers add a cool, dare we say aspirational, character to the show – a rapping, surfing, catch-phrase-spoutin’ dog named Poochie. In the Simpsons’ world, the character turns out to be wildly unpopular – “to the extreme!” – and is quickly killed off, but in our world, don’t be too surprised if you’re asked to have your character involved in aspirational “kid-relatable” activities like surfing, skateboarding and video gaming or using the latest urban teen-speak. Random and ridiculous? Not! Dude, it’s a phat, sick and awesome way to get you mad props from your toon-viewing peeps! True dat!
Note: Aspirational characters and storylines are easier to write when it’s a straight-up action-adventure series. Just give your hero a cool costume and some awesome powers and you’re good to go. In the end, despite a few set-backs, your character will come out on top and all will be well with the universe, providing a comforting cartoon message for our troubled times.
It gets trickier when you’re writing a comedy or comedy-adventure. Your instinct as a smart-ass animation writer may be to model your lead after your own cynical dysfunctional self, or to point out that fortune doesn’t always favor the brave, or that often as not nice guys do finish last. Well, not on American kids’ television, buddy! Good guys have to finish first (or a close second as long as the villain’s victory is tainted in some way.)
Canadian kids’ TV would probably settle for silver or bronze and knowledge that we did our best, but that doesn’t fly quite as well down south. While prime-time U.S. cartoons like The Simpsons and South Park are known for being irreverent and satirical, the world of kids’ cartoons is surprisingly conventional. As your network notes will remind you, evil-doers and misbehavers must have their comeuppance. Even your hero must be punished if he or she behaves in a manner unworthy of a good role model so they’ll soon be back on the path of truth, justice, and the animated way.
“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” – Miss Prism explaining the plot of her three-volume novel in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde