Saturday, July 15, 2023


Once upon a time, British adults raced home from work to watch a cartoon before the evening news. Starting with Eric Thompson’s subversive re-voicing of “The Magic Roundabout”, a succession of five-minute delights aired around 5.40pm on BBC One from 1965 to 1983, like “The Wombles”, “The Perishers”, “Fred Bassett” and “Willo the Wisp”, before Richard Baker or Kenneth Kendall appeared to snap you back to reality.


Today, with “The Simpsons”, “King of the Hill” and “Family Guy” cementing adult animated shows firmly into primetime, the American TV strand Adult Swim, which began as a three-hour slot for offbeat shows on a Sunday night in 2001, has reached parity with its parent channel, Cartoon Network: having steadily expanded to eleven hours a day from 7pm Eastern Standard Time, it will begin from 6pm from August 2023, its Sunday start time remaining at 9pm. Adult Swim has arguably become its own channel, taking up virtually half the pool’s opening time, as Cartoon Network uses a closedown sequence that will soon say “good night” to its audience at 5.59pm.


This is a generational change in both the content and the technology of television. Cartoon Network began in 1992 as a round-the-clock playback of TV shows and theatrical cartoons, like Looney Tunes, that its audience watched on a Saturday morning. This continued through the addition of Boomerang and Cartoonito in the early 2000s as extra channels to show those older shows, and pre-school programming, while Cartoon Network concentrated on its own original shows like “Dexter’s Laboratory”, “The Powerpuff Girls” and “Samurai Jack” - the new 6pm hour of Adult Swim will repeat series like these, originally known as “Cartoon Cartoons”, in a nostalgic slot titled “Chequered Past”, evoking the original Cartoon Network logo, before going into a schedule that draws on its own library of shows, currently dominated by “Rick & Morty”, that have built up over the last twenty years.


With two-thirds of Cartoon Network’s TV audience aged over 18, and most of the intended audience of 6-12 audiences watching online without knowing a time before streaming services, traditional linear broadcast television channels are now in a battle to maintain the remaining eyeballs still looking at them. They are now the secondary way to find television programmes, the last way to have their content just presented to you, still capable of bringing many people together, but only for some of the time.


In Cartoon Network’s case, it is putting on repeats of “King of the Hill” on Adult Swim, for people like me who didn’t want to watch the news when they arrived home, and staying on air until 9pm on Sundays to show family films that may not even be animated. For TLC, the History Channel or Syfy, it is by putting on programmes that don’t match the channel’s original purpose. In the BBC’s case, it is cutting into BBC One’s primetime schedule with hours of Wimbledon tennis, and Sir Elton John’s Glastonbury show, because they were live events that millions were going to watch at the same time. For ITV, it is having three hours of “Coronation Street” every week, and another three of “Emmerdale”, to keep people coming back for the next instalment. For Channel 4, it means now ending trailers for programmes by saying “stream weekly or watch live tonight...”

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