In many ways, Cartoon Network is in better shape than Nickelodeon is at the present moment. Where Nick only has two legitimate hit cartoons currently running (SpongeBob SquarePants and The Loud House), Cartoon Network continues to pump out hit shows like Adventure Time, The Amazing World of Gumball, Steven Universe and OK K.O. Let’s Be Heroes! CN’s also made inroads in the online space and in game development. Adult Swim, technically a separate network for ratings’ purposes but sharing the same airspace, continues to be the most daringly experimental programming block on television and has a major phenomenon on its hands in the form of Rick and Morty.
That said, Cartoon Network and Adult Swim have some serious problems obvious to anyone who watches them. Then again, they’ve always had problems. Sometimes the issues are resolved, while others fester and turn fans away. While the 15 controversies on this list might not have been able to take down Cartoon Network by themselves, they’ve all hurt the station over the years. Sometimes the brand damage is small, sometimes it’s massive. If you’re a fan, or used to be one, you’ll remember and understand the frustrations of these 15 controversies.
15. BANNING SPEEDY GONZALES
In 1999, Cartoon Network became the exclusive cable broadcaster of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts. However, not all of the shorts made it to air. Not showing the infamous “Censored Eleven” was kind of a given and not a decision most people would be mad about. Not showing the Speedy Gonzales cartoons, however, caused something of a firestorm.
The network banned the cartoons for racial stereotypes. The ban was an attempt at sensitivity, except they missed one big thing: many Hispanics, including some civil rights organizations, love Speedy! While the cartoons contain some stereotypical jokes, Speedy himself is smart, heroic and beloved across Latin America. Cartoon Network brought Speedy Gonzales back to its schedule in June 2002. The controversy inspired the funniest joke in Looney Tunes: Back in Action, wherein Speedy and Porky Pig lament the struggles of not being politically correct.
14. PPG MOVIE BOMBS, COMPARED TO 9/11
The Powerpuff Girls was Cartoon Network’s biggest hit on television. The Powerpuff Girls Movie was a bomb, barely making its $11 million budget back. Blame a lack of communication between Cartoon Network Studios and Warner Bros. CN encouraged Craig McCracken to make a darker movie aimed at the show’s secondary older demographic. WB wanted a lighter film, and while it went through edits, WB still wasn’t pleased and buried the film upon release. It didn’t even recieve evening showings in theaters!
Critics generally gave the movie mixed-to-positive reviews, with many praising the animation. Roger Ebert, however, not only hated the movie, but compared the film to 9/11! It’s not a masterpiece or anything, but that’s a bit over-the-top! Ultimately The Powerpuff Girls Movie‘s failure killed off Cartoon Network’s cinematic aspirations. Proposed attempts to get back into the movie business with Samurai Jack and Adventure Time languished in development hell.
13. TEEN TITANS AND JUSTICE LEAGUE CANCELATIONS
A lot of cancelations might anger fans, but there’s usually some sort of reasonable explanation. Samurai Jack? Genndy Tartakovsky wanted a break. MEGAS XLR? Demographics skewed too old. Teen Titans and Justice League Unlimited? … Actually, there’s no reasonable explanation for those cancelations. Well, there’s an explanation, but it’s extremely unreasonable.
Basically, new management took over WB Animation in 2005 and demanded every show currently in production be re-pitched. TT and JLU failed the repitching process, in spite of both shows being massive hits. TT‘s cancelation was especially frustrating. JLU at least got a proper finale, but TT ended its fifth and final season on a cliffhanger. While WB would get back in the Teen Titans game years later, the results were… well, we’ll get to that.
12. LIVE-ACTION PROGRAMMING
Cartoon Network’s purpose for its first 13 years of existence was to be, well, a network for cartoons. When live-action movies began to make their way onto the schedule in late 2005, something was off. Over the next five years, CN increasingly looked like it was going down the path of MTV, abandoning its original purpose. More live-action shows made their way into the schedule, and in 2009, CN launched a block of reality shows called “CN Real.”
The success of Adventure Time and Regular Show in 2010 as the live-action shows bombed revitalized CN’s commitment to animation. Today, live-action movies still air semi-frequently on the daytime line-up, but all regular CN programs today are animated. Adult Swim still airs live-action shows, but gets away with it due to technically being a separate network and filling a niche for bizarre avant-garde comedy other networks won’t touch.
11. THE MOONINITES BOMB SCARE
On January 31, 2007, the city of Boston united to fend off a city-wide terror threat. Of course, the “terror” in question was looking at lite-brites of Mooninites giving you the finger. Someone mistook guerrilla advertisements for the Aqua Teen Hungerforce movie for bombs. It was completely absurd, but Turner Broadcasting, the parent company of Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, got in big trouble over this ad campaign.
Turner and the advertising agency Interference Inc. paid a combined $1 million to the city of Boston and another $1 million to the Department of Homeland Security. Jim Samples, the President of Cartoon Network, stepped down as a result of the Mooninite Panic. His replacement Stuart Snyder, who made an even bigger push towards live-action programming, proved controversial.
10. CANCELLING TOONAMI
Toonami was in decline in its final year. New shows were scarce and the line-up was cut down to just two hours. Even so, it was still something of a shock on September 20, 2008 when the block’s cancelation was suddenly announced at Anime Weekend Atlanta. On the final broadcast that same night, the host TOM thanked viewers for watching as he shut down his base of operations and flew away into the sunset.
We still don’t know exactly what motivated Toonami’s cancelation. Ratings were down, but Toonami was still number one in its timeslot with boys 9-14. It’s clear the death of Toonami aligned with the death of Cartoon Network’s interest in anime outside of Adult Swim. They even gave up Naruto to Disney XD and Dragonball Z to Nicktoons! Adult Swim thankfully revived Toonami to great fanfare in 2012, but it’s still a loss for children’s action programming.
9. BUBBLEINE CONTROVERSY
Did Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen from Adventure Time ever date? The third season episode “What Was Missing” hinted heavily that yes, they did. Marceline’s song “I’m Just Your Problem” carries a serious erotic subtext (“I want to drink the red from your pretty pink face”) as well as a sense of bitterness seemingly stemming from a break-up. One of production studio Frederator’s recap videos on Youtube asked what fans thought of the potential pairing.
That recap video got pulled almost immediately. Producer Fred Seibert said the theorizing about the relationship went “a little too far.” Three years later, at a book signing in 2014, voice actress Olivia Olson claimed Marceline and Bubblegum did date but the show can’t state it explicitly, due to airing in countries where being openly gay remains taboo. Steven Universe and Clarence now include queer characters, but Adventure Time still just sticks to (increasingly obvious) subtext.
8. TOY SEXISM KILLS SYM-BIONIC TITAN AND YOUNG JUSTICE
American action cartoons on Cartoon Network didn’t die with Toonami, but they’d sure fade away in the following years. Unlike the creative freedom given to comedy shows, CN seemed to want action shows that did one thing: sell toys. Two of the network’s best action shows, Sym-Bionic Titan and Young Justice, died because of this.
Young Justice had great ratings, but the audience skewed female, and according to Paul Dini, this fact killed the show with advertisers and toy manufacturers. Sym-Bionic Titan didn’t even get a toy line because you need a girl character to form the robot. Young Justice is returning as a streaming series, but Sym-Bionic Titan is in tax limbo preventing any return. Comedy shows with some action like Steven Universe thankfully manage to challenge gender norms without being cancelled, but for action-driven shows, all CN wants these days is more Ben 10.
7. SKYLER PAGE UNFIT FOR CLARENCE
Before #MeToo caught fire throughout Hollywood, Cartoon Network had to manage its own sexual harassment scandal in 2014. Just shortly after the slice-of-life cartoon Clarence premiered, the show’s creator Skyler Page was accused of assaulting Adventure Time storyboarder Emily Partridge at a party. Page was fired in response.
How did Page’s departure affect Clarence? Not by much, actually. Aside from doing the voice of the title character, Page was mostly absent from his responsibilities during the series’ early production, with the writing team doing the creative heavy-lifting on the show. The assault was a breaking point in an already tense working working environment. He was suffering severe mental illness and the assault occured during a manic episode. Writer Spencer Rothbell took over the voice acting job as Page went to the hospital for treatment.
6. AARON MCGRUDER BOOTED FROM BOONDOCKS SEASON FOUR
What happened behind the scenes with The Boondocks season four remains a mystery. The show was presumably finished with season three, but years later a fourth season was announced. However, creator Aaron McGruder was mysteriously missing from the fourth season. Fans hated the McGruder-less episodes, effectively killing the series.
It wasn’t Adult Swim’s fault. The network maintains a good enough relationship with McGruder to support his live-action sitcom Black Jesus. The Boondocks wasn’t made at Adult Swim’s own Williams Street studio, but at Sony Pictures Television. Statements from McGruder’s public Facebook posts and the hacked Sony emails paint a vague picture of what happened. Sony execs were apparently frustrated with McGruder’s slow working schedule and possibly his willingness to offend. The full details of what happened, however, remain a mystery.
5. ORIGINAL VOICE ACTORS SHUT OUT OF PPG REBOOT
Cartoon Network’s decision to revive The Powerpuff Girls in 2016 proved a controversial one. Original creator Craig McCracken wasn’t involved in the new series. McCracken wasn’t interested in taking part, busy with projects at Disney and wishing CN would let his creation rest in peace. Original voice actresses Tara Strong, Cathy Cavadini and E.G. Daily did want to be involved, but were pretty upset that they weren’t.
Recasting the girls was especially odd given the rest of the old show’s cast was invited back. Tara Strong ultimately gave the new show her blessing at New York Comic Con 2017. By then, however, fan opinion on the show was in the dumps. A number of smaller controversies, from creepy twerking and self-insert characters to badly written transgender metaphors and the removal of Miss Bellum, drew the ire of fans.
4. ADULT SWIM WORKS WITH ALT-RIGHT COMEDIAN
Adult Swim didn’t know what it was getting into giving a TV deal to Sam Hyde’s Million Dollar Extreme troupe in 2015. At the time, Hyde was best known for his fairly clever prank TEDx talk “2070 Paradigm Shift.” He seemed like a good fit for Adult Swim’s brand of surreal nonsense. In 2016, the public’s impression of Hyde was different, to say the least.
Hyde’s endorsements of alt-right politics, PizzaGate conspiracy theories and personal attacks on comedians like Patton Oswalt was a PR nightmare, to say the least. Swastikas among other offensive images needed to be censored from his show World Peace. Comedian Brett Gelman cut ties with Adult Swim in protest of the network’s association with Hyde as well as its lack of support for female creators. World Peace ultimately ended after just one season.
3. RACIST STEVEN UNIVERSE CONCEPT ART
If you happen to own the first printing of the book Steven Universe: Art & Origins, your book contains something later printings don’t. You won’t find the unused concept design for the character Concrete in new editions. The reason why? It struck many as racist. The character design with its big pale lips on dark skin reminded many of blackface caricatures, while the description of her as illiterate really seemed like an ugly racist joke.
There was some misunderstanding going on. It turns out Lamar Abrams, a black artist, drew the sketch. Hilary Florido, a white woman, wrote the character description not realizing how it could read as a racial stereotype. Abrams and Florido both apologized for any offense caused, as did series creator Rebecca Sugar for overlooking it in the approval process for the art book.
2. DEEPY EMBARASSING FANDOMS
OK, this isn’t Cartoon Network or Adult Swim’s fault. Honestly, the networks deserve your pity for having to deal with these people. In our modern internet age, acts of malice and stupidity done in the name of fandoms are all too common. The two most egregious cases of terrible fans are in the Steven Universe and Rick and Morty fandoms. The actions of these fans are so embarassing they’ve actually turned potential viewers away from their favorite programs.
How does a show as empathetic as Steven Universe get fans who bullied storyboarder Lauren Zuke off Twitter and contributed to the harassment of a suicidal fan-artist? How does a show as sharp-witted as Rick and Morty have fans who cause riots over McDonalds Szechuan Sauce and send death threats to the female writers? Everything popular has some crappier fans, true, but these cases were way extreme.
1. TEEN TITANS GO OVERLOAD
This is the problem that’s threatening to destroy Cartoon Network right now. The channel still owns a ton of great shows. However, you’d never know that if you went just by its on-air schedule. Week after week, Teen Titans Go dominates the schedule. The week between Christmas and New Years Eve in 2017, the schedule was literally nothing but TTG, broken up only by a single half-hour of Steven Universe on Thursday.
Whether or not you enjoy this sillier, crudely animated reboot of the Teen Titans (it does well with its target demographic regardless of what you think), the way CN shoves it down everyone’s throat at the expense of the rest of its library is undeniably annoying. Perhaps CN is phasing out of on-air programming and focusing more on online viewing. Still, couldn’t it at least put a bit more effort into its TV schedule?
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