Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Death of Live-Action Kids Shows

Our 3-year-old adores "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood," a PBS show that reinvents the world that Fred Rogers first created in the 1960s.

The new program revolves around Daniel Tiger, the son of Daniel Striped Tiger from the original "Mister Rogers Neighborhood." It also features other second-generation characters (Prince Wednesday is the son of King Friday; Katerina Kittycat is the daughter of Henrietta Pussycat; and O the Owl is the nephew of X the Owl). Even the theme song is a takeoff on the "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" tune.

But unlike "Mister Rogers," the show doesn't have puppets or live-action sequences. It's animated.

And in that respect, it symbolizes a dramatic transformation for PBS over the past 20 years. Almost every kids program currently broadcast by public-television affiliates is a cartoon. Compare that with 1993, when there were no animated shows airing regularly on PBS. Not one.

In the old days, children were content to see puppet-based programs ("Barney and Friends," "Lamb Chop's Play-Along") and live-action shows like "Bill Nye the Science Guy" and "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?"

Here's an example of the kind of program that existed at the time: "Ghostwriter."

I pieced together the PBS kids lineups in 1993, 2003 and 2013, based on information from, Wikipedia and other sources. In some cases, programs had a mix of animation and live action, so I had to make some judgment calls. (I don't think "Reading Rainbow" qualifies as a cartoon, for instance.)

The Adventures of Dudley the Dragon (live action)
Bill Nye the Science Guy (live action)
Barney and Friends (live action)
The Big Comfy Couch (live action)
Ghostwriter (live action)
Lamb Chop's Play-Along (live action)
Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (live action)
Reading Rainbow (live action)
Rosie and Jim (live action)
Sesame Street (live action)
Shining Time Station (live action)
Square One Television (live action)
Theodore Tugboat (live action)
Tots TV (live action)
Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (live action)

Angelina Ballerina (animated)
Anne of Green Gables: The Animated Series (animated)
Arthur (animated)
Barney and Friends (live action)
The Berenstain Bears (animated)
Between the Lions (live action)
Caillou (animated)
Clifford's Puppy Days (animated)
Clifford the Big Red Dog (animated)
DragonflyTV (live action)
In the Mix (live action)
Jakers! The Adventures of Pigley Winks (animated)
Jay Jay the Jet Plane (animated)
Make Way for Noddy (animated)
Marvin the Tap-Dancing Horse (animated)
George Shrinks (animated)
Reading Rainbow (live action)
Redwall (animated)
Sagwa the Chinese Siamese Cat (animated)
Sesame Street (live action)
Seven Little Monsters (animated)
Teletubbies (live action)
Timothy Goes to School (animated)
Zoom (live action)

Arthur (animated)
Bob the Builder (animated)
The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! (animated)
Curious George (animated)
Cyberchase (animated)
Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood (animated)
Dinosaur Train (animated)
Franny's Feet (animated)
Martha Speaks (animated)
Peg + Cat (animated)
Sesame Street (live action)
Sid the Science Kid (animated)
Super Why! (animated)
Thomas and Friends (animated)
Wild Kratts (animated)
WordGirl (animated)

By 2003, the landscape had already changed dramatically — with animated shows like "Arthur," "Caillou" and "Clifford's Puppy Days" becoming the new normal. But there was still an appetite for live-action programs. Look at the revival of "Zoom," a show that even in its modern incarnation had terrible production values.

Nowadays, the confluence of inexpensive flash-based animation (which often looks quite good) — combined in some cases with the use of off-shore animation houses — has made live-action shows a relic.

Of course, kids don't care about the economics of this shift. They would simply prefer to see a cartoon, which is limited only by the imagination of the writers, than an actual human standing in front of a cheesy-looking set.

The only live-action show still in the PBS lineup is "Sesame Street," and even it has increased its use of animated segments such as "Abby's Flying Fairy School."

What does this all mean? It's hard to say, but today's shows are polished in a way that goes beyond production values. They're more slick and packaged than the stuff I watched growing up ("Captain Kangaroo," "The Electric Company"). And maybe that means kids don't have to use their own imaginations as much.

Then again, it's hard to argue that any child should ever see this again.