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Cartoon Network Isn’t What It Used To Be, And That’s A Good Thing

A Cartoon Network logo with a dog standing in front of it, showcasing the nostalgia and evolution of the network.
A Cartoon Network logo with a dog standing in front of it, showcasing the nostalgia and evolution of the network.

Cartoon Network has been a mainstay in many people’s lives, starting while they’re kids, and following into their adulthood. If I’m staying somewhere away from home, I still judge a hotel based on whether or not they have Cartoon Network as part of their TV package. Plenty of these viewers are now parents with kids of their own, similarly glued to that same station to catch the latest trending toon. However, it wasn’t always marathons of Teen Titans Go! or The Amazing World of Gumball. Its beginnings over 30 years ago were far simpler, and resemble nothing of the channel it’s become today.

The story of Cartoon Network began before the network was even a thought, when media mogul Ted Turner purchased the MGM/United Artists film and TV assets in August 1986. The Turner media empire made great use of repurposing older content throughout its early rise to success, but with the addition of this massive library, the Turner catalog exploded overnight. A substantial chunk from this acquisition included cartoons from the early Looney Tunes days, as well as animation from the historic Fleischer Studios, best known for their gorgeous Superman cartoons, as well as Popeye and Betty Boop. A few years later, Turner added the Hanna-Barbera assets to it as well, cornering the classic cartoon market.

Ted had plans for all of these old films and shows, but his attention was first turned to this enormous library of animation. Turner set his sights on launching the first channel on Cable TV devoted to cartoons, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This was considered a huge risk by pundits at the time, but Turner heard the same criticism before he launched CNN in 1980, the first cable channel to air nothing but original news around the clock. If he did it once, Turner believed he could do it again with an underserved audience of children demanding content catered to them.

With Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” playing over colorful explosions in the background, Droopy Dog introduced the world to The Cartoon Network on October 1, 1992. Friz Freleng’s “Rhapsody Rabbit” marked the first short played on the channel, a Bugs Bunny masterpiece from 1946 cited as one of the best Merrie Melodies of all time, parodying classic music concerts with Bugs as the pianist under the spotlight.

Unlike today, The Cartoon Network from ‘92 featured zero original content. If you tuned in during that first year, you’d see themed programming blocks, highlighting things like Tom and Jerry, Looney Tunes, Scooby Doo, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and the other old-timey toons under their banner. Animation aficionados looked forward each week to ToonHeads, a show that offered insight into these classic cartoons when it wasn’t as readily available as it is today, slowly transforming into a docu-series that deserves a modern revival.

It wasn’t all vintage animation, however, as Hanna Barbera’s modern shows were also part of the lineup. The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, SWAT Kats, and 2 Stupid Dogs could be seen there, but they could also be found on other Turner channels, including syndication on non-cable networks. Their biggest rival, Nickeloden, launched their NickToons brand in the fall of 1991, and were dominating the market share with their unique original content like RugratsDoug, and Ren & Stimpy. It was time for Cartoon Network to do the same… or, at least in the first few years, give it a well-meaning try.

The Cartoon Network’s first exclusive show debuted at the end of 1993, and was an utter failure. The Moxy Show starred Bobcat Goldthwait as a computer-animated 3-D cartoon dog who introduced blocks of cartoons with his commentary on top of them. He’d later be joined by an insect sidekick named Flea, originally voiced by Penn Jillette and later by Chris Rock. The show was touted as being “The first real-time cartoon character,” using early motion-capture technology to create the CGI movements of Moxy. It lasted for a few years, but did nothing to create a buzz around the network, and was poorly received by critics and viewers alike.

Their first true piece of original content, however, was the game changer that set The Cartoon Network on the path to greatness. Making use of that extensive archival footage, Space Ghost Coast to Coast arrived on April 1994 as a late-night talk show. Pulling clips from the 1960’s Space Ghost cartoon, the title character and a band of his villains were composited onto a studio set like Letterman or Leno would have, and “interviewed” actual celebrities. I’m talking real people, not made-up ones or animated versions! Imagine seeing a cartoon superhero with his giant praying mantis bandleader awkwardly chatting with stars of the day like Dennis Leary, Charlton Heston, Elvira, or William Shatner, and that was the brilliance of Space Ghost Coast to Coast.

The crude animation and inane humor were a hit, and landed the network a new fanbase in young adults who didn’t want to watch reruns of Speed Buggy or Penelope Pitstop. Its rise led to shows in a similar vein like Sealab 2021, recycling the original Sealab 2020 but adding limited animation and dubbing new dialogue with adult themes into it. The Brak show spun off from Space Ghost as well, giving the popular feline alien voiced by Andy Merrill a family sit-com style show, alongside Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, taking the 60’s hero out of the skies and into the thrilling world of litigating his fellow cartoons. This led to the birth of their Adult Swim lineup, targeting mature audiences with subversive toons and anime imports that weren’t meant for children.

A year after Space Ghost’s debut, Cartoon Network Studios was launched to create more original content to fall under their Cartoon Cartoons umbrella, leading to the creation of Dexter’s Laboratory, Johnny Bravo, and The Powerpuff Girls. By 1995, What a Cartoon! premiered, focusing on up-and-coming creators outside of the studio system, testing their toons on TV to determine who would be the next big thing in animation. Nothing like this had been done in animation before, and its success launched the careers of prolific animation gurus like Seth McFarlane, Genndy Tartakovsky, and Craig McCracken among others, while also being used as an outlet to independently established creators like Ralph Bakshi. Even William Hanna and Joseph Barbera contributed work to this anthology series, making it a destination event each week, since viewers never knew what to expect. Around this time, the channel dropped “The” from their name, and soon simply became Cartoon Network, the name that’s stuck into this modern era.

Today, most of Cartoon Network’s roots are nowhere to be found on the station. Lovers of classic cartoons have a new home, in the network’s sibling channel, Boomerang. This fall, Cartoon Network added a two-hour block featuring their 90’s originals as part of their “Checkered Past” block, giving younger audiences a taste of the bizarre cartoons their parents grew up with, and showcasing what made Cartoon Network so special compared to the other channels aimed at kids. But we must always remember and revere those golden age cartoons from the launch that propelled the modern channel into a leader in pushing animation for audiences of every generation.

Check your local cable listings for Cartoon Network programming, or watch them streaming on Max.