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The Evolution of Animation on Television

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Explore the evolution of animation on television, from its early days to the present and future, including the impact of streaming services and the rise of anime.


Welcome to this Listen Learn Pod on the evolution of animation on television. Animation has long been a beloved form of entertainment, captivating viewers and inspiring countless artists to pursue careers in the industry. Over the years, animated television shows have evolved from simplistic drawings and limited storylines to complex sagas and blockbusters. Join us as we take a journey through the early days of animation, the progress of storytelling, and the future of animation on TV.

First, let's take a step back to where this enchanting journey began: the early days of animation. Animation has its roots in the 1800s with devices like the Zoetrope, a cylinder with slits that allowed viewers to see individual images create the illusion of motion. However, it wasn't until the advent of cinema in the 20th century that animation reached a broader audience. Early animated films, such as Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) and the groundbreaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), marked the beginning of an era.

The first animated TV show is believed to be Crusader Rabbit, a simple yet charming series created by Jay Ward and Alex Anderson in 1949. As television sets became more affordable in the 1950s, animation began gaining traction within the industry. Saturday morning cartoons became a staple of children television, with series such as Hanna-Barbera's The Flintstones (1960) and The Jetsons (1962) capturing the hearts of millions of viewers. These early animated shows relied on limited animation techniques due to budget and time constraints. Despite these challenges, these shows carved out a lasting place in the hearts of viewers and had major influences on pop culture.

In the 1960s and 1970s, animation continued to flourish but became targeted primarily to children. Shows such as Scooby-Doo and Looney Tunes quickly became beloved classics. Their appeal was universal, and despite being created for a younger audience, they entertained adults and children alike.

By the 1980s, the market for animated TV shows shifted yet again, as the business model leaned more towards advertising and toy sales. Shows such as Transformers and G.I. Joe were created as promotional vehicles for toy lines, and a new era of animation tied to merchandising was born.

In parallel to the shows aimed at young audiences, mature and sophisticated animated programs started to emerge. The 1990s marked a significant turning point for TV animation, as The Simpsons (1989) and later South Park (1997) debuted on primetime. Animation aimed at adults began to emerge and went against the established belief that animation was only for kids. With subversive humor and sharp wit, The Simpsons quickly gained popularity and has since become an iconic staple of American television.

Other shows targeting adults began testing the waters, like Beavis and Butt-Head, Daria, and King of the Hill. At the same time, networks began launching animated action-adventure series for adults as well, such as MTV's Æon Flux and Batman: The Animated Series, which remains one of the most respected and highly praised animated shows of all time.

Meanwhile, there was a surge of creativity and diversity within children's programming. The 1990s and early 2000s saw a boom in the quality and variety of content, with imaginative series such as Nickelodeon's Rugrats, Rocko's Modern Life, and Hey Arnold! captivating audiences with their unique stories and distinct animation styles. Similarly, Cartoon Network brought us The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter's Laboratory, and Samurai Jack, each brimming with originality and heart.

The 21st century has taken animation to new heights. With mature shows like Family Guy and Bojack Horseman pushing the boundaries of adult animation and addressing sensitive topics, the possibilities are endless for the medium.

Moreover, mainstream TV has seen the rise of anime from Japan, a previously niche form of animation that has now reached unparalleled heights of popularity. Shows like Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, One Piece, and Attack on Titan have garnered millions of fans worldwide, introducing people to a new type of animation with its own distinct style and storytelling techniques.

Today, the world of animation on television is richer and more diverse than ever before. Streaming services have played an important role in sustaining the rapid growth of the industry. Services like Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, Netflix, and Hulu have continued to champion animation by investing in new projects, showcasing inventive stories and experimental visual techniques through shows like Adventure Time, The Amazing World of Gumball, and BoJack Horseman. Netflix's foray into animation has sparked a boom of rich content such as Big Mouth, Disenchantment, and Castlevania.

The industry itself has evolved alongside the content, as animation has become more technologically advanced. Techniques have shifted to include computer-generated imagery (CGI) and 3D animation, which now run alongside traditional 2D animation. This increased accessibility to new tools has also opened doors for independent animators to create their own series, like Pendleton Ward's Bravest Warriors, which initially began as a web series.

As we look to the future of animation on television, it's hard to anticipate what innovations lie ahead. Yet, one thing is for sure: the passion for storytelling and expression that runs deep through the roots of animation will continue to inspire artists and captivate audiences for generations to come.

Thank you for joining us on this fascinating journey through the evolution of animation on television. We hope you've learned something new and have a renewed appreciation for the extraordinary world of animation. Keep watching and delighting in the magic that TV animation brings to life.