There’s been a lot of discussion online about the recently announcements reboots of 1980s cartoons, including “Thundercats” and “She-Ra.”
But what were the dominant influences and trends in 1980s-era TV animation? Why did we get so many shows based on toys? I take a look at what made the 80s what it was for TV animation.
“He-Man”/”GI Joe”/”Transformers” (toy-based shows)
One of the biggest influences on 1980s TV animation was Ronald Reagan. As president, Reagan’s aggressive deregulatory stance upon taking office in 1981 also extended to his FCC. (Animation World Network has an article covering Reagan’s influence.)
Mark Fowler (Reagan’s FCC commissioner) felt that rules regulating advertising on children’s TV weren’t necessary, as the free market should be free to determine programming choices. Thus, it’s little surprise to anyone said market “determined” shows based on toy line were ideal.
The 1981-82 TV season didn’t see any reflection of these deregulatory rules—its lineup still reflected what was in vogue in the late 70s, aside from the debut of that season’s biggest hit, “The Smurfs” (more on them below). However, the debut of “Pac-Man” in 1982 plus some shows in syndication was the start of the trend of shows based on toys and other product lines.
The most famous of these toy-based shows were “He-Man,” “Transformers,” and “GI Joe,” all airing in syndication on weekday afternoons. “He-Man” was probably the main cartoon that kicked off the toy-based show craze, debuting in 1983 (as did “GI Joe”). It was popular enough to see a live-action film, as well as a spin-off, “She-Ra” (about his long-lost twin sister).
As for these type of shows’ post-80s fate? In 1990, the Children’s Television Act was passed by Congress, which placed new limits on the amount and nature of commercials during kids’ shows. This plus changing tastes and other factors finally killed off most of the 80s-style toy-based TV shows. Said shows still exist (especially on streaming services), but not to the degree or style they did in the 80s.
However, a whole generation grew up with these shows, and still view them with a lot of nostalgia. “Jem” for instance had a comic book series a few years ago. And, of course, there’s all those “Transformers” films. In 2018, Netflix announced a revival/reboot for “She-Ra.”
“The Smurfs” (“cute” characters)
In 1981, “The Smurfs” debuted on NBC, during what was the nadir of the Peacock network’s existence. The late 70s and early 80s saw a series of low-rated, expensive, and disastrous flops in primetime (“Supertrain?” “Pink Lady and Jeff?”). Not helping was NBC’s planned coverage of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow being hurt by the US-led boycott that year.
Fortunately, Papa Smurf and company (based on a long-running series of Belgian comics by Peyo) became the decade’s first big animated hit. The Hanna-Barbera animated series ran through 1989 for nine seasons, a massive run for a Saturday morning animated series.
The Smurfs offered American viewers adventures based on Franco-Belgian comics—a style of comics that otherwise haven’t very popular here, versus American-made comics (or Japanese manga). However, the Smurfs were also cute little creatures, which added to their appeal.
Thus, a lot of shows based on the stars being cute debuted on TV. However, most of these failed, lacking the quality of the humor/adventure stories the Smurfs also had going for them.
Of course, shows starring “cute” characters still exist today. The most recent “My Little Pony” incarnation’s one of the most successful such shows in the past decade. The Smurfs also have seen revivals in recent years, including two CGI/live-action theatrical films.
“Muppet Babies” (younger versions of adult characters)
In 1984, “Muppet Babies” debuted on CBS, and became a big hit, running until 1991. Centering around the adventures of the Muppets as preschoolers living in a nursery, the show was pretty unique for its time in terms of writing.
That said, it also spawned a craze of producing shows based on younger versions of adult characters. To be fair, there’s been ongoing stories about younger versions of adult characters before. For example, the original Superboy was Superman as a teenager, and his adventures were published from 1945 until 1984.
However, DC Comics did explain Superboy continuity-wise in stories. Most of the “kid” cartoons simply de-aged the characters without regard to keeping much semblance of consistency with the original cartoon. The most infamous of these shows was the short-lived “Yo Yogi,” about a teenage Yogi Bear and friends hanging out at “Jellystone Mall.”
This craze also mostly died out after the mid-90s, when “Tiny Toon Adventures” (starring teenage pastiches of the Looney Tunes characters) left the air. This style isn’t seen much nowadays, as most children’s cartoons now only star characters who’re children or teens in the first place. That said, “Muppet Babies” in 2018 received a revival by Disney Junior.
“DuckTales” (a shift in TV animation and writing quality)
“DuckTales” debuted in 1987, and marked a major landmark in TV animation, as a show that prioritized both writing and animation quality.
Too often, American TV animation only featured one or the other, usually the former. Still, one thing that helped “DuckTales” was that it was based on the classic Carl Barks Disney comics.
Uncle Scrooge’s series led to Disney creating a similar humor/adventure series for Chip and Dale (“Rescue Rangers”). This eventually led to an entire afternoon programming block, the “Disney Afternoon.”
“DuckTales”‘s legacy is being part of a shift in TV animation in the late 80s and (more prominently) the 90s. Said shift (which TV Tropes dubs the “Renaissance Age of Animation”) saw other shows raising the bar on production quality: “Tiny Toons”, “The Simpsons,” “Rugrats,” etc.
As for “Ducktales” itself, it finally received a revival/reboot in 2017, 30 years after its debut.