The average producer is 57 years old. That means that the majority of our audience was born on or about 1957, and spent the first part of their weekends in one of American childhood’s grandest traditions: sitting in your jammies, eating cereal and watching Saturday morning cartoons. I know I did it. Pretty much everybody in my generation did.
Since I was born in 1970, the cartoons that shaped me were things like the Bugs Bunny and Road Runner show, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, the Smurfs, Thundarr the Barbarian, Superfriends, and many others. Readers older than I might have watched such awesomeness as Johnny Quest, Scooby-Doo, or Josie and the Pussycats. Younger readers might have a soft spot for shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Batman: the Animated Series, Animaniacs and Muppet Babies.
These were all part of a huge cultural touchstone that provided something that has become less and less common in our Internet age: a singular media experience. It didn’t really matter what Saturday morning cartoons you watched; chances are, you watched them, and that gave everybody a point of common reference.
That’s why it will probably sting a bit when I tell you that the Saturday morning cartoons, as we know it, have officially come to an end.
The Saturday morning cartoon is dead.
Last Saturday, September 27, 2014, the CW aired the final installment of Vortexx, its Saturday morning block of cartoon programming. Taking its place will be One Magnificent Morning, a five-hour long block of live-action educational programming. The CW was the last network that had any kind of Saturday morning cartoon programming left, and with that gone, we have indeed seen the end of an era.
But this is an insurance column, so what lessons do we have to take from the demise of such a beloved cultural institution? Turns out, of the many different and connected reasons that spelled the demise of the Saturday morning cartoon, there are several in particular that insurance producers will find especially relevant to their own struggles to maintain healthy practices amid market forces that have been challenging, to say the very least. So are there really some pearls of wisdom to be gained from the end of this cultural institution? Sure, there are. To quote Bill Cosby in his introduction to Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, “If you’re not careful, you might learn something.”
Here we go!
You can’t always rely on a traditional market. Saturday morning cartoons got started in the 1960s because television programmers figured that by concentrating all of their children’s entertainment programming into a single block, they could produce a more attractive platform for advertisers. And that worked…to a point. Ultimately, advertisers learned that campaigning for the fickle and fleeting attentions of youngsters could be more costly than it was worth, and the premium demanded by the early Saturday block (typically anywhere from 8:00 am to 12:00 noon) just wasn’t worth it. When other factors cut into the popularity of Saturday morning cartoons (more on that later), advertisers took their business elsewhere, and the model fell into an inescapable death spiral.
The lesson here for producers is that it never pays to think that the way you have sold your product will always continue to be the way you sell your product. Selling to Gen X and the Millennials is a perfect example. For decades, life insurance was sold as a product connected to one of three major inflection points in the customer’s life: getting married, buying a house and having kids. At each point, the customer is especially aware of how much they have to protect, and they are more likely than usual to make that commitment to buy the protection they need. (It would be nice if people didn’t need to be sold on such an elementary protection as life insurance, but I digress.)
Look what has happened to those traditional inflection points, and the historic dip in individual life ownership. Setting aside for the moment industry economics that simply make it unfeasible for producers to make their living selling certain kinds of individual life policies (especially to the middle market), younger clients, from my age on down, have been so heavily rocked by the economic spasms of the last 20 years that they are putting off moving out of the house, settling down, buying a house, and starting a family. The number of 30-somethings still living at home is at a record high. People are easily a cool 10 years behind their first home purchase than they were in previous generations, to say nothing of a reluctance to marry (both for financial and social reasons), and have kids. All of these things have major repercussions on those who sell life insurance, and if you didn’t see it coming, you are only too aware of it now.
Just because you used to sell one way doesn’t mean you can depend on it forever. TV networks learned this the hard way, and they had to adapt. You will, too. Saturday morning cartoons were a casualty of that adaptation. Chances are, something with which you are familiar, and comfortable, will likewise have to change or go away. Such is the cost of keeping up with the market.
Technology will change everything. The Saturday morning cartoon block was an artifact of a mismatch between supply and demand. In an age of only 12 TV channels, you couldn’t have a whole channel dedicated to cartoons, but you could have a few hours in the morning, once a week, dedicated to them. By the late 1980s, the explosion in cable television, as well as the advent of cheap VHS entertainment suddenly created a whole lot more supply than the Saturday morning approach was ready for. Why wait until Saturday morning to watch your cartoons when you could get them any time of day? Why stop watching them when noon rolled around when you could pop in a six-hour tape of Tom & Jerry reruns you put together over the course of a few weeks? All of this seriously eroded Saturday morning viewership in a relatively short period of time, thus exacerbating the problems advertisers had with the cost of placing their business in a premium block of kid’s programming.
This has only continued, by the way. Go look at the Kids & Family section of Netflix and see how many animated shows there are at your fingertips. Or see how many cartoon shows are available on demand through your cable provider. And there is also the ability to buy entire seasons, or entire series of shows on DVD. There is no more constraining the where and when of watching cartoons, and so the Saturday morning format suffered.
The same is true of life distribution. For decades, the basic transaction of selling life insurance went fundamentally unchanged. You got a prospect, set up a meeting, pitched the client (often in his or her house), and tried to get a sale over the table right then and there. If you did it right, it worked. It wasn’t perfect, and it still demanded you work very, very hard to get those sales, but it worked. A paucity of policy information helped as well, to be honest. The average insurance buyer doesn’t have full intelligence on all of the policy offerings out there, let alone how much they cost and how those offerings stack up against each other, so when they are being sold, the flow of information has, traditionally, been in the seller’s hands. That is no longer the case, mostly thanks to technology blowing up client expectations and the sense of supply and demand.
Today, a lot of clients will research the policies they want and need. They will compare prices and reviews by way of social media. They will look up competing prices on their phone right there in front of you. They will ask for you to share your pitch info with them so they can look at it on their iPad instead of yours. The power in the transaction has shifted to a great deal over to the buyer, and a sales approach that assumes otherwise is a sales approach that is doomed an uphill battle, at the very least. Technology has changed everything in life sales. Whether it’s using mobile tech or social media or harnessing Big Data for pricing and consumer trends, producers have to adapt to a swiftly changing world and forget the old selling environment that had been so comfortable for so long. It’s not there anymore.
The talent will go away. In the 1980s, Disney finally awoke from its slumber and returned to making feature animated films, and they were a big success that built upon itself until the company became a pop culture juggernaut once again. Given the high production values of any given Disney feature, these projects drew away a lot of the top animation staff that had been working on televised cartoons. The result was a manpower drain for cartoons that left that part of the animation industry really sucking wind. It’s not a coincidence that by the later 1980s, most American animated shows really looked bad. Their frame rate was way down and the overall quality of their artwork was poor, especially in comparison to earlier shows. The ones that looked the best were Japanese imports, and signaled the beginning of what would become an anime craze in America that even today shows no signs of slowing down whatsoever.
This particular problem (surprise, surprise) dovetailed with other problems already mentioned here, so it helped to drive kids to watching other things. A lack in manpower turned into a flight for quality, and American animation never seemed to recover. Things aren’t so different in the life insurance world. We all know of the demographic challenge this industry faces. In 10 years’ time, there will be a whole lot of veteran producers retiring with nobody to pas the torch to. The people who would be getting into insurance sales are getting into other financial services, or they jsut aren’t being recruited. everybody knows it’s a problem, but not nearly enough people are doing anything about it.