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7 lessons producers can learn from Saturday morning cartoons

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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.

Here’s the real danger: The best life customers are those who are guided through the process, and who are advised by a trusted expert on how to buy the coverage they need. In a world with not enough agents to sell the levels of insurance the industry wants to sell, we’re going to see something break. It might be carriers deciding to sell directly, but when it happens, the advisory service that life clients have come to expect simply won’t be there, and life insurance will be just another commodity. This is a product that simply doesn’t perform the best when it’s viewed as a box you tick off on some form. But that’s what we’ll have left if the industry doesn’t rebuild its talent pool.

The Feds will ruin everything. In 1990, in response to concerns that children’s cartoons were too violent, too dismissive of traditional values, too vapid and too much directed toward selling things to kids, Congress passed the Children’s Television Act (CTA). It mandated that all networks air at least three hours of children’s programming that was primarily educational (yawn) in nature, and scheduled on a weekly basis. By this time, Saturday morning viewership was already shaky thanks to other factors, so networks began using a block of air time that was already diminishing in value to house programming they knew would never set any viewership records. The end result was it helped to suck the fun out of the Saturday morning lollapalooza of dropped anvils and dynamite cigars and turned it into what felt like another few hours of school with a candy coating. Kids aren’t dumb. And they tuned out.

The thing is, Congress didn’t have to impose educational programming on people, and certainly not at the behest of a bunch of busybodies and early-version helicopter parents too busy wringing their hands to see that all the He-Man in the world isn’t going to ruin your kid. Not being a good parent is what will ruin your kid. And as for the educational side of things, it didn’t take an act of Congress to start things like the Learning Channel, Discovery and NatGeo. Not all of what my family calls “the geek channels” are even remotely educational any longer, but the kind of brainy content that the CTA was supposed to impose ended up happening on its own, and it didn’t have to ruin anybody’s Saturday morning to do it, either.

The lesson here is that the makers of the cartoons themselves really dropped the ball in failing to communicate to the parents — and lesiglators — of the land that their programming really didn’t post the overt or covert threats that its critics worried over. And in so failing, they let decision-makers craft a reactive solution that fixed nothing and ruined something along the way. We all know that’s what Congress does best, but Congess rarely acts on its own. It has to be asked by somebody to do it, and that’s when you have a chance to prevent a mistake before it gets made.

This situation is much the same for every single negative regulatory happening that has occurred in recent years at the insurance industry’s expense. The biggest and most unavoidable, of course, is Obamacare, which exploded the livelihoods of countless producers. Obamacare never went after the core cause of unaffordable heath care — the cost of medical services themselves — and instead went after an easier target that already had a villain story hanging around its neck: insurance companies. When Congress goes after what it perceives to be the easy target, you know it’s probably going after the wrong one. Learn from the CTA, Obamacare and every other dumb move from Washington, and be ready, willing and able to tell your product’s story in clear and compelling terms so when folks want to make you the boogeyman (again), you are ready for them.

Busybodies will ruin everything. Since we mentioned the Feds, our discussion wouldn’t be complete if we failed to mention the legion of well-meaning parents who were so afraid that the antics of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote would destroy the minds of their children that they went complaining to their local TV stations and Congressional representatives. Small wonder that by the touchy-feely 1990s, Saturday morning cartoons had been gutted of anything that once made them funny, edgy or smart. Gone were the more rough-and-tumble fare of the 70s and 80s, replaced with shows replete with socially acceptable messages about group effort, caring and the other kinds of stuff that everybody should know but kids really don’t want to be lectured about. Is it any wonder that nobody thinks of the waning decade of this cultural phenomenon as a hallmark of its best content?

When it comes to heading off your critics at the pass, it does indeed help to speak to the rulemakers so they can better understand how to not break what it is they are trying to fix. But it is even better to make your case directly to your own constituency — the people you serve — so they don’t cry foul in the first place. In the case of cartoons, there just wasn’t much of a meaningful dialogue between producers, kids and parents. When I was growing up, my dad just didn’t get cartoons, but then again, he never saw a lot of them when he was growing up, so to him, they were something foreign and perhaps a little suspect. He certainly didn’t see them all concentrated into a supercharged block of four hours of animated mayhem every week, so the format threw him.

We see this a lot in the insurance world whenever somebody comes up with an innovative product that really takes off. Inevitably, somebody abuses that product, and the trust that goes along with it. And that leaves the 99.999 percent of the rest of the industry that plays fair left with the unenviable task of explaining to a skeptical public why what they do, and what they sell, is actually good for them. How much energy has the average agent had to expend over the course of their careers trying to counter the negative perceptions people have over some story they heard about a single rogue agent somewhere? Too much, that’s how much. Don’t let the skeptics and the busybodies determine the destiny of your business. Get out in front of it. Wear it on your sleeve. Sing it from the rooftops, and let the good things about your work be too obvious to ignore. 

A cheaper market alternative will always emerge. Do you have any idea how expensive it is to make an animated show? It’s not cheap. Animation typically runs at 24 frames per second, which means you had to hire people to actually draw every one of those frames by hand. A half-hour show has maybe 22 minutes of content. That’s 1,320 seconds. That’s 31,680 frames that need drawing. That’s a lot of artwork. Even when animators resorted to tricks like having characters mainly stand still and only move their mouths while they talk, it’s still a lot of artwork, which makes cartoons an expensive kind of show to produce.

Not surprisingly, when networks found themselves forced to run more educational content, which was usually live-action, they saw how much cheaper those shows were to produce. The allure of cartoons quickly fell away as networks realized there was a cheaper alternative to hit kids with, and they did precisely that. It’s not a coincidence or a mistake that by the early 1990s, a lot of Saturday morning content was actually live-action shows aimed at kids, like Saved by the Bell. They were simply less expensive to make, and yet another nail in the coffin of the Saturday morning cartoon.

A cheaper product will always emerge. And when it does, it will always disrupt the marketplace. With producer demographics leading to a manpower crisis in the distribution system, and with insurers increasingly able to market products through social media and sell them directly from their websites, the emergence of a potentially cheaper product is at hand. This is a dire warning sign to intermediaries such as yourselves that you must prove your worth not only to your client, but to the carrier as well, to keep from getting disintermediated. Here’s the truth of it: Insurance bought through an agent is going to be more expensive than if it’s bought through a carrier’s website. There is no commission to factor in. There are no training costs or recruiting costs to offset. But cheaper is not always better, and that’s very much the case when it comes to life insurance. Let me tell you: I write about these products for a living, and even I would not feel comfortable with making a major coverage purchase without the guidance of a vetted professional to walk me through it, because this is my family I’m protecting here. This is something important enough to merit a professional’s guidance, and buying through an agent provides just that. It’s a premium, yes. But that premium is so, so, so worth it.

But you can’t just expect people to see the value. They must be convinced of it. That’s where you come in. You need to convince them. Convince your customers, convince your carriers, convince the public that the role you play is simply too important to factor out in the quest to save a few simoleons.

Nostalgia will not save you. We have spent the last few slides bemoaning the death of something that meant a lot to a lot of people. And when we see something like this disappear, we are tempted to overstate just how bad a thing this unwelcome change really is. Yes, it’s sad there is a world without Saturday morning cartoons, but how many of us were still watching them? Is it really worthwhile getting upset over the passage of something that had its day in the sun and now will live on only in our memories?

The truth is, there are more kids watching more cartoon shows now than ever before. In fact, ask any cartoon aficionado and they’ll probably tell you that in terms of size of audience and diversity of offerings, this is a golden age of animated entertainment. Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Disney are just three channels that are crushing it with their animated fare, not to mention one-off shows appearing here, there and everywhere on other networks, or older shows that survive on DVD sales and rentals, or are streamed online. (And that doesn’t even touch the vast library of cartoon shows that live in the speakeasies of the Internet, like YouTube, where fans upload dozens of episodes out of their enthusiasm for keeping a show alive.)

Saturday morning cartoons might be dead, as well as the collective cultural point of reference that came with it. But the thing at the heart of it all — the cartoons themselves — are stronger now than ever before. They’re just part of a different world, playing a different role and speaking to a different audience. We need to take what we loved about these things as kids and appreciate them in adult terms, for what they can do for our own kids, and their kids, and their kids, too.

The same holds for the many changes — both welcome and unwelcome — that have turned the life/health world upside down in recent years. There are many producers who were at a point of their careers where they could see the endpoint coming and just wanted to ride out a few more years before hanging up their spurs. The last thing they wanted to do was reinvent themselves in a world that made a whole lot less sense than it used to. But they had to. We all have to. Just because we preferred things the way they were doesn’t mean that that’s how they must be forever. The changes that make the producer’s life so…interesting…nowadays were all inevitable. And they must be embraced so the future is on your terms instead of someone else’s.

Whether that’s skilling up on social media, or learning how to take advantage of Big Data, or getting a proper succession plan in place for your practice, or learning to cope with the madness from Washington, or learning how to sell to a much more savvy kind of customer. Whatever it is, it’s all a sign of a future that is coming with or without you. We might as well join it instad of becoming just another beloved rerun.


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