We here at io9 have talked at length about cartoons, whether it’s cartoons from our childhoods that we’ve loved, or more recent ones that deserve a wider spotlight. And when it comes to western animation, you can’t talk about it without talking about one channel in particular.
Cartoon Network launched on October 1, 1992. A year prior, the American media conglomerate Turner Broadcasting System (or as it would eventually come to be known, TBS) purchased animation studio Hanna-Barbera and decided to launch a network that would serve as a library for cartoons. First known as “The Cartoon Network,” it’d come to be known as the first 24-hour single-genre cable channel focused on animation, and its debut cartoon was the Looney Toons short, “Rhapsody Rabbit.”
At first, Cartoon Network’s programming consisted solely of various reruns of old cartoons like pre-1948 Looney Toons and the 1933 Popeye series. But its first exclusive original programming would be the 1993 anthology series The Moxy Show, and Space Ghost Coast to Coast the following year was the first show the network ever produced. Coast to Coast served as the network’s first attempt at reinventing an animated icon from Hanna-Barbera’s stable for a modern audience, a practice which still continues to this day, and its success helped Cartoon Network find a foothold with older audiences, a demographic that was later rewarded with both Toonami and Adult Swim.
Later in 1994, Hanna-Barbera opened Cartoon Network Studios, which led to the debut of What a Cartoon!, an anthology series in 1995 wherein animators from H-B or independent creators had the opportunity to make their own original animated shorts for the network. What a Cartoon served as the launch point for several late 90s shows that would come to define Cartoon Network: Dexter’s Laboratory, Johnny Bravo, Cow & Chicken, and so on. The success of those shows was later highlighted with the “Cartoon Cartoon Fridays” block that aired brand new episodes. It wouldn’t entirely be hyperbolic to say that this block was the kid equivalent to what’s now prestige TV, or at the very least Sunday nights for HBO originals.
Over the years, Cartoon Network expanded, and has taken some mighty swings that remain memorable to some degree or another. When the network made a bad call, it was well-known, such as The Powerpuff Girls jumping to the silver screen and becoming a commercial failure, or when the network began to feature live action shows. But other times, the weird gambits paid off extremely well. During the mid-2000s, for example, there were bumpers at the start and end of commercial blocks wherein characters from various shows all interacted with one another, which you can also argue contributed to the MMORPG Cartoon Network Fusionfall. That same time period is also when it began broadcasting cartoons from Canada and France, such as Totally Spies and Code Lyoko, with the biggest success of that bunch being the Total Drama franchise.
That’s the thing about Cartoon Network, you can’t say it’s unwilling to experiment. Even though live action isn’t something that anyone wanted from a channel literally called “Cartoon Network,” it soon made up for this with a variety of animated series that showed how creative the network could be. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you can’t deny that Regular Show, Steven Universe, and Adventure Time had their own sizable impacts in the 2010s for both the channel they belong to and the medium itself. The path between any one of those shows and something more recent such as Gumball or Infinity Train is basically a straight line. And this isn’t even touching the DC Comics cartoons over the years that remain so beloved that “do it like the cartoons” is an oft-said refrain when it comes to the live action counterparts of these characters. Disney and Nickelodeon have their own important animated stables that are beloved, but being a Cartoon Network show arguably means something.
Given that this summer has been rough for the network and WB’s animation slate in the wake of the Warner Bros. Discovery merger—projects cancelled, shows taken off HBO Max, and so on—an anniversary celebration feels rather hollow. Still, at its best, Cartoon Network has provided shows that defined childhoods and inspired creative minds to get into the industry and try to pay things forward for future generations. And that’s something you can’t scrub from existence for a tax write-off.
Let us know in the comments below some of your favorite Cartoon Network shows.
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