More young adults are watching animated shows than ever before. A glance at today’s television ratings indicates that many of the most popular shows with the 18-34 demographic are cartoons.
Last month, for instance, Steven Universe premiered a 22-minute special, which topped the charts for the day. It had more 18- to 49-year-old viewers than the most popular reality shows, dramas, comedies and news broadcasts.
The Rio Olympics premiered that week, yet couldn’t take the gold. Steven Universe still managed to retain its spot in the top 10, and in some cases even bested the Games in terms of viewers. That is a considerable feat for any show.
Other shows, such as Loud House and Teen Titans Go, command similarly large viewer bases.
Why are the younger generations so attracted to animation? Let’s look at four reasons.
Before the 1990s, cartoon programming was fairly limited. The viewing windows were far narrower than they are today. Most animated shows were relegated to after-school hours on weekdays and Saturday-morning blocks on the weekends.
This changed with the rise of channels like Cartoon Network. Cartoons were suddenly available at all times of the day. Viewers could sit down and watch an entire 24 hours of uninterrupted animated content if they wished.
The medium also experienced tremendous artistic growth during this time. Cartoons during the ’70s and ’80s were primarily geared toward children. Many were simplistic, and some were blatant toy advertisements.
During the 1990s and throughout the 2000s, cartoon programming diversified. There were shows that the whole family could enjoy, as well as shows geared to older viewers, such as The Simpsons and its imitators.
Some networks, like MTV, created blocks just for cartoons with more mature content. In 2001, Cartoon Network introduced Adult Swim to great success.
Content was also being brought in from overseas. Anime in particular became a popular import, since it quenched a thirst for action and drama that Western animation lacked.
For Millennials growing up during this period, cartoons were just another part of life. They were inescapable, and came in a great variety.
One of the greatest strengths of animation as a medium is its potential for expression. There are limits to how far live action can convey a feeling or mood.
Furthermore, cartoons are not confined to physical boundaries. This is because animators are only restricted by what they can draw and imagine. Cartoons can be pushed and abstracted until they become an embodiment of a certain emotion.
Steven Universe is known for tackling complex emotions. In this clip from a recent episode, the characters learn how to cope with anxiety and negative feelings:
Recent studies suggest that Millennials have a higher level of “emotional intelligence” than previous generations. Simply put, they are better at perceiving and responding to other people’s emotions.
Thus, it makes sense that they would be attracted to more expressive forms of media. Millennials actively seek out experiences that provoke deeper emotions and thoughts. Experience is viewed as a greater personal gain than any material object.
Cartoons are known for their endless possibilities. Viewers are effortlessly transported to worlds where the impossible and absurd can happen.
This is exactly what many seek when they watch something like Adventure Time. Few other programs have as much colorful imagination and giddy cleverness on display as this acclaimed fantasy show.
Creativity is a core part of the Millennial identity. Most value and take pride in their creative abilities, and often seek outlets to express themselves. They also enjoy seeing the creativity of others. The more unique and personal it seems, the more it resonates with a Millennial audience.
This is why cartoons appeal so strongly to this generation. A cartoon is the work of a team of artists trying to reach out to an audience and communicate with them. Their passion, talent and dedication can be seen in the environments they create and the distinctive ways their characters move and emote. Millennials appreciate this opportunity to peer inside the artists’ minds.
Characters and Story
Some of the most iconic characters in pop culture are cartoons. Old classics like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck have stood the test of time. Disney characters like Frozen’s Elsa and Anna have more drawing power than some of the biggest actors. Fictional bands like The Gorillaz can attract as many listeners as live performers.
This is where animation has an advantage over live-action media. Their characters can exist in their own reality, without the outside world breaking the illusion. They can live on long past the actors and personalities that portray them.
This can make cartoons feel more “alive” and empathetic than their living counterparts. They are divorced from any real-life baggage, which allows the audience to immerse themselves completely in the storytelling.
Millennials are driven by storytelling. They seek out stories as a form of escapism, or to make greater sense of their lives. They scour the internet and television for a good story that speaks to them. Some even choose to make their own stories, and find ways to broadcast them across social media.
A relatable character or story can be an effective way to engage Millennials as an audience. They are more likely to form an emotional bond if they recognize their own experiences reflected back to them.