LEGO co-produces two original programs that air on Time-Warner’s The Cartoon Network: Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu (2011-present), and Legends of Chima (2013-present), both done in a computer-graphics style that mimics the look of LEGO-branded products. As programs not tied to previously existing licenses, they are inherently LEGO-based in look and concept. The programs are also accompanied by heavy licensing, including books, video games, and toy sets.
In the United States, the Children’s Television Act of 1990 prohibited “program-length commercials” on children’s broadcast and cable television. However, the FCC defined this as the airing of commercials for licensed products during a program based on those licenses. Licenses have developed techniques to work around this circumscribed prohibition. Adapting concepts from Raymond Williams and Jonathan Gray, we argue that Cartoon Network and LEGO transforms children’s TV into a flow of commodity-based paratexts for related products.
For example, in January 2013, the Cartoon Network’s Saturday morning programming block consisted of Star Wars: The Clone Wars at 9:30, followed by Green Lantern, Young Justice, and two episodes of the LEGO-based Ninjago. Heavily promoted throughout the schedule was a Chima special airing later in the week. The Ninjago program and Chima promos downplayed their LEGO connection -- no LEGO logo appears in the program’s opening or title sequences.
But other accompanying paratexts both on that network and external to it worked to establish the LEGO connection. Commercials for Chima- and Avengers-based LEGO toy sets appeared before Ninjago began, strongly emphasizing the LEGO brand. One sequence during Young Justice airs back-to-back a promo for the Chima program and a commercial for a Chima toy set. Program-touting webpages on the Cartoon Network and LEGO websites featured the LEGO logo, as did Chima and Ninjago merchandise available on Amazon.
Finally, the program title on the digital television-programming guide in at least one market changed the name of the program from Ninjago to LEGO Ninjago: The Series. Out-sourcing the branded nature of the program to cross-media outlets or paratexts that are less stringently regulated than television programming downplayed the commodity-nature of the programs to co-viewing parents (and perhaps regulators), and yet still emphasized the LEGO connections to long-viewing and cross-mediated kids.