LEGO-Based Paratextual Commodity Flow in Children’s Television

Curator's Note

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.



Matthew and Catherine, thank you so much for your biting critique that enables this week-long discussion series to conclude (but not end) on such a high note. The Children's Television Act of 1990 represents an important reaction to the uncomfortable economic schemes tethered to the toy industry throughout the 1980s. The Act would not have stirred as much attention if it were not reacting directly to an industry standard that in so many ways reflected the deregulatory stylistics of the Reagan Administration. Fast-forward to contemporary economic climates, driven by free market urgency and media hybridity brand-chizing, and one arrives at Cartoon Network (a subsidiary of media giant Viacom). CN arguably gets away with these strategies for two broad but key reasons, one historical and the other industrial. First, the key demos CN reaches include the now-grownup "children of the 80s"--a consumer generation subliminally indoctrinated (see Saved By The Bell episode "The Zack Tapes" for more on this) with an oedipal preoccupation toward nostalgic product brands like Transformers, Ninja Turtles, LEGO, and so on--and their [millennial] offspring. Because the former are reared into similar economic climate, there is a propensity for reaction to be more accepting. Second, industrial practices have come back around to resemble those during deregulation, with Western capitalism globalizing (and thus expanding audiences-consumers) in an era where branding comes to (re-)symbolize a form of market worship. Who doesn't want to be reminded during a cartoon that there are further ways one can "buy" into these creative ideas? Again great post, and I am especially interested in reading the extended version that your presentation suggests, and the ties to Williams' theorizations of "flow" in particular.

Thank you for your comment Garret! You've added a lot to our post with your explanation of the Children's Television Act. I completely agree with your generational comments as well. The new parent generation are definitely used to this kind of commercialization. Without as many people fighting back things may only continue down this path. I'll have to check out that Saved by the Bell episode!

Following Jonathan Gray, another interesting aspect of your post, Matthew and Catherine, is the blurring of distinction between text and paratext. Regarding NINJAGO and CHIMA, are they the text or the paratext (with LEGO being the "original" text)? Does this distinction even matter anymore, given the media industries' emphasis on cross-branded, cross-platform intellectual properties? As Garret points out, texts and paratexts cannibalize each other, and they form a reciprocal commodity relationship: NINJAGO sells LEGO toys which in turn sell the TV show (and the video games, books, etc.). As we've discovered over the course of this week, the LEGO empire is vast, and it serves as a nice template/case study for looking at broader processes of the media industries. Thanks for a great post that works to bookend some of the larger conversations of the week.

Drew, I have to agree with you on the reciprocal relationship of texts. In many situations there may be an 'original' text but as other texts are introduced it is hard to distinguish between the text and paratexts. Also I've found in my research using Jonathan Gray, that if someone is only familiar with a paratext then that because the definition of the text for them. For example if someone only saw a trailer of the LEGO movie that would be their understanding of that text. The repetition of story lines that you mentioned in your post also plays into this text/paratext confusion as the new generation is introduced to an old story line in a new form.

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