Thursday, June 25, 2020

Y Television

This has been a subject I've been wanting cover for awhile. It's a bit obscure, but I think it is an interesting enough one to talk about in the context of Wasteland and Sky.

32 years ago a television network was created in Canada. It aired mainly in Eastern and Pacific time zones and aired in a few places in the little known land of America, but it was mostly a northern channel seen by a certain number of people. The important thing to mention is what it did, not where it came from.

The network was called YTV, and it first came into formation in 1988. It was a TV network for kids, most well known as "Youth Television", and he station wasn't like any others around at the time. In many children's homes, it was their main source of entertainment. Especially for those in the Gen Y camp, it was their main window into pop culture. You can find comments and articles everywhere from those who grew up on it. Very quickly the impression is given that it was not your typical television station, especially for the first decade and change of its existence.

From 1988 to 1998 especially, it was the best network on TV that aimed directly at Gen Y. I wanted to discover how they did it and why they had that success.

As an example, I have found this oral history of YTV posted about 5 years ago that nails a lot of what it was like at the time to those who were there at the time. Oddly enough, there isn't that much official information about what the network was like back in the day, and unlike channels like Cartoon Network they have never bothered to create any sort of retro service to capitalize on nostalgia like so many others have. It's bizarre, especially in this era focused on subverting the past, but it's a bit respectable.

Should you talk to anyone who grew up in the great white north, or anyone bordering it who got to experience it, you will meet someone with fond memories of YTV. But this was a pure Gen Y thing--Gen X were too old and by the time Millennials were coming of age the peak era had past. By the 2000s YTV had changed into a pure slick corporate machine and shed off all of what those who grew up with enjoyed. Though that should be nothing new for those of us who grew up in that time period. It's just the way of the time. So let's look into why this whole thing.

From the oral history:

"You kids might have trouble understanding this, but back in my day, we didn’t have a lot of entertainment options. We might have had some Disney movies in those clamshell VHS boxes, and some of us were allowed to rent one video a week at Blockbuster, but we didn’t have Facebook or Twitter or YouTube or Netflix or Shomi or iTunes or Pirate Bay. There were some channels that had after-school programming, and of course you could see Fred Penner and Elmo on TVO and PBS, but there was only one channel that delivered youth-targeted content at all hours of the day. And if you wanted to see something on it, you had to watch it when it aired, or else there would be no guarantee you’d ever see that episode of Puttnam’s Prairie Emporium ever again. 
"If you were a kid growing up in Canada in the ’90s, you watched YTV. 
"This stone-cold fact unites my generation."

That's big talk, but it's true. Gen Y had the best toys and entertainment, but they had to go out to get them. For those who did experience it when the network was at its peak it has hard to describe something that managed to nail what they were looking for in a package no one else had. Thankfully the writer does.

"Of course we watched for the big, name-brand American shows—Rugrats, Power Rangers, etc.—but we also watched for the network’s in-house productions. There was The Hit List, the decade’s best source for music news, hosted by every ’90s Canadian child’s cool uncle, Tarzan Dan; PJ Katie’s Farm, Jennifer “PJ Katie” Racicot’s legendary one-woman plasticine puppet show; Video and Arcade Top 10, which offered kids the ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy of playing video games on TV; and Uh-Oh!, the game show that unleashed game show host Wink Yahoo upon an unsuspecting world."

To put it another way, YTV was basically a greatest hits of late '80s to late '90s pop culture when it was on fire. If you turned on the station between 1988 and 1998 you were guaranteed to be given entertainment made directly for you. And it wasn't ACT-approved crap like Captain Planet--it was low budget stuff made by normal people for kids to enjoy.

This also extended to its non-original programming. YTV had its own in-house stuff, but it also contained shows from across the world, including from their neighbors down south, and from every decade since the medium of cartoons began. Well, maybe it wasn't quite that amazing and far-reaching, but it stretched itself in a way no one else did. It felt like a buffet of the best of the past and present, with some hints as to what might come in the future.

YTV had the best of the old (1960s Batman, Rocky & Bullwinkle, and old British sitcoms), foreign (Dragon Ball [years before DBZ exploded], many french cartoons, Samurai Pizza Cats, Sailor Moon, and Gundam Wing), and a hodgepodge of the best of the rest (Rocko's Modern Life, The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat, Woody Woodpecker, Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, and Rugrats) and many, many others. That doesn't include their own stuff from the same time period (Beast Wars, Reboot, and Are You Afraid of the Dark?), which added a lot to its unique character as an entertainment center. This also doesn't take into account the movies from The Last Unicorn to the newer (at the time) Don Bluth movies that they would play on the weekends in the afternoon. There was always something new to discover.

With this alone, YTV would be considered the best network for Gen Y kids, but its secret ingredient was mass appeal focused on quality above all else.

As mentioned:

Tarzan Dan Freeman: When I did [The Hit List], it was one of those things where you could hear Blur and Smashing Pumpkins, and you could also hear the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys, and people still watched the show, and it had massive, massive numbers. The other side of it was, we didn’t have as many cable channels back then, or music-based television shows. We didn’t have social media, and email was just new, so it was where people went to find out about the newest songs or to see an interview and hear about music beyond radio….  
For us to be there when the Spice Girls came up and became massive, and Backstreet and ‘N Sync and all those different groups, be it rock and pop and dance or whatever it was…the ’90s were great, because everything that came out was played. It wasn’t just a genre.

That is a good sum up of what YTV was like, and more or less what the best parts of the '90s were about. It was an all-encompassing thing in a culture that was still united. No matter where you went at the time you could find something interesting and surprising. As said before, Gen Y had the best toys, and this is part of the reason it did.

Because of this mixture of past, present, and the oncoming future (seeing things like '90s Spiderman at the time was weird in between airings of the 1960s Spiderman and Count Duckula), as well as a spread of shows from other countries, allowed the audience to experience a lot of different styles of adventure and comedy. It went beyond formula. The only rule to air on YTV was that it had to be family friendly, which isn't quite as limiting as you'd think it would be. For myself, this is allowed me to understand the important parts of storytelling beyond trappings, since so much of what I enjoyed back then had no aesthetic similarity with anything else in the same genre. What was important was a lot deeper than the surface, which went very well with a lot of what Gen Y was taught at the time. Surface appearance just wasn't that important.

Their Gen Y audience, of course, was enamored with this network. YTV was entirely comprised of the best of the culture of the time.

Atul N. Rao (puppeteer, Snit): At that time, in the late ’90s, there were a lot of latchkey kids with both parents working. We’ve been told by so many people that growing up, they watched us, without fail, every day for four or five years. We were their babysitter, they’ve told us. Now I’m teaching at Mohawk [University] and I’ve been told that by my students: “You’re my babysitter.”  
Krista Jackson (PJ Krista): You’d go to these events and have people coming up to you saying, “Hi! How are you?” and you’d think, “Do I know you?” And then you’d think, “no, I’ve never met them, but because you’re in their living room every day, they feel like they know you.” I was just talking to the kids out there, and it was a really intimate thing, I think, for people watching. 
Jennifer Racicot (PJ Katie): I grew up on TV. I was a kid—I was 20. My 20s, I was on television the whole time. It’s really remarkable to grow up with that crowd of people, I was so lucky—I was surrounded by so many creative people. Everything was new and nothing was screwed up yet.

The Average YTV watcher's hobbies 

Gen X was typically known as the latchkey generation, but the practice didn't just end overnight. While is is easy to look back on the '80s and '90s as a time of great entertainment with a lot going on, there is a truth below it all that is frequently left unsaid. That being that certain things that should have changed remained the same as ever, some of which remain the same to this day. But that's not how it felt living through the time period.

Things were looking up for kids at the time. New things were coming out every day, and the man on the radio told you utopia was on the way. What was there to feel sad about? So maybe it felt a lot better at the time because those kids just trusted everyone in charge. You could keep your chin up because everyone was in this together, and we would push through to a better future just like the mainstream media said.

But looking back on all of it, detached from its time, its hard to see the era as anything other than what it really is. Sure there were a lot of great toys, but you rarely ever hear a kid from that period talk about anything else. As has been discovered, Gen Y was actually a very lonely generation. This is still the case today.

What it was like to be Gen Y at the time

The period of the late-80s to late-90s was a strange era of transition where media hit its peak. Those who grew up on it still treat their media, not only as if it is still as good, but as a sort of holy script that must be used to preach truth to the masses. It would help explain why so much modern art is so self-important and reliant on old brands to sell new messages these days. Gen Y is still communicating in the best way they know how. Their one short period of cultural relevance was purely commercial and corporate. Yet, at the same time, it was the last generation without overbearing control and suppression that children would soon by smothered in. What do you expect from the last generation to come of age before Columbine, 9/11, and the internet, radically reshaped everything--all of which are still felt to this day.

This is before Millennials were thrown into helicopter parenting overload and before things such as participation trophies, cellphones, or social media became the norm. This is that weird period where then-young Gen Xers had just begun getting creative and were allowed a platform. Of course it was mainly their younger siblings watching them and rooting for their success. Everyone was in this together. That notion would abruptly end by the close of the '90s where their naivety would leave them stranded as the world moved on from them to a new demographic. At the time, though, kids were oblivious as to the older generations' true intentions. They really did just appreciate having someone to talk to who had been through what they had. It helped them feel a part of something bigger than themselves, even if it turned out to be made of sand.

As said in the history:

Tarzan Dan Freeman: They held an audition for this new TV countdown show they were going to have called The Hit List, and I went along with lots and lots of other people. I just got lucky that that day, they were looking for somebody who was kind of goofy-looking, who probably people believed they could actually be friends with.

But that isn't to insult the network. You can't blame them for doing what they were made to do. The network did its job and did it well. YTV is still around today, after all, which means it must have done something well.

They created and imported shows they knew their audience of Gen Y watchers would dig, they hired hosts and personalities that would talk to them like they were normal, and they were family friendly so anyone could watch them. As far as TV networks go, it is hard to imagine one getting as much right as they did.

This is why they succeeded from their inception in 1988 through to the close of the '90s while slick corporate attitudes and fads came and went. They were stable, reliable, and never wavered in what they were about. It is quite remarkable, looking back. They were able to do something no one else in the decade short of Nintendo could do--stick to their guns.

Though, like everything else of the era, it started to change by the late '90s:

Phil Guerrero: It eventually became something where they figured out—especially as it became more and more corporate—“We can make money with these. It’s not a commercial, but we can have a ‘contest’ sponsored by Hasbro, right?” When you look at The Zone now, it feels that way, and it’s more character-driven, I think. That’s kind of why I left, too: they said they were going to go this more character way. 
Jennifer Racicot: It started to get more oppressive. I don’t know how to describe it. They were trying to make it into a tighter ship, or the fun was squeezed out of it. I left, and I took a year and did some TV, and I came back and did The Zone, and I did two years of that. That’s when I was interviewing really big celebrities…and it was all changed. Everything was different. The innocence was gone, y’know? I dunno…it wasn’t as magical and soft and clean and gentle. 
Nicholas Picholas: I remember we had a lot of trouble just finding games that weren’t violent. All the hot games were pretty graphic. Those were games that were huge and we couldn’t touch them, because we were on YTV and you just can’t do that for kids. We would get stuck playing a lot of these games that were really very young-targeted.

More than that, there was also a shift that has been mentioned many times, from targeting Gen Y into this newly created Millennial demographic. The signals were sent up that Gen Y was over--they didn't have to be your audience anymore. Now they wanted the new age demographic--the ones that would change the world.

It was time for Generation Next themselves, the Millennials, to have their turn at the wheel. They are still at it to this day.

Yes, Gen Y and Millennials are different generations.

This was a gigantic cultural shift that occurred in the late '90s, and it eventually wiped out a whole demographic by the end of the decade to replace one that had been there at the start. Now, there isn't anything wrong with taking on the new kids that just came up--but there is a whole other side to this change that is never really mentioned. Gen Y's whole identity was built on media--media that had suddenly flipped on them for someone else. And this someone else was being especially groomed using methods and ideas completely foreign to those slightly older, in order to become the future leaders of the culture.

Gen Y no longer existed in the minds of the bigwigs, and for some unfathomable reason we just let it happen. To this day many will assume the generation is the same because they were told it was, even if looking into it for basic research would show that is clearly not the case. How can two groups of people who grew up in two different worlds with little to no similarities with each other, a world people of the time admitted they changed, by the same generation?

Because they're not. There is no such thing as a "Xillennial" or whatever dumb term you want to invent for something that already exists. It was Gen Y, at the time. It is still Gen Y. Stop supporting revisionism by continuing to ignore what was deliberately covered up by those who chose to throw you away.

Unfortunately, the demographic replaced in the late '90s was a demographic that already had identity issues and are now left forgotten without what had defined them. It isn't any wonder Gen Y is primarily known for nostalgic remembrance when that was the last time they had cultural relevance. Too much came into play in the late '90s and early '00s that worked to wipe Gen Y from the wider culture. There was, and still is, no other place for them in the modern world, or so they think.

Nonetheless, they had reason to think that was true. Those in high places had deliberately set out to divide them from the kids coming up under them by focusing all their efforts on these newly christened Millennials instead. These children were effectively treated as the second coming of the Baby Boomers. By the '00s, the Ys entire identity, their products, had been abandoned, destroyed, and memory-holed from the wider culture overnight. One day they woke up and found they had no identity anymore, and they were being replaced. That put them in a state of shell shock they still remain in to this day, somehow convinced they are actually Millennials even though they weren't at the time, and still aren't.

Those who came of age by the end of the '90s weren't much of a concern any longer. It was all about the Millennials. Gen Y was memory-holed.

Tarzan Dan Freeman: If kids started watching [The Hit List] when they were 12 years old, and when I’m leaving they’re 19 years old, then all of a sudden they’re outside the demographic. What we noticed was, the demographic was aging. When I left, they took the show off the air for a couple of months, and they came with plastic furniture and a couple of female hosts, and it was really about young boy bands or Aaron Carter, that kind of thing—really pop, ear-candy type of music that was more geared towards the kids. [JD: This was 1997, by the way] 
Originally the show was going to be cancelled, because the show had run its course and had gone on for quite a while. What happened was, because I’d been there for seven-ish, eight years, and the demographic had changed, I think when they decided they were going to bring the show back in a different form, I was too old for the show. Because for me to go back and go “Here’s Aaron Carter!” after I’d just been playing Smashing Pumpkins and Blur and Collective Soul and Creed, and then to go, “Aaron Carter’s the best!”…y’know, we could still play Backstreet Boys, but I think what would have happened is, my credibility would have been somewhat crushed.

The place those kids in Gen Y grew up with was gone, and now there was a new demographic coming in. The old ones were forgotten and left without a place to stay any longer, and nowhere to go. Of course it isn't so dramatic as that, but it is an odd feeling of displacement to be watching The Hit List on a Friday evening showing of cool new genres and bands from all over the world to having chirpy young women squealing about nothing but disposable pop overnight. What was the old audience supposed to do with that? It isn't unlike the Rural Purge in its lack of respect for its main audience, only at least there are people who acknowledge the Rural Purge happened. Gen Y still won't admit they were thrown away, and would instead prefer to be considered part of demographic that never were a part of, all while ignoring the bigger issues at play here. You can't deny who you are.

As far as YTV goes, it went on two decades after its initial successful one, and it's still around today. However, it did get corporate in the late '90s and at one point more or less became Nickelodeon Canada, doing little more than airing the same shows from down south and little else. No more worldwide material, and no more hits from the past. YTV as it was effectively died out completely by the '00s. It doesn't really exist anymore.

Everything that had made YTV what it was had been replaced with corporate gloss--no old series, no anime, and no retro shows remain on the network now ad haven't for almost 20 years. It's just as faceless as everything else these days. They could change the name and no one would notice.

At least Gen Y has the memories. While YTV will never be what it once was again, not even for their own kids, they can be satiated with the knowledge that they were privy to something no one else was. They were able to feel a part of something bigger, if only for a few hours out of the day.

Hopefully, if Gen Y can teach a lesson to younger generations it is to not put so much of your identity in the creations of others. Products and brand logos were not your youth, not really. It was the experiences you spent with those around you, your hopes and dreams, and the imagination and wonder you felt when something new came your way.

So while YTV, and the period it represented, are long gone, the memories do remain. The '90s were not as great as we remember, but there are pieces of it that were. You rode bikes with your friends, you didn't have to check your phone and social media, you had family that lived close by visiting every Christmas, and you didn't have to worry about unexpected terror bursting into your peaceful life to kill you. These are things corporations can't give you, and neither can they take them away. We are of the last generation to truly get to experience such things, so they should be treasured far more than what we spent our lawn-mowing money on.

While Y-era television and entertainment is long gone, we are still here. We can still create, and we can still enjoy the life we were given, regardless of what was taken away from it. We are still who we are, and nothing can ever change that.

Here today, gone tomorrow. However, you are still here now. So be sure to make what you've got count.


  1. JD.

    YTV, Yeah I remember watching Reboot on the channel. I was an older Gen x by that time. SO I didn't watch all the programs but I'm familiar with them.

    Ironically while I detested the presenters, I thought YTV programmming was as good as the kids stuff coming out of TVQ, the private TV channel owned by the Power corp in Quebec and Tele-Quebec.
    What a contrast to Nickolodeon and Cartoon channel which have been infected by Caliart. They're the English language equivalents of I loath with absolute chemical purity that Quebec channel. It's pernicious with its daily humiliation rituals of bad writing and pathetic acting.

    1. I've looked into YTV in recent years and, yeah, it's basically just Canadian Nickelodeon now. Which is weird considering there IS a Canadian Nickelodeon channel.

      I'm mainly just surprised they've never made a YTV Retro channel. Those are big these days, and I've even seen unofficial fan projects trying to do this. I guess they really don't want to be reminded of when they were at their biggest and most relevant.

    2. JD

      I agree about the fear of Retro Ytv. It would expose just how much the younger generation were robbed of quality cartoons. Just animation alone would provoke the younger generation to repudiate Caliart.


  2. Inspired by this post, I spent some time browsing Rachid Lotf's art. Dude has a gift for capturing the soul of each era in Gen X, Gen Y, & Millennial entertainment.

    1. It's amazing how well he captured the time periods.