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US cartoons re-animate Ha Noi screens

Update: October, 20/2014 - 19:19
A game of cat and mouse: Tom & Jerry first appeared on US broadcast TV on Saturday mornings in the 1980s. Today, the classic cartoon is widely reccognised by Vietnamese audiences. It can be watched on both network and cable television stations. — Photo courtesy of Walt Disney

The American tradition of Saturday Morning Cartoons may be over, but in Ha Noi TVs are keeping pace with kids' appetite for American cartoon classics for better or for worse. Lucy Sexton reports.

Across the United States in the 1960s, families could be seen parking their Ford cars as close to the front door as possible, opening up their trunks and shuffling in clunky TV sets heavy enough to break a back or two.

In the year 1960, American screens aired the first episode of the famous Flintstones cartoon and the first presidential debate ever broadcast, guiding in a handsome John F. Kennedy to the presidency and forever changing the landscape of American politics. Politics, family sitcoms, commercials and Saturday Morning Cartoons had officially invaded living rooms across the country – and they never left.

Well, except the time-honoured tradition of Saturday Morning Cartoons, which claimed 20 million viewers in its heyday. This October 4 was the first Saturday in America without a 9am to noon block of TV programming set aside for kids' cartoons.

Gone is the ritual of waking up just in time to fill a bowl with a colourful, sugary excuse for a cereal before settling down in front of the TV for a 9am showing of classics like Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny, Batman, Dragon Ball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh!.

But, here in Ha Noi, the tradition perhaps lives on, just with a few slight alterations. Instead of a sugary bowl of cereal, kids might slurp up a bowl of pho ga. Rather than wait till 9am, cartoons start as early as 6am on Saturdays. Instead of mindlessly watching a cartoon in their native language, kids are performing their mysterious ability to absorb meaning from kinetic chaos and soak in new languages like sponges.

The drafting table: The Viet Nam Cartoon Company employs 50 artists in their studios. The company produces 10 to 15 cartoon movies every year. Photos courtesy of the Viet Nam Cartoon Company

Phuong Hong, 25, says TV cartoons are part of daily life for all the kids in her family, from infants to 14-year-olds.

"Kids watch cartoons all the time, when they stay at home or while off studying, whenever they have free time."

She recounts wars fought over the TV. "In the morning, parents often turn on the TV for updates on current affairs but the children turn it to their channel."

According to several parents spoken to on the subject, they all try their best to reduce the hours kids spend in front of the screen – one parent doesn't even have a TV in the house so as to avoid the issue altogether.

One mother says her kid is allowed one to two hours of cartoons every Saturday morning but that she has had to fight off his TV-beleaguered tantrums. Other parents mention that their kids get one to two hours in the evening during dinner or after they finish their homework and then on Saturday and Sunday mornings, of course.

Like most who recognise the wild popularity of cartoons amongst the nation's youth, especially English-language cartoons on cable channels like Bibi and Cartoon Network, they are conflicted as to its value.

Barnyard toons: The roosters and the Fox, a Vietnamese-made cartoon.

For Nguyen Lan Huong, 29, a mother of an eight-year-old son and director of CNR Education, there is both good and bad to cartoon programmes, largely depending on when and what they watch.

"Some are dubbed so they hear Vietnamese and English at the same time, some are translated and some are subtitled. Even if they don't fully understand they still watch. It definitely helps them learn the language in terms of listening and learning western culture," she says.

But Huong isn't a big fan of western cartoons. "Asian cartoons are a lot more educative. Western ones are all about being individualistic and doing annoying things to stand out or being a hero. But my son watches Art Attack or Master Chef, which are more educative than Phineas and Ferb, which teaches kids to do stuff behind parents' backs," she adds with a smile.

Crossing language

In Huong's professional experience, and her experience living abroad in Europe and Scandinavia, there is a clear correlation between English-language programmes and language skills.

"I think with a combo of TV and English classes they improve their English quite fast. For example, in Scandinavian countries, TV is all in English and they pick it up so that once they have to speak English, it suddenly clicks." As proof, Vietnamese kids can be heard saying expressions like 'it's so awesome.'"

English language teachers like Damian Piatkowski, 25, would agree. "I see it a lot: kids watching Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and other animation. I think it's a really good thing that they don't have Vietnamese dubbing, rather, original dialogues with just Vietnamese subtitles. They hear English all the time thanks to this and I strongly believe that it improves their language skills in the long run," says Damian, who uses Gogo cartoons with his students.

Samuel Burno, 27, another English teacher, finds songs like Let It Go from Disney's Frozen very helpful as a fluency exercise. Cartoons also help him engage kids in class. But things have changed, he says.

"Cartoon Network used to be broadcast in English but now there's Vietnamese dubbing. So I would say there is no English language benefit to watching them now."

Homegrown: The legend of the Kitchen Gods, a Vietnamese-made cartoon.

According to People's Artist, animation director Nguyen Ha Bac, Vietnamese animation once had a place on mobile film reels in the 70s, but technological advances like cable-tv dishes stunted the domestic industry's gestation period. With little to no room for homegrown programmes, the question remains, will English-language programmes continue to adapt to Vietnamese-speaking audiences?

In the US, Saturday Morning Cartoons saw its demise due to a combination of pressures.

In 1996, the Federal Communications Commission mandated that networks include three hours of "educational/informational" programming.

This mandate was often satisfied by replacing cartoon programmes with live-action educational programmes and news shows like ABC's Good Morning America. Nowadays, most children's shows on network television are educational in nature, from Reading Rainbow and The Magic School Bus to today's WordGirl, a show designed to expand kids' English vocabularies.

Diminishing returns: Children can learn from educative cartoons, however educationists warn that the time they spent in front of the screen should be limited. — VNSPhoto Truong Vi

Where did the cartoons go? They went to cable TV stations like Cartoon Network or the Disney Channel which could provide around-the-clock cartoons.

With the advent of YouTube and streaming websites like Netflix and Hulu, children have even less of a need to wait for 9am Saturday morning. They can get their fix whenever they need, or their parents let them. Saturday morning has ceased to be sacred hours of animated fantasies and toy commercials.

In Viet Nam, the same pressures exist. Cable networks can serve kids cartoons at any timeslot. Parents are also choosing more overtly educational programmes for their kids. However, as long as cartoons are delivered in the English language, there's an educational element that cannot be erased.

As an American who remembers bowls of Cap-n-Crunch and Pokemon, I need not lament the loss of the Saturday morning tradition. Here in Ha Noi, I have my local Bun Ca and Pho Ga shops with clunky TVs propped up in the back and young kids sitting next to me joining me over steaming bowls of soup and episodes of Pink Panther and Tom & Jerry. — VNS

Thanh An contributed additional reporting.

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