So, Flutterbat. That’s a thing that happened. And was awesome, by the way. But it’s kicked up concern, once again, about the show’s attempts to appeal to its older audience.
Digibrony touched on this in his vid on the episode:
I’m a lot more bitter over season four. And no, I don’t think it’s me, I very much think it’s the show. They’re going for something different with this season. I can’t be the only one noticing that FIVE of the seven episodes take place at primarily at night. That two of them are horror-themed, and two of them are largely reliant on pop-culture references. That there’s this huge new focus on continuity and callbacks, and that every single episode has unnecessarily featured all of the mane six doing next to nothing. Something is different this season. I don’t want to try and place it, but I can’t help the feeling that the production staff has been allowed to go a little more wild as the result of their show appealing to a wider audience. Take that as you will.
My apologies if I’m jumping to conclusions here, but it sounds like Digi is taking great pains to avoid using “the P-word”.
(And yes, maybe I am a little bitter that he thought to make the “Fluttershy is a bat, your argument is invalid” joke before I did.)
“Pandering” is a term that’s been on people’s minds basically since this fandom began. The Brony fandom overall displays a thorough — occasionally semi-neurotic — awareness of the degree to which we are noticed, and of the fact that we tend to fall into the magical 18-30-year-old demographic. There’s particular concern that in trying to appeal to us, the studio or the company might ruin the show for the kids (or just generally — but that’s probably its own post).
The show has clearly changed its tone somewhat. But this isn’t necessarily bad for its appeal to its target demographic. In fact, it might be necessary to keep them around.
First of all, the shift in tone and subject matter is less extreme than people think. Let’s remember that in Episode 2, Rarity (of all characters) kicks a freaking manticore in the face. And while that sort of full-on cartoon violence is not that common in S1, the threat of death comes up several times.
The general visual “freakiness” of (e.g.) Flutterbat has some pretty clear predecessors as well:
That said, there definitely has been a shift in tone and story in S3 and S4, and that shift has been toward things the older audience would enjoy, like continuity and adventure-themed episodes. For some, this is enough for concern.
But that assumes that appealing to us and appealing to the kids are mutually exclusive — which is clearly false, otherwise this fandom never would have emerged in the first place, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
One thing about Season 4 that’s impressed me so far is how they’ve managed to increase its appeal to adults while still remaining a really great cartoon. “Power Ponies” might be full of pop-culture references, but it’s also an impressive visual light show with an over-the-top and entertaining villain. Pinkie Pie’s “Fruit-Bat Roundup” is an exercise in continuity, but it’s also a silly little aside that’s entirely in-character for her. Similarly, Dash’s fixation with the cider is a call-back, but it’s also completely in-character and serves a useful role in the narrative — Dash exacerbates the conflict by insisting that the bats be removed.
It’s easy to be unsettled at the number of continuity nods and fandom references popping up in the show, but try to momentarily forget about the fears of pandering and look at these gags and storylines on their own merits — there’s very little here that makes for a bad cartoon, and much that is really funny or entertaining even if you don’t know the reference.
And here’s another important point; even if the adult demographic didn’t exist for this show, we might still expect to see this sort of tonal and plot shift — because the target demographic is aging as well. It’s easy to just say “target demographic” and envision a monolithic and unchanging collection of 6-11-year-old girls, but this is a mistake. Remember; it’s been over 3 years since this show was first released. And 3 years is a much longer time for a kid than an adult, both in terms of perception and in terms of cognitive development. Those 6-11-year-old kids who started watching this show when it was new are now between the ages of 9 and 14. Roughly half the original target demographic is no longer in the target demographic, and many of them are likely starting to develop a taste for more complex, long-term, and high-stakes storylines. And from a pedagogical point of view, this should probably be encouraged. Of course the show will lose some of them with this shift — but it would also have lost some of them if it hadn’t shifted, as they grew out of it.
Of course, most shows don’t change with their audience like this, instead figuring (correctly) that new viewers in the target age group will replace the ones that grow out of it. But this transition has been done before, and has been done extremely well. Cerebus Syndrome is nothing new. One of the best examples is ReBoot, which drastically altered its tone in the 3rd season. It’s a great feeling to find that your childhood staples have actually grown up with you, and have maintained their core values even as they’ve changed.
And just from an empirical standpoint, the feared exodus of the target demographic doesn’t seem to have occurred yet. “A Canterlot Wedding” might be the episode with a giant cartoon brawl in which Pinkie Pie fires Twilight like a minigun, but it was also (at the time) the episode of FiM that pulled in the highest ratings among 6-11-year-olds.
Of course it’s possible that the kids will lose interest, but it certainly isn’t a given, and there’s no evidence that it’s happening yet. And until we see that evidence, I’m not going to worry too much about it.