As the sun rose on a Saturday morning, kids across the 1970s woke up with a purpose that charged them out of bed quicker than any school day. This was their day, the time when the teevee had nothing but cartoons on. Yet they were often crudely animated and jerky, with stupid plots and wooden dialogue. As exciting as Saturday morning was to kids, cartoons were clearly thrown on the screen without a lot of thought.
Regulations changed in 1982 and pitching of products broke the fourth wall of screen – making cartoons much more valuable. Hasbro’s “My Little Pony” was a pioneer, subsidizing a cartoon show around toys to sell. When social media became a big part of kids’ lives in 2010, they broke more new ground with the fourth generation of “My Little Pony” by integrating social media fandom into the show itself.
It was a brilliant move that made a phenom out of a 30 year old show. What could possibly go wrong? Like everything else, when things are laid bare in social media any potential controversy in life and values can intervene. And that gets us to Derpy, the little pony that messed everything up.
The new generation of “My Little Pony” was designed by Lauren Faust and team to be much more than a little kids’ show. Dialogue was carefully constructed to be as “real” as possible, and the lead characters were classic high school personality archetypes.
It is the bit hit of Hasbro’s new teevee channel, The Hub, which launched in 2010. It is a channel built entirely around products like “My Little Pony”. Nothing they have launched so far matches the success of this show.
By creating an appeal that spanned many ages, fandom sprang up in social media, breaking down what was left of the fourth wall. The fans, known as “Bronies” (Brothers in Ponydom), chat about every detail on the show, no matter how trivial. Episodes have been shared in their entirety on YouTube without interference from The Hub. Any lawyer could argue that they have surrendered their copyrights in the process of making this phenomenon.
Social media fandom made “My Little Pony” as the Bronies literally took it over. One pony caught everyone’s attention. Her shyly bent head and crossed eyes depicted her as vulnerable and … different. This pony that appeared only in the background won the nickname Derpy in the fan world, and shirts and other items depicting her quickly became best-sellers. The staff of the show internally accepted the name Derpy and decided to finally give her a bigger role in a plot. The Bronies were elated as the show crossed a new frontier of interaction.
That’s when everything went wrong.
Details are hard to come by, but apparently The Hub received complaints about the name Derpy and the characterization as a klutz with a dimwitted voice. Some said that Derpy was clearly depicted as mentally challenged, often using less kind words. The “official” episode on iTunes then disappeared briefly, causing great anxiety among fans. Some claim they were told it was only a glitch and would be restored. When the episode came back, it was clearly modified to a more “normal” voice and the name Derpy removed.
Clearly, the controversy spooked Hasbro and quick action was taken. But the fans, once elated by their influence over the creative process, were suddenly slapped down. They are not taking it well. Of all the nasty words spoken over a social media mis-step by a company, none are as devastating as this fan-made video of Derpy. This show, to bridge teevee and social media from the start, crossed another frontier in integration – unintentionally, and about as gracefully as Derpy herself.
There are many stories embedded in the “My Little Pony” saga that are worthy of a great deal of analysis. This has always been an experiment, sacrificing potential syndication and ad revenue to leverage social media, create an interactive experience, and thus sell more stuff. But the lack of control over the product eventually caused a problem. It was handled badly, too, and now there is damage to be mended.
The experiment of “My Little Pony” goes far beyond what anyone else has done integrating teevee with social media and is very much worth watching as they work their way through this first big controversy. This is no longer a simple Saturday morning time-filler, this is big business with a lot of money and energy behind it.
“My Little Pony” Generation 4 will almost certainly stand as a revolution in entertainment. Entertainment has come a long way in 30 years, but like any advance there is always a glitch. The resolution of the “Derpy Controversy” may well be a lesson taught for many years to come.
Addendum: Dear Bronies – welcome to Barataria! I am a professional writer who is always looking for work (hint!) so if you like what you see please look around. The comments are what make Barataria a place where people and ideas connect in new ways with curiousity, respect, joy, and when we can swing it a bit of love. Much of what you see here is on politics and the economy, or how people connect in other ways. Read the comments and follow the links if you want to know more on a topic! How Bronies have connected and formed a community is a very natural fit, if you read the rest of this the way I intend. And thank you for being here!