Thursday, February 9, 2017

1987: The Golden Age of Deregulation

by Adam Thas
Even though we weren’t aware of it at the time for many of us kids of the 80s, 1987 marked the end of a major part of our childhood. However, every story has a beginning. This one began with Reagan.

Before Ronald Reagan, there were regulations in place from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that said you could only advertise so many minutes toward children per half hour block of television. If you aren’t familiar with the 40th president of the United States, Reagan was no fan of regulation and in 1982 unofficially ordered the FCC to deregulate advertising in children’s programs. This opened the floodgates to the toy companies. Say you’re a toy company -- Hasbro, for example. Hasbro has an idea for these toys called Transformers, and instead of spending the money on advertising they create the show as the advertisement. With syndication in full swing throughout the world, you could then lease out story arcs to different animation houses all over the world; instead of selling them as full seasons, you could sell them as blocks directly to TV stations. For a person of my age, born in the late '70s or early '80s, these were the golden years. Not only did we have the toys, but we had a daily dose of shows to go along with it. This deregulation spawned shows like He-Man, Transformers, Silverhawks, Thundercats, and GI Joe, etc.
Like many kids growing up in the '80s, I was a fan of all of them but in particular I was a GI Joe guy. They were my favorites, I couldn’t get enough of them. Every new block of episodes of GI Joe would have a new vehicle or character that was marketed directly towards me, and I played right into it. It probably sounds almost evil, the thought of executives targeting a bunch of kids to squeeze as much money out of their parents as possible, but honestly, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I remember growing up spending my summers building giant forts in the sandbox and my winters in the basements with toys spread out all around the floor, playing out long stories that would last days. The only time I would take a break would be at 3:30 on weekdays to flip on WGN and watch the next episode of one of these shows. I was happy, and looking back on this time, these were some of the greatest of my life. The toys were affordable enough that I had as many as I could ever ask for, and the ones I didn’t have my friends did. I know now that I was being “preyed” upon, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

The end was inevitable. Peter Lynch once said that toy companies are terrible investments because kids grow up and this year’s hot toy is replaced by another one next Christmas. The market had become flooded with new toy lines that mimicked the market model, the generation that grew up in the Golden Age of Deregulation was getting older and the toy companies that were responsible were about to go “all in” with a final money grab. In 1986, Hasbro released two movies; the first was My Little Pony, followed a few weeks later by Transformers: The Movie. Spoilers coming up, but seriously, it’s been 30 years! They were both box office disasters. No one went to go see My Little Pony and the few that saw Transformers were upset by the death of Optimus Prime. Not a good “family” experience when your kid walks out of the theater crying. The two movies were disasters and cost Hasbro millions. With the failure of My Little Pony and Transformers, Hasbro started to panic. It already had one movie in the works: GI Joe: The Movie. While the movie was too far along to scrap, they muscled through and went for a straight-to-video/syndication release. It was a big deal. My friend Ben, who had a birthday a few days before mine, bought it and we watched it for his birthday.
The movie itself is fine. It has a great opening scene, with a new title sequence and a theme song that is exceptionally shitty. The biggest change came from Hasbro learning the mistakes of Transformers, so GI Joe opted to not kill off a main character that they originally planned to (it’s very obvious in the edits if you’ve seen the movie). Followed by the utter failure of the live action Masters of the Universe, 1987 pretty much marks the end of the Deregulation era for many of us children of the '80s, as both Mattel and Hasbro found the current business model was no longer financially viable. Between 1987 and 1988, we saw the end of cartoon productions like Jem, Glo Friends, My Little Pony, Silverhawks, Thundercats, She-Ra, GI Joe, and Transformers.

It wasn’t until years later that many of these movies and shows found a new life on DVD as the '80s generation tried to recapture its youth. The good news is that pretty much every one of these shows can be bought cheaply on DVD, and movies like Masters of the Universe and Transformers have found new life as cult classics and discussed ad nauseam in the stockrooms of comic book stores and lines at Comic Cons. For most of us children of the '80s, there are a lot of the fond memories spent with these toys, in front of the TV, or in the movie theater. It all came to an end in 1987.


  1. Cheers for deregulation, and cheers for this column. Looking back, it's kind of a weird thing to do, saying "yeah, target our children with advertising," but I actually feel really lucky to have grown up when I did, right smack in the middle of this. The mid-eighties marked one of the most prolific periods in pop culture commercialism America has ever seen. It was incredible, and still least to me.

  2. I'll stick up £6 towards those walkies but with brexit and Trumps America it will probably end up only about $1.
    Nice to see a return column, Courtney will be so happy, looking forward to 87 this weekend, time to watch my new bluray of Monster Squad

    Ps my real name is Courtney!

  3. Great column, Adam! Interesting that '87 was "the end," when that was also the year Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had its TV debut, later exploding in mega-popularity (and its own toy empire) in '89 to '91. Everything old is new again.

  4. This is a fascinating read. Thanks, Adam!

  5. Thanks for the nice column. Brings back memories of playing with transformers and Go-Bots and having them all set up in my room with battles that would last days. My parents didn't let me play with GI-JOE, as they thought it was too violent. That just made visiting my best friends house more pleasurable because he (only child) had a permanent "play room" and have ALL the Gi-Joe.

    I didn't see the Transformers movie at the time, but I distinctly remember word making it's way around the school yard that Optimus Prime had died. At 10 years old, I was just the perfect age to be emotionally moved by it.