The last time Inspector Gadget clumsily chased MAD or agents around the world, he didn't have to worry about whether his niece would fall in love with one of them.
An older, more sophisticated Penny is just one of the changes made to the classic cartoon series, as Canadian producers try to resurrect the inspector almost 30 years after he went off the air in a broadcasting industry that has been turned upside down by technological changes.
When the bumbling detective last graced the screen, cartoons were exclusively aired on Saturday mornings and remote controls were still considered optional components for most televisions. Now he'll compete against on-demand services that serve up thousands of cartoons at any time, as well as dozens of other distractions that have viewers turning away from traditional television in favour of online alternatives.
It's hoped that by tapping an existing franchise that has endured decades of syndication, the show will win viewers quickly and encourage them to put down their devices and sit down in front of the television.
"In 1981, the pace of television was very slow," says Jean Chalopin, the show's co-creator and a consultant on the new series. "If you did the same thing exactly now, it would be very difficult to get an audience. Kids today are used to seeing different forms of animation and moods."
Gadget's return, scheduled for some time within the next year, is being orchestrated by Teletoon Canada, which needs to draw more adult viewers to its subscription-based channel to attract the kind of advertiser it needs to drive profits higher. The media world is so crowded –YouTube alone has more than a billion users a month looking for fresh content – that it's almost impossible for a conventional television station to create a new cartoon series that will deliver the ratings needed to drive up advertising revenue.
"The challenge is drawing adults to their television in the hours before 9 p.m.," says Alan Gregg, the director of original content at Teletoon Canada. "One idea we had was to bring back franchises that already have an adult appeal."
While television profits have been declining in Canada as more viewers turn to less expensive online alternatives, subscription and pay channels have fared better thanks to higher calibre programming and lower costs. But it, too, is on a downward slide, as advertisers move their money out of television and experiment with new mediums.
Teletoon has seen its pretax profit drop by almost 20 per cent over the last five years on its main channel to $35-million, even though its subscriber base has held steady near 7.4 million. Advertisers pay more when ratings increase, and attracting more adults would help the channel earn back more of those lost dollars.
"We're a subscription- and advertising-driven network, so ratings are important to us," he says. "And now success will also be measured by the implementation of online components, like online extras that can drive viewers back to the station."
To get the desired viewership boost, the good inspector will need to use every gadget at his disposal during the show's 26 11-minute episodes (helicopter hats and fingertip flashlights are definitely go-to gadgets).
"It's very simple because you have a character who is completely predictable," Chalopin says. "He is always nice. He's completely idiotic, but he's a good human being and his niece loves him … the young girl is the real hero, and in every family kids feel they know many answers but they are not listened to very much."
There have been several attempts to bring him back, but each was poorly received after straying too far from the formulaic scripts of the original series. Each episode begins with a mission, and as Gadget bungles the file, his niece Penny and her dog Brain secretly do the detective work that lets him crack the case and bring the evil Dr. Claw and his MAD agents to justice.
There will be a few tweaks to modernize the story – Penny will be older, and Dr. Claw will have a nephew who is "totally crush-worthy." But Halifax-based DHX Media is also wary of making any large changes as it works on scripts and characters from its Maritime headquarters.
"[The show's original theme song] has hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube," says Steven DeNure, DHX's president. "But we have all these creative people who grew up with the original who are enthused as the prospect of updating Gadget."
DHX now owns the rights to the show, which was produced in Toronto during its original two-year run through a partnership between the Canadian Nelvana Ltd. and France-based DiC Entertainment. DHX is also one of a handful of companies around the world which have secured deals with YouTube for a pay-subscription channel featuring its content, exposing its shows to a billion viewers in almost a dozen countries.