With it, a cherished memory and ritual vanishes, as technology, economics, and regulations force changes to a way of life.
The decline of Saturday Morning television began in 1992, when NBC began airing a Saturday edition of Today, followed by live action shows aimed at teens.
In 1990, after years of politicking by Action for Children’s Television, Congress passed the Children’s Television Act of 1990, requiring television stations to broadcast three hours of “educational and informational” children’s programming per week. (Here’s a listing of what is replacing Vortexx this Fall.)
With that requirement, and the rise of niche cable channels which are exempt from the E/I bug, Saturday Morning programming slowly withered over the next two decades.
Wikipedia lists several causes:
- The rise of first-run syndicated animated programs…
- Increasing regulation of children’s programming content … [see above]
- Station owners that owned a large number of network affiliates…
- The over reliance on common tropes and clichés. [TV Tropes has the lowdown.]
- The rise of cable television networks like Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network …
- The entrance of more adult-oriented cartoons into the mainstream…
- Concurrent with their film successes, Walt Disney Television Animation and Warner Bros. Animation also began producing content for television in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Both companies invested far more money into their productions than Saturday morning cartoons had done up until that point, raising the standards much higher than most television animation companies were able to reach.
- Increased awareness of childhood obesity and lethargy; advocates often targeted Saturday morning cartoons as the culprit.
- The proliferation of commercial toyline-oriented animated programs in the 1980s also led to advocacy group backlash and a decline in such programming…
- The increased availability of VHS tapes and later DVDs, Blu-rays, iTunes and videos on the World Wide Web, which, like cable, allowed children to watch their favorite cartoons at any given time.
- The development and rapid improvement in quality of video games…
- An increase in children’s participation in Saturday activities outside the home.
- A 1984 decision legalizing infomercials on American television; profits from Saturday morning infomercials were potentially much more than those from children’s programming. …
- The 1984 Supreme Court ruling in NCAA v. Board of Regents of Univ. of Oklahoma, which greatly expanded opportunities for college football on television. …
- Television networks becoming part of larger corporations. These networks included ABC (purchased by the The Walt Disney Company in 1996), CBS (purchased by Viacom in 1999, before splitting in 2005) and The WB (created by Time Warner in 1995, before merging with UPN in 2006 to create The CW). Since the parent companies already owned television animation studios, the networks preferred to air shows from these companies with programming blocks such as “Disney’s One Saturday Morning”, “Nick on CBS” and “Kids’ WB” rather than contracting out independent television animation companies.
- Many of the same networks that often showed Saturday morning cartoons began airing similar programs on weekday afternoons…
- The success of live action teen sitcoms, starting with NBC’s Saved by the Bell, which led to the rapid development of more live-action teen programming, with networks slowly squeezing out the cartoons.
- The gradual loss of most of the American companies which were, at one point, iconic and prolific producers of animated children’s shows. …
- The 2005 to 2009 decisions by breakfast cereal companies and fast food restaurants to reduce their advertising towards children. …
Some links from across the web:
Mark Evanier recollects his experience as both a viewer and employee of Saturday Morning cartoons, explaining the lucrative economics of early series, how toy companies
That was often cost-effective and deficit-financing became even more the norm for syndicated shows. Toy companies found it paid off to underwrite the cost of a series that promoted their products. A Mattel or Hasbro could easily sink a few million up front into a show about characters they were marketing to make those characters more famous. Not every time but often enough, having the show out there, five days a week in syndication, would boost toy sales enough to make that a good investment.
With such shows siphoning viewers away from networks, the networks did the logical thing: They stopped paying high license fees for Saturday morning programming. Thereafter, if you wanted to get your production on in one of those time slots on a broadcast network, you had to give it to them for a very low price and make up the rest of your costs elsewhere. Selling it cheap usually meant doing it cheap and there was a change in priorities.
No longer was it all about doing a show that would be a hit on Saturday morning because that alone was no longer enough to make a profit. It was just a way to pay part of the cost of production. You had to have your eye on foreign sales and merchandising. I wasn’t approached a lot to work on such shows because, well, I wasn’t the cheapest talent available. But the times I was asked, the producers made it clear they didn’t care that much if show drew an audience on Saturday morning. That was no longer where the game was.
And of course, since airing cartoons on Saturday mornings became a lot less lucrative, one by one the networks stopped doing it. Which got us to where they are today: They don’t do it at all anymore.
TV Party has a great rundown of the many seasons of Saturday Morning cartoons!
Some memories, slightly sugar-coated…
- In The News, quick two-minute news bites on CBS.
- School House Rock (My Hero Zero)
- Levi’s Jeans and Chords
- Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (and the rest of the Kroft Super Show!)
- Pee Wee’s Playhouse
- Thundarr the Barbarian (Gerber, Kirby, Toth, Pasko!)
- Space Ghost
- Land of the Lost (A perpetual schedule filler, usually in the summer, along with Super Friends.)
- Galaxy High (Aimee Brightower, *SIGH*)
- Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (afterwards, I’d hike two miles, uphill, both ways, sometimes in the snow, to buy comics).
- Too young to remember the Banana Splits, but wondering who they were as I saw vague images here and there, like a light-switch cover in the late 70s at Montgomery Wards. Which…I can’t find on Google.
- Also, one-season wonders, which only exist now in Gold Key comics, or the rare lunch box. Like this…
- Shazam! (I owned a pair of socks when I was six…) (…and the cartoon was pretty good, too!)
- Films for kids. (The CBS Children’s Film Festival, Capt’n O.G. Readmore and the ABC Weekend Special, yeah, even the Afterschool Specials.)
- Which leads to a cartoon I vaguely recall a cartoon movie about an orphan black girl, and a baseball player guardian angel, which stuck in my proto-memory in 1973, like a papyrus fragment.
- Another eyeblinked peripheral memory, as I was enthralled by the idea of Yogi’s Gang, where all the classic characters teamed up . Mesmerized when they recycled the idea for the Laff-A-Lympics!
- …and a decade later:
- Those crazy TV specials shown Friday night, right before the new season.
- Avery Schreiber and Jack Burns meet Superman and Bugs Bunny in the flesh! 1973
- Boss Hogg tries to swindle Charles In Charge, 1982
- ALF Loves A Mystery! 1987
- Bronze Age comicbook collectors will remember the two-page advertising spreads featured in superhero comics. Retrojunk offers a selection found in comics and TV Guide.
- Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures; Don’t Touch That Dial (A great satire of American and Japanese animation!)
So, cartoons on television continue, mostly on Cartoon Network and Disney XD. There’s YouTube and Warner Archives, and streaming and downloads. Gone is the joy of uncertain discovery, and unspoilt wonder. But it does make it easier to share!
Part of me wonders if kids will find other distractions, like shown in the satirical and prophetic “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” from 1990?
And part of me knows that kids will seek out the stuff that’s cool and fun and bad in large quantities, like pre-sweetened breakfast cereal. They’ll laugh uncontrollably, and some of them… well, they’ll make their own cartoons!
For those who want one last sample of just how special Saturdays were when I was younger and life was unscheduled…
We’ll be right back after these messages…
I’ve been writing for The Beat since July of 2010.
I’ve been reading comics since 1974, collecting since 1984, and spreading the graphic novel gospel since 1994.
I’m a bookseller, a librarian, an amateur scholar, a cool uncle, and a comics evangelist.
Ask me anything!