RIP Saturday morning cartoons, and the reasons why they’re dead

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Lately there’s been a lot of talk about the death of Saturday morning cartoons on American broadcast network TV. This was officially marked as of this past weekend, when the last holdout, the CW, dropped its Saturday morning lineup of anime and “Justice League Unlimited” reruns. They’ve been replaced with “E/I” (educational/informational) programming, as the FCC requires three hours of such from broadcast stations each week. However, this isn’t the sole reason why Saturday morning cartoons have died. If anything, they were already dying when the E/I rule went into full effect in the 1990s.

Since the question about what killed them comes up a lot online (and so I won’t have to repeat myself on this subject), here’s my answers for why Saturday morning cartoons are a thing of the past for broadcast TV. Much of the following also applies to weekday afternoon cartoons on broadcast TV; they’ve also met a similar fate.

1. The rise of cable and streaming (and decline of broadcast TV’s importance)

Comcast cable TV box
Photo by cassini83 (Wikimedia Commons / CC0)

Similar to the changes in adult programming, children’s programming has also largely shifted in prominence to cable for years. This started in the early 1990s, when Nickelodeon debuted its “NickToons” lineup of original animated fare (“Rugrats,” “Ren and Stimpy,” etc.). Cartoon Network debuted a few years later, and Disney Channel also got into producing more original programming.

While broadcast TV’s still important, cable’s clearly sucked up attention for both adult and children programming. A big example is sports; a lot of sports programming, save the biggest sporting events (championship games, etc.) have shifted to being exclusively on cable. Sports is probably the one thing that’s preventing a lot more cord-cutting, even with spiraling cable bills.

Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Video have started to produce original programming, including children’s cartoons. For instance, Dreamworks is producing plenty of animated material (based on its numerous movies and large animation library) for Netflix. These include shows based on “Mr. Peabody and Sherman,” “How to Train Your Dragon,” and more.

Thus, there’s no need for kids to get up at the crack of dawn once a week to watch a limited block of programs anymore. Thanks to cable and streaming services, viewers can get cartoons at any hour of the day at will.

2. Technology changes

Wreck-It Ralph on Blu-raySimilar to adults, technology changes over the past few decades have greatly changed how kids watch TV, and enjoy entertainment in general. Said changes since the 1980s include VCRs, DVDs, Blu-Ray discs, DVRs, computers, tablets, MP3 players, smartphones, the Internet, streaming media, and modern video games. That’s along with the aforementioned cable TV.

With the above tech, anyone can watch almost every cartoon ever made anywhere and at anytime. Just as adults don’t need to get home by a specific time to watch a show anymore, neither do kids need to get up on Saturday mornings.

3. Local news and infomercials are more profitable for local TV stations

Local broadcasting’s also changed in recent decades. News and infomercials have risen in prominence since the 80s; they’re much more profitable to TV stations and networks than children’s programming. NBC figured this out in 1992, when it axed all of its animated programming in favor of live-action sitcoms aimed at teens (shows similar to then-hit “Saved By the Bell”). NBC also launched a Saturday morning version of the “Today” show. The rise of infomercials since the 80s now takes up sizable chunks of local TV programming on some stations.

Changes in children’s TV advertising laws and the E/I requirement in the mid-90s probably encouraged even more of the above, as well as a minimal children’s programming effort.

Still, even if a local TV station wanted to program its own traditional Saturday morning-style lineup, they’d find themselves stymied by the next point below.

4. Concentration of media ownership

Time Warner building
Flickr photo by Jim Larrison (CC BY)

Since the 1980s, there’s been a series of seemingly endless large mergers of media companies. Disney bought ABC; Time, Inc. and Warner Bros. merged to form Time Warner (and bought Turner’s assets afterwards); Comcast bought NBC (which had already bought Universal); and so forth. Besides a lack of media ownership diversity (which has multiple other downsides), it also leads to increased vertical integration. Of course, in the eyes of the companies’ owners, that’s part of the appeal of such mergers.

With the various mergers came the tendency to favor or only be willing to air material their parent companies own lock, stock, and barrel. For example, after Disney bought ABC in the mid-90s, the network’s animated programming shifted almost exclusively to Disney-owned material save “The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show.” Even that show soon moved (along with the few syndicated broadcast Looney Tunes packages remaining) to airing exclusively on Time Warner owned cable networks.

One downside of this is if the conglomerate decides to let a show gather dust on its shelves versus airing it on its own media outlets. No room for Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, or the Flintstones (all now Time Warner owned, but formerly owned by separate companies 30 years ago) on any of the multiple Time Warner-owned cable and broadcast networks? Hope you own the DVDs, since you’ll otherwise never see them on TV again. A big change versus 30 years ago, when Bugs and the gang shifted from CBS to ABC. That was despite neither network being owned by or associated with Warner Communications (Time Warner’s previous corporate identity).

5. The death of first run syndicated programming

Syndicated programming was once a prominent force in TV. The 1980s and 1990s saw a large amount of first-run syndicated programming air (“Xena,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” etc.). Some cartoons were also produced for syndication as well (“He-Man,” “The Disney Afternoon” block, etc.).

Since the 90s, however, syndication’s dried up as a source of first-run material that’s not judge or talk shows. Today, original non-broadcast network programming is mainly made for cable TV or streaming services such as Netflix.

Conclusion

Overall, while the passing of the broadcast network Saturday morning cartoon is sad from a nostalgic standpoint, it’s something that was long coming and already largely dying by the 1990s.

That said, while I have issues with corporate consolidation (unless you like your cable company/ISP growing bigger and more powerful, which I doubt), today’s technology and resources are a vast improvement over what I had as a kid in the 80s.

As for the current status and future of children’s TV animation, cable TV is now its main home, outside of PBS Kids’ educational shows. However, similar to adult programming, the future for kids’ cartoons will likely center more and more around streaming services.

(Updated 6/29/17)

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6 thoughts on “RIP Saturday morning cartoons, and the reasons why they’re dead

  1. Aside from the corporate shifts, the basic problem is a glut of product. Back in the 1990s when I was active I saw the future. It was 1992 when NBC dropped its animation schedule in favor of a Saturday edition of TODAY. But for the good or bad of it, the truth is that most of the Network Saturday morning product had become junk, with some exceptions on CBS produced by Film Roman. The better shows were being produced on cable where budgets seemed to be more generous. But it was not just the death of Saturday morning animation that was a problem, major network prime time animation that also died. The only prime time animation that has survived has been on the Fox network of independent stations. Around 1993 or ’94, there were attempts to return to prime time animated shows on the majors and they all died. Who now remembers CAPITAL CRITTERS, FISH POLICE, THE CRITIC, and MAX,GOD, AND THE DEVIL (not necessarily in that order)? These shows like the rest of animation produced for the networks were bad concepts that were badly produced, badly written, and badly cast. One spinoff of Steven Spielberg’s AMAZING ADVENTURES, “Family Dog” was a great concept that seemed out of control and died after its first season. Fortunately network run animation is not entirely dead since it continues to run animated Specials. Because of this, the value of animation on networks is increased by the elimination of over exposure. And while the networks continue to rerun the same specials produced 50 years ago, there is room to new product to reflect contemporary demographics.

  2. While I’m generally happy with the shift to on-demand, streaming, and dvd/blu-ray content, I miss the social aspect of TV, whether it’s Saturday morning cartoons or weeknight series meant for adults. With so many options it has become harder to share a viewing experience with someone at work (or school). There are still a few shows that attract viewers in enough numbers to be worthy of water-cooler debates, but with the introduction of the concept of spoilers, one person in the room who is behind an episode can kill any talk of “what happened on ‘Game of Thrones’ last night?” And while I applaud services like Netflix for their original programming, dumping an entire season online kills any anticipation for the next episode of the given series.

    • Thanks for the input.

      Yes, the vast amount of TV programming today (both for kids and adults) can lead to a lack of common TV viewing experiences, save the most popular shows. And even those can be watched at one’s leisure with DVRs/DVDs/on-demand/streaming.

      As for Netflix, it’s become more anticipation of the next *season* of a series. My Twitter feed’s been all abuzz about the debut of new seasons of Netflix series, or even the debut of shows like “Luke Cage.”

  3. The fact of the matter is in the 1970s lobby groups such as Action for Children’s Television complained about commercialism, violence and stereotypes in Saturday morning cartoons which led to shows like Schoolhouse Rock and legislation requiring a minimum of 3 hours of E/I live-action programming to make Saturday mornings more educaaaaaaational. Plain and simple, you can thank the PC crowd for the death of Saturday morning cartoons.

    • Given “Schoolhouse Rock” ran during commercial breaks, it wouldn’t have impacted the programming chosen. (I can recall the shorts running during such decidedly non-educational fare like “The Flintstone Kids”.)

      As for E/I, as I noted above, it had some impact, but Saturday morning programming was already dying by the time it came along in the mid-90s. They also could’ve still put effort into making their E/I compliant shows entertaining (as PBS does), or still aired non-E/I shows in addition (as Sat. morning timeslots were longer than three hours), but they didn’t. Basically, the above changes I listed were more profitable to the Big Three networks, so that would’ve been one more reason to not bother. (There’s also no requirement that E/I shows are live-action, BTW.)

      As for “the PC crowd,” dubious terminology aside, the only PC I’d blame are personal computers… as the Internet (and streaming) makes the concept of a limited programming block moot.

  4. This is pretty mess up because kid need to watch things like cartoons and now peopl4 took down cw kids shows now they put adult show like the dog whisper and iam getting sick and tire of watching these lame show bring back the kid show please

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