Updated on December 10, 2021
(An updated version of this post is available here.)
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)
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
Similar 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
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.
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.
Image from “The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show.” (Warner Bros.)
Anthony Dean is the owner of Diverse Tech Geek and Diverse Media Notes.