As I was performing my usual Saturday morning deep clean of my place, I had my television on and tuned to one of the weekend network news programs. It was an attempt to multitask, using my peripheral hearing (if such a thing exist) to keep abreast of whatever events the knuckleheads of the world decided to create in the name of making our planet a better place to live…at least by their narrow standards.
While listening, I began thinking about how as a child, I as well as other Generation Xer’s (and before us, Baby Boomers) spent our Saturday mornings…watching cartoons. Of course back then, there were only 3 networks (4 if you count Johnny-come-lately Fox sometime in the mid-80s). And because many individuals in the television industry still considered the weekends to be a time for both leisure and family, the networks used this time to create original (there’s a word you don’t hear used often with network television these days) programming at a time when both children and their parents would be watching together.
But about 20 years ago—beginning in the early 1990s—network television started gearing Saturday morning television toward adults. The result is what we see today; the major networks airing adult-oriented news (complete with fluff) every Saturday morning, in their continued saturation of minds seeking a limited understanding of events and issues which we can blame on those with opposing political views. This all got me to wondering…whatever happened to Saturday morning cartoons?
Needless to say, this was something I found necessary to look into the background of in order to understand why such an integral part of many childhoods no longer exists.
In The Beginning:
For those unfortunate enough not to have experienced such relatively simpler (and imaginative) times, it’s necessary to understand that there was no internet, no computer is nearly every home, no video games, no zillion-channel cable TV subscriptions, no children eager to shed their childhoods too early because they understood boundaries. There were structured homes, complete with chores, children who weren’t given a choice but to attend school…and only 3 major television networks. These things kept us plenty busy and otherwise occupied during the week to the point where we were looking forward to the 3-4 hours during the weekend that life—and television—catered exclusively to us.
In the early days of Saturday morning television, the networks utilized cartoons from [the] major movie studios which had been shown previously in theaters (the 1940s and 50s) prior to the feature film presentation. Cartoon shorts from Warner Brothers’ Merry Melodies characters (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, etc.), along with Paramount Pictures (Popeye the Sailor), Fleischer Studios (Superman) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Tom & Jerry) and others were spliced together to create entire shows featuring the individual and associated characters that aired during the time initial period of Saturday morning in the early 1960s.
Eventually, beginning in the late-1960s and early 70s, the networks started contracting for more original programming…and advertisers followed suit. With so much time and money vested in this time period, the networks began promoting their respective Saturday morning children’ lineups as much as they would their weeknight primetime programming. In fact, prior to the beginning of each new fall television season—usually on a Friday night a week or two before the new season started—the networks would host a primetime preview special, hosted by some recognizable primetime television personality. Original program included Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids, The Superfriends, Hong Kong Phooey, and a universe of others. Other original programs included animated spinoffs to lie-action primetime adult shows, such as Alf, The Brady Kids, Star Trek, The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang, and many others.
The Start of The Decline of Saturday Morning Television:
But not everyone watching Saturday morning children’s television was amused. Forces were gathering from both outside and within the industry which would soon spell the end of an era for this symbol of television and youthful innocence from the days of old.
During the 1970s, network executives began to be swayed by the influence and the rise of parent watchdog groups (such as the Action for Children's Television) seeking to limit the amount of questionable themes underpinning many Saturday morning children’ programming, such as the “message” of “gratuitous violence,” “stereotyping,” and other “negative content.” Hoping to stave off the growing chorus of government regulation of these programs, the networks began to sanitize the programming airing in the once-coveted Saturday morning time period. Shows were now pressured to air programming which highlighted for example the virtues of friendship, teamwork, the power of goodness, and other notions as sugary-coated as the cereal commercials between these programs. Many shows which didn’t convey newly-instituted themes of positive moral and/or ethical values were no longer aired on network television. Instead, old favorites like the Superfriends were retooled to include object lessons for regular viewers. In addition, new shows contained heavy doses of moral anecdotes and/or a more lighthearted appeal, such as the live-action Shazam! and The Kroff’s Supershow (forgotten in this morass of clashing ideologies was the fact that older cartoons were geared toward a different audience, with a different level of sensitivities. Children were starting to be raised differently, with less adult supervision).
However, by the 1980s, many animation companies found it more and more difficult to produce new programming which adhered to the new guidelines. In some cases, the networks sought programs produced from other countries, as exhibited by ABC’s Mighty Orbots from the mid-80s. Furthermore, the demands by networks for new original programming (adhering to the new standards) put a level of strain on the production companies. Union actors/voice actors demanded better working conditions, striking to demand an end to labor-intensive production requirements which often caused them work to the point of strained fatigue. The networks began seeking non-union actors who could fill this void. Finally, many of the executives and creative teams responsible for the best Saturday morning cartoons from the period of the 70s and 80s had began either retiring en masse, or were transferred to other programming departments.
Ultimately, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) did begin officially compelling educational and content requirements—the "educational or informative" (E/I) logos placed at the beginning of each program—this made it harder for networks to find children programming with the same entertainment value and commercial appeal as that it had promoted during the previous decades. This new reality, coupled with the rise of syndicated cartoon offerings from non-network affiliated television (G.I. Joe, Transformers, and The ThunderCats, and so many others) that weren’t affected by the new standards; the rise of cable networks geared exclusively toward children (Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel); the rise of revenue-generating infomercials in Saturday morning timeslots, and the one-by-one folding of animation production companies made traditional Saturday morning children programming unappealing to network executives.
Instead of waking up Saturday mornings, watching cartoons which indulge youthful fantasies and reinforce the notion of what a wonderful and innocent time childhood should be, children—and adults—today are oversaturated with adult news of an adult world which forces them to grow up and lose their innocence earlier than they should. How I miss the days when we could take one day off during the week from real life and just laugh a little, or engage in a few hours escapism that makes living a little bit easier.
Just a little food for thought on a Saturday morning.
(See also: The Future is Now…and It Sucks! (or..."When I Was Your Age...!))