M.Y.O.P.I.A. # 20: The Drastically Subtle Shift of Saturday Morning Cartoons

The cartoons are gone! No longer do national networks piece together a lineup of eclectic talking animals, heroes, adventurers, or sleuths. No longer do local channels create their own unique feel to Saturday morning, with original hosts, jingles, or commentary. In place of the electric animated shine that once lit living rooms, there are fishing shows, sports, and news. Cable and streaming are widespread, and cartoons are accessible nearly anytime and anywhere. But cartoons used to be about as important to Saturdays as tires to a car, or milk to cereal—yes it can be eaten dry, but who would do such a thing?

Saturday morning cartoons used to be a real big deal. Sometimes a neighborhood stayed quiet until noon or so, when the cartoons typically ended. All the major networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox, featured hours of cartoons. With all the networks vying for kid’s attention, competition was fierce enough to make the shows top-notch. Saturday mornings were a place where characters from Disney or Warner Bos., D.C. or Marvel, intermingled right next to one another. Children had important choices for what to watch, and if they had siblings, fights ensued over control of the remote.

Gearing Saturday mornings toward kids goes nearly back to the birth of television. On this day of the week when kids didn’t have school, when parents possibly didn’t have work and wanted to sleep in, networks began to air shows like Howdy Doodey and the live-action Superman. Advertisers soon saw the benefit of TV directed primarily at kids. Cartoons that had previously shown in theaters like Tom & Jerry, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, were soon brought to Saturday mornings. Cartoons proved a broad appeal with kids, popular with wide age groups, and popular on reruns. By the 60s, the three major networks all showed cartoons on Saturday morning (Fox didn’t become a network until 1986).

Each decade saw shifts in trends. Major production companies like Hanna-Barbara introduced character conglomerates in the 60s. Superhero cartoons became popular, as did band-based shows like the Beatles cartoon. The 70s saw a wave of live-action adaptations, like the Star Trek cartoon, Animated Gilligan, even ugh… Brady Kids, but perhaps the most influential Saturday morning cartoon of that decade was Scooby-Doo. In the 80s, an era of fantasticism and fairy tales stemmed from the introduction of Smurfs. The decade also saw movie adaptations, from Star Wars to Karate Kid. The 90s saw a resurgence in superheroes, paired with many comedy-based cartoons. By the end of the decade, Pokemon and anime influence carried over into the 2000s, and by this decade, the end was already nigh for most networks.

Many things are often cited for the demise of network cartoons. Cable TV, of course, cut into popularity. The uptick in divorces in the 90s was hypothesized as an influence on Saturday morning cartoons—parents with weekend custody wanted to spend time with kids rather than watching TV. There is also the factor of network purchases a.k.a. monopolization, that started in the late 90s. But the real culprit of the Saturday-morning demise was politics.

Anyone who watched Saturday morning cartoons will likely remember PSAs, or short skits at the end of shows that showed a hero teaching a confused kid a lesson. If those things don’t ring a bell, how about the School House Rock bell? In the 70s, parental watch groups became concerned with children watching too many cartoons on Saturdays. The FCC stepped in and began to mandate educational requirements for Saturday mornings. Networks didn’t dream of losing revenue from advertisers, so complied. Until the 80s, when the Reagan administration saw it is an unfair burden for networks to help educate kids and lifted these requirements.

By the late 80s, however, congress began to tighten up on children’s entertainment again. After Reagan, the government got back to putting educational requirements on networks and the Children’s Television Act of 1990 was passed. This required every network to air at least three hours of educational shows during peak viewing hours for children. This law only applied to networks and not cable channels, since cable doesn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the FCC.

NBC tried switching formats from Saturdays cartoons to the the strictly live-action TNBC (clever for Teen NBC), and they tried to count things like Saved by the Bell as educational. Other networks showed “after school specials,” but some networks just plain ignored the law. To further enforce and strengthen the demand on networks to air educational content, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed.

The act strengthened the FCC’s enforcement power on educational mandates. Shortly after, CBS dropped out of the cartoon game in ’97 to show only live-action, quasi-educational kid’s shows on Saturday.  Why did CBS switch to live-action? Both laws affected advertising time during cartoons. Programs aimed at young children are permitted fewer advertising minutes. Cartoons, even if seemingly made for older kids, have that broad appeal factor to kids of different ages and are more strictly mandated by the FCC. Cartoons thus, offered networks less revenue to sell ad space. On the other hand, live-action shows, especially if clearly aimed at older kids, still allowed for a maximum number of commercial slots.

The 1996 law also changed ownership rights on channels and Disney quickly swept up ABC. Cartoons on ABC were soon only produced by Disney, but as cable grew more common, the company showed less cartoons on the network, and didn’t need to essentially, compete against their own cable channels. So ABC dropped the Saturday cartoon line-up by 2002.

Fox had seemed like the dominant force in Saturday morning cartoons in the 90s. They managed to hold out showing cartoons on Saturdays until 2008. The technical end of Saturday morning cartoons, however, is 2014. During the 2000s, the CW became a national network and the channel was the last to show Saturday morning cartoons until they also eventually changed their programming to educational content. Even most educational content aimed at children on Saturdays has waned in recent years. Networks can meet their educational quota at different times, and there are apparently some loopholes that have allowed news programs to count as children’s entertainment. Whatever the case, networks that were once so rich with programs meant for kids, are now comparatively, a wasteland of TV boredom.

It’s a shame that many people probably took little notice of the change on Saturdays. Sure, adults have other things to do. The change in programming isn’t exactly breaking news in this article. Nor is this first article on the internet lamenting the loss of Saturday cartoons. Still, many adults may only really feel the true loss when they themselves have children, and on a Saturday morning set out searching the networks for cartoons to watch with their kids. If they don’t have cable, they’re going to find themselves shit out of luck. The tradition of those Saturday morning cartoons lasted around sixty years. Generations had bonded over them, and even grandparents and older people used to ask children if they’d watched their cartoons on Saturdays.

Yes, cartoons do exist in abundance today, but the thing is, the cartoon world is arguably rather diluted. There are tons of cartoons, but does innovative stuff really stem from giant media corporations producing their own shows? Do streaming services seek quality over quantity? With the changes in TV and technology, perhaps it was inevitable that the Saturday morning cartoon tradition died off. The day once had such charm though. There was also something exciting to watching something as it aired and knowing neighbors and friends were watching at the same time. Competition made for amazing cartoons, and many of these once popular cartoons linger around in pop-culture today.

There is at least, a silver lining to the loss of network cartoons on Saturdays. Sixty years brought about some really great shows. Cartoons have that broad appeal, remember. Cartoons of the past can often be just as poignant and enjoyable as they once were. Advances in technology allows for a huge back catalog of shows once aired on Saturday mornings. So parents and kids alike can enjoy the best cartoons from decade’s past.

May the spirit of Saturday morning cartoons live on for many years to come.