Sunday, 13 June 2010

Kids' Afternoon Programming on the American Television Part Three

The Return of Children's Programming to Weekday Afternoons


In the Fifties late weekday afternoons were the dominant time slots for children's programming on television, so much so that the networks even scheduled programming at the time. In the Sixties Saturday mornings would become the dominant time slots for children's programming. From the late Sixties into the Seventies children's programming would become less and less common, as reruns of primetime series and syndicated talk shows were scheduled more and more often in the afternoon. By the Eighties children's programming on weekday afternoons was found primarily on independent stations and only a few others. That having been said, it would be in the early Eighties that children's programming on late weekday afternoons would make a gradual, but dramatic comeback.

The return of children's programming would be the result of two factors. The first ultimately went back to two animated series which had debuted in fall 1969 on ABC's Saturday morning line up. Both Hot Wheels and Skyhawks were based on lines of toys produced by Mattel. Both cartoons resulted in howls or protests from children's advocacy groups and similar groups that the two shows were essentially half hour advertisements for toys. As a result in 1971 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) developed guidelines for commercial content in children's programming and a vague definition of what was a programme length commercial. In 1974 the FCC issued its Children's TV Report and Policy Statement. Among other things, the Children's TV Report and Policy Statement limited commercials to no more than nine and a half minutes per every half hour, dictated the use of bumpers to separate the programmes themselves from adverts, banned the hawking of wares by television show hosts, banned programme length commercials, and asserted that a certain amount of time should be set aside for programming which would "educate and inform--and not simply entertain."

While the FCC and advocacy groups may have hoped that the Children's TV Report and Policy Statement would lead to more and better programming on broadcast networks and local stations, in the end it would not. Neither the broadcast networks nor the local stations rushed to create children's programming for weekdays, and the majority of children's programming still aired on Saturday morning. All of this would change in 1981. Ronald Reagan appointed Mark Fowler as head of the FCC. Mr. Fowler regarded television not as a public service, but as a business like any other. Indeed, he referred to television as simply "...a toaster with pictures." Under Mr. Fowler's leadership, the FCC lifted its guidelines created by 1974's Children's TV Report and Policy Statement. This would be followed in 1984 by the FCC ruling that TV stations could air as many minutes of commercials as they wished in any given hour. This in effect removed the restriction on programme length commercials (it is because of this that we have infommercials to this day). On the surface, it would seem that deregulating children's programming would have resulted in even less children's programming airing on television. Instead it had the opposite effect. Not only would the first animated series made for syndication in literally years arrive on the scene, but children's programming would actually increase on late weekday afternoons for the first time for years.

This brings us to the second factor which would lead to the return of children's shows to late weekday afternoons. Surprisingly, this factor was not due to local stations, let alone a broadcast network, but one of the biggest toy manufacturers in the world. It was in 1981 that Mattel introduced a line of action figures called Masters of the Universe. Even before the FCC lifted its ban on programme length commercials, Mattel turned to Filmation to develop an animated series which would promote the Masters of the Universe line of toys. The idea for the series was pitched to ABC, who turned it down (perhaps fearing the same result as their last experience with Mattel regarding Hot Wheels and Skyhawks). Mattel and Filmation then decided to simply syndicate the 65 half hour episodes of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe to television stations across the country. The series debuted on September 5, 1983. It was only a few months later, in December 1983, that the FCC lifted its 1974 guidelines on children's programming. Airing in the late afternoon on most television stations, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe would prove to be phenomenal success. It was in only a little less than a year that He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was seen in 147 television markets, covering nearly 87% of the United States.

It would be the same season that Inspector Gadget would debut in first run syndication. A cooperative effort of Canada, France, Japan, Taiwan, and the United States (including the animation studios Nelvana in Canada and DIC in France). While Inspector Gadget would not see the phenomenal success that He-Man and the Masters of the Universe saw, it would prove popular. In fact, it ultimately outlasted He-Man and the Masters of the Universe by a long shot.

It was after the successes of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Inspector Gadget  that yet more animated series entered syndication. The 1984-1985 season would see the debut of  two series which each adapted several different anime series together. Voltron and Robotech would be the first anime series in well over a decade to see any lasting success in the United States. The season would also see the premiere of two more series which promoted lines of toys: Transformers and Challenge of the Gobots. The next several years would see many more cartoons debuting in first run, all of them airing primarily on late weekday afternoons. Among them were G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1985, based on Hasbro's line of toys), Jem (1985, also based on a line of Hasbro toys), The Centurions (1985), Defenders of the Universe (1985, featured King Features Syndicate characters Flash Gordon, Mandrake the Magician, and The Phantom), The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers (1986), The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin (1987, based on the toy), BraveStarr (1987), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987, based on the popular comic book), and C.O.P.S. (1988).

It was perhaps because of the success of animated series in first run syndication in the late Eighties that The Walt Disney Company created a two hour programming block of cartoons for syndication in 1990 called The Disney Afternoon. The Disney Afternoon consisted of four, self contained series (each of which could also be aired on their own, if a station so desired). In its first season The Disney Afternoon largely consisted of shows which had originated elsewhere. DuckTales was a first run syndication series, based on Carl Barks' classic Scrooge McDuck comic books, which had debuted in 1987. Chip 'n' Dale Rescue Rangers had debuted on the Disney Channel as a two hour movie in March 1989, before entering syndication in September 1989. Disney's Adventures of the Gummi Bears was by far the oldest series. It had debuted in 1985 on NBC where it stayed for four seasons, before moving to ABC for one more season. Only Talespin, based on characters from Disney's animated version of The Jungle Book (but perhaps borrowing heavily from the short lived Eighties primetime series Tales of the Gold Monkey), was brand new.

Even consisting of primarily older cartoons, The Disney Afternoon proved highly successful. Indeed, it would produce its own highly successful shows which maintain cult followings to this day. It was in the second season of The Disney Afternoon that Darkwing Duck debuted. A rather clever parody of such pulp characters as The Shadow and The Spider and such superheroes as Batman, with a touch of James Bond thrown in for good measure. It centred on wealthy Drake Mallard, who by night fought crime as Darkwing Duck. The cartoon block's other hit would be Gargoyles. Gargoyles centred on nocturnal beings, who literally become stone gargoyles by day, who attempt to adapt to life in modern day New York while fighting supernatural menaces. The series was an attempt on Disney's part to attract older viewers. To this end its scripts tended to be very intelligent, with  often complex story arcs and well developed characters.

The Disney Afternoon proved highly successful, although it began to falter as the Nineties progressed due to competition from other cartoon blocks (more on that briefly). In its seventh season it was cut back to ninety minutes and in its eighth season to only an hour. In its ninth and final season, 1998 to 1999, The Disney Afternoon was increased back to ninety minutes. It was then cancelled in 1999, when Disney agreed with UPN to develop the Disny's One Too cartoon block aired on weekdays and Sunday mornings.

It was also in 1990 that a broadcast network would finally return children's programming to weekday afternoons. Fox Kids (a name also used for the Fox network's Saturday morning line up, which also debuted in 1990) was largely created because of The Disney Afternoon. When DuckTales debuted in 1987, it was on Fox owned and operated stations, as well as many of the network's affiliates. It was in 1988 that Disney purchased KHJ-TV, Los Angeles (now KCAL-TV).  Since Disney wanted its successful DuckTales to air on the station they had just purchased, they promptly took DuckTales from Fox owned and operated KTTV, Los Angeles. Fox was not happy with this manoeuvre, and not only removed DuckTales from every station they owned, but encouraged their affiliates to remove it from their schedules as well (even though most did not). Naturally when Disney developed The Disney Afternoon, Fox set about developing the Fox Kids afternoon line up. It would be the first time since ABC's Discovery moved from weekdays to Sunday mornings that a major network would programme children's shows in the afternoon.

Perhaps fittingly, the Fox Kids weekday afternoon block and The Disney Afternoon would debut with two days of each other--Fox Kids on September 8, 1990 and The Disney Afternoon on September 10, 1990. Initially the Fox Kids afternoon line up was at a rather large disadvantage when compared to The Disney Afternoon. While The Disney Afternoon aired two hours every day, in its first season the Fox Kids afternoon line up only aired a half hour. Unlike The Disney Afternoon, however, the Fox Kids weekday afternoon would grow very rapidly. In 1991 it was increased to ninety minutes. By 1993 it was a full two and a half hours. Eventually the weekday line up would be a full three hours in length.

Initially the Fox Kids weekday block was also at a bit of a disadvantage as far as animated series. Unlike Disney, Fox did not have an established hit series such as DuckTales it could schedule in the time slot. In fact, until 1990 Fox had aired no cartoons at all beyond The Simpsons (the adult prime time series which debuted in December 1989). It would not be long before Fox Kids would overtake The Disney Afternoon in terms of popular shows. In its very first season it produced a hit in the form of Bobby's World, which managed to last eight seasons. It would be in the 1992-1993 and 1993-1994 that Fox Kids  would debut two series which would surpass anything The Disney Afternoon had every produced in terms of popularity. In the 1992-1993 season Batman: The Animated Series would debut on the Fox Kids afternoon line up. Based on the comic book characters, Batman: The Animated Series was a highly stylised series which drew upon both the graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns and 1989 movie Batman. The series would receive critical acclaim for its writing (which often appealed more to adults than children) and its stylised, neo-noir animation. It would also receive more than its fair share of criticism from moral watchdogs for the violence it sometimes contained.

The other breakout hit on the Fox Kids line up would be another series which would largely appeal to adults. It was in the 1993-1994 season that Animaniacs would debut. Animaniacs was a half hour, animated series inspired by the classic cartoons of Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, and Chuck Jones. Its format was extremely fluid and it featured a wide array of characters. Perhaps the most central characters of the series were the Warner Brothers and Sister, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot, three cartoon stars from the Thirties imprisoned in the water tower on the Warner Brothers lot from the Thirties to the Nineties. Another major character featured in her own segments was Slappy Squirrel, an ageing cartoon star from the Thirities loosely based on Tex Avery's Screwy Squirrel. Two other major characters would be the breakout stars of the series. Pinky and the Brain were two genetically engineered lab mice. While Pinky was a good natured imbecile, Brain was a genius and megalomaniac plotting to take over the world. Pinky and the Brain would be spun off into their own series in 1995. Animaniacs was characterised by the sort of slapstick violence found in the classic Warner Brothers theatrical shorts, catchphrases, running gags, in jokes, pop culture references, and parodies of everything from Gilbert and Sullivan to A Hard Day's Night. At times Animaniacs would nearly pass the line of what was acceptable in a children's time slot, particularly in shorts featuring Minerva Mink, which were often overtly sexual.

Just as the Fox Kids afternoon line up would provide competition for The Disney Afternoon, Fox Kids would face new competition when the Kids' WB afternoon line up was launched in 1995. Worse yet, the fledgeling WB network, owned by Warner Brothers, would deal a very hurtful blow to Fox when it took what were probably its two most popular shows (Batman: The Animated Series and Animaniacs, both produced by Warner Brothers) away from Fox Kids. For many years Fox Kids was the number one children's programming block on television; it was eventually overtaken by the Kids' WB.

While the Kids' WB had overtaken Fox Kids, by 2001 many of Fox's affiliates felt confident enough that they could air their own programming and compete with NBC, CBS, and ABC affiliates. As a result, many of the affiliates wanted the time that had been used for the Fox Kids block. It was then in 2001 that Fox abandoned children's programming in the afternoon  Fox Kids would continue on Saturday morning until 2002, when 4Kids Entertainment was hired to take over Fox's Saturday morning schedule. 4Kids Entertainment and Fox would end their agreement in 2008, at which Fox ceased programming children's shows even on Saturday morning.

In 1995 the amount of children's programming on broadcast stations would increase even more. In January of that year two new broadcast networks launched: UPN (United Paramount Network) and The WB. UPN would be the first to launch a block on children's programming on weekday mornings and a block of children's programming on Saturday mornings. Branded UPN Kids, it would never expand to weekday afternoons. It also proved to be unsuccessful. UPN Kids would only last until 1999, when it was replaced by block of children's programming created by Disney called Disney's One Too.

Unlike UPN, The WB waited until September 9, 1995 to launch their blocks of children programming, branded Kids' WB.  In the beginning the Kid's WB aired on weekdays from 4 PM to 5 PM and on Saturday mornings from 9:00 AM to 11:00 AM. The Kid's WB would take two of Fox Kids' most popular shows: Batman: The Animated Series and Animaniacs  The WB would spin the series Pinky and the Brain off from Animaniacs, originally airing in primetime before moving it to the Kid's WB in 1996. Not only did the Kid's WB take two popular shows from Fox, but they also debuted another anthology series featuring classic Warner Brothers shorts entitled That's Warner Brothers! With 62 years worth of classic animation to draw upon, not to mention 57 years worth of superheroes (Warner Brothers also owns DC Comics), there should be little wonder that  the Kid's WB would eventually overtake Fox Kids.

Indeed, in 1996 both the weekday afternoon and Saturday morning editions of the Kid's WB would expand by an hour. In 1997 a weekday morning edition of the Kid's WB, an hour in length, would begin airing. The reason that the Kid's WB was able to expand so swiftly was that it produced some of the most popular cartoons of the Nineties. In its early years it would air Freakazoid (1995), Superman: The Animated Series (1996), Tiny Toon Adventures (1997), and Batman Beyond (1999). In 1999 the Kid's WB would have an unexpected smash hit the anime series Pokemon. The success of Pokemon would lead the Kid's WB to air more anime over the next many years, including Sailor Moon (1999), Cardcaptor Sakura (2000), Yu-Gi-Oh (2001), and a new version of Astro Boy (2001).

Unfortunately, the Kid's WB would not last. In 2001 the WB dropped their weekday morning cartoon block, giving the time back to its affiliates. Another problem emerged as a result of Time-Warner's merger (although it was more like a takeover) with the Turner Broadcasting System in 1996. As a result of the merger, cartoons which originally aired on the Kid's WB would air on the Cartoon Network and vice versa. The Powerpuff Girls would join the Kid's WB line up, while Pokemon would air on the Cartoon Network. After a few years the Cartoon Network was beating both Fox Kids and the Kid's WB in the ratings. As a result the WB's affiliates found the block less attractive than they had in earlier years, and asked that it be ended.  It was then in January 2006 that the WB cancelled the weekday afternoon edition of the Kid's WB.   It was replaced by the Daytime WB, which consisted of reruns of primetime sitcoms.  The Kid's WB  would continue as a Saturday morning block even after UPN and the WB merged to form the CW in 2006. The Kid's WB was finally brought to an end in May 2008, nearly two years after its original network had ceased. It was replaced on Saturday mornings by the CW4Kids, a block programmed by 4Kids Entertainment.

As mentioned earlier, in 1999 UPN discontinued UPN Kids in favour of Disney's One Too. Disney's One Too was at the same time a companion block to ABC's Disney's One Saturday Morning and a continuation to a degree of The Disney Afternoon. Disney's One Too would air on Sunday mornings, as well as weekdays. With regards to weekdays, affiliates could either air the block from 7:00-9:00 AM or 3:00-5:00 PM. In the beginning Disney's One Too aired some cartoons which had originated on The Disney Afternoon.  Both Hercules: The Animated Series and Doug had been part of The Disney Afternoon in its last season. It also aired shows that were part of ABC's Saturday morning line up, including Pepper Ann and Sabrina the Animated Series. Disney's One Too would not prove successful, and it was cancelled in 2002 by UPN. This made UPN the only channel at the time which aired no children's programming.

Since 2006 no network has aired children's programming on late weekday afternoons. This TV, a small network formed in 2008, has aired a block of children's show called Cookie Jar Toons (produced by Canada's Cookie Jar Entertainment), but the block only airs on Sunday, weekday, and Sunday mornings. With but a few exceptions on independent stations, weekday afternoons are once more dominated largely by talk shows, with the occasional sitcom rerun or game show thrown in for good measure. I must admit that I find this sad myself. I have no doubt that much of this is due to the fond memories I have of my childhood of watching cartoons on weekday afternoons. At the same time, however, I think there is place for children's programming on the networks on weekday afternoons. It is true that many children can watch children's programming on several different cable channels in the afternoon. That having said, the sad fact it that not every single household has access to cable television or satellite television. Since households without cable or satellite are dependent on broadcast stations for their television viewing, and the vast majority of television stations in the United States do not air children's programming of an afternoon, this means that the children these households have nothing whatsoever to watch on weekday afternoons. I very seriously doubt that the average child finds Oprah or The Tyra Banks Show interesting (I don't even find them interesting). It seems to me that the networks and local stations need to rethink things a bit. Granted they would have to compete with the Cartoon Network, the Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon, but I rather suspect they might find it worth their while.

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