Friday, July 9, 2004

Saturday Morning Cartoons

I was looking at the TV schedule the other day and I noticed that CBS now has two hours of The CBS Early Show on Saturday morning. I figure that it is just another nail in the coffin of Saturday morning cartoons. I think the first nail in the coffin of the Saturday morning cartoons occurred back in 1992, when NBC created a Saturday edition of Today and replaced the cartoons with sitcoms and various other programmes.

All in all, it makes me rather sad, like another part of my childhood is fading away. Over the years there have been many attempts to define Generation X. A definition I have never seen for Generation X, but one that I think is entirely accurate, is that we are the first generation that as children never knew a Saturday morning without cartoons. It was in 1955 that CBS introduced the first Saturday morning cartoon, Mighty Mouse Playhouse. Mighty Mouse Playhouse was essentially an anthology of the old Mighty Mouse theatrical shorts. In 1957 NBC followed suit with the first Saturday morning cartoon made specifically for television. This was The Ruff & Reddy Show, the first series from the fledgeling Hanna-Barbera studios. In 1962 all three networks at the time (NBC, CBS, and ABC) started programming for Saturday mornings. By 1964 those three networks had devoted a good part of those Saturday mornings to entire blocks of cartoons. I figure that if the first members of Generation X were born in 1963 (I've seen later years given, but I don't agree with those estimates), then Generation X would have been the first generation that never knew a Saturday morning without cartoons during their childhoods.

Beginning with that pivotal 1964-1965 season was the Golden Age of Saturday Morning Cartoons. The 1964-1965 season alone gave us a couple of classics. On ABC Hoppity Hooper made its premiere. Hoppity Hooper was a creation of Jay Ward, the same man who brought us Rocky and Bullwinkle , Dudley Doright, and George of the Jungle. Unfortunately, Hoppity Hooper did not see the success of those series, although it possessed the same wit that the other Ward shows did. On NBC Underdog debuted. Unlike Hoppity Hooper, Underdog was a huge hit. It ran for 9 straight years (spending one year on Sunday mornings) before leaving the networks for a successful syndication run. It also inspired tons of merchandising and a Macys Thanksgiving Parade balloon (a sure sign of success for any cartoon). In the following years, yet more classic cartoons debuted on Saturday mornings. The Beatles, Space Ghost, Birdman, George of the Jungle, and several others.

IMHO, the end of the Golden Age of Saturday morning cartoons was brought about by two events in 1968. The first was a crackdown on television violence that came in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. All of a sudden the superheroes who had been the toasts of Saturday mornings were personae non gratae. In the middle of the 1968-1969 season, NBC cancelled Birdman and replaced it with Storybook Squares, a kid's version of the game show Hollywood Squares (one of the few live action entries of the season). The second event was the debut of Archie on CBS. Based on the perennial comic book favourite (who first appeared in Pep Comics #22, December, 1941), Archie proved a resounding success. It also signalled a new trend towards comedy on Saturday mornings. If there is only little doubt that the end of the Golden Age was at hand in 1968, there can be no doubt that it was over by 1969. That year saw the debut of one of the most wildly successful cartoons of all time, Scooby Doo, Where are You? (I won't go into how I can not fathom the cartoon's continued popularity here...). Between the success of Archie and Scooby Doo, Where are You?, the network filled Saturday mornings with yet more comedies--more often than not, very lame comedies. In the Seventies, often the best cartoons on Saturday morning were reruns of primetime series--The Jetsons, The Flintstones, and Johnny Quest.

As the years have gone by, there were many attempts to fill Saturday mornings with more educational fare. CBS introduced short segments called In the News which aired in between the cartoons. ABC introduced Schoolhouse Rock, short animated segments which also aired between cartoons. Both were fairly successful. In 1971, NBC went a step further by adding live action, educational shows to their line up with Take a Giant Step and a revival of Mr. Wizard. Both failed. It seemed as if nothing could shake the hold that cartoons had on Saturday mornings. It seems, however, that wasn't true.

The Eighties saw the growth of cable, giving the broadcast networks more competition than ever before. Perhaps the two biggest competitors for the attention of the nation's children came in the form of Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network. Nickelodeon is the first cable channel devoted to children's entertainment. It started in 1979 as Pinwheel, then changed its name in 1981. Throughout its history it has aired educational shows, game shows, sitcoms, and, of course, cartoons. The Cartoon Network was founded in 1992, armed with Turner Broadcasting's impressive film library of old MGM and Warner Brothers shorts. With new outlets for children's programming, both live action and cartoons, the importance of the broadcast networks' Saturday morning programming diminished to a good degree.

Of course, there are still cartoons on Saturday morning. ABC, Fox, and the WB still air cartoons on Saturday morning. CBS airs cartoons produced by Nickelodeon following The CBS Early Show. Even NBC has two cartoons on its Saturday morning schedule, both produced by the Discovery Channel--Kenny the Shark and Tutanstein. But it seems to me that it just isn't the same as when I was a kid. For much of my childhood, Saturday morning cartoons began at 7:00 AM CST and ran until 1:00 PM CST. Today, CBS and ABC end their Saturday morning schedules at 12:00 noon CST. Fox and the WB end theirs even earlier, at 11:00 AM CST. And their Satuday morning line ups aren't entirely cartoons; there are a few live action shows as well. Quite simply, the broadcast networks are showing fewer cartoons on Saturday morning than when I was a child.

Not that it matters. I don't think the broadcast networks' Satuday morning lineup is nearly as important to children today as they were to Generation X. My youngest niece is more likely to be watching Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network, or a DVD on Saturday mornings than the broadcast networks, if she is watching TV at all. She might as likely be playing a video game on any given Saturday morning. Of course, given the quality of some of the cartoons out these days, I can't really blame her. With but few exceptions, none of the cartoons seem to compare to those of my childhood. There is nothing to compare with Underdog or Birdman or George of the Jungle.

Given that most of the broadcast networks are still showing cartoons on Saturday morning, I don't know that Saturday morning cartoons can be said to be gone. Or even that they can be said to be dying off. But I do think that they have decreased in significance. Fewer cartoons. Lower quality in cartoons. And kids these days often do other things than watch cartoons on Saturday morning. It isn't the same as when I was growing up, when nearly every kid was glued to the TV come Saturday morning.

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