After These Messages….the Slow Death of Saturday Morning Cartoons

Several weeks ago on September 27th, many of my compatriots in the world signified it as the day that Saturday Morning Cartoons died. It passed away quietly to say the least; no one knelt by it’s bedside, no one took note of the symptoms. At 11:59am, after the credits rolled and whatever regularly scheduled programming cued up, Saturday Morning Cartoons faded into our collective memories like hypercolor shirts and Home Alone movies. But in all seriousness, what we know as Saturday Morning Cartoons has slowly been dying since the early to mid 90s. With the advent of weekday cartoon programming along with channels dedicated to cartoon programs like The Hub, Fox Family, Cartoon Network, Boomerang, and Nickelodeon this has been a death long in the making.

Taking a poll, when was the last time any of us got up early to watch a Saturday Morning Cartoon on Network TV? That mean up and present at the time it was being played, not streamed after the fact or TiVo’d and watched later. I bet it’s not many, but that’s not the main contributing factor to why they are gone now. Over the last 20 years of Saturday Morning Cartoons has become less of a major factor in all of our lives. Since it’s inception in the 1960s, Saturday Morning Cartoons grew from it’s simple beginnings of Flintstones, Jetsons, and Scooby-Doo. In the 1970s, Hanna Barbera stepped up their game and brought us all a new flood of colourful characters. Then the 1980s explosion of Filmation, Warner Brothers, Rankin Bass and other companies brought us the staples of true nostalgia like He-Man, Thundercats, GI Joe, Transformers and other shows far too numerous to mention in one post alone. Another thing happened in the 1980s, and that was mass marketing of children’s programming. That was amplified in the 90s but another thing that happened was the first blow to the sanctity of Saturday Morning Cartoons; September 10th 1990 brought us the Disney Afternoon.

The Disney Afternoon wasn’t the first time there was children’s programming during the week, but it was the first time there was shows exclusively in the middle of the week that weren’t recapped or replayed on the weekend. Also, being the heavy hitter cartoon powerhouse that was Disney, not only did we get great original programming like Gummi Bears, Ducktales, Bonkers, and Darkwing Duck but we also got further adventures of Disney movie blockbusters like Aladdin and Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. I’m not sure if Disney has the same power now that it did back then, but I knew kids growing up that if it wasn’t Disney; they didn’t watch it and didn’t care.

Warner Brothers isn’t one to take the undeclared cartoon cold war sitting down. 4 days later on September 14th, 1990, Warner Bros presented Tiny Toon Adventures. Tiny Toon Adventures opened the door for Warner Bros to roll out not only other shows like Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, Freakzoid, and other shows but for a good portion of the mid-to-late 90s and early 2000s Warner Bros had their own TV station that played cartoons during the weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings. Joining forces with Steven Spielberg as an executive producer was just about the best way to secure not only a top notch product that would be enjoyed by both kids and adults, but also garner the attention of the media and the awards committee.

Both the Disney Afternoon and the Warner Bros animation block (sorry, not sure if it had it’s own designation) had taken it’s toll on the to-that-point revered Saturday morning cartoons. Sure there was in-fighting between Disney and Warner Bros; pitting their trademark characters against each other for TV time slot supremacy. In the fray we got a couple of great, gritty and more adult shows from both companies with Batman the Animated Series and Gargoyles. The other channels had their hand in undermining both the Disney and Warner Bros powerhouses and Saturday Morning Cartoons by playing cartoons early in the morning on weekdays.

Let’s not forget the onslaught of cable network cartoons, spearheaded by the fine folks over at Nickelodeon / MTV / Viacom as a whole. Shows like Doug, Rugrats, Wild Thornberry’s, and other lighter fare appealed to both younger and older viewers while Aeon Flux, Ren and Stimpy, Liquid Television and Beavis and Butthead are the reasons I became a preteen insomniac. They were fresh, different and had more realistic themes along with crazy, grotesque, drug induced frenzy of the late night shows. They revolutionized cartoon viewing by bringing back the essence of old freak out comics of the 70s in animated form, which was great because I’ve been a fan of R. Crumb, Ralph Bakshi, and Harvey Peakar since I was about 6 years old. You can look at the work of Clasky-Csupo and see a lot of references back to those artists in their work. Nickelodeon has continued to be a big player in the televised cartoon world, most recently with the newest incarnation of the Ninja Turtles.

Also in the early 1990s we got Cartoon Network. Granted it wasn’t till the late 1990s when most of the country got to know it better when their original programming started to garner the attention of both kids and adults. It was the beginning of the end for Saturday Morning Cartoons as we knew it. Cartoon Network branched out for the first time in the late 1990s from it’s repertoire of classic Warner Bros and MGM/Universal cartoons and started it’s own in-house productions like Powerpuff Girls and Dexter’s Lab. Another exciting time for animation fans for sure, not only were they shows that all ages clicked with but many of the in-house shows from Cartoon Network still bring back great nostalgia moments with people who aren’t active cartoon watchers. Cartoon Network was also instrumental in bringing anime back to American TV in their Toonami animation block that ran every weekday in the afternoon and late nights on the weekends. Other channels followed suit by adding mainstream shows like Pokemon and Digimon to their Saturday Morning line ups, but it may have just been too little too late.

Let us also not forget more adult oriented cartoons in general. Simpsons led the way, which ran strong and unopposed for years till South Park and the never ending glut of cartoons from Seth MacFarlane along with the programming on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. They provided cartoons for us who never really grew up who still loved cartoons but grew tired of the silly simplicity of happy animated characters. They gave us foul mouthed kids, talking action figures, and mildly alcoholic pets that expressed the inner us better than Friends or other sitcoms could. Now these adults (and sometimes unmonitored children) didn’t have to get up early for our cartoon fix, sleep in and stay up late because the good stuff comes on later.

From about 2000 up to a few weeks back, Saturday Morning Cartoons on network TV was lackluster to say the least. Better shows have migrated to the bigger cable TV channels like HUB, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and other channels. Occasionally you’d hear some buzz about a Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon or other relatively under the radar show, but just as soon as you’d hear about it the show was over and cancelled and those not in the know were reduced to hunting down the show somewhere online. A long, lingering death was the ultimate end of what we all knew as Saturday Morning Cartoons. A few of us noticed but few of us cared, for many of us they’ve been dead for a long time.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this haphazard rehash of cartoon history.

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