2014 marked the end of many traditions that pop culture fans hold dear. One of the most surprising announcements was the official heralding of the death of Saturday morning cartoons. In September, the CW network’s parent company, Warner Bros., officially ended their run of morning long schedules of animated series, and reverted to cheaper educational programming in a time slot that barely filled three hours.
The CW was the last holdout in what was once a large race by television networks for advertisers, toy companies, and food corporations to win over young audiences. Once upon a time before cable television and the Internet every Saturday morning was a feast of animation and occasional live action fare for kids to enjoy.
Back in 1988, I fondly remember waking up very early on a Saturday to watch cartoons, and would officially pack up and prepare for the day the minute twelve drew near and local sports began to air. Back then, kids shows began airing as early as five in the morning, and would end their run around one in the afternoon.
And during its prime, on New York stations you could find Saturday Morning Cartoons on NBC, CBS, FOX, ABC, and WPIX. CBS and NBC ducked out of the competition early in the mid-nineties, while the latter three stations wouldn’t just host their own original animated series, but would also syndicate series from Nickelodeon or USA Network. So if you didn’t have cable then, it was a fun treat to watch Gladiators 2000 or Video Power.
From the late seventies to late nineties, Saturday Morning cartoons were celebrated and advertised by networks and turned into an event for the whole family. Every fall, networks would air “Saturday Morning Cartoon Previews” during Friday nights, which were half hour clip shows filled with short glimpses at the new programming premiering that year. If you were a kid during the decade, you always made sure to tune in to TGIF or NBC to see what animated masterpiece the network’s current stars were promoting.
FOX would even air big ratings hits like Power Rangers and X-Men during special Friday night prime time events. This would ensure kids would follow the series in to the next morning, and these tactics often cemented big fan bases for them. To add to what made the mornings so special, networks often used the time slots to experiment with potential programming that didn’t always launch a phenomenon.
ABC is notorious for airing Hammerman and Kid and Play, and even stinkers like Rubik the Amazing Cube and Pac-Man. NBC gave us many animated series based on hit movies like The Karate Kid and Rambo, while CBS even gave surreal kids programming like Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Hey Vern! It’s Ernest. But while the legacy of Saturday morning cartoons has its fair share of animated oddities and cash-ins, it also gave way to a slew of excellent animated series, many of which are still considered classics.
Batman: the Animated Series premiered on FOX Kids Saturday Mornings and is widely acclaimed as a masterpiece of animation, and CBS aired the original animated iteration of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for many years during the franchise’s domination of America. To name a few, there was also The Real Ghostbusters, X-Men, The Tick, Garfield and Friends, and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. My favorite period was 1992-1995. During those years, I could tune in to X-Men, Tales from the Cryptkeeper, Tiny Toon Adventures, or Sonic the Hedgehog.
Everyone has their favorite Saturday morning cartoons they couldn’t do without, and for kids with one TV it was as disorienting as it was fun. Many networks had a lineup of fun cartoons, and you had to pick at least one. If you were lucky enough to own a VCR, perhaps you could tape another lineup, but it’d be at the cost of another show you loved. These days, kids are given the advantage of quick DVD releases of their favorite shows, Netflix, and DVRs with the ability to record five programs at once, so it’s not so much about the hunt anymore.
As the nineties progressed, and technology advanced, the pressure to sell toys and provide top-notch programming was relieved by most networks, since the advent of the Internet allowed them to reach their audience through different avenues. During the early aughts, only three channels aired a few hours of cartoons in the morning, and eventually it boiled down to just one. The remaining lineups became filled with terrible retreads like Loonatics Unleashed, or imported anime like Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh!
Now with the economy, the Internet being an easily accessible utility, and studios finding importing programs cheaper than producing their own, the ritual of Saturday Morning Cartoons went extinct. Plus, when you have to compete with Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, Disney XD, ABC Family, Nick Toons, PBS Kids, and Nick Jr. (and a slew of many other children aimed channels) available for cable subscribers, it likely seemed like the only rational thing for these networks to do.
That said, thirty years was a good run for Saturday morning cartoons. I feel privileged to have been one of the last generations to remember when Saturday mornings began at 5am and ended at 1pm, and cartoons were on every station. I loved getting up when the sun was rising, eating sugary bowls of cereal, being awe inspired at toy commercials, and feeling as if I was being let in on something amazing. Those that were there will forever keep those days with them as precious memories.