This past weekend truly saw the end of an era. Cartoons no
longer appear in the schedules for the Saturday morning timeslots on the
broadcast networks as they have for the past 50 years. Despite a long and slow
decline from their peak, they remained a consistent presence despite uproar and
upheaval, and continued to entertain to the bitter end.
And it was a bitter end; just one network out of five
continued to broadcast animated content. Peter Sciretta has a pretty detailed
history of the concept throughout the decades and it makes for sobering
The causes of the eventual decline are many, but as Mark
Evanier discusses, what it boils down to is money. Essentially cartoons on
a Saturday morning were no longer profitable; audiences having drifted away to
cable networks, video games, and the internet. The media landscape and
audiences shifted, but Saturday morning cartoons did not.
Yet they persevered in a way that would make any live-action
show weak at the knees. Re-runs turned out to be incredibly lucrative, and
audiences didn’t seem to mind in the least. Numerous shows such as Scooby Doo
have led multiple lives throughout the years, and the nostalgia factor has
brought many long-dead shows back to life for both the small and large screens.
The Saturday morning timeslot also saved a few cartoons from
certain extinction. The Flintstones and The Jetsons found a new home after
getting booted from prime time, and became ingrained in the minds of kids for
decades after their original runs. Arguably their continued popularity today
would not be near as large had they vanished from the airwaves after being
True, things were not always positive. Entities such as Action
for Children’s Television (ACT) helped force the hand of the FCC and bring
about the relatively bland and uneventful ‘detective’ shows of the 1970s, and
the rise of toyetic
shows throughout the 1980s fueled derision of animated cartoons as a backwater
for entertainment and blatant exploitation of kids by corporations. If all
these accusations were true, the audience never complained!
That said, Saturday morning cartoons remained a stagnant art
form that saw little, if any, significant innovation down through the years.
When Nickelodeon kickstarted the creator-driven phenomenon with the original
Nicktoons, it highlighted just how outdated and constrained the animation being
broadcast on TV had become. Throw in a dose of the Simpsons in primetime, and
the floodgates of creative animation were irreversibly opened.
Unable, or unwilling to invest in original content, and
ultimately strangled by E/I requirements,
the twilight years saw schedules filled with imported cartoons. Even then,
these continued to attract audiences but their numbers dwindled to the point
where it became all to obvious that the only reason they remained in the
schedule was because they fulfilled a legal requirement.
As wanton as it to mourn the decline of the vaunted Saturday
morning cartoon, its decline and ultimate demise has thankfully not mirrored
that of animation overall. Today there are four networks broadcasting animation
on a near round-the-clock basis, and the internet has given kids and adults
access to new and exciting animation whenever they want.
The standard of what’s available has never been greater
either. Creator-driven shows have been consistent ratings hits, and have been
the main force behind innovation in the artform for almost 25 years. The web is
practically just getting started, and it’s safe to say that that medium will
continue to push the boundaries of constitutes animated content for years to
As for the shows we fondly remember through nostalgia-tinged
glasses, they will continue to exist in our memories, and we should be grateful
that they were around when they were.