The Rise and Fall of Saturday Morning Cartoons

For almost four decades, watching Saturday morning cartoons was a beloved ritual for millions of American kids. So, why were they so controversial?

Mighty Mouse

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If you’re of a certain age, you probably have fond memories of waking up early on Saturday mornings, fixing yourself a sugary bowl of cereal, and plopping down in front of the television in your pajamas to watch hours of cartoons.

From the 1960s until the early 1990s, animated features such as Mighty Mouse, Scooby-Doo, Looney Tunes, Super Friends, and Spider-Man dominated American television sets from the hours of 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays, providing children fond memories they’ve cherished far into adulthood.

But as much as we loved these shows, they weren’t created just to entertain kids; the programs were made to generate revenue for TV networks and toy companies. The enthusiasm for squeezing profits out of this captive audience of children accelerated the creation of many fondly remembered shows. Ironically, it also hastened the downfall of this Saturday morning tradition. Today, the networks’ Saturday morning shows don’t have a cartoon in sight. What happened?

While the concept of the television was conceived in the late 1800s, it wasn’t until 1927 that a fully functional electronic TV system made its first successful debut in San Francisco, designed by 21-year-old Philo Taylor Farnsworth. TV shows began running in the late 1920s and early ’30s. Then, the first television ad premiered on NBC in 1941, a commercial for Bulova watches.

The idea of generating revenue through partnerships with sponsors proved to be revolutionary for marketers and television networks alike.

After World War II, the sale of TV sets boomed across America. Though there were around 40 million radios in the U.S in 1947, the sale of television sets would rise dramatically in the 1950s and ’60s, thanks to the invention of the first complete electronic color TV system in 1953, developed by RCA.

While TV stations began broadcasting live-action shows in color, executives also realized they could air full-color cartoons.

Cartoon shorts that could only be found in movie theaters in the 1930s and ’40s, like Mighty Mouse, Looney Tunes, and Heckle and Jeckle, were now being introduced to a new generation of kids on broadcast TV.

Though Crusader Rabbit — a series of four-minute-long satirical cliffhangers — was the first animated series produced for television in 1950, followed by Rocky and His Friends (also known as The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle) in 1959, it was The Flintstones that accelerated America’s love of cartoons.

Created by Hanna-Barbera, The Flintstones became the first prime-time cartoon series of its kind. Geared toward families, it aired September 30, 1960, on ABC. With The Flintstones’ success, Hanna-Barbera soon followed it up with other family-friendly sitcoms like Top Cat, The Jetsons, and Jonny Quest. When The Flintstones ended its prime time run in 1966, Hanna-Barbera began focusing its attention on the already-popular Saturday-morning timeslot to grow its market, specifically toward children.

A number of other animation studios followed suit including Filmation, which produced Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids and The Archies, as well as DePatie-Freleng Enterprises of Pink Panther fame. But it was Hanna-Barbera that reigned supreme on Saturday mornings throughout the 1970s with Super Friends, Scooby-Doo, Speed Buggy, The New Schmoo, Captain Caveman, and a slew of others.

TV networks were finding that animation was not only cheaper to produce than live-action shows, but it was also more profitable. They could hire fewer voice actors since many of them played multiple roles, and reruns allowed the cost of the initial investment to be spread out over a longer period of time. Plus, the networks could run toy and cereal commercials during these shows, which would entice young viewers into begging their parents to buy these products for them.

Parents and educators, however, were worried about how much time children were spending in front of their TV sets. Parents’ lobbying groups like Action for Children’s Television began cropping up in the late 1960s, voicing concerns about cartoon violence, stereotypes, and the commercialism and anti-social behaviors associated with hours of sitting in front of the TV. Researchers began to study the long-term effects of Saturday morning cartoons and the direct marketing associated with them. They found that kids had a difficult time differentiating between the shows themselves and the ads that ran with them. Kids were also unable to understand how manipulative these commercials could be.

In 1978, the Federal Trade Commission attempted to ban all direct advertising to any children under the age of six. But lobbying groups representing toy companies and the advertising and cereal industries struck a deal that encouraged children’s programming to be balanced out with educational and informational content. Though Schoolhouse Rock! had been on the air since 1973, other networks began creating short public service announcements of their own, most notably The Bod Squad and NBC’s One to Grow On, which debuted in 1983.

While animated shows based on existing TV shows and movies were a thing before the ’80s, shows like Hanna-Barbera’s The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang, and Laverne & Shirley in the Army, as well as Ruby-Spears’ Mister T, and It’s Punky Brewster, had varying degrees of success. But they all paved the way for the cross-promotional marketing bonanza that would soon take over Saturday mornings.

A new era of cartoons was emerging, and child advocacy groups and parents were growing increasingly worried about what these shows were becoming.

While cartoons had been, up to this point, mostly original creations, a number of animated shows were being made that blended the commercial and entertainment aspects of Saturday morning cartoons into one package: programs based on toys, video games, and movies.

Shows like G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, My Little Pony ’n Friends, The Transformers, He-Man, She-Ra: Princess of Power, Care Bears, and Jem and the Holograms were all created to sell toys, while cartoons based on Pac-Man, Dungeons & Dragons, and the Rubik’s Cube were all about exposing children to games. The Real Ghostbusters, Rambo: The Force of Freedom, and Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos, among other shows, went even further, by completing the trifecta of movie/cartoon/toy marketability.

While kids loved these shows, parents didn’t. Parenting groups grew even more concerned over what kids were watching for hours on end on Saturday mornings. They continued to make their voices heard regarding the abundance of animated violence and commercials directed specifically toward kids by appealing to the FCC. And the federal government stepped in to intervene, setting stricter regulations about what networks could and couldn’t show on Saturday mornings.

Along with continued concern from parents groups, a number of studies also showed that kids ages 2-17 were watching up to three hours of TV a day, they were influenced by what they saw, and many kids admitted that television programming should teach right from wrong.

The networks, however, found a way around these restrictions by syndicating Saturday morning cartoons to show them again on weekday afternoons since this time slot didn’t have the same set of strict advertising rules that Saturday mornings had.

The government eventually took notice. The result was the Children’s Television Act, which was enacted in 1990 by the Federal Communications Commission to increase the quality of educational and broadcast TV programming for children. By 1996, the federal government doubled down on what had become known as the “Kid Vid Rules” by implementing the Children’s Programming Report, which was chock full of new mandated guidelines. It clarified what the FCC felt was educational and not so educational, and set a new age demographic range for 16 and younger. The report also required all broadcast networks to air “educational and informational” children’s programs for at least three hours a week and outlawed the advertising of tie-in merchandise during the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. While educational programming was increased and advertising during the shows was decreased, these “Kid Vid Rules” weren’t enough to bring down Saturday morning cartoons alone.

As the 1990s set in, the era of Saturday morning cartoons was beginning to wane. With more personal computers, VCRs, DVD players, and home video game consoles on the market, kids found other ways to entertain themselves.

Though shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Animaniacs, Bobby’s World, and Pinky and the Brain garnered a loyal following, cable networks such as Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney Channel provided other ways for audiences to watch cartoons.

Saturday morning cartoons continued into the 2000s, but networks mostly showed re-purposed reruns from cable or inexpensively-made cartoons outsourced from other countries. The popularity of the Saturday morning timeslot was quickly declining. Networks began phasing out animated shows altogether and replacing them with live-action content that met the educational mandates directed by the government. Originally called the ABC Weekend Adventure, Litton’s Weekend Adventures is a Saturday morning block of shows that featured un-scripted and “pro-social programming” for families that premiered in 2011 and still runs today.

The CW network was the last station to air Saturday morning cartoons in America, broadcasting the final run of the Vortexx animated lineup on September 27, 2014.

While kids today can watch any cartoon they desire any time they want, they’ll never have the experience of waking up on Saturday mornings, settling down in front of the TV their pajamas, and eagerly waiting for their favorite cartoon to start, a bowl of sugary cereal in hand.

Featured image: Mighty Mouse (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

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Comments

  1. And haven’t things gotten so much better for our youngsters, with a cell phone inches away from their face for 18 hours a day watching videos that encourage them to do death defying acts, watch and experiment with porn, play violent realistic games killing people so they become desensitized, and learning to bully and beat people up. And bonus! They can get filmed doing something for their “15 minutes of fame”. And here’s more… they can read and watch adults bullying, swearing at and threatening to kill politicians in a myriad of horrifically creative and bloody ways (all while attending anti-bullying class in schools, brought to you by “concerned adults”).
    No thanks.

  2. Mostly, I miss Underdog(we called him Underwear), Roadrunner, Bugs(The entire Mel Blanc array), Rocky & Bullwinkle, Yogi & Boo-boo, Mighty Mouse, Quick Draw McGraw, and SnagglePuss. – oh, and “I taut I taw a puty cat!” All totally harmless until commercialization came along. Whenever frustrated and struggling to fight back against teasing, my little brother would rant, “brought-to-you-by! Brought-to-you-by! Brought-to-you-by!….” as he fought me off. It was his first swear words!

  3. Hummm, the story does not mention the direct reason the Super hero cartoons over night were cancelled.. A little known Senator from Rhode Island , John O Pastore . He had Senate hearings on ‘Violence in childrens cartoons’ in late 1967 . He went after Hanna Barbera and the networks. One silly old man ruined it for kids..

  4. So we took away the cartoons (3-4) hours a week and gave them cell phones and we’re good to go?

  5. Oh really! As a kid I grew up with Tom and Jerry where I could see a mouse wielding an anvil and making Tom’s head One dimensional. Then after a few seconds there would be a “pop” and Tom would be off chasing Jerry. This type of thing happened week on week.
    Look a today’s rubbish, driven by TV companies, product enhancement with serious violence (actual humans, not drawings) taking place. Even I am offended by it but not surprised by what it has done to our young uns,
    Come back (the real) Tom & Jerry all is forgiven. And bring your pals too!

  6. I’m glad that ME TV is rerunning those classic cartoons of the past..but..I’m not fond of those three unfunny idiots..who host”Toon In With ME”..including that jerk..who plays”The Cartoon Curator” and that unfunny and obnoxious fish puppet.

  7. In a way Saturday morning cartoons are making something of a comeback. MeTV earlier this year launched a new “Saturday Morning Cartoons” block which airs from 7:00 AM to 10:00 AM ET (6:00 AM-9:00 AM CT). The block mainly consists of Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, Popeye, Betty Boop, The Pink Panther and so forth. MeTV also airs a daily hour of cartoons called “Toon In With Me” Monday through Friday at 7:00 AM ET (6:00 AM CT). I think it’s time for folks like me to introduce a new generation of kids to chowing down on sugar-coated cereal and watching these cartoons.

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