Ahh, Saturday mornings. There was a magic to that period when you were a TV-watching kid. Monday through Friday you had to fight the parents for TV. Mom had her soaps, Dad hadn’t come home from work yet but you know he’d put on the news or something equally boring. There were shows for you to watch but it wasn’t really “your time”. You came home from school and had homework to do, possibly chores, and then once dad was home (granted we’re talking typical because every home and family structure was of course different, especially if you were old enough that mom could go back to work if she chose) no more TV. It’s to the dinner table where TV wasn’t allowed, maybe some family bonding programming, and then to bed to do it all over again.
Saturday was different. No school in the morning so maybe you got to stay up a little later on Friday night but Saturday TV was your time…when you didn’t have the vacuum cleaner going over it. (Mom really didn’t remember when she was a kid.) From 8-12 TV was all you. The parent stuff was boring even to parents, sports wasn’t coming on until the afternoon, and you could talk mom out of kicking you outside to play until after lunch…later if it was raining. No, Sat AM TV was YOUR time. The shows were for you, the distractions smaller because even if you didn’t do your homework on Friday you could always do it on Sunday. Saturday morning was your TV time. If you wanted action shows or comedy, cartoons or the occasional live action bit, there was something for you at least once during that morning.
And then it died.
What did kill Saturday morning? Just today James Rolfe of Cinemassacre posted a video talking about Saturday morning television and why it stopped being made. However, I don’t think he quite understood how it all worked, like the difference between Saturday Morning Cartoons and Syndicated Cartoons, or the other reasons SatAM died beyond the one he gave. So let’s watch his video, because it’s still interesting, and then I’ll try to fill in the blanks.
Before we dive in let’s define a few things. What’s the difference between a Saturday morning cartoon, syndicated cartoon, and cable network cartoon?
- Saturday Morning: You’d think it would be as clear as “it aired on Saturday morning” but there’s more to it than that. Specifically this usually refers to shows that aired as part of a network Saturday morning line-up. Note that some live-action productions like the works of Sid & Marty Krofft, or even Filmation also aired in this slot and were subject to the same limitations. Then you have Fox and Kids WB muddying the waters, not to mention UPN going to Sundays. So there’s more to it than simply when and where it aired, though that had a major influence on the style of these shows.
- Syndicated Cartoon: While originally reruns of Saturday morning shows, the debut of first-run syndication, especially when Ronald Reagan made it easier to base toys off of cartoons and cartoons off of toys by deregulating the FCC (thus providing a new revenue source absent of network bucks), changed the game of kids entertainment by not being subject to the same regulations. They could simply be smart enough to know what kids could and couldn’t handle, even bringing in experts to help out.
- Cable Network shows: These had more money and still looser restrictions, though for the longest time they were also reruns of other shows.
So, SatAM was CBS, NBC, and ABC until new networks came along and eventually started their own kids block. However, Fox decided to create a weekday slot of shows. This would be the beginning of the end for first-run syndication as more networks were being created. Kids WB would follow suit and that left less local programming. At the time there were fewer local channels, and many of the new ones today are just affiliates for channels like MeTV or Comet rather than being their own channel. That’s cool if you have an HD digital antenna given that the FCC killed analog signals for some reason, but it means that with so many networks first-run syndication actually died before Saturday morning. These days only kids educational shows are still done first-run syndication style. There isn’t enough space for FRS when the channels are all networks and show news or sports on Saturday.
Fox and Kids WB also took a few more liberties, but only with weekday. I mean, there’s an episode of Batman: The Animated Series with Commissioner Gordon in the hospital clinging to life after being shot, and the show used guns that actually sound like guns and fired bullets instead of lasers (because lasers have stun settings…that nobody really used unless they wanted a character shot). Even then the producers had more of a fight with them than they did with Kids WB, who just made the show look more like the Superman cartoon they were already airing. And yet B:TAS could get quite dark at times, but never above a kids level of understanding or comfortability, and only when the show needed it to be. I mean…they got away with this:
Meanwhile, when X-Men wanted to kill off a character, they had to trick Fox by saying “oh no, we’re totally going to show he survived and will be back”. That backfired because someone remembered a few seasons later “saaaaaaay…what happened to that Morph guy you promised us you weren’t actually killing?”. The syndicated X-Men wanna-be Ultraforce on the other hand kills off one of it’s characters in a noble sacrifice and she stayed dead. Granted that only had one season but my point still stands. Had it been a Saturday morning show instead of a weekend syndicated show in the “Amazing Adventures” package block they might have been forced to bring Pixx back to life.
The main difference is that TV networks had the Bureau Of Standards And Practices, a group within the network who had to come up with ways to not get “parent” activist groups (who didn’t want to spend time raising their kids or monitoring what they watch while letting TV babysit–and that’s if they weren’t just busybodies who never spent more than five minutes near a child) to not harass them or send the government after them. Some of their regulations were stupid. Look up what ABC forced the creators of The Real Ghostbusters to do to their show, while syndication could get away with a lot more stuff because they weren’t as restricted by syndicators. However, syndication also didn’t have network dollars so the toy sales were important to fund the show. Often, and especially when they were weekday shows instead of once a week weekend shows, the animation quality also suffered. Compare both Real Ghostbusters or the syndicated and CBS versions (pre “red sky” years) of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Then there’s the time Gargoyles moved from syndication in the Disney Afternoon spot, where it only aired on Fridays, to the ABC “Goliath Chronicles”. I defended that version and I stand by what I said but there was a drop in quality between the two versions. That’s rare but the animation changes were only in tone because ABC had rules that The Disney Afternoon slot didn’t.
(Speaking of syndication, Rolfe used footage from Rambo: The Force Of Freedom and RoboCop talking about adult works altered into kids cartoons. Those were also in syndication, RoboCop being part of the original “Marvel Action Universe” block along with reruns of SatAM show Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends and Dino Riders. Oddly, the final week of the season replaced RoboCop with the first showing of the failed X-Men pilot Pryde Of The X-Men. Odd that he missed the Conan cartoon Conan And The Young Warriors, which despite sharing an art style with the syndicated Conan The Adventurer was a different continuity with a different voice actor for Conan.)
What sets Saturday morning apart is that the writers had to work within those extra restrictions and still tell a good story. The best ones succeeded at that and we still remember, if only a small number of us. There’s was a weirdness to those shows in the best ways, action over violence, and thus had a certain charm that was lost with the looser restrictions, like when they gave Doctor Who a budget and dropped the serialized story for a seasonal arc. They also had to deal with other forms of meddling from the higher ups at the network like every other show, so if you managed to make something great you were immediately beloved. It’s why people still remember Hanna-Barbera, Ruby Spears Productions, DIC, Sunbow/Marvel Productions, and Filmation today. While all of those did transition to syndication and their looser restrictions they made their name on Saturday morning entertainment.
Cable networks had more money and trusted their kids show creators to make kids shows but when it came to action shows Nickelodeon and Disney Channel were on the hesitant side. Disney eventually gave us Disney XD, though what few action shows they have now come from Japan or have a strong quirky comedy bend to them. Cartoon Network and their Boomerang network only have action shows that they already had in their library, and even then it’s limited to reruns of Ben 10 on Boomerang. Back then Nickelodeon and Disney Channel had nothing to offer, but back then Disney Channel was just all Disney shows anyway. Not as much today sadly, with what few classic Disney characters they do limited to CG “Disney Junior” shows. Kids networks had a limited idea what kids shows should be like and it took a long time to get anything that wasn’t educational or saccharine on there.
As to what killed Saturday morning? The FCC may have had a role, especially when they forced that E/I “illuminating television” on the networks and what remains of first-run syndication for kids, but I don’t know about video games playing as strong a role. Sat AM was just that, AM. If they couldn’t get kicked outside in the afternoon you have the afternoon for video games if there were no sports on. A good enough kid show could get them to turn off the video games for a while and there were some good contenders. Otherwise they probably wouldn’t have been interested if the video game hadn’t been an option. I think it was the parent groups boosted by “do-gooder” child “psychologists” who were becoming popular with easily duped parents and busybodies alike back then that made it harder. They limited the commercials, they complained to the network any time some kid got hurt role-playing their shows, they took things out of context and insisted this or that show was immediately evil. They didn’t actually watch the show to fact check themselves and listened to people who also didn’t watch the shows. Sadly, some Christian groups can be thrown into that mix.
I think the networks just got tired of playing up to them, eventually dropping the typical Saturday morning shows altogether, changing their focus to more educational or teen sitcom shows (NBC went hard on that one), or turning their programming over to outside programmers. CBS handed their to Cookie Jar Entertainment, NBC went with Qubo as did Ion (then Pax TV), and Kids WB actually went with Jetix, the ABC Family programming block. Fox actually burned through a few different ones, most notably 4Kids who also did the WB replacement the CW after it merged with UPN, who had been airing their stuff on Sundays rather than Saturdays. It just became a mess at the end and that’s what I think killed Saturday morning TV.
Nowadays kids have access to any kids show past or present they want whenever they want it. The magic of that time is lost as “just another day” and while that might have been inevitable even without the busybodies it is still a memory that will be unique to us and the generations before probably as far back as radio or the Saturday matinee, which my generation really didn’t have outside of PBS’s Matinee At The Bijoux on Saturday afternoons. Like the MeTV showing however that’s was just nostalgia that never really captured the moment. The magic is gone, and soon nobody will be around who remembers but there was a magic few hours in our lives when kids got to experience something uniquely theirs. Are today’s kids missing out? Eh, depends on who you ask really.