Saturday Morning Cartoons Are Dying Off

It was a ritual many fondly remember: getting up early Saturday morning, pouring a bowl of some Technicolor cereal, snuggling up to the TV and waiting for the cartoons to begin.

But that's a tradition that the children of adults weaned on an early-morning diet of Scooby snacks and Superfriends apparently won't be sharing.

The changing television scene, the advent of the VCR and a shift in kids' tastes have altered the way children watch cartoons. Instead of anticipating Saturday mornings, kids today can tune in to a variety of cable channels that provide animated fare virtually all day long.

"I would tend to agree that the death of the Saturday morning cartoon is at hand," animated-program producer Bill Schultz said in a telephone interview.

"With the Internet, video games, toys, afterschool and weekend activities, it's a huge challenge to get kids to actually watch broadcast television," said Janice Aguilar-Herrero, a spokeswoman for Warner Brothers Networks.

It wasn't always that way, according to cultural historian Timothy Burke, who wrote Saturday Morning Fever, about how cartoons influenced Generation X.

"For kids growing up in the '60s and '70s, the unifying thing was that we all watched the same shows, more or less," Burke said. "We didn't really have that many choices; we were locked into those three networks, they recycled the programming and a tremendous amount of it came from Hanna-Barbera."

In 1981, Saturday mornings really took off with the creation of The Smurfs. The story about a commune of odd, blue sprites in mushroom houses took a hold of children's imaginations, and kids all over the country were slaves to the new "smurfy" show.

But the salad days ended in 1990, when Congress passed the Children's Television Act. Saturday morning cartoons were attacked as "junk food for the mind," and television stations were required to run a minimum amount of educational programming, and report on the content of their children's programming to the federal government.

"There was constant harassment from parental groups, child psychologists and annoying do-gooders blaming cartoons for everything from the rise in violence to immorality," Burke said.

At the same time, cable TV had picked up steam and was offering new fare on networks like Nickelodeon. Video games had become more sophisticated and widespread, and there was a larger library of kiddie candy on video.

Schultz remembered how, even though he produced network shows like Bobby's World, Garfield and Friends and The Simpsons, his kids would still head straight to Nickelodeon.

"Anytime they came home they wanted to watch Nick," he said. "They didn't even think about CBS, NBC, ABC. …If you want, you can turn on the TV anytime, anywhere and catch some cartoons."

In the face of that, the Smurf king of Saturday mornings, NBC, pulled out of the animation game entirely, filling its airwaves with live-action programming that was considered educational most notably the teen show Saved By the Bell.

"At that time there wasn't MTV original programming or cable programs catering to teens and 'tweens, so (NBC) developed programs targeted toward teens with pro-social messages," NBC spokeswoman Lisa Burks said. "That's why NBC got away from cartoons, because they were filling a need that wasn't being filled at the time. If you want cartoons, go to Cartoon Network."

But don't count out broadcast TV on Saturday mornings quite yet. ABC has started mining the animated gold of its new owner, Disney, and newer networks like Fox and the WB are creating the next generation of edgier, better-drawn cartoons like X-Men: Evolution.

"What's dying is the institution of Saturday mornings, not cartoons for kids, which are more vigorous than ever, just spread all over the dial and at all times during the week," Burke said. "The only thing kids today have lost is the central unifying ritual of getting up at 6 a.m., getting sugary cereals, getting totally hyper and watching the same programs 50 million other kids are watching."