Who Killed Saturday Morning?

One complaint I hear quite frequently from folks in my generation and up is how dramatically the face of Saturday morning TV has changed on broadcast television: your ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX, which we’ll hereinafter refer to as the Alphabet Networks, ’cause I’m lazy and I like clever buzzwords. For several decades, these networks used to run full-scale animation and kids’ programming blocks on SatAM (and some on weekday mornings and afternoons too) for 2 to 4 full hours on end, but recently, these blocks gradually began to disappear, getting replaced by morning news and infomercials, and most of the Alphabet Networks have opted to let syndicated packages handle their weekend morning programming aimed at the kiddos, e.g., Qubo, Cookie Jar TV and most recently Litton’s ABC Weekend Adventures and their new syndicated package which will launch on CBS on September 28th (coincidentally, that’s my mom’s birthday). The only Alphabet Network still running their own SatAM block currently is The CW, which currently airs the Vortexx action cartoon block.

What happened? Why did this happen? How did this happen? A lot of my peers tend to scapegoat the E/I requirement, enacted in 1990 by our pals at the FCC, which requires that every full-service terrestrial television station in the U.S. to show at least three hours of educational television programs every week. “Darn that E/I mandate!” they cry. “That E/I requirement needs to be scrapped!” “This stupid E/I mandate is what’s killed the Saturday morning I grew up with!” “If it weren’t for the E/I requirement, the broadcast networks would be airing good cartoon shows again!” Etc., etc., etc.

“Why is everybody always pickin’ on me??”

Now, before you all get out the tar and feathers and prepare yourselves for a good ol’ fashioned lynchin’, let me enlighten you on something: the current state of Saturday morning (and weekday mornings and afternoons too, for that matter) kids’ programming on the Alphabet Networks is NOT the fault of the E/I mandate. If the E/I requirement were to be removed, there’d still be a less than squadoosh chance of so-called “old-school” Saturday morning blocks returning to broadcast TV. If E/I were to ever go, all affiliates would happily run another hour of big-bucks local news and buckets more infomercials. The only reason the networks provide — or in ABC and now CBS’s case, arrange for a syndicated block of — E/I programming is that it’s a bargaining chip they can use when they ask the affiliates to give up time for other programming efforts — sports, Sunday morning news shows, etc. The affiliates are lazy. If they can get their networks to do their E/I work for them, they will.

People really need to stop blaming the E/I mandate for the so-called ‘death of Saturday morning cartoons’. The Alphabet Networks bowing out of the SatAM game is not the fault of the E/I mandate. There are other factors involved:

1. Broadcast TV in general is currently suffering at the hands of cable and other media.

2. Thanks to the advent of cable, satellite, DVDs, DVRs, the internet, video games, computers, and mobile devices, kids don’t need to watch broadcast TV on Saturday mornings.

3. Local news and infotainment are more profitable for local stations and affiliates than kids’ shows are.

4. The massive merging of corporate media outlets during the 90’s and 00’s and the resulting vertical integration. Translated, most of the SatAM cartoons we olds grew up on are now under the umbrella of the Big Corporations, many of whom would rather let their shows collect dust in the vault than let a competing network they don’t own air them, thus there’s a lot less material available for broadcast TV and syndication.

5. The general death of first-run syndication. Outside of judge or talk shows, there aren’t any major TV ventures coming from syndication markets; most of the Hercules, Young Indiana Jones, Small Wonder or Star Trek type programs are made by cable channels nowadays.

Broadcast network SatAM was already on it’s last legs by the time the E/I mandate come along, so E/I is hardly to blame for the current state of the Alphabet Networks. The harsh truth is that era of Broadcast network SatAM is just obsolete now, gone the way of the dinosaur, those pointy Pilgrim hats and the Edsel; broadcast networks can’t compete with 24-hour cable channels, the internet and home video.

Finally, I’d like to address a couple of comments I’ve read online regarding this matter:

(The CW) is the only network TV station that still keeps the spirit of Saturday morning cartoons alive.

Ah, no. The so-called spirit of Saturday morning isn’t dead; This legendary spirit of Saturday morning cartoons is still very much alive and well, it’s just that the media and outlets for it have changed. Kids today have no reason to clamor for some network block which only airs shows for 2 to 4 hours a week when they can now get their cartoon fix anywhere at anytime on cable TV, the internet and elsewhere.

Wish one day, ABC, CBS and NBC will follow suit. But I doubt it.

A senior member at Toon Zone said it best: “SatAM will only come back to the broadcast networks if every kids’ cable network suddenly went bankrupt and the internet blacked out”. The Alphabet Networks’ reign of Saturday morning TV was a product of the 70’s through 80’s when broadcast TV and syndication were all we had and the early 90’s when there were like 30-something cable channels that aired only repeats, but the market has changed a lot since then. Broadcast SatAM cartoons just aren’t profitable nor viable in this day and age of 24/7 kids’ cable networks and the like. Many of the Alphabet Networks bowed out of the kids’ programming block game because these blocks were actually causing them to lose money, so we’re not going to see magical return of broadcast SatAM TV just because some folks’ nostalgia demands it.

SatAM really isn’t in that bad shape right now. The Saturday morning experience of today isn’t objectively better or worse than the one we grew up with, it’s just different. The truth is that every era is good in its’ own way, it’s just that some people are too stuck in the past to appreciate it. The way I see it, we have 2 choices: we can either roll with the tide and embrace change, or we can sit on our rocking chairs with nostalgia goggles stuck on our heads like Grumpy Old Men and beg for a return of the “good ol’ days”.

I personally choose the former. 10, 15, 20 years from now, the nostalgia people will be begging for the current Saturday morning regime to return, while I’ll be enjoying whatever goodness comes our way.

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4 Comments

  1. Well said.

    Every niche in broadcasting that we grew up with has either been dissolved or altered. Saturday Morning programming is one of those niches.

    We wondered why ABC/Disney refused to make changes to their SatAM lineup until Litton began programming it. They became too complacent, ignoring the fact that reruns like That's So Raven had been played to death on Disney Channel, and newer shows like Phineas & Ferb were not aired on ABC. P & F instead made guest appearances, doing interstital bits with Brent Musberger at sporting events like the Little League World Series. It's this same complacency that has driven kids to cable and the net for the last two decades.

    Certain cablers are no different. Nickelodeon made a habit of programming marathons of their more popular shows (i.e. Spongebob, Fairly Oddparents), driving those shows into the ground prematurely. Network executives still live on the premise that viewers have short attention spans. That was disproven a long time ago, but the suits haven't figured it out.

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  2. Honestly, if people really want to watch Saturday cartoons, why not buy cable, and watch the cartoons that air on Saturday morning? Nickelodeon, Disney XD, Cartoon Network, and Hub Network all have their own blocks that air first-run and new episodes of cartoons on Saturdays, each with varying quality; heck, cartoons even repeat on later timeslots or premiere at primetime (e.g. Disney Channel's toons, Legend of Korra, Ninja Turtles 2012). It's like complaining about a Burger King store that sold out of Whoppers. There's still other burgers you can eat.

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  3. Precisely. Saturday morning cartoons haven't gone away; you just have to get them somewhere else now. It's like complaining about how your local Carvel has closed down, when Dairy Queen, Ben & Jerry's and Baskin-Robbins are still around. Sure, you may have to drive a little further to get to them, but there's still ice cream available and it's still as good.

    (Hey, I'm getting hungry.)

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  4. There's no need for anyone to mourn the loss of Saturday morning TV because it hasn't died; it's merely evolved. Broadcast networks don't program their own SatAM TV shows anymore because with cable/satellite and the internet now being mainstream, there's no need for them to anymore. There's nothing that the alphabet networks can offer kids that cable doesn't already give them in spades. And for the dwindling minority of kids who don't have cable or satellite, the internet fills that void. It's likely that the alphabet networks wouldn't run kids' shows at all anymore if they weren't legally required to.

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