Greetings WWAC readers, please welcome guest author Meredith Guthrie. Meredith is a media scholar at the University of Pittsburgh where she studies children’s media, fandom, advertising, body image, and digital media. You can follow her on Twitter @Meredithea.
First, a note: Although a lot of ink was spilled a couple of weeks ago about the death of the Saturday morning cartoon, don’t worry! For some reason, all of these stories ignore the fact that NBC shows cartoons during their Saturday lineup. Poor, ignored NBC!
When I was a kid, I used to cry when Soul Train came on during Saturday afternoons. I had nothing against good R&B or soul music (or the hip hop Soul Train was beginning to feature during my youth), but I knew that the appearance of host Don Cornelius meant that I wouldn’t be able to watch any more cartoons on TV for a whole week. In my little world, that was a sad thing indeed. I knew that soon I would have to stop eating junk food and, in the words of my mother, “Go outside and enjoy the world a little bit!” I grew up in Texas, so this was pretty much a 12-month phenomenon… I brought a book with me.
On September 30, 2014, the CW became the last American broadcast network to air first-run cartoons on Saturday morning. A few years ago, FOX completely abandoned children’s programming. The remaining networks air mostly live-action programming that at least claims to be “educational and/or informational”, as per FCC guidelines, and NBC airs a mixture of cartoon and live-action shows that were originally broadcast on Sprout, Comcast’s cable channel for preschoolers. What accounts for the change? As with most issues in contemporary media, it’s a mixture of forces.
Cartoons are more popular than ever with at least two primetime broadcast powerhouses going strong – The Simpsons and Family Guy are airing their 26th and 13th seasons, respectively – so the genre of animated television itself has nothing to do with its removal from Saturday morning broadcast television. Cartoons are also flourishing on cable TV 24-hours a day, so what happened? FCC guidelines about children’s TV, the economics of producing animation, the rise of basic cable and streaming technologies, and the phenomenon of reality television all answer for the (overstated – everyone seems to be forgetting about NBC) “death” of Saturday morning cartoons.
By “broadcast television,” I mean the free network channels you can get in the US with a digital antenna. These include, but aren’t limited to, the “big four:” ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC, alongside the smaller PBS, CW, and whatever other channels you can pick up in your area without paying a subscription fee. As you know, basic cable channels require a cable subscription fee, while premium channels require further fees. For our purposes, I’ll mostly refer to broadcast television and basic cable.
If you’re about my age — older than Matt Smith’s Doctor, but younger than Capaldi’s — FCC regulations about children’s programming during your childhood were wide open. Think back to the cartoons you enjoyed as a kid and young teen. When you really consider them, a lot of these cartoons were little better than animated half hour infomercials for toys: Jem, He-Man, She-Ra, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc. These shows all served to advertise their connected toy lines. Sure, they could have good stories and great taglines that you’ll remember today, because “Knowing is half the battle,” but the deregulation of the media in the 1980s also allowed them to really, really, really make you want to have all the toys they advertised. (Not all ‘toons of this era followed this format. Muppet Babies, Freakazoid, Captain Planet, and Tiny Toons, among others, were notable exceptions.) By the end of this era, shows like Sonic the Hedgehog (93-94) and The Adventures of Super Mario Brothers 3 (1990) were criticized for their level of violence and tie-ins with relatively expensive video game franchises.
In 1990, the FCC introduced the Children’s Television Act to combat this type of programming (much to the chagrin of television programmers and American children). The regulation stated that broadcast networks had to air at least 3 hours of educational or informational programming between 7am and 10am on weekend mornings. In 1996, the regulation was strengthened to define exactly what the government meant by “informational” and “educational,” because networks were trying to say that the fight between “good and evil” on traditional 1980s style cartoons were educating children about morals or what programmers call “pro-social ideas.” Lost were traditional educational ideas such as number and letter recognition, and critics feared that there was actually less educational content being aired than before. The 1996 regulation also stated that networks must publicly post what educational goals are being met by each show so that the public could comment upon whether the content offered was truly educational or not. Furthermore, and perhaps most damning for traditional Saturday morning fare, the regulation stated that no more than 10 minutes per hour could be devoted to kid-specific advertising (during the week, the limit rises to 12.5 minutes). Channels display a graphic that says E/I to demonstrate that the program meets federal guidelines. The FCC doesn’t have any jurisdiction over cable or streaming services, so these regulations only apply to networks.
So, kid-specific programming on networks must now be educational, and you can’t have more than about 10 minutes of every hour devoted to kid-specific commercials. While there was some doubt whether shows like He-Man counted as commercials, programmers wanted to be careful. They could air these programs at another time, but Saturday mornings were already well-branded as “kid TV time,” and networks didn’t want to give up another, more valuable, time for cartoons. Saturday mornings are perfect for children’s entertainment because most adults would rather sleep than watch TV at that time.
Next, cartoons – even fairly cruddy ones – can be expensive to produce. Cartoons that were used to sell He-Man or G. I. Joe toys are cheaper than educational cartoons because toy manufacturers often subsidize the cost to networks. Essentially, banning cartoon infomercials suddenly made cartoons more expensive to air – especially since critics were demanding what they called “high quality programming.” Cartoons were more suspect to critics than live-action shows, which could be much cheaper to produce anyway. Increasingly after the 1996 regulation, broadcasters began to turn to live-action programming.
Live-action shows have always been a part of Saturday morning television. When I was a kid, I was a big fan of This Week in Baseball (TWiB), a show all about baseball narrated by Yankees announcer Mel Allen that originally ran from 1977-1988 (yes, I continued to watch TWiB in college; don’t judge) and then was revived from 2000-2011. The 1970s also gave us Syd and Marty Kroft’s shows like Land of the Lost and H.R. Pufnstuf, both of which terrified me. NBC gave us the phenomenon that is Saved by the Bell in 1989.
The difference between the live-action programming of the past and that of today is that nearly all of today’s live-action offerings are reality shows. When reality TV took over adult airwaves in the 2000s, it took over children’s live-action programming, too. It’s so much easier to demonstrate that a show fulfills educational goals – and so much cheaper! – when you’re following around a veterinarian or other animal expert as Calling Dr. Pol, The Brady Barr Experience, and The Dog Whisperer do on the CW or Dr. Chris, Pet Vet and Lucky Dog do on CBS. ABC only airs animal-centric programming, anchored by kid-favorite, Dr. Jack Hanna.
The networks have mostly abandoned cartoons, sure, but far more interesting to me than the lack of cartoons in these lineups are the target demographics. It looks like the networks have also abandoned the traditional demographic for Saturday morning cartoons: kids aged 5-11. CBS states that their Saturday morning “Dream Team” lineup focuses on teens aged 13-16 while NBC is going after the preschool set with their lineup from Sprout. Both ABC and CW are trying for a “family” demographic with shows that parents and kids are (hopefully!) equally happy to watch together. What’s missing from these shows are the typical 5-11 year old kid demographic, watching shows that annoy the heck out of their parents. Why have the networks abandoned them?
It looks like the networks are just acknowledging that basic cable and streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Video have won, and are giving up on trying to compete with them. Even NBC, the lone hold-out on cartoons, is merely offering reruns of cable programming. Basic cable and streaming services won kids’ loyalty by giving them the crappy, non-educational, toy-tie-in cartoons they crave! Kids can watch cartoons from nearly any era, on-demand at any time, and completely avoid the crunchy granola educational programming of the networks.
Non-educational cartoons aren’t dead. They’re just not on the networks, and the networks are trying to pivot to find a way to keep Saturday morning programming relevant and regulation-abiding.