MENUMENU

How the Internet killed Saturday morning cartoons

A discarded television in an abandoned room, surrounded by debris.

Are Saturday morning cartoons really as dead as the media think they are?

The deathblow has finally been dealt to one of the last vestiges of regular scheduled television: Network Saturday morning cartoons have kicked the bucket for good. Even the austere Washington Post is covering the story, announcing that the CW (now home to some of the most addictive and terribly written teen shows) is officially ending its Saturday cartoon slot. Sadly, it was one of the last network channels to air Saturday morning cartoons.

A number of commentators have noted that the predictable end to this staple of television programming for 50 years is nothing to cry over. MTV News, along with numerous other outlets, cites competition from live action shows and overall failing viewership as some of the major factors that led to the demise of Saturday morning cartoons. Writer Gerard Raiti over at Animation World Net discussed these issues in depth over 10 years ago, citing factors like the increased importance of extracurricular sports activities and family time as commitments that drew kids’ time and attention from Saturday morning cartoons.

The very idea of cable channels dedicated in part or in whole to airing cartoons was radical when it first hit the airwaves. The original “cable troika of animation”: the Disney ChannelNickelodeon, and the aptly named Cartoon Network, provided a far greater lure of animated programming thanks to the constant availability of kid-focused content on each respective channel.

It wasn’t just that the programs were focused on quality programming for children, it’s that these channels were, and somewhat still are, dedicated to children’s programming. Broadcast networks’ goals were and are news and primetime television to rack in viewers and advertising revenue. Three-hour weekend slots of shows for children were not of the utmost concern, as iterated by Linda Simensky, who was Vice President of original programming at Cartoon Network and is currently Vice President of children’s programming for PBS: “Children’s television was never the strength of broadcasters to begin with. There were some good shows in there, but kids’ TV was the department where executives at the network would start their nephews out in.”    

The way kids watch their cartoons is shifting, though. Along with the various cable channels dedicated to children’s programming, among which we can count the outgrowths of cable giants including Disney X.D., Disney Junior, [email protected], NickToons, and NickJr, there is the rapidly normalized use of streaming technology. Now that it is now ”cartoon o’clock” all the time, children can watch cartoons in the morning, they can watch cartoons after school, they can watch cartoons at dinner, and they most certainly can watch cartoons before bed. Thanks to our changing mediascape, kids can stream whatever they want whenever they want.

The death of Saturday morning cartoons is doing something more than bringing about Gen X and millennial nostalgia for the iconic cartoons of the ‘80s and ‘90s, like Doug, Rugrats, TMNT, Animaniacs, Scooby Doo, and The Magic School Bus. It’s also testifying to the dramatic changes in the way we interact with media, thanks to the brave new digital world before us.

There’s no waiting a week for the next installment of a show, no waking up early on one of two sacred weekend days, and no longer being whim to scheduled programming. Kids can turn on NetflixHulu, or whatever streaming service they have access to and choose from most if not all of their favorite programs, watching episode upon episode upon episode.  We adults aren’t the only ones to succumb to binge watching these days. Our impatience to find out what happens next in our favorite series is now constantly mirrored by children who seek the same with their own animated programming. What the kids want to watch, they want to watch now, and thanks to streaming, they can.

We are witnessing a monumental change in our mediascape. Pre-streaming and pre-Internet days of television were rigorously programmed and scheduled to the life habits of, well, us, the audience. Early morning was news for the daily workforce getting ready to head off on arduous commutes to work. Mid-morning saw talk shows and lighter “soft news” programs aimed for stay-at home moms. Continuing to cater to women at home, afternoon hours typically showed soap operas, some of which it should be noted, are the last vestiges of old school TV programming. Days of Our Lives has been airing weekly and mostly uninterrupted since 1965. That’ll be fifty years by the time we hit 2015.

Moving onto early evening, news once again dominated for the workers returning home and come evening, primetime shows took up the slots until late night talk shows. This was every day, Monday through Friday, for decades. We’ve grown so accustomed to streaming and having shows at our disposal that it’s hard to remember just how much we were at the whim of the structure of television programming in the not too distant past. TV, in a sense, regulated our lives.

In a broader sense, too, we were all united as a greater audience. Think of watching Saturday morning cartoons. As kids waking up early, stuffing our faces with Cocoa Puffs or Fruity Pebbles, we all watched the same cartoons from roughly 8am until noon. Audience tallies for those mornings in the 1980s and 1990s would reach up to 20 million viewers. Like our parents, who would gather as a national audience to watch the brilliant Johnny Carson, we were a mass unit of sugar-happy cartoon watchers, a collectivity that’s quickly dying out.

Even the phrase “watching TV” is quickly becoming outdated. If we’re watching shows on our D.V.R.s or even streaming them online, can we still really say that we’re watching television? A CivicScience poll earlier this year showed 47 percent of people still watch broadcast programming, while 23 percent watch via the DVR after the initial broadcast, and a whopping 17 percent simply stream online. NBC executives found that 45 percent of the views for Parks and Rec in the 18-24 year old demographic was through digital platforms, not live.

But where does this leave us? We are an audience caught between traditional television content and a huge shift in the media we use to access such content. An audience that is paradoxically more fractured yet more connected due to the release from regulated, collective television watching and the ease with which we can communicate our enjoyment of certain shows.

Conscious or unconscious of it, we are the pioneers of a new age of, for lack of the lexicon keeping up with technology, “television” viewers. We are the ones who are creating new patterns of consumption habits, deciding how we use new viewing technology, and choosing how and when we watch programs so incredibly different from how people did fifty years ago. The old television networks might be changing, but so too are we.

Saturday morning cartoons are dead. Long live Saturday morning cartoons.

Photo via Anthony Easton/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)