A Requiem for Saturday Morning Cartoons

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It’s pretty easy to lose track of what Saturday morning television looks like, once you transition from spending that time playing to spending that time nursing a hangover. So your correspondent was more than a little floored to discover (thanks to /Film) that Saturday morning cartoons are over, dead, gone, pushing up daisies, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible. The CW (the good ol’ CW, God bless ‘em, they keep tryin’) was the final broadcast network to program a Saturday morning block of cartoon shows; that block aired for the last time over the weekend. It’s the end of an era, folks, so forgive me for getting a little nostalgic.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about this discovery for me (and presumably, people around my age who haven’t or are just now having children) is how long Saturday morning cartoons haven’t been a thing. The CW block — featuring the anime/manga likes of Yu-Gi-Oh! and Dragon Ball Z — was more than just the last man standing; it was basically a throwback, since the older networks hadn’t been airing animated programming on Saturday mornings for years. Decades, in fact! NBC stopped airing cartoons clear back in 1992 (replacing them with the Saturday version of Today and live-action teen shows like Saved by the Bell), CBS followed suit later in the decade, and ABC abandoned its cartoons in 2004.

The reasons for the changeover are voluminous, but they mostly amount to changing trends in programming: the popularity of Saved by the Bell and its ilk, the profitability of Saturday versions of the networks’ morning news shows, the increase in college football broadcasts, the rise of the infomercial, and the FCC mandate for a minimum of weekly educational programs (or, in the case of the teen comedies, “educational”) that were easiest to place in those Saturday morning slots.

But mostly, it was a matter of increased accessibility. In the glory days of the Saturday morning cartoon — the mid-‘60s through the early ‘80s — those network animation blocks really were a novelty. If you wanted to see cartoons, you didn’t have a lot of options beyond getting up on Saturday morning, planting yourself in front of the console, and watching. In the ‘80s, that started to change: you could use your VCR to watch bought, rented, or previously recorded cartoon shows and movies, and savvy syndicators began airing daily animated shows (often cheaply produced programs like G.I. Joe, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and Transformers, which amounted to half-hour commercials for toy lines) in the after-school hours.

Then came cable — specifically, Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, and later Cartoon Network, airing copious amounts of animation throughout the broadcast day (not to mentions “superstations” like TBS and WGN, airing old “Looney Tunes” cartoons and Scooby-Doo reruns). So, just like that, Saturday morning cartoons were passé, a leftover from an era of minimal choices and limited availability.

It is easy, for those of us of a certain age, to romanticize that era of limited availability, when your film choices were restricted to whatever your neighborhood video store carried, as opposed to the click-and-send catalog of Netflix; when you pored over the weekly TV listings and videotaped carefully, because you only had one shot at seeing any of it; when you posted up next to a boombox with your finger hovering over the “record” and “play” buttons, in case that new song you couldn’t live without was next up in the rotation on your favorite radio station, and you’d take even a version with that obnoxious deejay nattering over the intro and fade-out.

Let be me clear: it is better now. I prefer filling my Netflix queue with a few keystrokes when I discover a new director, using on-demand services to watch TV I’ve missed, and going to iTunes to download my new favorite song (and just that song, if the rest of the album is shitty filler). And I like the fact that when my one-year-old daughter is of television viewing age — which should be, oh, any day now — I’ll be able to curate the cartoons she’s watching, thanks to DVD and Netflix streaming and DVR, and hopefully I’ll manage to skip the endless and terrible commercials in the process.

Plus, it’s worth remembering how many of those shows were really terrible. Aside from the aforementioned toy commercial shows, an astonishing number of the cartoons of the ‘80s (compiled, handily, at “In the ‘80s”) were basically commercials for each network’s primetime lineup — cartoon spin-offs like Laverne and Shirley in the Army, Fonz and the Happy Days Gang, The Dukes, Mister T, and The Gary Coleman Show. Many of the rest were unforgivably stupid, from The Godzilla/Dynomutt Hour with the Funky Phantom (seemingly the result of a round of cartoon MadLibs) to Turbo Teen (a one-season show about a teen who could transform himself into a sportscar) to Rubik, The Amazing Cube (yes, it’s what you think).

But still, a little part of me died inside when I learned that Saturday morning cartoons were really gone for good–I just always assumed they’d be there, whether I was watching or not. There was a certain magic conjured up just by that combination of words, “Saturday morning cartoons,” a lovely memory of a weekend’s first hours, a bowl of cereal, a pile of toys, and a Scooby-Doo episode that I’d probably seen before, even if I hadn’t (because they were all basically the same). My daughter will never have that, not really. But I’ve got a feeling I’ll spend a fair number of Saturday mornings trying to recreate it for her anyway.