Thursday, October 09, 2014

Culture Shock 10.09.14: It's the end of Saturday morning as we knew it

Print advertisement for NBC's 1983 Saturday morning cartoon lineup. It was the
debut season for "Mr. T" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks," while "Thundarr the
Barbarian" moved to NBC from ABC, where it had aired the previous two seasons.
For as long as I can remember, "children's advocates" have hated children's television.

They always said the same thing: Children's television was too violent, too dumb and too commercial. And because kids watched "too much" of it, it was, by implication, too entertaining.

Not anymore. Mark your calendar, for this is a date that shall live in infamy: Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014, was the first Saturday since the 1960s when there were no Saturday morning cartoons on broadcast network television. For those of us who were kids during the Golden Age of Saturday morning cartoons, in the 1970s and '80s, it's Saturday mourning in America.

At last, the self-appointed children's advocates have slain their dragon.

In place of the animated cartoons that Generation X and the millennials grew up with are a bunch of live-action "educational and informational" programs. They're designated by the little "E/I" logo on the screen, which means the broadcaster is counting every second of them toward its government-mandated quota of E/I programming. It doesn't matter if anyone watches; it just matters that it's there and that it's "quality," as defined by the children's advocates.

Kids, meanwhile, have responded just as you'd expect. Those who can have flocked to cable TV and the children's section of Netflix, both of which operate blessedly free of the dictates of the Federal Communications Commission, for the most part. For now, anyway.

How did this happen? How did children wake up in a world with no Saturday morning cartoons?

It started 24 years ago when Congress passed the Children's Television Act of 1990. The act was the culmination of 20 years of agitation by activist groups such as Action for Children's Television, founded by Peggy Charren, who became the go-to talking head whenever the national news media needed someone to pontificate about kiddie TV, because why would you ever ask a kid?

The Children's Television Act limited advertising during both cable and broadcast children's programming and mandated that broadcasters devote a set amount of airtime each week to E/I shows.

The act's first victims were the cartoons that aired after school each weekday. The ad restrictions made them less profitable, which was the kiss of death in the highly competitive broadcast syndication market. Stations quickly dropped cartoons and added more talk shows and TV judges. Indirectly, we have the CTA to blame for Judge Judy and her ilk.

The CTA's full impact didn't hit Saturday mornings until later, as the FCC "clarified" the act and spelled out exactly what "educational and informational" meant, always tightening the screws.

NBC was the first to fall. The proud peacock that once had aired "The Smurfs" and "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends" farmed out its Saturday morning airtime to corporate sibling NatGeo.

Print advertisement for CBS's 1982 Saturday morning cartoon lineup.
CBS and ABC were next, followed by Fox. When the end came, only The CW was still airing cartoons, all of them Japanese imports. It was a painful, lingering death. Saturdays deserved better.

The image of children getting out of bed at the crack of dawn to watch Saturday morning cartoons along with a sugary cereal chaser has become a clichĂ©. But it's no less true. My generation looked ahead to Saturday mornings — filled with Superfriends and Snorks — as if each were a mini Christmas. The networks trumpeted their new Saturday morning lineups each fall with preview specials in prime time. It was a big freaking deal.

Sure, kids still have Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and the Disney channels, but Saturday morning's passing matters. Maybe those old cartoons weren't "educational" in the approved sense, but they were a springboard for our imaginations. More than that sugary cereal, those cartoons fueled us, not just for the rest of the day but for life.

"Scooby-Doo," for one, taught us real-life lessons. We learned not to worry about scary-looking ghosts, because the odds were those ghosts were just con men trying to pull a fast one.

With cartoons teaching lessons like that, it's no wonder Congress was so eager to replace them with FCC-approved boredom.

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