Many of us have fond memories of waking-up early on Saturdays to catch our favorite cartoons. Scooby-Doo, Transformers, and The Bugs Bunny Show are shows that evoke fond memories for millions of kids who grew up in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. The very term “Saturday morning cartoons” has become an icon of American culture—of millions of bleary-eyed parents being woken up by the sound of explosions and cartoon antics from pajama wearing, cereal eating kids.
The phenomenon of Saturday morning cartoons was—unsurprisingly—sustained by the enormous market it presented to advertisers. Always in search of better ways to hawk more junk at the public, marketers looked to the burgeoning medium of television as a new way to reach people. Saturday morning cartoons provided an enormously profitable and specialized market—kids. Our love affair with our favorite shows also provided a means for companies to sell some of our favorite toys and junk foods at us.
How many of us begged our mom or dad to go to McDonald's for a Happy Meal because we wanted the Hot Wheels or My Little Pony toy inside when we saw the commercial between shows?
Over time the line between a cartoon and an ad became increasingly blurred. One of my favorite shows was a flagrant plug for the boys' version of Polly Pocket. Yes, that's right, Mighty Max. And though I never asked or really cared about the little toy playsets that were dangled at me and other kids across the country, I can only imagine how many millions did. Even though they were shameless plugs, they were still entertaining. One can only wonder how much money was spent by
kids parents who bought G.I. Joes, Pound Puppies, or other toys because of their companion cartoons.
The shame of the ad relationship is that it ultimately killed off some great shows. Animaniacs was a show spawned from the animation renaissance of the 1990s. Originally aired on the Fox Kids lineup, the show was transported to the, then-newly created Kids' WB block of kids' programming. This proved to be a death knell as Kids' WB was promoted to advertisers as having a core market of younger children; the show's humor and audience hardly qualified in that category. The show was surprisingly popular among adults, spawning a popular Usenet group during its heyday with heavy posters being culled for focus groups on the show. Unable to match the market demographic, the show was killed off in short order.1
Yet, for all their success, Saturday morning cartoons were little more than fluff. Many of them abused the idea of limited animation to cut costs, not for what it originally was—an attempt to breakout of the ultra-realism of Disney and explore the field of animation as a broader medium. Perhaps the quintessential target of these attacks is Hanna-Barbera, the legendary animation studio whose founders brought the world Tom & Jerry while they were at MGM. Action in many of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon is reduced down to its bare mininum. There is no fluidity, scenes are reused as much as possible and there is a much stronger focus on voice acting. Famed animator and director Chuck Jones called Saturday morning cartoons “illustrated radio” in a 1998 interview with The Onion's A.V. Club he elaborated on this:
Well, I have a lot of respect for The Simpsons, but it's in the same tradition as Rocky & Bullwinkle: They're very clever scripts, and they had no intention of animating them. Animating goes back to that basic term that Noah Webster wrote in his dictionary—“Animation: to invoke life.” Last night, when I was signing some cels, this deaf girl came up. She could read my lips, and she said that the thing she likes about the Warner cartoons and the Disney cartoons is that she could tell what was happening without hearing the dialogue. And that's what we tried to do: We always ran the pictures without dialogue, so we could see whether the action of the body would somehow convey what we were talking about. And she said that she'd watch Rocky & Bullwinkle or The Simpsons, and she couldn't tell what was happening, because so much of it is vocal. It's what I call “illustrated radio. “The thing has to tell the whole story in words before you put drawings in front of it. But the basic tool, as I say... A great artist once said — in describing lines, which is really what we work with — that respect for the line is the most important thing. He described the line: "My little dot goes for a walk." You must have an equal amount of respect for any point on the line. You don't zip from one place to another like you're likely to do when you're young. When you watch your little dot go for a walk, it has to be carefully done, and thoughtfully done, and respectfully done.2
We're kids, though, they were fun regardless of their artistic failings. All good things must come to an end, though, and I am not so naïve to think that Saturday morning cartoons would be a permanent fixture of American life. People change and mold new cultural memes. Saturday morning cartoons were born from the advent of a new technological medium—network television. In this culture, they are being replaced by another new medium—cable television and the Internet.
Though there are plenty of other factors that have been argued to contribute to making Saturday morning cartoons into a dying relic of the past such as kids' increased involvement in sports activities and a greater focus on family time3, I think the biggest reason why, is the lack of importance that such advances as 24/7 kid oriented channels like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network and the rise of home recording media like VHS and DVRs like TiVo, have given Saturday morning cartoons. Now kids can watch their favorite shows at the flick of a switch or get a cartoon fix at 3 a.m. why is a cartoon on Saturday morning any different than a cartoon on Tuesday evening? The increasing amount of families choosing to pay money for such on-demand media has resulted in a downward spiral for Saturday morning cartoons.
Animation is never cheap, fluid hand-drawn animation requires thousands of frames to create the illusion of movement. With the loss of revenue from ads, networks have increasingly turned to other, cheaper methods to try and fill-in the Saturday morning lineup. Today, many networks use foreign-made, redubbed films; or the questionable medium of Flash.
It is with a twinge of sadness that I realize that “Saturday morning cartoons” is a term that ultimately means nothing to anyone under the age of 25.
- Jamie Weinman. “When did the Warner siblings jump the shark? A look at the life of Animaniacs.“ <http://wba.toonzone.net/voice/august/animaniacs.html>.
- The Onion A.V. Club. “Interviews: Chuck Jones.” <http://www.avclub.com/content/node/23220>.
- Gerald Raiti. “The Disappearence of Saturday Morning.” Animation World Magazine. <http://mag.awn.com/article_view.php?id=1751&page=all>.