Saturday mornings used to be sacred animation time. Generations of kids, fueled by bowls of sugary cereal (likely advertised during their Saturday TV sessions), flocked to screens for a binge-worthy block of cartoon programming - whether it was Looney Tunes, Animaniacs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the aptly named The Weekenders, or any other classic animated series. So, what happened to Saturday morning cartoons?
From the 1960s to the 1980s, cartoons dominated kids' early Saturday TV schedules. Most people probably can't recall when this long-running, popular tradition stopped because cartoons gradually phased out of their lives as they aged. Perhaps, like the downfall of G4 TV, the phenomenon could never last. Profitability, changing viewing habits, and even legislation played a part in the eventual extinction of blocks of animated programming from weekend airwaves.
Though the heyday of these cartoons is over, and the shows - even the ones you forgot about - live on via home video and streaming, you might still feel a pang of nostalgia for Saturday morning animated TV. This is the story of how Saturday morning cartoons came to exist and what led to their eventual demise.
- Photo: Looney Tunes/Warner Bros.
The First Saturday Morning Cartoons Were Seen In Movie Theaters
Around the 1950s and '60s, Saturday morning cartoons mainly consisted of repurposed entertainment, which was usually quite old. The classic cartoons of the '30s and '40s, like Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry, and various Disney properties, made up most of the content. But these were originally meant for cinema and later fragmented to fit the television format.
The rest of the programming used shows initially created for primetime television, including The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and Johnny Quest.
In The Early Days, Cartoons Were Prohibitively Expensive To Produce
When cartoons first became a part of pop culture in the 1920s, and through the 1940s, they were produced exclusively for cinema. Given the technology at the time, it was imprudent to consider making cartoons frequently enough that they could run as a television series. Artists had to draw 24 individual frames for each second of animated footage.
This process was incredibly labor intensive, making regular animated TV series unrealistic, so virtually all cartoons up until the 1940s were made in film format. That changed with the advent of cel animation.
Cel Animation Made Regular Cartoon Production Possible
The "cel" in cel animation is short for celluloid, and refers to a transparent sheet (like those used with projectors) that has an image pre-drawn on it, so artists don't need to redraw their characters for every scene. This technique existed in the early days of animation, but was perfected over time.
United Productions of America, an animation studio founded by former Disney animators, innovated a style called "limited animation" that further reduced costs by reusing frame elements of a scene other than just the characters - like backgrounds.
Other production companies adopted this process, which was instrumental in reducing costs enough for animated TV series to become viable.
- Photo: Looney Tunes/Warner Bros.
Networks Started Targeting Children With Ads During Cartoons
By the late 1960s, TV networks found a way to make cartoon blocks financially viable: by including advertising specifically for children. Instead of airing just one or two cartoons, or reusing old animated films, they could produce four hours of various cartoons. Thus, the modern iteration of Saturday morning cartoons was born.
Networks could also offer something to advertisers that had never been available before: an opportunity to inundate large numbers of children for long periods of time with products made exclusively for them.
The Cartoon Golden Age For Networks Was The '60s To '90s
For nearly 30 years, Saturday morning cartoons represented a gold mine for networks. Their four-hour blocks of programming could reach millions of kids every weekend, which advertisers loved. Not all of the entertainment needed to be original, either.
Advertisers stepped up their merchandising efforts by working with networks to produce shows based on products themselves. Shows like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles acted, in effect, like 20-minute advertisements for toys.
- Photo: Schoolhouse Rock!/ABC
The Children's Television Act Of 1990 Marked The Beginning Of The End
Parents slowly grew unhappy with the amount of what they perceived as mindless drivel infiltrating their households every Saturday morning, so they lobbied their lawmakers - and Congress responded. In 1990, Congress passed the Children's Television Act, which mandated that networks make children's programming to include more educational shows.
The FCC strengthened those rules in 1996, stipulating that networks needed to include at least three hours of educational programming per week, among other crackdowns. Because networks didn't want to mess with their primetime schedules, they started cutting into Saturday morning cartoon blocks with these educational shows.