John Cawley charts the changing landscape of Saturday morning animation programming in the U.S., which used to be the primetime for toons on TV.
The origin of the universe is often described with a big bang theory in which all that we know arrived via a large explosion, which will eventually collapse onto itself, only to explode again. Saturday morning TV programming in the U.S. seems to follow a similar pattern. At the moment, it seems to be collapsing.
The golden age of television is often stated as being during the 1950s. However, the golden age of Saturday morning occurred in the 1960s. Prior to that, childrens programming on TV mostly consisted of stations airing a grab bag of cartoons, shorts and an occasional local host. These kidvid concoctions ran weekdays and weekends.
This all changed in the mid-1960s when the broadcast execs began to take note of the growing audience of youth on Saturday morning. Suddenly, the big three (yes, there were only three broadcast networks at that time) began to establish an actual block on Saturday morning and program them with new cartoons. To the execs surprise, children appreciated new cartoons as much as (and sometimes more than) the old classics. This was a key force driving the syndicated animation boom of the 1980s.
The golden age was an era of one beloved character after another. Hanna-Barbera offered Space Ghost, Secret Squirrel and Scooby-Doo. Filmation made the well-remembered Superman and Batman cartoons as well as cult hit The Archies. Ralph Bakshi brought Spider-Man to the screen with one of the catchiest theme songs of all time. Format Films did the stylistic The Lone Ranger. Hal Seeger brought us Milton the Monster and Batfink. Jay Ward and Bill Scott presented George of the Jungle and Super Chicken. Other icons of the era include Roger Ramjet, Underdog and Rocket Robin Hood.
The first shock wave to this smooth system arrived in the guise of a mother (Peggy Charren) who objected to the violence in Saturday morning cartoons. She created a powerful organization and by the 1970s, broadcasters were bending to the pressure from the group and congress. Violence was mostly missing on Saturdays, replaced with slapstick/adventure stories. In an effort to better show sensitivity to families, more and more women became heads of Saturday morning programming.
By the 1980s, the tide began to shift. A boom in syndicated animation, the arrival of cartoons based on characters from other venues (videogames, toys, live-action series and movies). At first successful, the amount of time and money began to wear on broadcasters. By the end of the decade, NBC decided to switch from animated programming to live action. Then, in 1990, a new network came on the scene, FOX. Within a few years, FOX (Fox Kids) became the number one rated network on Saturday morning. This inspired the WB network to attempt its own Saturday morning block. But the most dynamic change was the entry of cable TV, which eventually took over the young viewers.
Broadcast TV received another major shock when the government enacted the Childrens Television Act and demanded that the broadcast networks air three hours weekly of educational content. This dictate gave cable an upper hand, and it has never relinquished control. Ironically, whereas a lot of cable programming came from utilizing older network programs, by the 2000s, the networks were using cable series!
This year, the broadcasters are very different creatures, and more numerous than the three that created the Saturday morning machine of the 1960s. The originals, ABC, CBS and NBC, now joined with CW and FOX, no longer are a force of creativity. Instead, several have become merely nesting spots for others programming.
ABC 2006 lineup
The Emperors New SchoolThe ReplacementsThat's So Raven (two episodes)Hannah MontanaThe Suite Life Of Zack And CodyPower Rangers Mystic Force (two episodes)
ABC, which is owned by Disney, has changed little since the merger synergy. Initially, ABC opted for some unique programming strategy, creating the One Saturday Morning block, which de-focused the breaking point between series and interstitials. Initially a success, but as the ratings lowered, the network shifted away from such innovation to become an outlet for Disney Channel programming. No more evident is it than with this years lineup.
Of the four hours ABC is offering, only one is animated. And that hour is being brought over from the Disney Channel. The Emperors New School is one of its series based on a recent feature The Emperors New Groove. The Replacements is an original cable series about kids who have the ability to change the adults in their life. The other three hours are from the successful live-action branch of the channel. Reminiscent of NBC in the late 1980s, Disney has decided to go for a slightly older audience with the use of live action. After the first few weeks, it appeared to be working as the network announced it was the number one rated broadcast network in kid demos (6-11), with the debut of the live-action Hanna Montana ranking as the #1 program on Saturday morning.
CBS 2006 lineup
MadelineSabrina: The Animated SeriesTrollzHorselandCAKEDance Revolution!
CBS also seemed to take a few leaves from history. Being part of the Viacom family, the past few years saw CBS following the ABC/Disney formula by using the slots to extend the reach of Viacoms Nickelodeon series to network TV. This year, CBS dropped its Nick affiliation and opted to have other parties assist in the programming. (FOX did this a few years ago when it gave the block to 4Kids.)
CBS pacted with DIC and AOL to create a new programming block, KOLs Secret Slumber Party on CBS. The programming features young girls at a slumber party joking around between the shows. The actual series are a mix of older DIC animated series (Madeline, Sabrina, Trollz), one new animated series (Horseland where horses and animals talk to each other when humans are not around) and a pair of live-action series (CAKE, Dance Revolution).
Kaaren Brown, senior vp of creative affairs at DIC took a few minutes to discuss the block. Brown came on board to helm the project. It had been decided to aim for a different demo than other broadcasters, a young girl market. So we began searching our properties and library for ones that would fit that group. She stated it was easy to pick popular titles like Madeline and Sabrina (which also does well with young males). Trollz was somewhat untested, but we felt in the right environment it could grow. We had already greenlit Horseland and saw it as a strong candidate.
Of course all shows need to be FCC friendly, so the KOL block wanted to focus on healthy eating and an active lifestyle. Horseland, mentioned Brown, has a great message of building self esteem. And studies show low self esteem is a key factor in overeating. Brown stated that CBS and KOL worked with DIC building the lineup, and at times assisted in the creative aspect. KOL was directly responsible for the look and host DJ Rick on Dance Revolution. They took the multitasking elements of their website and incorporated it into the series so we have split screens, Chyron messages, and the Slumber Party Girls popping up which keeps it all moving. (The Slumber Party Girls have proved popular and there are plans to expand their use.)
As for the move to some live-action programming, Brown told Animation World Magazine, After picking the series we thought worked best, we still had an hour to fill. With less than six-months to complete new series, we decided only live-action shows could be finished in time. So CAKE and Dance Revolution were created. Each features a key point of our programming. CAKE offers creativity and art, while Dance offers activity. In fact, we found more and more that art and physical activity are two aspects being dropped by many schools these days. Will there be more live action? Brown responded, DIC has always been an animation house, but we will do what makes sense for a series. Horseland is actually written like a live-action series, but it would be too costly to produce it that way. She added, There is no strategy to deliver a certain percentage of animation or live action.
The agreement between CBS, DIC and AOL is for five years. Brown commented this was a big assistance in talking with affiliates and licensees. We can tell folks that the characters and programming will be around for years. Not every studio can promise that. She continued that, as long as the block continued to follow FCC guidelines and maintain the quality, the current series could be around for many years.
CW 2006 Lineup
Krypto The SuperdogMonster AllergyTom And Jerry TalesShaggy And Scooby-Doo Get A Clue!Johnny TestLegion Of Super HeroesThe BatmanXiaolin ShowdownLoonatics Unleashed
CW, the newest network, is itself a hybrid of The WB and UPN. The newcomer simply continued the successful Kids' WB! lineup. Its lineup is mix of returning series, anime shows, classic characters re-done and new adaptations of comicbook characters. The network states the lineup is targeted to the 6-11 market.
The returning shows include Johnny Test (produced this season by Cookie Jar Ent., previously by WB Animation), about a boy, a talking dog and his two genius sisters. Loonatics also returns, with the pre-debut Internet protests long forgotten. The Batman comes back with Robin added. Finally, Xiaolin Showdown is back.
From the world of anime comes the highly popular Monster Allergy. This has been much anticipated by anime fans. Some think, if the dubbing and handling are well done, this series could be another Pokémon sensation.
In the classic area are Shaggy & Scooby-Doo Get a Clue and Tom and Jerry Tales. Scooby is given a complete re-do with new art style, revised personalities, superpowers and a story arc reminiscent of The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo. Tom and Jerry are presented in new shorts. The duo is presented as adults, unlike FOXs well-rated Tom and Jerry Kids from the 1990s. Once again non-speaking, they do tend to get a bit more anthro in their adventures.
More DC comic characters come to life via Legion Of Super Heroes, which features Superboy joining a group of superheroes in the distant future. Also from the DC universe is Krypto the Superdog, a charming series imported from Cartoon Networks short-lived Tickle U pre-school block.
FOX 2006 Lineup
Winx ClubBratzKirby: Right Back at Ya!Viva PiñataYu-Gi-Oh! Capsule MonstersViva Piñata (a second Episode)Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesGI Joe Sigma 6
FOX handed its programming to 4Kids several years ago. 4Kids are the folks who have brought us Pokémon for years. This season 4Kids supplies a lineup of new and returning series mostly based on existing characters. Bratz and GI Joe Sigma 6 come from popular toylines. The perennial Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is based on the well-known comicbook series. Yu-Gi-Oh! Capsule Monsters and Kirby: Right Back at Ya! come from the world of videogames. Viva Piñata is based on a game being released later this year. It features a world where piñatas are living entities, similar to toons in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. A new card game-based series, Chaotic, will eventually allow online trading and playing. Winx Club, the series about young witches, fills out the schedule. This is the final year of 4Kids four-year deal with FOX. Next year, 2007, may bring changes to the network.
NBC 2006 lineup
Veggie TalesDragon3-2-1 Penguins/Larry StoriesBabarJane and the DragonJacob Two Two
NBC, the first network to abandon animation, returns to the genre with the block dubbed qubo. Teamed with Telemundo (NBCs sister Spanish-language station) and ION Media Networks, the peacock network is offering a true smorgasbord of programming. The block, dubbed qubo Kids is described as a unique new childrens network featuring bilingual content for all children. Unlike the other networks, aiming for 6-11, qubo is geared to kids 4-8. The parties also state they plan to turn qubo into a 24/7 digital channel in the future.
The block has two debuting series from popular Christian home video characters Veggie Tales and Veggie Tales Presents 3-2-1 Penguins! and LarryBoy Stories (which is easily one of the longer series titles on Saturday morning). Dragon features stop-motion adventures based on a series of books by Dave Pilkey. And a dragon of a different technique (from Weta Digital and Nelvana) appears in the CGI Jane and the Dragon. This series has my favorite press quote The stories are more sophisticated and slower-paced for an older age group. (Those 12-year-olds do tend to start slowing down due to their age.) Babar continues the adventures of the popular Elephant King. Jacob Two Two is based on a popular series of books about a boy who has fantastic adventures.
Broadcast TV made quite a journey during the last half century. It started in the 1950s with local kids show hosts showing various productions. By the 1960s, the networks took control of this major programming block. The 1970s saw the increasing role of government, along with a drop in expenses and budgets. New names like Jim Henson, David Kirschner, Ralph Bakshi and Peyo joined the game in the 1980s. Cable and new networks brought more diversity during the 1990s. A new century found increased scrutiny from the government, and decreased interest from the broadcasters themselves.
As the areas of home video, VOD, Internet downloading and digital channels continue to rear their head, the broadcast networks will need to find more ways to attract an audience, without attracting undo attention by special interest groups or politicians.
Brown offered her perspective on how all the various platforms will affect broadcast kids shows in the future. Kids TV is no longer appointment TV. A strategic partnership, like the one with CBS, DIC and AOL will actually increase the number of eyes on a property. Kids will no longer be forced to watch shows at a specific time. One weekend they will be in front of their TV. The next weekend they may be gone and will catch the shows on their TiVo, or on the Internet, or even on their cell phone. Now, once kids find a character or show they enjoy, they have the ability to watch them anytime. And in the end, all these platforms will build up to a greater whole.
John Cawley is a producer of animation (television and features) at Cartoon Network Studios in Burbank, California. Cawley is also a writer ( Dexters Lab, Bugs Bunny, Disney features), an author ( Encyclopedia of Cartoon Superstars, Cartoon Confidential), an editor ( Get Animated!), a publisher ( Faster! Cheaper!), a lecturer and a performer.