In a time not so long ago, Saturday mornings were indicative of one and only one pastime for children watching cartoons. Throughout the '70s and '80s, the broadcast networks ABC, CBS and NBC dominated the Saturday morning airwaves by inundating children with cartoons. Cartoons on these networks used to earn ratings of more than 20 million viewers. Today, network Saturday morning cartoons only exist on ABC Kids, FOX Kids and Kids WB!, the latter two networks either did not exist or did not air cartoons two decades ago. Current successful cartoons on FOX Kids or Kids WB! can garner a mere two million viewers. That statistic does not even take into consideration that the population of children in the U.S. has increased by approximately ten percent over the last 20 years. Due to this precipice in viewers, network cartoons are left struggling to make money while advertisers remain befuddled without a mainstream channel to promote new toys and products to children. Why have children stopped tuning in on Saturday mornings to network cartoons and what are the ramifications of this change?
Six key factors have led to children watching less Saturday morning cartoons: more recreational sports, the introduction of cable and satellite TV, the Internet and video games, a poorer quality of animation, and a greater emphasis on family time. These factors are rather self-explanatory with the exception of the latter: the divorce rate of Americans now stands at 49 percent, and time on the weekends has become more precious for children as many commute between parents houses. For parents who only have limited access to their children due to either divorce or career advancement, plopping them down in front of the television for five hours on a Saturday morning is no longer a viable option. Among most parents, divorced or not, there is a new emphasis on "quality" time. Consequently, taking ones children to the theater, mall, museum, event, zoo or beach on the weekend is deemed more appropriate to being a "good" parent, than letting kids sit and watch cartoons. To this effect, American society has changed substantially enough over the last two decades to the point where Saturday morning cartoons are less important to our culture.
The Biggest Change of All
Today, cartoons are no longer on the major three networks that dominated the preceding decades. Although ABC technically still airs Saturday morning cartoons, its relationship with Disney distinguishes it from ABCs past programming during the 70s and 80s. When NBC and CBS began reducing their childrens programming on Saturdays in 1988-1990, FOX jumped aboard the bandwagon and laid the cornerstone for its FOX Kids Network. NBC chose to delve into live-action teen entertainment, hallmarked by Saved by the Bell. Presently, NBC is in partnership with Discovery Kids; a Saturday edition of Today either precedes or follows Discovery Kids. CBS initially chose to replace its cartoons with news from local affiliates and now airs a national morning show, which is either preceded or followed by childrens content from Nick Jr. Disney acquired ABC, so their relationship has stayed relatively constant over the decades and still continues to air its One Saturday Morning, recently renamed ABC Kids. Linda Simensky, vice president of original programming at Cartoon Network, feels that, Childrens television was never the strength of broadcasters to begin with. There were some good shows in there, but kids TV was the department where executives at the network would start their nephews out in. [Kids TV] was never the primary goal of a network. Childrens entertainment on Saturday mornings is currently such a liability that local affiliates in markets such as Baltimore choose to air local news in lieu of Discovery Kids, Nick Jr., and ABC Kids.
Cable and satellite TV have replaced these dated network juggernauts as the home of cartoons. The Disney Channel, Viacom-owned Nickelodeon, and Turner-owned, now AOL Time Warner's Cartoon Network form the new triumvirate of cartoon supremacy. Oddly enough though, the ratings for these three cable channels hardly exceed one million viewers per station on Saturday mornings a far cry from the zenith of Saturday morning ratings in the 80s. Why are these channels less successful than their network counterparts were years ago since cable TV is now in the majority of American households?
The success of Nickelodeon and the other cablers during the week has led to their own shortcomings on Saturday mornings. That is to say, Nickelodeon and the others are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; there is no draw card for children to watch at any specific time or on any specific day. It is always there! A child who never knew the phenomenon of Saturday morning cartoons sees no reason to watch cartoons on Saturday mornings rather than on Wednesday nights or Sunday afternoons. Nevertheless, according to some studies, when a child sees the color orange, the first word the child associates with that color is Nickelodeon. Todays children are being raised as brand loyal to Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network's signature checkerboard. These brand loyalties form as early as two years of age.i Needless to say, this brand loyalty demonstrates that despite Nickelodeons not earning comparable ratings to broadcast networks in the 80s on Saturday mornings, Nickelodeon and the others are doing something right.
Why Broadcast Networks Aired Cartoons in the 80s
Before cable TV, allocating time for childrens programming on broadcast networks was at a premium. In the 70s and 80s, there were essentially five networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and PBS. Consequently, these five networks had to cater to the tastes of all people. As a rule of thumb, networks aired childrens programming in times when adults did not want to watch TV. For this reason, cartoons were syndicated during weekday afternoons in the hours after children arrived from school and before adults arrived from work. Cartoons also appeared on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Sunday morning cartoons were always less successful than Saturday morning ones because they were in syndication on local channels rather than on broadcast networks, and they conflicted with many Americans church schedule. The most notable 80s Sunday morning cartoon block was The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbara, featuring shows like Fantastic Max! and Don Coyote. In the end, Saturday mornings provided the longest number of consecutive hours on which to air cartoons and proved to be the most successful. This precept held true until the growth of Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and the other cable TV childrens programmers.
FOX Kids Paved the Road for Nickelodeons Success
According to Lee Gaither, vice president of Saturday morning programs at NBC, If you go back and look at the growth of Nickelodeon, it owes much to FOX. Most FOX affiliates did not have local news, so FOX Kids was able to go to a six-day-a-week schedule. For the first time, you had a set of kids who had Saturday morning fare six days a week. FOX started to feed an appetitebut it was only two hours a day.
Before the FOX Kids weekday lineup in 1991, weekday cartoons existed in the realm of syndication. The difficulty with syndicating any show is that local affiliates determine a shows timeslot. There is no continuity across the country and no way to promote the proceeding show. FOX Kids weekday lineup created a single promotional machine, adds Gaither. FOX Kids came on at the same time across the country and promoted to the next day [and Saturday].
Problems for cartoons on broadcast networks stemmed from what began as "promoting to the next show" on FOX. Promoting to the next show transformed into a churning desire in children to see more programming. As Gaither explains, Kids would watch Power Rangers, then they would flip all over the dial trying to find more content just for them. Nickelodeon benefited because they had Double Dare and other live-action shows. They had a branding voice: This is yours. It doesnt belong to your parents. Consequently, kids found cable in a huge, huge way. Today, Saturday morning cartoons is a phrase that emotionally means nothing to anyone under the age of twenty-five.
Brian ONeal, former manager and vice president of childrens programming at CBS, concurs with NBCs Gaither: The competition from Cartoon Network and Nick changed the programming paradigm for the broadcast networks. It eroded our audience base. Kids discovered that they did not have to settle for programming one day a week. There were shows for them seven days a week. ONeal also elaborated how even the most successful childrens programming could never compete with programming for adults: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, at the height of its success, was never even comparable to the average primetime show. One hour of primetime generated the same profit as the entire Saturday morning lineup. As a network, where are you going to put more of your resources to drive your ratings? Youre not even going to allocate [childrens programming] in your budget. Since cable TV can program to specific verticals every hour every day, there is no longer any financial reason to keep cartoons and childrens programming on broadcast networks.
Its the Children that Changed Not the Cartoons
As cable TV started to rise, the 'tween psychology became real, comments Gaither. Kids over the age of eight started splitting off into very different groups. Some boys were into animation and others were not. Girls have always been sketchy over the age of six with animation. Live-action became more popular. You are always better off as a network if you have a mixture of both live-action and cartoons. I know Discovery Kids plan: they wanted a mixture of animation, reality series and live-action to reflect the breadth and complexity of kids today. Its hard to find a kid who likes just animation anymore. Kids have evolved. You dont have many boys watching cartoons when theyre thirteen. Thats not happening anymore. They are evolving emotionally faster. Lizzie McGuire is a live-action Ally McBeal for kids on The Disney Channel and its a huge hit with girls, and boys oddly enough.
Brian O'Neal (left), formerly of CBS, watched as kids turned to cable for shows anytime during the week. Shows like Lizzie McGuire appeal to the new niche of 'tweeners. Courtesy of Disney.
Primetime family programming is also an endangered species due to the same proliferation of cable TV. Successful family shows like Full House and Family Matters no longer have a place on broadcast networks because of channels like Nickelodeon and ABC Family. The absence of primetime family programming also hinders Saturday morning cartoons on broadcast networks because there is no way to promote programming on Friday night for Saturday morning. Right now, only ABCs Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday evenings promotes programming on Saturday mornings, and as ONeal points out, There is no way you can expect a child to remember to watch a show all the way from Sunday night until Saturday morning. No child will remember that.
The Fiscal Future of Saturday Morning Cartoons
The final problem with Saturday morning cartoons is their incipient decrease in quality over the last decade, attributable in part to a decrease in advertisement revenue. While individuals at FOX Kids and Walt Disney TV Animation do not agree that there has been a decrease in quality, ONeal confirms that there is no question that production costs have increased while revenue from advertisements has decreased. This relationship has placed animation studios in a catch 22. Everyone in the industry will insist that good stories denote high quality shows, yet can shows hire experienced, quality writers when low budgets are such a commodity?
There is a price for the proliferation of television genres. As the number of cable channels continues to increase, the average number of viewers per channel will decrease. What this means for the viewing audience is that networks cannot expect advertisers to pay the same proportional rates they paid decades ago when there were, at most, five channels. The animation business has always been driven by ancillary, meaning toys and games, says Gaither. Transformers, He-Man, My Little Pony and G. I. Joe are prime examples of this. Gaither adds: Frankly, prior to the 90s, when there were no FCC rules, it was very easy to launch an animated product based on a toy and you could very clearly see where the revenue stream would lie. After the FCC rules, you could no longer do that so directly. Unless you were vertically integrated like Warner Bros. Studios, which in putting a show like Animaniacs on FOX Kids then Kids WB!, then merchandising it through your studio and on videos around the world, theres no way to stop that. According to Cartoon Network's Simensky, if a show does not have the potential to be successful in the toy and game industries, the likelihood of a network picking it up is much slimmer.
The greatest benefit to Saturday morning cartoons was their ability to create one venue for advertisers where they could reach 20 million viewers. If a toy company wanted to promote a novel product in the 80s, advertising on Saturday mornings was logical. On the other hand, an advantage to the proliferation of childrens programming on cable TV is that advertisers can more directly target their products to their core audience. Since children exist in such smaller niches, an advertiser can better pinpoint a germane time to advertise, thus reducing the cost for the advertiser.
The other sizeable change in the last two decades is the increase in childrens buying power and larger family assets due to dual family incomes.ii Children under the age of twelve are responsible for $500 billion in purchases per year.iii As professors at Middle Tennessee State University noted in a conglomeration of studies, the annual amount children spend has been increasing by 20% each year for at least the last decade.iv Ancillary becomes that much more important because kids are being allowed to spend more of their parents money. The toys and games associated with a childrens program can be more important than the program itself.
Now the future of television is TiVo and other DVRs (digital video recorders). TiVo will cause the next great generational shift in the way children consume programming. Where cable TV facilitated viewers in watching a certain genre of programming anytime of day, DVRs will bring viewers one step closer to television on demand -- watching a specific show at any given time. Once TiVo takes off, it will force networks to come up with a new way of getting advertisers, observes Simensky. Since viewers will then have the ability to skip watching commercials, how will networks function without ad dollars as the primary source of revenue? ONeal realizes that, There will be a change. The beauty of the medium is that it evolves. The business models evolve. As the advertisers and the broadcasters and the techno-wizards who come up with these devices get together, they will discover a way for everyone to make their money. There will be some kind of sponsorship associated with shows. For example, at the bottom of the TV screen, it might say, 'Sony,' with a banner running across outlining new Sony products. Television may return to having specific products sponsor a show: for example, in a decade one may watch Kelloggs Cornflakes Proudly Presents The Simpsons. The bottom line is that the way 30 year-olds remember Saturday morning cartoons, the current generation of children may remember Nickelodeon once DVRs and digital television arrive in the mainstream.
The final question remains: will cartoons ever return to Saturday mornings to the same degree that they existed during the 70s and 80s? The answer is no. The reason for this is the same reason why people no longer watch silent movies or black and white TVs or primetime sitcoms where married couples sleep in separate beds: once things evolve, they seldom return to their simpler forms. Saturday morning cartoons were a phenomenon that now resides in the history books. It is an anomaly in the history of childrens broadcasting, the likes of which will never be seen again. For anyone who remembers the paramount of Saturday morning cartoons, they can keep those memories of childhood dear in their hearts along with other great relics from the 80s including parachute pants, Pogo balls and saying Have a nice day! because Saturday morning cartoons are gone for good on broadcast networks.
i William H. Shaw and Vincent Barry, Moral Issues in Business (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1992): 477-502.ii Bruce Horovitz: Cashing in on kids Retailers in search of customers for life, USA Today (1997, December 18), Page 1A. iii Ibid. iv Attention All Shoppers: Consumerism and Kids, Youth Markets Alert, June 1994: 6(6).
Gerard Raiti is a senior at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee where he is majoring in English, Music and Computer Science. He grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. Recently, he interned as a Business Intelligence Research Analyst for ClientLogic. He has been writing about animation for various publications since 1997 because he loves animation and all things Disney. He aspires to work one day at a network in childrens programming and development.