Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Death Of Saturday Morning Cartoons

It seems as if today is the sad death of the Saturday Morning Cartoon. The CW, the last remaining broadcast network to show cartoons, ended its run this morning, with no other network having plans to continue.

Now, I haven't watched much television lately on Saturday mornings, but even when I was a kid the trend was moving away from cartoons. One of the stations--NBC, I believe, had transitioned away from cartoons to news programs. But still, the concept of the Saturday Morning Cartoon had existed for decades and has been entrenched in our cultural landscape. Most of the cartoons we all watched as kids (by "we all" I mean those of us over 30) originated, in some form, from Saturday mornings.

Learning about the new schedule every year was like a third Christmas (First Christmas being actual Christmas and Second Christmas being when a new series of Garbage Pail Kids unexpectedly showed up at the store). We eagerly anticipated if our favorite toy or comic book or theme was represented in the new block, and we'd map out the schedule amongst the three networks ("OK, at 8:30 we can watch the Gummi Bears, then we can watch the Smurfs, but if it's a rerun we switch over to Slimer! And the Real Ghostbusters. Then after that's done at 10:30 we have to decide whether we want to switch over to Alf or Garfield and Friends.")

Even back then, though, as a wise and precocious kid I knew that some stuff was garbage. Anything noted as "The New" or "...and Son" was probably going to be bad--no new Popeyes or Richie Riches or Archies, thank you very much. The things that make those shows charming and enjoyable are the fact that they are a product of their times and clever writing, not because you introduce a young, hip character who rides a skateboard.

In fact, that said, let's just codify a few Saturday morning cartoon rules for posterity:
  • There's always one character in any group that's dumb as dirt that's necessarily to create that show's main problem to be solved. And yet that person won't be in jail.
  • Any superhero will somehow manage to defeat the bad guys not through the awesome, world-changing power they have, but through the power of kindness or sharing or some other communist BS.
  • There was always that morning when you overslept and you missed an episode of your favorite show and all your friends would call you later to tell you that it was the single greatest episode in the history of visual media. 
  • And your one sketchy friend would insist that it was the episode where Smurfette had her dress fall off and you missed it but he totally saw it happen.
  • After the first season: introduce kids! Or kid-versions of whatever creature you're watching.
  • Don't like writing logical scripts? It's magic!
  • If there's a modestly successful live-action prime time television show that has even a small children's demographic, expect a cartoon of it, and expect it to suck. Along with the addition of some sort of magical creature that makes no sense. I mean, the Dukes of Hazzard and Laverne and Shirley? Come on!
  • There's always going to be a Scrappy, whether you like it or not. He or she will come as different names and different forms, but it will happen. Just prepare yourself ahead of time.
  • When in doubt, start a band. If the resolution of the plot isn't forthcoming, play a song with your band and all will be OK.
  • Everyone is always solving a mystery all the time.
The decline of the cartoon is for many different reasons. The main one is simply that there's a lot more competition out there: at first it was post-school afternoon blocks of high-quality cartoons that garnered greater viewership. Then it was the rise of cable and all-cartoon networks like Nickelodeon. (Well, mostly cartoon, at least at first.) Then Disney and other animation studios started cranking out high-quality feature films after decades of producing modestly-performing garbage. All of these trends started to make Saturday Morning cartoons look like amateur hour, with their cliched plots and subpar writing. Live-action shows also started and were modestly successful (and, of course, cheaper.)

Of course, one can't point to the demise of a cultural institution without pointing a crooked, accusing finger at the government. After voters parents complained, politicians got involved. No more could Saturday Morning Cartoons show commercials to sell kids stuff--so things like cereals, tie-in merchandising, and fast food commercials either were reduced or outright banned, choking off a huge portion of revenue for the expensive-to-produce cartoons. The true death knell, though, was the requirement of the stations that they show a certain amount of E/I programming--that is, educational or informational shows. It quickly became apparent that the best way to fulfill this requirement was to burn them off on Saturday mornings; the increasingly less-profitable cartoons could be chucked in favor of cheap documentaries.

There are other reasons, too--the changing conglomerate nature of the stations meant that they would rather produce in-house shows with their already-existing properties instead of buying them from independent animation houses is a big one--but I suppose that in today's world it can't be too unexpected.

but really, we're really just clinging to a specific time and specific product that was never going to be replicated in the first place. There are more cartoons being shown and made today than ever; who cares when they are airing? And we'll never have another Scooby-Doo or Muppet Babies because those things could only come during the era they were made in--but we'll have new stuff that's just as good.

Still, it's a shame that such a long history of vibrant, creative product is going to be replaced by the likes of a talking head news show and the farm report. Brainy Smurf, I believe, would agree.

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