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On This Day: September 12, 1992
If you were a kid in the 1980s, you'll remember this hallowed ritual. Every Saturday morning, you'd wake up at the crack of dawn (yes, even though school wasn't in session), pour yourself a heaping bowl of sugar-laden cereal (preferably of the Ralston-Purina variety — the Donkey Kong box was especially choice) and park yourself in front of the television to watch multiple hours of toy commercials passing as animated entertainment. In between bites of frosted puffs in various shapes and sizes, you'd belt out theme songs about singing chipmunks, transforming robots and bouncing bears hooked on something called "gummi berry juice," and track which new toy-ready characters and vehicles you'd be adding to your birthday and/or holiday wishlists.
But unless you're Peter Pan — and not the Robin Williams version — childhood has to end sometime. And the beginning of the end started 31 years ago when NBC banished cartoons from its airwaves as a new Saturday dawned. Instead, the former home of Alvin and the Chipmunks, Captain N: The Game Master, The Smurfs and The Snorks decided to go all-in on teen-oriented live-action series, using its own hit, Saved by the Bell, as a new creative North Star for the Saturday morning audience. NBC also programmed a Saturday edition of its venerable morning show Today, in the hopes of attracting parents as well as their teens.
Truthfully, it was a move that had been a long time coming. NBC first contemplated killing off its cartoons in the early '80s when ratings were on the wane as the previous generation of younger audiences outgrew '70s staples like Super Friends and Josie and the Pussy Cats. But then those blue Belgian creatures who lived in mushroom houses came along and revived the network's Saturday morning fortunes. The Smurfs coincided with a general boom in Saturday programming, as animated shows that were either based on — or created — '80s pop culture phenoms like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Pac-Man and Mr. T connected with kids whose parents had disposable income.
By the early '90s, though, those kids had all become teenagers and the new generation of younger viewers had more viewing options available to them with the rise of kid-friendly cable stations like Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. More importantly, the federal government was taking more of an interest in what the major networks were showing to kids. In 1990, Congress passed the Children's Television Act, which — among other things — required all four major networks to program at least three hours of kid-oriented "educational and informational" programming a week. Saturday morning was an obvious place for networks to put those three hours... but The Smurfs clearly didn't qualify as "educational."
What Happened Next
With cartoons gone from the lineup as of Sept. 12, NBC's Saturdays instead kicked off with a two-hour block of Saturday Today starting at 8 a.m., followed by the dreams-come-true reality series Name Your Adventure at 10 a.m.; the Saved by the Bell knock-off California Dreams at 10:30 a.m.; the Saved by the Bell spin-off The New Class at 11 a.m.; and Running the Halls — aka Saved by the Bell on the East Coast — at 11:30 a.m.. In accordance with the Children's Television Act, NBC classified those shows as "educational and informational" programming... even though the amount of education and information they imparted was questionable.
While the other networks didn't follow NBC's example right away, the cartoon writing was on the wall. In 1997, CBS revamped its Saturday morning lineup as Think CBS Kids, replacing shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Garfield and Friends with Sports Illustrated for Kids and The New Ghostwriter Mysteries. ABC kept the party going into the early 2000s with cartoons like The Mighty Ducks and Recess, which were made by the network's parent company, Walt Disney. But by 2004, those series were largely gone as well, replaced by news shows and local programming.
Once the Big Three were out of the Saturday morning game, smaller networks like The CW tried to become the destination for an ever-shrinking audience of kids. In fact, The CW's Vortexx programming block became the last stand for Saturday morning cartoons. Consisting mainly of imported series like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Digimon Fusion, Vortexx anchored the 7 a.m.-noon time slot on Saturdays from 2012 to 2014. Finally, on Sept. 27, 2014 — 22 years after NBC started the cartoon cancellation wave — Vortexx aired its final batch of episodes and Saturday morning cartoons were officially gone from the terrestrial airwaves.
Where We Are Now
These days, animation is a bigger business than ever... just not on Saturday mornings. Cartoons like Bluey and Cocomelon are flourishing on streaming services, where viewers young and old can watch them on demand. Meanwhile, animated franchises that were born in the '80s cartoon boom — like Masters of the Universe and Transformers — have also been revived for streamers and cable networks, where audiences have increasingly migrated with the decline of the major ad-supported networks.
But nostalgia for the Saturday morning cartoon days still burns brightly on the internet, where multiple fan sites look back fondly on the animated series that raised them. Still, it should be noted that the adults that mades those shows largely recognized them for what they were: forgettable filler that paid the bills, but weren't artistic achievements by any stretch of the imagination.
"To be brutally honest, the majority of people were doing this stuff just to collect a paycheck," former Saturday morning cartoon scribe Buzz Dixon told Yahoo Entertainment in 2017 while reflecting on his years writing for such animated series as Dungeons & Dragons and Thundarr the Barbarian. "Very few people were doing it with the thought of, 'I want to do something that will matter five, 10, 15 years from now.' Because it was all viewed as very ephemeral. You do it, you put it out there, and they’re going to forget it."