Educational Standards and Streaming Put an End to Saturday Morning Cartoons

By: Georgia | Published: Dec 06, 2023

Saturday morning cartoons were once a staple of American childhood. They now cease to exist in the form that once defined weekend routines for generations. 

Much like payphones and video rental stores, this cultural phenomenon, which captured the hearts of children from the 1960s to the 1990s, has faded away into the realm of fond memories.

The Inception with ‘Crusader Rabbit’

The tradition of Saturday morning cartoons began in 1950 with Crusader Rabbit, the first television animation. 

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A black and white title screen from the animated series "Crusader Rabbit." The title of the show is prominently displayed in bold letters, with an illustrated image of Crusader Rabbit

Source: candolex/YouTube

However, it was the innovation by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera after their departure from MGM that catalyzed the proliferation of animated series. Their techniques allowed for more efficient production, leading to the creation of iconic shows such as The Flintstones and The Jetsons.

Transitioning to a Child-Centric Time Slot

In the mid-1960s, animated shows transitioned to become primarily children’s entertainment, with major networks dedicating Saturday morning slots to these programs. 

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An image from the animated series "The Flintstones," showcasing the main characters including Fred, Wilma, Betty, and Barney, along with Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm.

Source: KIDS WORLD OF TOONS/YouTube

This shift marked a significant change in television culture, positioning shows like The Flintstones as weekend morning fare for kids, rather than family prime-time viewing.

Rising Parental Concerns Over Content

Towards the end of the ‘60s, parental advocacy groups raised concerns about the impact of cartoon violence and stereotypes, as well as the blurred lines between entertainment and advertising. 

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An animated image from "Tom and Jerry" showing Tom the cat being pursued by Spike the dog. In the foreground, Jerry the mouse watches the chase

Source: WB Kids/Youtube

These concerns ultimately led to increased scrutiny and the imposition of regulations aimed at balancing commercial content with educational and informative programming.

NBC's Pivotal Programming Change

On September 12, 1992, NBC made a decisive move away from the tradition of animated programming by replacing cartoons with live-action shows aimed at adult audiences. 

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The colorful peacock logo of NBC prominently displayed on the exterior of a building

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This marked a significant shift in the landscape of Saturday morning television and the beginning of the end for the cartoon block as it was known.

The Rise of TNBC

In the wake of the shift from animated to live-action programming, NBC launched Teen NBC (TNBC), featuring shows like Saved by the Bell.

A collection of six character cards from the television show "Saved by the Bell."

Source: Getty Images

This new lineup was designed to attract a teenage audience, marking a departure from the network’s previous focus on cartoons for younger children.

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Educational Programming on NBC

Following a decline in ratings for TNBC, NBC partnered with Discovery Kids to offer educational content on Saturday mornings. 

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A logo representing the partnership between Discovery Kids and NBC, displayed over a blurred background

Source: Broken Saw/YouTube

Aligning with federal standards for children’s educational television, this marked a further move away from traditional entertainment programming.

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CBS Adopts Educational Programming

CBS followed in NBC’s footsteps by introducing an educational lineup in its Saturday morning block. 

A scene from the animated series "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," featuring the turtles and their master, Splinter, in a room

Source: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles/Youtube

This change came in response to stricter regulations and a shift in programming strategy, moving away from cartoons like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to shows like The New Ghostwriter Mysteries.

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ABC's Delayed Shift from Animation

ABC, in partnership with Disney, maintained animated programming longer than its counterparts. 

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A photograph of the ABC network logo mounted on the exterior of a building

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However, even this network eventually transitioned to educational programming, with “One Saturday Morning” giving way to a lineup that met educational standards set forth by federal regulations.

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The Transformation of Fox Kids

Fox Kids, which launched in 1990 and was known for shows like The Tick and Batman: The Animated Series, eventually transitioned to an educational block. 

The logo of 21st Century Fox displayed on the exterior of a building

Source: Getty Images

The network’s shift mirrored the broader industry move towards content that fulfilled educational mandates.

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The CW's Final Cartoon Offering

The CW was the last of the networks to offer a traditional cartoon block with Kids’ WB. 

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An animated image of the characters from Scooby-Doo. Scooby, Shaggy, Fred, Daphne, and Velma

Source: WB Kids/YouTube

Over time, this too was replaced by educationally-focused programming, ending the long-standing tradition of animated Saturday morning blocks.

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Cartoons in the Modern Age

The end of “Vortexx” in 2014 marked the official conclusion of traditional Saturday morning cartoons. With the advent of digital streaming services, the availability of cartoons has become constant, allowing for on-demand viewing. 

A person holding a remote control aimed towards a television screen displaying the Netflix logo

Source: freestocks/Unsplash

This change reflects a significant shift in how and when cartoons are consumed in the contemporary media landscape.

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