Saturday Morning Cartoons

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Saturday Morning Cartoons

Saturday morning cartoons have been an integral part of the American television scene since the 1960s. Saturday morning is unlike any other time of the programming week in that the viewing audience is more monolithic than any other. At no other time do so many stations broadcast such similar material for such an extended period of time, all aimed at the same audience: children. Several generations of children have planned their weekends around the ritual of pouring huge bowls of sugar-saturated cereal and gathering about the television for the week's dose of animation.

The earliest incarnation of the Saturday morning cartoon came about almost as an accident. In 1949, producer Jerry Fairbanks sold NBC on the idea of a new series of cartoons developed especially for television. His product was a low-budget project titled Crusader Rabbit, created by Jay Ward and Alex Anderson. This simply-animated series followed the adventures of an intrepid rabbit and his tiger sidekick. "I don't recall anything special about Saturday morning at that point except that the networks had some vague idea that they wanted programs for kids," Fairbanks said, according to Hal Erickson's Television Cartoon Shows: An Illustrated Encyclopedia.

The idea certainly had merit. According to Erickson, statistics going back to the radio years showed that the peak tune-in hours for children were between 10 a.m. and noon on Saturday mornings and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays. Crusader Rabbit was the very first cartoon created exclusively for television and the first to take advantage of this window of opportunity to market to children. Prior to Crusader Rabbit, the only cartoons that had appeared on television were repackaged shorts originally created for the big screen. In order to keep costs down and constantly turn out new material, Ward and Anderson pared Crusader Rabbit down to its absolute bare essentials. Characters moved an average of once every four seconds and tended to stay in static poses. The show ran for two years, from 1950-1952.

Crusader Rabbit failed to trigger a deluge of morning cartoons. Television stations preferred to stay with the tried-and-true (and much less expensive) format of a live-action host holding court over a studio audience of children and plugging the sponsors' products. But CBS took a gamble and placed a well-known character, Mighty Mouse, on Saturday mornings in 1955. Mighty Mouse Playhouse ran for 12 highly successful seasons and further edged live-action shows out the door in favor of direct-to-television animation.

That same year, another important development was taking place: William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, two talented MGM animators, took over the animation division of MGM, only to be shown the door in 1957. The pair soon set up their own animation studio and started turning out television animation, usually aimed towards prime time or afternoon slots. Such shows as Ruff and Ready (the studio's first effort,) The Jetsons (1962), and The Flintstones (1960-1966) were strong successes for the fledgling studio, but it was in the Saturday morning field that its cost-effective techniques made Hanna-Barbera an industry powerhouse.

In order to feed into the huge time and work demands required to develop a half-hour of animation every week, Hanna-Barbera, Ward, and other early television cartoon pioneers developed a wide array of cost-cutting and corner-cutting techniques. Characters were often drawn with a minimum of motion; if a character was speaking, often the only thing moving on the screen was the mouth. Character design was also geared towards efficiency of action. Many Hanna-Barbera characters, such as those in The Jetsons or the seminal Ruff and Ready, were designed with wide collars so it would be easier to show them turning their head by simply flopping the drawing of the head on the collar.

In some cases, sharp writing made up for the deficiencies in animation. The Jetsons and The Flintstones were well known for their occasional double entendres. Jay Ward's adventuresome duo of Rocky and Bullwinkle and their friends appeared in a number of incarnations, including a few Saturday morning runs. They were better known for their sharp gags and jokes that worked on two levels than the rough, sketchy animation that characterized them. The Hanna-Barbera studio was not without its share of critics, many of whom felt that its quickie techniques cheapened all of animation. "Hanna-Barbera proved to the networks that by cutting corners (actually chunks), it was possible to make cartoons cheaply enough for television's needs," Erickson quotes Mark Nardone as writing in 1977.

As the 1960s progressed, animation was increasingly seen as a children's medium. As a result, animation was funneled away from the prime-time slots and into Saturday mornings. 1966 marked an important turning point in the history of Saturday morning cartoons; it was the first year that all three major networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) broadcast animation blocks on Saturday morning. The ongoing struggle for the support of advertisers, the attention of children, and the money of their parents was waged in earnest. Prime-time animation, though not completely dead, was a flagging form.

Comic books and cartoons are first cousins in the world of entertainment media, and comic books often successfully made the jump to Saturday morning. In the 1960s, Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, and Iron Man were among the comic book characters who made their mark on Saturday morning. In the 1970s Superman, Aquaman, and Batman were individual successes, and the three teamed up with other superheroes to form the Superfriends. Spider-Man took the team approach early in the 1980s with Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. Comics were strangely absent from Saturday morning for nearly a decade after that, however. In the early 1990s there was another boom of comic-inspired cartoons, including Batman, Superman and Spider-Man revivals, X-Men and Silver Surfer.

A recurring trend in Saturday morning cartoons has been the attempt to break through the animation stranglehold and produce successful live-action programs to compete with the animated stars, often in an updated style of the old 1950s live-action host shows. Not surprisingly, the most successful of the live-action Saturday morning programs have been those that have been most similar to cartoons themselves. H.R. Pufnstuf, first produced in 1969, and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which aired in various incarnations in the 1990s, were live-action shows with liberal doses of garish color, surreal design, outlandish costumes, and fast-paced, cartoon-style plots. The most successful of the live-action Saturday morning shows was Pee Wee's Playhouse in the mid-1980s, which deposited comedian Pee Wee Herman into a surreal world of talking chairs, puppets, and wacky neighbors. It was perhaps the most effective of the live-action shows at replicating an animated world in a live environment.

An unusual side development of live-action Saturday morning television was the creation of animated shows based on (and sometimes voiced by) real celebrities. The Beatles (1965) was the first Saturday morning show to embrace this concept. In decades to come, Kid 'n' Play, the New Kids on the Block, and the Jackson Five were only a few of the musical groups to follow in the footsteps of the Fab Four. Similarly, animated versions of live-action shows, such as Mork and Mindy, Laverne and Shirley, Punky Brewster, and Alf, were common Saturday morning fare over the years.

Like most other forms of entertainment media, Saturday morning cartoons exemplify the truism "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." When the adventures of The Smurfs, a band of friendly blue forest dwellers, debuted on NBC in 1981, the program was one of the most successful animated shows ever. The Smurfs is often credited with bringing renewed vigor to an art form that had slipped into a creative slump throughout the 1970s. As a result, studios and broadcasters were encouraged to pay even greater attention to the Saturday morning market. Whatever the subjective effects of the Smurfs' success, one thing is clear: everybody wanted a piece of the action. Hence the endless clones that followed, such as The Care Bears and My Little Pony, further (much further) expounding on the happy and friendly themes that made The Smurfs popular.

Saturday morning cartoons made important and lasting changes to the landscape of American popular culture. One distinct change wrought was a subtle but irrevocable shift in the makeup of the week. Sunday may be a day of rest, but Saturday is a day of entertainment. In a very real sense, Saturday became an unofficial holiday, an event manufactured by advertisers and programmers to take advantage of a captive audience home from school with little to do—except, perhaps, park themselves in front of a television set. By and large, parents didn't mind; it offered them relief from the children in the form of an electronic pacifier.

Parent's groups and government agencies expressed concern about the effect the saturation of Saturday morning cartoons might have on children. Violence was their prime concern; as far back as the 1950s, there were those that had expressed dismay at the alien-blasting antics of Space Ghost or Popeye's tendency to solve problems with a can of spinach and an act of violence. In fact, the majority of scholarly attention paid to television animation focused on the question of whether the violence presented was harmful to children. Additionally, parents and regulators feared the growing phenomenon of "half hour commercials"—cartoons that were primarily meant as long advertisements for the toys and trinkets relentlessly marketed to children.

Under pressure from many fronts over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, the networks imposed firm standards on themselves to avoid having the FCC or some other regulatory agency do it for them. But standards were nonetheless imposed. One important decision by the National Association of Broadcasters in 1969 dictated that advertisements for toys would not be aired during the same show the toys were based on. In other words, no longer would children watching The Alvin Show be regaled with commercials entreating them to run out and purchase doll likenesses of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Violent acts were curtailed by the broadcasters themselves, as was any act that might encourage children at home to imitate their onscreen heroes. Such demands required quite a bit of rewriting and revision; even old cartoon shorts rerun on Saturday mornings were subject to the new slash-and-burn treatment, sometimes rendering them incoherent in the process.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s some the networks attempted to head off accusations of being harmful to children by airing cartoons with social messages. Sometimes these messages were incorporated into the actual storyline of the show; Bill Cosby, producer and creator of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (1972-1979), was a particular proponent of educating children this way. Quite often, however, the lesson came in the form of a short epilogue to an episode that featured characters breaking "the fourth wall" and speaking directly to children, expounding on some educational issue or telling them the moral of the day. Erickson writes critically of this trend: "While some of these prosocial bites came off with sincerity, most appeared to be hastily inserted with an eye-dropper and wedged in with a shoe-horn—a fleeting conscious-stricken afterthought, a forced apology, for not educating the viewers within the body of the program."

In the 1980s, NBC took this one step further by placing popular live-action stars of the day in One to Grow On —short vignettes placed between programs that set up a morally tricky situation (from the 10-year-old standpoint) and resolved it with the help of an all-knowing NBC personality. In a similar vein, from time to time programmers and public agencies have tried to take advantage of the Saturday morning youth monopoly by offering programs that were just enough like standard cartoons to capture children's attention but sent a different message. Educational and religious programming often tried to "draw in" viewers to their message with animation as the hook, but most such efforts fared poorly. As anyone with children knows, kids are very savvy TV viewers.

One of the most successful attempts at educational Saturday morning programming was the Schoolhouse Rock project, a series of short educational lessons set to song which aired in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Schoolhouse Rock served its purpose well by injecting itself into the long-term language of popular culture, which is to say, its message survived longer than three months. In the 1990s, a generation after Schoolhouse Rock first bopped its way onto the scene, it experienced a revival of sorts. Schoolhouse Rock T-shirts and albums sold well and many college students could still sing along to "Conjunction Junction, What's Your Function?" and "I'm Just a Bill, Sittin' Here on Capitol Hill."

Possibly the most important economic impact of Saturday morning cartoons was the manner in which their merchandising and influence leaked into the mainstream, beginning in the late 1970s. There seemed to be no end to the variety of media in which the animated characters could be displayed. Characters such as the Smurfs smiled at children from lunchboxes, appeared on their clothes, shoes, party favors, napkins, and school supplies. The potential for toy sales was almost limitless for a successful cartoon.

The increasingly lucrative Saturday morning shows also effected a shift in the business dynamic of other creative forms. Many comic books and animated movies are developed with an eye towards big Saturday morning success a few years down the road. The weekly adventures of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, or Wild C.A.T.s can go a long way towards sealing the brand name of a character in the minds of children who had already watched the original movie or read the comic book.

Thanks to the advertising and marketing blitz that accompanies the cartoon takeover of Saturday morning, the characters and memories border on the legendary with those who grew up watching them. Better than ninety percent of all Saturday morning characters slipped into television oblivion—few indeed are those who fondly remember the Snorks or the Orbots—but the ones that succeeded catapulted themselves into the popular imagination in a manner normally reserved for popular music stars or actors. Saturday morning has been a haven for television animation since 1950. Although the Saturday morning cartoon form has suffered through slumps, turmoil, regulation, and change, it still remains a viable and successful form.

—Paul F.P. Pogue

Further Reading:

Barbera, Joseph. My Life in 'Toons: From Flatbush to Bedrock in Under a Century. Atlanta, Turner Publishing, 1994.

Burke, Timothy, and Kevin Burke. Saturday Morning Fever. New York, St. Martin's Griffin, 1999.

Crawford, Ben. "Saturday Morning Fever." In The Illusion of Life, edited by Alan Cholodenko. Sydney, Australia, Power Publications, 1994.

Erickson, Hal. Television Cartoon Shows: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, 1949 through 1993. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland & Company, 1993.

Hanna, Bill, with Tom Ito. A Cast of Friends. Dallas, Taylor Publishing, 1996.

Heraldson, Donald. Creators of Life: A History of Animation. New York, Drake Publishers, 1985.

Kanfer, Stefan. Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America from Betty Boop to Toy Story. New York, Scribner, 1997.

Minow, Newton N., and Craig LaMay. Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television, and the First Amendment. New York, Hill and Wang, 1995.

Woolery, George W. Children's Television: The First Thirty-Five Years, 1946-1981. 2 Vols. Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1983-1985.