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A Saturday-morning cartoon is the colloquial term for the animated television programming that has typically been scheduled on Saturday mornings in the United States on many major television networks from the 1960s to the early 2010s; the genre's peak in popularity mostly ended in the 1990s and 2000s while the popularity of cable and satellite television, as well as the internet, has provided 24-hour access to cartoons for children, but the format continued in a reduced manner through the early 2010s as a way of meeting educational television mandates.
In the United States, the generally accepted times for these and other children's programs to air on Saturday mornings are considered to be from 8 a.m. to noon Eastern Time. In addition, until the late 1970s, American networks also had a schedule of children's programming on Sunday mornings, though most programs at this time were repeats of Saturday morning shows that were already out of production. In some markets, some shows were pre-empted in favor of syndicated or other types of local programming. Cable television networks have since revived the practice of debuting their most popular animated programming on Saturday mornings.
An animated feature film may use 24 different drawings per second of finished film, sometimes even more. Due to lower budgets, Saturday morning cartoons are often produced with a minimum amount of animation drawings, sometimes no more than three or four per second. In addition, the movements of the characters are often repeated, very limited, or even confined to mouths and eyes only. An exception to the 24-frames-per-second rule is when animation is "shot in twos" in which 12 drawings per second are used and the switch to 24 frames per second is for quick events like explosions or "wild takes".
Although the Saturday-morning timeslot had always featured a great deal of children's fare before, the idea of commissioning new animated series for broadcast on Saturday mornings caught on in the mid-1960s, when the networks realized that they could concentrate kids' viewing on that one morning to appeal to advertisers. Furthermore, limited animation, such as that produced by such studios as Filmation Associates, DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, Total Television, Jay Ward Productions and Hanna-Barbera Productions, was economical enough to produce in sufficient quantity to fill the four-hour time slot, as compared to live-action programming. While production times and costs were undeniably higher with animated programming, the cost of talent was far less (voice actors Daws Butler, Don Messick, June Foray, Mel Blanc and in later years Frank Welker, Rob Paulsen and Tom Kenny became known for their ability to hold several roles at once, sometimes even on the same show) and networks could rerun children's animated programming more frequently than most live-action series, negating the financial disadvantages. The experiment proved successful, and the time slot was filled with profitable programming.
Some Saturday morning programs consisted of telecasts of older cartoons originally made for movie theaters, such as the Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons produced by Warner Bros. Cartoons, the Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle cartoons produced by Paul Terry's Terrytoons, and Walter Lantz's Woody Woodpecker cartoons. During the 1960s and 1970s, it was not uncommon to have animated shorts produced with both film and television in mind (DePatie-Freleng was particularly associated with this business model), so that by selling the shorts to theaters, the studios could afford a higher budget than would otherwise be available from television alone, which at the time was still a free medium for the end-user.
Parents' lobby groups like Action for Children's Television appeared in the late 1960s. They voiced concerns about the presentation of commercialism, violence, anti-social attitudes and stereotypes in Saturday morning cartoons. By the 1970s, these groups exercised enough influence that the television networks felt compelled to lay down more stringent content rules for the animation houses.
In a more constructive direction, the networks were encouraged to create educational spots that endeavored to use animation and/or live-action for enriching content. Far and away the most successful effort was the Schoolhouse Rock! series on ABC, which became a television classic; ABC also had several other short-form animated featurettes, including Time for Timer and The Bod Squad, that had long runs. Just as notable were CBS's news segments for children, In the News and NBC's Ask NBC News and One to Grow On, which featured skits of everyday problems with advice from the stars of NBC primetime programs.
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The decline of the timeslot began in the early 1990s for a variety of reasons, including:
While animated production is still present on one broadcast network on Saturday mornings (The CW), it has been much noticeably reduced. A 1996 Federal Communications Commission mandate, issued in the wake of the Children's Television Act, requires stations to program a minimum of three hours of children's educational/informational ("E/I") programming per week.
To help their affiliates comply with the regulations, broadcast networks began to reorganize their efforts to adhere to the mandates, so their affiliates would not bear the burden of scheduling the shows themselves on their own time thus eliminating the risk of having network product preempted by the mandates. This almost always meant that the educational programming was placed during the Saturday morning cartoon block.
NBC abandoned its Saturday morning cartoon lineup in 1992, replacing it with a Saturday morning edition of Today and adding an all live-action teen-oriented block, TNBC, which featured Saved by the Bell, California Dreams and other teen comedies. Even though the educational content was minimal to non-existent, NBC labeled all the live-action shows with an E/I rating and the legal fiction of a blanket educational summary boilerplate provided to stations to place in their quarterly educational effort reports for the FCC.
CBS followed NBC's example in the late 1990s by producing CBS News Saturday Morning for the first two hours of its lineup and an all live-action block of children's programming. The experiment lasted a few months, and CBS brought back its animated CBS Storybreak series.
In 2004, ABC was the last of the broadcast networks to add a Saturday morning edition of its morning news program (in their case, Good Morning America Weekend) in the first hour of its lineup, mainly due to affiliate criticism of the lack of network coverage for the February 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster which occurred on a Saturday morning, forcing them to take coverage from other video wire services. Prior to that, and particularly in the early 1990s, it was not uncommon for affiliates to preempt part or all of ABC's cartoon lineup with local programming.
Fox carried little or no E/I programming, leaving the responsibility of scheduling the E/I shows to the affiliates themselves (although the network did eventually add daily reruns of The Magic School Bus to meet the E/I mandates from 1998 to 2001); Fox has not carried any children's programming at all since January 2009. The WB was far more accommodating; for several years, the network aired the history-themed Histeria! five days a week, leaving only a half-hour of E/I programs up to the local affiliates to program.
Until 2014, Boomerang, a spin-off channel of Cartoon Network, specialized primarily in reruns of Saturday morning cartoons from the 1960s and 1970s (the majority of which come from Hanna-Barbera, which, like Boomerang, is owned by Time Warner); it mostly abandoned this focus in 2014. The Hub Network owns the broadcast rights to rerun several of Fox Kids' most popular programs. A handful of digital subchannels also make use of Saturday morning cartoon reruns, including Luken Communications's PBJ and Ion Media Networks' qubo.
Litton Entertainment took over programming the Saturday morning children's blocks from ABC, CBS and the CW in 2011, 2013 and 2014 respectively. Litton's program blocks include no animated programming and are ostensibly aimed at teenagers and families. Combined with Fox's near-complete withdrawal from children's programming, that leaves only NBC (with its NBC Kids block) with any sort of animated presence on Saturday morning.
By the mid-1990s, broadcast networks were now becoming units of larger entertainment companies. ABC was bought by The Walt Disney Company in 1996, which began airing all Disney-produced programming by 1997 and canceled programs produced by companies other than Disney (with the notable exception of The Bugs and Tweety Show, which continued to air until Warner Bros. discontinued the show in 2000). After being purchased by Disney, ABC's Saturday morning cartoons became part of a block called Disney's One Saturday Morning before switching to a block of live-action and animated programs under the banner ABC Kids in 2002. Many of the block's shows were produced by Disney and also aired on Disney Channel or Toon Disney. At one point, ABC Kids had only two animated shows on its schedule, while the remainder of the lineup consisted of live-action entertainment shows. By late 2008, all shows that were part of the ABC Kids block were reruns of older episodes that originally aired a few years earlier, this remained the case for the next three years, with no episodes added into rotation (thus, for instance, the first season of Hannah Montana was still running on ABC Kids in constant repeats even though several further seasons had aired on Disney Channel by the time the block ended).
ABC sister network Disney Channel launched a Saturday morning block of its popular animated programming, Toonin' Saturdays, in June 2011. On August 27, 2011, ABC ended the ABC Kids block. ABC was the first network to outsource its E/I liabilities and Saturday morning program block to Litton; Litton's ABC block is known as the Weekend Adventure.
CBS was purchased by Viacom in 2000; it then leased its Saturday morning block to Nickelodeon, running programming from that network from 2000 until 2006, nearly a year after Viacom split into two separate companies (Nickelodeon went to a newly created company under the Viacom name and CBS became the flagship property of CBS Corporation. The two parties ended the Nickelodeon/Nick Jr.-branded block, which was replaced by the DIC Entertainment (now Cookie Jar Group) produced KOL's Saturday Morning Secret Slumber Party on CBS in September 2006. The block was rebranded as KEWLopolis, featuring an increased amount of animated series, in September 2007. On September 19, 2009, KEWLopolis was rebranded as Cookie Jar TV, with its target audience shifted toward preschoolers.
Cookie Jar TV ended its run on September 21, 2013, at which point Litton also took over programming CBS's E/I liabilities and Saturday morning programming. Litton's CBS block is known as the CBS Dream Team. This is the second time CBS has dropped animated children's programming from its lineup; the network had previously gone with an all-live-action lineup for one season in 1997–98 when the E/I rules took effect, but reverted to animation the following season.
From 1990 to 2002, Fox ran the Fox Kids block, which featured both animated and live-action series in the afterschool hours on weekday afternoons from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. (outcompeting with syndicated afternoon children's programs on independent stations and affiliates of smaller networks). Among its notable series included animated series such as Taz-Mania; Batman: The Animated Series; X-Men: The Animated Series; Eek! The Cat; Bobby's World; Spider-Man: The Animated Series and Animaniacs, live action shows like Power Rangers; Goosebumps and Big Bad Beetleborgs; and Japanese anime series such as Digimon and Transformers: Robots in Disguise. Fox sold its children's division as part of its 2001 sale of Television networks preceding ABC Family#Fox FamilylFox Family Channel (now ABC Family) to The Walt Disney Company; the network then leased its remaining Saturday morning block to 4Kids Entertainment in 2002.
The 4Kids-produced block, which by that point became 4Kids TV, ended its run on December 27, 2008; Fox opted to drop children's programming altogether rather than lease the block to another company, becoming the third broadcast network (after Pax TV and UPN) to completely abandon children's programming, replaced 4Kids TV with a two-hour infomercial block called Weekend Marketplace; as with 4Kids TV and its predecessors, Fox has allowed several stations the option to decline to carry the block and lease it to another station in the market, especially those stations which had never carried Fox Kids following the affiliation changes resulting from Fox's 1994 affiliation agreement with New World Communications. Fox's owned-and-operated stations and affiliates instead hold the responsibility of carrying children's programming (generally through programs purchased off the syndication market).
Kids' WB debuted on The WB on September 9, 1995 as a block on weekday mornings, afternoons and Saturday mornings, During the run of the weekday blocks, the network aired the animated series Histeria! to meet E/I content quotas for the network's affiliates. The Kids' WB weekday morning block ended in 2001, while the afternoon block was discontinued on December 30, 2005 with The WB retaining the two afternoon hours to run a lineup of off-network syndicated reruns.
Kids' WB, now reduced to just the Saturday morning block that was expanded to five hours from four with the removal of the weekday afternoon lineup, moved to The CW (which is part-owned by The WB's former parent Time Warner) on September 23, 2006 (CW owned-and-operated station WUPA in Atlanta debuted the block the following day as it opted to carry the block on Sundays). The Kids' WB block ended its run on May 17, 2008, and was replaced on May 24, 2008 by the 4Kids Entertainment-produced The CW4Kids (4Kids already produced Fox's 4Kids TV at that time, which would not end for another seven months due to a dispute with the network over distribution on Fox stations and compensation for the time lease). The CW4Kids was renamed Toonzai on August 14, 2010 (with the former brand being retained as a sub-brand to fulfill branding requirements imposed by 4Kids); Toonzai was replaced by Vortexx, produced under a time lease agreement with Saban Brands (which had acquired some of 4Kids' assets, including certain programs, in an auction earlier in the year) on August 25, 2012.
Vortexx will end its run on September 27, 2014, at which point the CW will turn over its E/I liability and Saturday morning programming to Litton as well. Litton's CW block will be known as One Magnificent Morning and, at five hours in length, will be two hours longer than the blocks Litton programs for ABC and CBS.
NBC entered into a partnership with digital cable and satellite network Discovery Kids to provide original programming from the channel on NBC's Saturday morning lineup in 2002; Discovery Kids on NBC ran on the network from September 14, 2002 to September 2, 2006. NBC replaced that block with Qubo, a three-hour "edutainment" block that debuted on September 9, 2006 (with accompanying blocks on co-owned Spanish network Telemundo on weekend mornings and on Ion Television once weekly), as part of a programming partnership between parent company NBCUniversal, Ion Media Networks, Scholastic Press, Nelvana and Classic Media, that resulted in the creation of a companion digital multicast network on Ion Television's stations; the Qubo blocks on NBC and Telemundo ended on June 30, 2012, leaving only the Ion block and standalone Qubo Channel.
On July 7, 2012, NBC launched a new Saturday morning block aimed at preschool-aged children, NBC Kids, under a time lease agreement with co-owned cable network Sprout (which NBC (though corporate parent Comcast) also owned a minority interest before purchasing it outright in 2012).
On November 1, 2008, This TV launched airing a daily children's program block called Cookie Jar Toons, which was programmed by Cookie Jar Group. The block featured mainly scripted animated and live action series; Cookie Jar-produced programs that did not count towards E/I quotas aired under the sub-block This is for Kids. Cookie Jar Toons/This is for Kids was discontinued on October 31, 2013, effectively removing Saturday children's programming from the network; after Tribune Broadcasting assumed part-ownership of This TV from Weigel Broadcasting the following day, Tribune replaced the block with a three-hour Sunday morning lineup of exclusively E/I-compliant programs from various syndication distributors.
The Cookie Jar Kids Network (formerly DiC Kids Network) was a syndicated children's programming block that aired select animated (and some live action) series from the Cookie Jar Group program library on Fox, CW and MyNetworkTV affiliated stations, and Independent stations to allow these stations to meet required E/I programming quotas. This block ended on September 18, 2011.
PBS has run daytime children's programming targeted at children between the ages of 4 and 12 since the network debuted in 1970. Its afternoon and Saturday morning children's programming was folded into a daily block called PBS Kids (that aired weekdays from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. and Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to noon local time) on September 6, 1999; a spin-off PBS Kids Channel launched on that same date. PBS Kids had ran for six years and it was funded by DirecTV; however, on September 24, 2005, it was then replaced by Sprout.
Then, PBS Kids was divided into two sub-blocks and they were: PBS Kids Go! and the PBS Kids Preschool Block. An additional three-hour weekend morning block for preschool-aged children that was produced in conjunction with the Canadian production company Nelvana called the PBS Kids Bookworm Bunch debuted in September 30, 2000 and lasted until 2004. The network continues to offer Saturday morning programming as of 2014, though as with most PBS programming, local member stations retain the right to refuse it outright for other programming such as instructional/DIY/cooking programming, carrying it on Sundays instead, or placing it on a subchannel. Also, other PBS member stations maintain full-time or half-time subchannels with self-programmed and slotted PBS Kids content which may share channel space with other networks such as Create or a local state political proceedings coverage network.