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RIP Saturday Morning Cartoons

I’ve spent the last four waking hours in these pajamas. Along side Mom’s family breakfast, I’ve downed at least three bowls of Fruity Pebbles. I have the sticky-sweet film coating the inside of my mouth to prove it. My sister played with toys on the carpet beside me. At one point we attempted to play Pay Day, but that ended when Dungeons & Dragons came on and frustration with each others’ cheating ran high. My brother settled down for The Snorks but then went back to following my Dad’s endless trail of morning chores. To be fair, he did help. We all watched Gumi Bears. I hung on for Kidd Video at the end.

Ah, the Saturday Morning of my youth. “A world for children made by adults,” according to Neil Straus of the New York Times.

What follows will no doubt sound like grampa prattling on about life today compared with his childhood. That’s fine. There’s not much social activism or hard core psychology in today’s post. Much like the Saturday Morning Cartoon lineup, this is a conglomeration of thought with a touch of theme thrown in. That theme? “I wish my daughter could have the Saturday Morning that I had growing up, because the practice is valuable.” Now I will endeavor to prove that theme, which at points will sound counter to good parenting, and may even step on toes.

At the peak of Saturday Morning Cartoon programming, during the ‘70s and up to early ‘90s, one of the main networks (ABC, NBC and CBS) was guaranteed 20 million viewers from 8:00am to Noon. Today “children’s entertainment on Saturday mornings is currently such a liability that local affiliates…choose to air local news in lieu of Discovery Kids, Nick Jr., and ABC Kids,” as noted in an Animation World Network article by Gerard Raiti, now Worldwide Programming Strategy Manager of Disney Channel. Garnering less than one million viewers in a morning, Disney Channel, Discovery Kids, Nick Jr. and ABC Kids host lingering vestiges of Saturday Morning Cartoon glory, which reps like Raiti, can’t help but see as “a far cry from the zenith of Saturday morning…in the ‘80s.”

This makes me sad. That’s it. No profound depth. We’re talking cartoons, here. America, you’ve lost something rare and valuable. Here, let me show you.

It’s Good to Just be a Kid, Y’Know?

 “We are the kids, we are the kids, we are the kids of America. Oy, Oy!”
-The Bloodhound Gang covering Kids Inc.

Let’s first define what spelled the end of Saturday Morning Cartoons. “NBC canceled its cartoons in favor of news programs and youth-oriented live-action dramas like ‘Saved by the Bell,’” according to the Times. Seriously. As confirmed by Raiti, at the time his article, “Lizzie McGuire is a live-action Ally McBeal for kids on The Disney Channel and it’s a huge hit with girls, and boys oddly enough.”

The advent of Cable TV was one another nail in the coffin of Saturday Morning Cartoons. “As cable TV started to rise, the ‘tween psychology became real,” Lee Gaither, vice president of Saturday morning programs at NBC told Raiti. “Kids over the age of eight started splitting off into very different groups,” and networks needed to bilk them all.

Saved By the Bell became the hallmark moneymaker and who could blame networks for shifting to similar live programming? I will, since I can’t think of a word yet for a pre-tween romance-drama.

Yes, the real world slavers at the walls of Kid-dom grinning its hormone frothed maw. I consider that all the more reason to devote four hours to decompress from a school week that is already rife with such horrors and watch some mowhawked guy mess with C3P0 and R2D2 in Droids or Punky hang out with whatever that magic koala-beatnick-cat thing was.

Developmentally speaking, as Erikson would say, one must move through the stages when one is ready, not when networks demand it to sell lip gloss. This, my friends, is part of the reason why fifth graders walk around with “Juicy” written on their butts. They need more Smurfs and less pre-tween Melrose Place. As soon as you make it not cool to be a kid, kids stop being kids and Erikson be damned.

 Breakfast is the New Dinner

Remember “Dinner time is family time?” That’s crap. Dinner time is the time for exhausted parents and over-stimulated kids to make whatever food is quickest and eat it either around the table or the tube. It happens in the last moment of “gotta get ‘er done” from the work day and before the “either these kids go to sleep or I do” phase of the evening. Sorry. That’s just modern America, and it has been since I was a lad. The difference is that now I see it from the other side.

That stopped on Saturday Morning because the kids stopped. My brother, sister and I wanted to be at home. As such, my parents took that time to stay home as well, catching up on home chores and crafting long, high calorie breakfasts. Then we sat. It was not physically healthy. It was emotionally healing.

Not only isn’t it healthy by today’s standards—and ok, it shouldn’t be—it’s not “good parenting.” Raiti noted that “Among most parents…there is a new emphasis on ‘quality’ time. Consequently, taking one’s children to the theater, mall, museum, event, zoo or beach on the weekend is deemed more appropriate to being a ‘good’ parent, than letting kids sit and watch cartoons. To this effect, American society has changed substantially enough over the last two decades to the point where Saturday morning cartoons are less important to our culture.”

I can’t argue with that. Taking the kids to a museum or zoo is better than watching cartoons. I would suggest that things like the movie theater, or especially the mall, may not trump the stop value of Saturday Morning Cartoons. They slowed down the weekend. My brother played soccer. I went over kids’ houses. My sister was in dance competitions. But not on hallowed Saturday Morning. All kids knew that time was set aside to live in our rapidly fading fantasy lands with Black StarRainbow Brite and Turbo Teen. That was also the time that my parents—maybe sensing the last vestiges of our childhood—would invest in conversation, play, shared house-building and meals. It needed to be when we weren’t forced to, or when we were tired, because genuine interaction can’t be forced and genuine interaction builds genuine families. I didn’t say perfect. We all screwed up lots in the teen years to come, parents included. But the sincerity of our foundational interactions helped us survive, and part of that is due to Saturday Morning Cartoons.

 A Place for Everything and Everything in It’s Place

I love Cartoon Network. I love that it simply exists, even if I don’t watch all of the programming. I love that Nick Jr and Disney also bring cartoons to the airwaves ad infinitum. Much like comic books, cartoons deserve more credit as an art and literary form than they are given.

But we lose the magic in the gluttonous barrage of primary colors. We lose the rarity and the structure. It is no secret that kids need boundaries. It is so little a secret that I’m not even going to quote a psychologist or offer a link. Saturday Morning Cartoons offered that boundary. Saturday. Morning. That was the time when kids were king. A sanctified time in which all kids know they can be a kid is magical, safe and affirming of their present development and interest. Much of my present self is cultivated from seeds planted during Saturday Morning which have been allowed to grow at their own pace. 

But…It’s Really Gone?

“The bottom line is that the way 30 year-olds remember Saturday morning cartoons” will never return according to throw-water-on-me Raiti. “Kids have evolved,” he said. “You don’t have many boys watching cartoons when they’re thirteen. That’s not happening anymore. They are evolving emotionally faster.” That’s the point of this post. I see it in my three year old. She’s so smart, so aware, so emotionally connected. I don’t think she’s alone in that and I want to prepare her for the world which she voraciously consumes. I differ from the present wisdom of cartoon executives  because I believe that the best way to prepare her is to steep her in The Littles and Scooby Doo like I do via You Tube before her bedtime and after her bath. She sits on my lap, I brush her hair and I show her cherry picked gems from my childhood.

I know the truth, and so does Raiti. “Saturday morning cartoons were a phenomenon that now resides in the history books. It is an anomaly in the history of children’s broadcasting, the likes of which will never be seen again.” But the message of Saturday Morning can live on forever.

Adventure and fantasy should be embraced.

Family time happens when the kids are ready for it.

Childhood development should be honored.

Though Saturday Morning Cartoon programming was an anomaly based on ratings and sales of toys, it was able to accomplish these four goals. If shows like Mr. T and Hong Kong Phooey were able to do that successfully, I think we can, too.


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