This weekend was the first without Saturday morning cartoons, and you have government to thank for it.
What killed Saturday morning cartoons? Cable, streaming, and the FCC. In the 1990s, the FCC began more strictly enforcing its rule requiring broadcast networks to provide a minimum of three hours of “educational” programming every week. Networks afraid of messing with their prime-time slots found it easiest to cram this required programming in the weekend morning slot. The actual educational content of this live-action programming is sometimes debatable, but it meets the letter of the law.
This is the sort of shift which, for Boomers, Xers, and Millennials, marks a moment of fond recollection of the Honey Nut Cheerio days that were. In our house, we had a 2-3 hour maximum (based on chore completion), and some combination of superheroes and meta-commentary on superheroes – the Lone Ranger, Batman, Superman, X-Men, Spider-Man, The Tick, Freakazoid, Animaniacs and Looney Tunes – filled it. Others had The Johnny Quest, The SuperFriends, The Laff-a-Lympics, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Transformers, G.I. Joe and more.
For many of us, Saturday morning cartoons were also a shared bonding experience with our parents. A Transom reader wrote me to make the point that “My dad usually watched with us and I continued the tradition, watching (Muppet Babies!) with my kids when they were small. I remember thinking, ‘how cool that Dad wants to watch this show’, and I’m sure my kids appreciated that unique time spent with me.” It also served as a moment in the week where kids could just be kids, as opposed to being shuffled from class to practices to games, prepping that high-achiever resume for future Ivy League applications.
There is an interesting paradox here, though. While we may view the animation of the 1980s and 1990s through the lens of nostalgia, the reality is that much of the material produced in this era was subpar and unimpressive. For the most part, what came out of Kroft, Rankin-Bass, and Hanna-Barbera was just filler, with terrible plotting, acting, and artistry. Today’s animated content is leaps and bounds ahead of what was being done then. The idea of a show like Adventure Time was completely out of the question. And in those days, what was on TV was your only option. So it’s that episode of Spider-Man which has the lousy villain you’ve seen a dozen times? Tough. There’s no ability to switch to something you’d rather see. Most Saturday morning shows weren’t Heart of Ice.
Today, the camaraderie of the Saturday morning routine has been exploded by the marketplace. The quality of animation is higher; the availability of options is essentially unlimited. Children today have the ability to pull up a fun, dark, or interesting cartoon anywhere at anytime, streaming through the air a fix of three decades of takes on Batman or any other superhero, a lifetime of homicidal cats and mice, giant robots out the ears. No longer limited to a single slot in the week, they are able to access this entertainment for themselves on-demand whenever they please.
But we should recognize there’s something lost here, as well, as it is in so much of the on-demand economy. The Saturday morning cartoons and breakfast cereal meant that children experienced things as they came, together, and could talk about those shared experiences after. It was inherently a community activity, a definitional moment in childhood, with ties of shared reaction to surprising moments and turns of plot, not individualized to the user’s priorities. What replaces it is more responsive to our desires, with more instant gratification, but also more atomized. The loss of that shared experience is a minor thing in the scheme of Burkean collapse – but it is something, and I suspect something more meaningful than we might understand. And we won’t get it back.