If a child woke up early yesterday, and flipped the TV on to any of the five major networks with a bowl of Franken Berry in one hand and a stuffed animal in the other, they may have found one important aspect of the Saturday morning ritual missing: cartoons.
Last week, the CW aired the final "Vortexx" block of cartoons and children's entertainment, choosing to replace the block with live action educational programs for teenagers. With Vortexx's cancellation, none of the major free over-the-air channels now feature a dedicated block of cartoons on Saturday morning, breaking a 50-year television tradition.
From "Woody Woodpecker" to "Josie and the Pussycats," "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe," "Yu-Gi-Oh!" and "Pepper Ann," the tradition of checking out brightly colored, occasionally educational cartoons first thing on Saturday mornings is a tradition that stretches back generations.
Robert Lemieux, a media professor at McDaniel College, said Saturday morning cartoons as a unified block of programming first began in the 1960s and was largely created out of material initially developed for theatrical release.
In the 1930s, '40s and '50s, animated shorts were independently produced and sold to the major film studios, which owned most of the theaters throughout the country. These cartoons were packaged with newsreels and short films to run before screenings of theatrical films. The animated shorts included many of the early cartoon stars that would soon make their way to television, including Mickey Mouse, the Looney Tunes, Betty Boop and Max Fleischer's Superman shorts.
According to the histories written by Jeremy Butler for the Museum of Broadcast Communications, animation first began migrating from the silver screen to the living room in the late '40s and '50s, as television studios were hungry for new content and cinemas were attempting to find new ways to lure viewers to their theaters.
"If you think about a lot of the things we still consider to be Saturday morning cartoons, like the Warner Brothers or the Fleischer material, that came from when studios were cranking out shorts for cinemas," Lemieux said. "Later, they began packaging that together and throwing it on early Saturday mornings for children. A lot of that material, when people were watching in the '60s and '70s, was already at least 15 years old at that time."
Lemieux said one of side effects of the migration from cinemas, where cartoons were viewed by the entire family, to the Saturday time slot, where children controlled the television set, was that the demographics of animation fans began to change.
"When these cartoons were being created in the '40s and '50s, they were really being targeted towards adults, but they started to shift into becoming children's programming. That may have affected the way we view animation today," Lemieux said. "In other cultures, they look at animation very differently. If you think historically of programming from France or the Czech Republic, a lot of the material is very adult oriented. I think it just came out of a desire fill a block on Saturday mornings. They thought, 'We have this material that's just on the shelf — let's run it then,' and some of the humor went right over the tops of children's heads."
As the concept of Saturday morning cartoons took off, the television stations needed more material than could be pulled from the vaults, so they began to commission their own series.
Companies like Hanna-Barbera and United Productions of America began producing cheap but popular cartoons like "Yogi Bear," "The Huckleberry Hound Show," "Mr. Magoo" and "The Adventures of Gerald McBoing Boing."
Because these programs didn't have the budgets or resources that the earlier theatrical shorts had, they embraced a number of time- and cost-saving measures. This new crop of shows often featured abstract backgrounds instead of lushly painted backdrops and simplified animation, utilizing only 12 drawings or less per second of screen time instead of the theatrical norm of 24 frames per second.
"They were just cranking them out, and since the audience had shifted it didn't matter quite as much," Lemieux said. "The types of animation became less artistic in a certain sense, though it became more stylized, and a lot of the earlier adult humor was starting to be left out."
Other cartoons in this era included a wave of shows based on Marvel comics superheroes, which saved money by utilizing the art from the original comics with minimal animation, often just mouths, eyes or arms moving in a single shot.
As animated series became more popular, companies began spending more on their shows to encourage their longevity and increase revenue from toy and merchandise sales. By the 1980s, it became a regular practice to develop animated series off of already created merchandise.
"Part of the industry and part of how films were made was if the executives could think of ways to attach products to it," Lemieux said. "They're looking to find additional money, not just in children's cartoons, but in ancillary markets."
Cartoons built out of existing toy franchises included "Transformers," "G.I. Joe," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," "Jem and the Holograms" and "My Little Ponies," many of which are retooled and brought out for a new audience every generation.
As the commercialization of Saturday morning animation began to take over, a new player in the animation game started to take hold: cable television. Soon, animation was no longer only able to be aired at certain times during the week on a handful of local stations; 24-hour children's stations offered Saturday morning content throughout the entire week.
Lemieux said changing habits in television-watching slowly began the death knell for the Saturday morning block.
"It's a very different landscape today than it was in the 1970s," Lemieux said. "You can watch so many things on cable and satellite and through the Internet that cartoons are now pretty easy to find. I've even seen programs that make it somewhat easy for you to make your own animation."
Though the block of Saturday morning children's programming may be gone, young parents are increasingly deciding to forgo standard modes of television anyway, instead embracing high-speed Internet and streaming options. According to Experian Marketing Services Cross-Device Video Analysis, as of October 2013, 67 percent of people in the U.S. under the age of 35 watched streaming or downloaded video during the week, while 48 percent of all U.S. adults watched streaming video. Further separating new generations of cartoon viewers from standard broadcast television is the 12.4 percent of households inhabited by an adult younger than 35 who considers themselves a cord-cutter, replacing over-the-air or cable television solely with streaming video. In 2010, 5.1 million homes were considered cord-cutters, with that number jumping to 7.6 million by 2013.
Between streaming video services, 24-hour cartoon channels, DVR technology and the ever-growing list of classic television being collected on DVD and Blu-ray, in many ways Saturday morning cartoons are easier to access now than ever before.
Lemieux said animation in its current form has survived for nearly 100 years now, and he doesn't see that changing anytime soon.
"There's always going to be an interest in animation, because it's a format that you can't really do in live action," Lemieux said. "The industry definitely wants to keep this going, because there is still revenue to be found, and we keep proving that there's still an audience for cartoons, even if not on only Saturday mornings."