The changing face of Saturday morning TV Some networks are pulling the plug on kids' cartoons in favor of adult programming


Saturday morning. The kids tiptoe into the living room and quietly click on the television, settling in for a couple hours of parent-free viewing, watching a steady diet of . . . news and public affairs shows?

Well, at least they could be doing that, for a surprising new picture can be found this fall in the Saturday morning viewing hours.

Plenty of cartoon shows remain in the period programmers once called kids' prime time. The Tasmanian Devil still romps on Fox stations, Winnie the Pooh prowls on ABC and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles crack wise on CBS.

But the growth of cable TV, increased VCR use and busier weekend lives have combined to change a generations-old programming pattern.

"I remember sitting in my pajamas watching TV, while my parents were asleep. It was fun," recalls Diana Wilson. Now the mother of two boys, Andrew, 8, and Kyle, 5, the Severna Park resident and her sons have uneasily noted this fall's addition of different forms of programming to Saturday mornings.

Ironically, advocates for better children's programming have long decried Saturday morning TV as a cynical marketplace for sweet cereals and show-related merchandise. Now, parents must also worry that their little ones are encountering less than innocent subject matter among the adult programming, including news programs.

Of Baltimore's network affiliate stations, only two -- ABC/WJZ-Channel 13 and Fox/WBFF-45 -- still screen steady half-hour shots of mostly cartoon programming for children.

"We know that children watch TV alone on Saturday mornings. . . . With news, they need to have an adult help them process it, to try to help them understand the world," contends Charlene Uhl, director of the newly formed Maryland Campaign for Kids TV.

"Often, the news is extremely violent and extremely graphic," notes Mrs. Uhl. The organization monitors how TV stations are complying with the federal Children's Television Act of 1990, which among other things restored limits on children-targeted advertising.

"Saturday morning TV for most people does tend to be kind of unsupervised, and it's nice to know they [children] can kick back and be OK with what they're watching," agrees Mrs. Wilson. Cartoon fare at least provides that assurance, she adds.

"Between the Clarence Thomas hearings and Magic Johnson and abortion rights, I'd rather we didn't have to explain some of these words, yet," Mrs. Wilson says, noting her 8-year-old has reached an age "where things don't go over his head anymore, he wants to know what they mean."

Locally, CBS affiliate WBAL-Channel 11 pre-empts kids-targeted network fare to carry its own local news programming from 8 a.m. to mid-day. (The station does broadcast two popular CBS shows, "Garfield & Friends" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," at 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., respectively.)

On WMAR-Channel 2, the NBC network this fall replaced its previous children's programming from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. with a new weekend edition of the "Today" program. (Two NBC shows follow that are aimed at adolescents, "Saved By the Bell" and "California Dreams." The station also carries the program "News for Kids" at 7:30 a.m. Saturdays.)

Among other local stations on Saturday mornings, Maryland Public Television continues to screen a variety of teaching programs aimed at adults. (Washington station WETA-Channel 26 carries two hours of "Sesame Street" beginning at 7 a.m. Saturdays and the good PBS shows "Barney & Friends" and "Shining Time Station" at 9 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., before also screening adult-oriented instructional fare.)

Local independent WNUV-Channel 54 carries reruns, pro wrestling and movies, and while Washington independent WDCA-Channel 20 screens a few children's shows ("Romper Room," "News for Kids" and "Beakman"), it also mixes in series reruns and programs aimed at an older audience.

"There just happen to be today so many more outlets for children's programming, far more than there were even five years ago," says Emily Barr, director of broadcast operations for Channel 2, in explanation of the loosening lock of weekend children's programming.

She says the station has received calls from viewers praising the change, but added, "it's too early to tell" whether more people are watching "Today" than tuned in the children's fare.

At WBAL, program director Emerson Coleman says the station's recent addition of weekend news (also seen Sunday mornings) "is getting exceptional response in call-ins to the station," and he estimates mail volume is running about nine to one in favor of the news over cartoon fare.

"We provided a service that wasn't there," he said.

Or, the ever-expanding cable operations have grabbed a bigger piece of the cartoon market. Saturday hours, for example, are pretty much all for kids on three services, the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and the Family Channel.

The move away from kids programming by networks and their affiliates has created a competitive edge for stations still on the children's bus.

"We think there is an audience there -- there has been for some 40 years, and we feel someone has to serve that audience," says Mike Easterling, program director at WJZ-Channel 13.

While cable does offer much children's fare, Mr. Easterling points out that just over half of Baltimore's households are currently cable-connected. (Indeed, Ted Turner's new all-cartoon cable channel launched this week is not now available locally.)

"That's still pretty low, and for us not to serve that audience would be to hand over our viewership," Mr. Easterling says.

Channel 13 offers the full network lineup of mostly animated shows. They include three new shows this fall -- "The Addams Family," "Goof Troop," and "Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa" -- as well as such returning favorites as "The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" and "Land of the Lost."

Channel 13 also carries some added non-network children's shows before ABC fare comes on, beginning at 6 a.m. and including "The Wizard of Oz," "King Arthur" and "T-Rez."

The Fox network has also found children's programming on Saturdays a fertile ground for challenging stations of the Big Three networks.

"We've gotten calls from people saying they're glad we've got cartoons on," says Channel 45 program chief Mike Schroeder.

The station carries the second season of Fox Saturday programming, including such high-quality animation shows as "Taz-Mania," "Tale Spin" and "Plucky Duck."

Channel 45 manager Steve Marks also notes the Saturday programs strongly supplement the station's animated fare for kids on weekday mornings and afternoons, including the production of its own "Kids' Clubhouse" show featuring host Kenny Curtis.

"We are in the children's business literally on a six- or seven-day basis," he said, contending cable channels really do not offer significantly more programming and "really don't have the quality" of the Fox fare.

He also noted "we have one of the most successful kids' clubs in the country," with a local membership of more than 100,000. That works out to one of every 3.5 children in the viewing region, Mr. Marks says.

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