My older son, Noah, has become increasingly infatuated with superheroes. He wears superhero T-shirts with a cape regularly, plays with superhero action figures and has begun requesting to watch superhero cartoons.
The problem I discovered while browsing through the current cartoon lineup is that there are very few offerings that are age-appropriate viewing for a 3-year-old boy. That’s when I introduced him to a cartoon that I grew up with, one that quenches his thirst for superheroes yet scores an approval from his mom and me: “Super Friends” (on YouTube).
For those of you not old enough to remember, Hanna-Barbera’s “Super Friends” cartoon (a take on DC Comics’ Justice League superheroes) was part of a magical era that spanned from the 1960s until the late 1990s. Every Saturday from 8 a.m. until noon, cartoons ruled the airwaves on the three major networks: NBC, ABC and CBS.
I remember waking up early on Saturday mornings; filling my cereal bowl with a heaping concoction of sugary, brightly colored, thematically shaped puffs with a large dose of milk; and cementing myself in front of our large, glowing TV for hours, entranced by the plethora of cartoons on display before me.
Before the 1960s, cartoons, of course, existed. But it wasn’t until this time that the major networks realized something: Kids love cartoons. And kids love toys. Instead of airing cartoons at random times during the week, why not compact the time to one morning, preferably a morning the kids don’t have school, and bombard them with cartoons and commercials advertising toy spinoffs from those same cartoons? It would be a social and marketing experiment.
Companies such as Filmation Associates; Jay Ward Productions; and Hanna-Barbera, perhaps the most well-known of the bunch, were able to pump out multiple cartoon series to fill out the four-hour Saturday morning timeslot. And though initially more expensive than live-action shows in the way of production costs and time, cartoons proved to be a better economic value because the cost of talent was less expensive, as voice actors such as Mel Blanc, June Foray and Frank Welker were able to portray more than one character, often within the same show. Networks could also rerun animated programming more frequently than live-action shows.
By the 1970s, parents’ lobby groups such as Action for Children’s Television had complained enough about commercialism, violence and stereotypes in Saturday morning cartoons that the networks felt compelled to implement animation and live-action educational spots to make Saturday mornings more educational. As a result, “Schoolhouse Rock” was born, among others, like the popular “One to Grow On.”
By the 1980s, Saturday morning cartoons had become a staple in almost every American household with children younger than 12. Among cartoons such as “The Smurfs,” “Dungeons and Dragons” and “Shirt Tales” came the endless but awesome commercials; ads for toys, cereal and McDonald’s Happy Meals brought pleasure and longing to young eyes. Saturday morning cartoons, it seemed, were at their peak.
Unfortunately, for varying reasons, the Saturday morning lineup of cartoons began to decline. The rise of first-run syndicated programs such as “G.I. Joe,” “Transformers” and “Thundercats” increased regulation of children’s programming; the advent of cable TV channels like Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and Cartoon Network made access to cartoons at any time easier. An overall decrease in popularity also contributed to the downfall of Saturday morning cartoons; reasons such as business failings, the rise of childhood obesity and network news shows expanding to Saturdays contributed as well. By the year 2000, the four-hour Saturday morning cartoon timeslot ceased to exist.
These days, thanks to the CW, there is some form of a Saturday morning lineup of cartoons, but it offers only a glimmer of what I and so many other adults who grew up in the heyday of cartoons experienced.
At least we have YouTube.
My top five Saturday morning cartoons were:
What were some of your favorite Saturday morning cartoons? Sound off in the comments below.
Charlie Moss writes about local history and popular culture, including music, movies and comics. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.