Like many other people of a certain (Gen X) age, tuning into the Saturday morning time slot was directly responsible for igniting my love for all things animated. It was with great dismay, then, that I read the news last September that the Saturday morning cartoon was officially dead. The last Saturday morning cartoon aired September 27, 2014.
This demise is largely attributed to three main factors: 1) regulations enacted by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1996, to enforce the Children’s Television Act; 2) the rise of cable networks thought the 1990s specifically devoted to animation and/or children’s programming, such as the Disney Channel and Cartoon Network; and 3) the more recent advent of streaming and on-demand programming, such as Netflix.
Concerned parents and educators had been lobbying the FCC to regulate children’s television since the late 1960s, characterizing advertisers and marketers as highly aggressive (particularly through the 1980s), and children as in need of protection from rampant consumerism. It took until 1990 for the Children’s Television Act to become law, and another six years of negotiations between the FCC and broadcasters to set out the regulations, which included a minimum of 3 hours of educational programming per week, and also established criteria for what would constitute “educational” programming.
As both part of larger changes in the television landscape, and as a pushback against stricter FCC regulations, cable networks broadcasting animation and other children’s programs further undermined the weekly viewing spot, and set a precedent for round-the-clock media availability – kids no longer were tethered to a specific day and time. In conjunction with faster Internet and increased sales of mobile devices, constant access to television programming paved the way for the current rise of streaming and on-demand video, which is now resulting in less cable television subscriptions, a disruption of major concern for networks and advertisers.
Netflix and other streaming video services are disruptive on two fronts. First, the ability to binge-watch multiple episodes of a program changes the framework of broadcast infrastructure to the degree that close viewing and repetition of the watched program changes how it is perceived by the viewer, not unlike how several repurposing six-minute cartoons cinematic cartoons into 30-minute viewing blocks highlighted the repetitive nature of cartoon violence. As Nichola Dobson pointed out this month, watching several episodes of a program in a row in which the main character never really seems to internalize the lessons they are supposed to have learned or actually change their behavior in subsequent episodes can inadvertently send the opposite message than the writers may have intended.
Netflix and video on demand also disrupts the ability of networks and broadcasters to market to children via traditional means such as commercial breaks. This has led to an increase in both product placement in programs (admittedly less of a concern for animated shows) and leveraging mobile platforms such as smartphones and tablets to provide both on-demand video and extra-textual material such as games, or additional web-based episodes. The risk of this strategy, however, is “cannibalizing” a network’s own audience.
The ubiquity of mobile devices and availability of extra-textual materials has raised additional concerns about increased media consumption by children, but a 2013 study by Common Sense Media found that despite the ubiquity of platforms on which to watch one’s favourite cartoons, viewership hours overall showed an incremental decline. This decline certainly isn’t significant enough to predict the demise of the Cartoon Network as yet, but it does raise some questions about the future of broadcasting in general.
At any rate, it seems as though animation as a medium is in no particular danger, as it has never been easier to schedule your very own Saturday morning, all day every day.
 For more on the history of the marketing strategies that contributed to the passing of the Children’s Television Act, see Englehart, Tom (1987). “The Strawberry Shortcake Strategy.” In Watching Television. Ed. Todd Gitlin. Pantheon, New York.
 Raiti, Gerard (2003). “The Disappearance of Saturday Morning.” Animation World Network, April 30. http://awn.com/animationworld/disappearance-saturday-morning
 Spangler, Todd (2013). “Cartoon Network: Netflix is Hurting Our TV Ratings.” Variety, September 12. http://variety.com/2013/digital/news/netflix-is-draining-cartoon-networks-tv-ratings-1200609111/
 Mittell, Jason (2003). “The Great Saturday Morning Exile: Scheduling cartoons on television’s periphery in the 1960s.” In Prime Time Animation: Television Animation and American Culture. Eds. Carol A. Stabile and Mark Harrison. Routledge, New York, 33-54.
 Dobson, Nichola (2015). Planes, trains and automobiles; anthropomorphized vehicles in children’s animation (but mum it’s educational!). animationstudies 2.0. https://blog.animationstudies.org/?p=1261
 Winslow, George (2007). “Growing up Wired.” Multichannel News, December 31. http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/articles/28114779/growing-up-wired
 “Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America 2013” (2013). Common Sense Media, https://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/zero-to-eight-childrens-media-use-in-america-2013 p. 10
Amy Ratelle is currently the Research Coordinator for the Semaphore Research Cluster on Mobile and Pervasive Computing, at the University of Toronto. She is also the current editor of Animation Studies, the online journal for the Society for Animation Studies. She has degrees in Film Studies from Ryerson University (BFA), and Carleton University (MA). She completed her PhD in Communication and Culture, a joint programme between Ryerson University and York University. Her research areas include children’s literature and culture, animality studies, animation studies, and critical media studies. Her book, Animality and Children’s Literature and Film, was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.
There’s another negative aspect of viewing-on-demand, and that is the undermining of our sense of community.
I recall the days when people (not “just” kids) would talk about the things they had seen on TV the previous morning/day/night and share their impressions. This “seeing together the same thing at the same time” may be one of the few things that contribute some meaning to holding “physical” (analog?;-) festivals, the web having long beaten attendance numbers when it comes to comparing the two.
Another major problem with “on demand” material is that we can only look for what we already know, and/or the things that are connected to what we already know.
To truly discover “new things,” we need help, either from “outside,” and/or from a fundamental change of attitude (“inside”).
If we leave that to commercial interests, we’ll become even more alienated from each other and trapped in a world made of repetitive pablum.
Chomsky warned us long ago, if we don’t do our homework, we are going to be manufactured into mindless consumers (it may already be too late…).
Anyone who grew up in North Anerica remembers with fond nostalgia the excitement of seeing cartoons on TV on Saturday mornings. The convenience of on-demand tv/entertainment (Netflix, YouTube, etc) nonetheless leaves a pang for the days of youth when you had to WAIT for the ‘toons. Thanks for the piece, Amy.