Once upon a time in children's television land, we had our cartoon characters, such as Tom & Jerry, Huckleberry Hound and Bugs Bunny. And we had real people or actors doing roles -- Lassie's boy Timmy and Rin Tin Tin's boy Rusty, and more recently the Hudson Brothers, Marshall, Will and Holly, and Pee-wee Herman.
But as another fall TV season arrives, the networks are competing for pint-sized viewers in the kiddie prime-time hours of Saturday morning with a dismaying mixed-media mix of pop culture figures in depressingly uncreative, mostly animated vehicles.
The new Saturday morning lineups on CBS and NBC are premiering today, while ABC and Fox offered new fare last weekend. With some exceptions, however, it is really just different fare.
Real people who are being reduced to cartoon characters this fall, for example, include athletes Bo Jackson, Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan (in NBC's "Prostars") and rapper M. C. Hammer (in ABC's "Hammerman").
Then there are the usual animated rip-offs of movies that were hits with the young crowd. New ones include a cartoon "Back to the Future" (on CBS, with the voices of Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd), "Little Shop" on Fox (from the movie "Little Shop of Horrors") and "Wishkid" (on NBC), a thinly disguised nod to "Home Alone" which stars the voice of Macaulay Culkin, the young star of the hit film.
Even some original cartoon characters are being transformed. From the funny pages come "Mother Goose and Grimm" (on CBS). And from earlier TV the venerable Hanna-Barbera character of "Yogi Bear" appears in "Yo, Yogi!" (on NBC) as a teen-age crime-fighter. (In similar fashion, Fox still has "Tom & Jerry Kids," in which the long-time combatants are younger versions of themselves.)
You can even find "Waldo" on Saturday mornings (CBS), the elusive, bespectacled character from a series of popular children's books.
Further, until the Children's Television Act of 1990 takes effect next year (limiting advertisements), the heaviest messages continue to be in the form of commercials, most of which are for nutritionally deficient food products.
Earlier this summer, for example, the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a report asserting that Saturday morning children's television encourages eating habits that can lead to tooth decay, heart disease and cancer. Most commercials are for cereals, followed by restaurants, candy, beverages, cookies, entrees and chips.
However, while the overall picture is disturbing for parents -- who know their kids are getting up early to sit in front of the tube -- each half-hour of the morning does seem to offer a show (and rarely, two) perhaps worth a look.
So here is a parents guide to the best of kiddie prime:
7:30 a.m. -- It's buried in a low-viewership early slot, but NBC's "K-TV" (premiering today) is a weekly news magazine-style show aimed at youngsters, with host Molly Barber. Real people, not cartoons! Another somewhat similar choice is on cable's Nickelodeon, with young people adjudicating mock trials in "Kids' Court."
8 a.m. -- Two new shows premiere here, NBC's "Chip & Pepper" and CBS' "Riders in the Sky." Both include at least some live-action real people: In the former, Canadian brothers Chip and Pepper Foster host cartoons and other features, and in the latter, live characters, puppets and some animation are in a Western setting.
(Time out for a tantrum. ABC's competition at 8 is the animated Disney "Winnie the Pooh," which has been praised for its wholesome tradition. But a recent edition had Winnie, Tigger, Piglet and Christopher Robin sitting inside watching TV and ordering out for pizza. Such modernization is simply sacrilege to the charming A. A. Milne stories. Read your kids the books instead.)
8:30 a.m. -- ABC has an interesting revival here, a new version of "Land of the Lost" from Sid and Marty Krofft. The original was on NBC in 1974-'76 and again in 1978, and featured a mix of live-action and stop-action special effects. "Marshall, Will and Holly . . ." of the title song were a father, son and daughter who fell through a waterfall time warp into a land of dinosaurs and an ancient race of insect-like creatures, the Sleestacks.
In last week's premiere, an earthquake fissure similarly swallowed the Jeep of the Porters (Timothy Bottoms, Robert Gavin and Jenny Drugan). The dinosaurs seem better than the original and the dialogue just as corny. And where the kids get the batteries to power their stereo players is a question not answered. But it's all in fun.
9 a.m. -- "Darkwing Duck" is an interesting newcomer on ABC, a Disney cartoon feature about a rather inept superhero fowl (also being seen weekdays in syndication). The animation quality is high, but kids will miss some of the adult satire.