THIS TIME, it looks as if Papa Smurf isn't going to come to the rescue.
It was about a decade ago that those little blue creatures kept NBC from getting out of the Saturday morning children's cartoon business. "The Smurfs" became a huge hit and plans to put on a Saturday version of "Today" went back on the shelf.
Now, the network executives have dusted those plans off and are presenting them to a meeting of some of its affiliate stations this week in Palm Springs, Calif.
It's expected that in the next year or so, NBC will launch a two-hour "Today" that will run 8 to 10 a.m. on Saturdays, followed by two hours of programming aimed at a teen-age audience or a slightly younger group that NBC likes to call "tweens."
"I think it's a good idea," Arnie Kleiner, general manager of Channel 2 (WMAR), NBC's Baltimore affiliate, said before leaving for Palm Springs. "I don't think we're serving the audience we're going after very well now, and I think there is another audience we could be serving."
NBC has known about that other audience -- adults -- for some time. A decade ago, CNN was barely a blip on the media radar screen, but it was already getting its biggest ratings on Saturday morning when the networks offered older viewers no alternatives.
In the years since, it's only gotten tougher out there in the world of kiddie TV. Back then, kids had little place to go other than the three networks on Saturday morning to see fresh, new, fairly high-quality cartoons.
Now, with Fox in the Saturday morning game, the Disney and Fox packages on independent stations every afternoon, the Nickleodeon basic cable channel, the Disney premium channel, as well as regular cartoon packages on USA and TBS cable channels, more and more animation on premium channels such as HBO and Showtime, and the increasing proliferation of kids' home videos, there are plenty of alternatives.
Indeed, animators would rather be syndicated to the independent stations for an afternoon run than be on the networks' Saturday morning schedule.
"It used to be that the syndication was the graveyard of the Saturday morning stuff," Jennie Trias, who's in charge of ABC's children's programming, said. "It was cartoons that no longer had life on Saturdays."
"What changed all that and made people realize the potential of syndication was 'He-Man and the Masters of the Universe'" she said, noting that after "He-Man" all sorts of toy manufacturers jumped into the game with cheap cartoons that garnered some audience but absolutely no praise.
Now some of the best animation -- Steven Spielberg's "Tiny Toons," Disney's "Duck Tales" -- shows up on independent stations in the afternoon. Indeed, Trias made a deal with Disney to run its "Darkwing Duck" on Saturdays, even though Disney also runs it every afternoon in syndication.
"We have new episodes that the kids won't see anywhere else, but I guess there is less reason for them to watch on Saturday if they know that they can see it every day of the week," Trias said.
CBS has a similar deal with "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," a cartoon that started in syndication, where it remains, before joining the Saturday morning lineup.
Syndication is more lucrative in large part because the yearly order is for 65 episodes, enough to give first-runs for 13 weeks. The networks also order for 13 weeks of first-runs, but that's only 13 episodes. It's a lot easier to amortize your costs making 65 episodes.
Trias said that the way she approaches this crowded marketplace is to try to find cartoons that have a built-in awareness level among kids. She cited a recent deal she made for an animated version of "The Addams Family," in hopes that the movie in current release would give it a boost in the kids' consciousness.
Similarly, Fox just signed a deal for next season for a half hour based around the character of Fieval, the star of "Fieval Goes West," an animated movie that's at your local theater. CBS, for its part, went on the air this season with "Where's Waldo?" to take advantage of the popularity of the books that have kids searching for that character amid crowded locales.
Adding to the networks' difficulties is the presence of the People Meter ratings systems, devices that require viewers to punch in when they start watching TV and punch out when they stop. It's hard to believe that they give an accurate count of the 2- to 11-year-olds that are the target audience of Saturday morning cartoons. But that count is what the networks have to sell to advertisers.
Kids are a volatile audience who can quickly shift allegiances and discover new heroes. NBC found that out with "The Smurfs." CBS was struggling a couple of years ago, but the huge success of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" boosted its lineup to the top of the kiddie ratings charts.