Era of Saturday cartoons is drawing to an end at two network affiliates

July 12, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

This week is the beginning of the end for a TV ritual most area viewers have known all their lives: Saturday morning network cartoons.

The cancellation of cartoons on two network affiliates is yet another example of how dramatically television is changing these days, with programming patterns that have existed for 40 years wiped out in what seems like an instant. Some viewers are upset by the change. But the situation may not seem that bleak for cartoon-loving parents and their children once it's understood.

Three weeks ago, WBAL-TV (Channel 11), Baltimore's CBS affiliate, announced that it was going to launch a new Saturday morning local newscast this week, which would pre-empt network cartoons like "Garfield" and "The Muppet Babies." Also, WMAR-TV (Channel 2), Baltimore's NBC affiliate, announced that beginning Aug. 8 it would start airing a new Saturday version of "Today," which would result in the cancellation of all NBC cartoons for area viewers.

The switchboards lit up at news of the cancellations. Channel 11 has since arranged a special deal with CBS, which will allow the station to "save" two of the highest rated CBS cartoons -- "Garfield" and "Ninja Turtles" -- by showing them at 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. Saturdays before its all-morning newscast begins at 8. If the kiddies can get up at 6, it's probably better than nothing. But it's only a temporary palliative.

"The cancellation of cartoons on network affiliates is part of larger trends in the industry," said Scott Michels, the vice president and director of affiliate relations for CBS. Like the jobs Bruce Springsteen sings about, those 'toons are goin' and they ain't comin' back at the affiliates.

The trends are not hard to understand, according to Arnold J. Kleiner, the vice president and general manager of Channel 2. He explained the cancellations so that literally even a child could understand them in a June 26 letter sent to an 8- and 9-year-old brother and sister in Clarksville who wrote to Channel 2 about the coming cancellations.

"Thank you for your letter of June 24th," Kleiner wrote. "You've probably read in the papers or seen on television that many TV stations are planning to make changes in childrens' programs on Saturday mornings. The plain truth is that cartoons on network stations are not being viewed as much by young people as they used to be. Perhaps the reason is that now there are so many more stations for children to watch than there were a few years ago. . . . I hate to say it, but if you want to watch cartoons, you're going to have to change channels. However, we hope we'll have you back for other shows."

"It's money," Kleiner said in a follow-up interview. "It's mainly a matter of the pie being cut too many ways with cable and the independent stations now all showing cartoons."

For cable viewers, there is an abundance of cartoons, which was not there 10 years ago. Nothing better typifies that fact than the announcement to television critics last week in Los Angeles by Ted Turner that he will launch an entire channel of cartoons airing 24 hours a day seven days a week starting Oct. 1.

"Each and every day will be dedicated to providing nothing but the best cartoons to viewers around the world," said Betty

Cohen, executive vice president of the Cartoon Network. "It's a lot like CNN, only funny."

The Cartoon Network owns Hanna-Barbera and will feature "The Flintstones," "The Jetsons" and the rest of that studio's creations. In addition, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck and most of the Warner Bros. characters will be on board. Add Tom and Jerry from MGM and Popeye from Paramount, and you have a mind-boggling operation.

Cable's creativity

But it's not just that cable channels and independent stations are showing lots of cartoons. Cable is creating some of the most imaginative and popular characters in the history of animation.

There is no hotter cartoon show than "The Ren & Stimpy Show" on Nickelodeon. Not only is it a hit with kids, it's a cult hit with adults. At another press conference before TV critics in Los Angeles last week, Nickelodeon announced that starting Aug. 15 it will air new episodes of the show in prime time on Saturday nights as part of a strategy to further slice and dice the audience of the old-line networks.

John Kricfalusi, the creator of "Ren & Stimpy," was treated by most of the TV critics attending the press conference as if he were Alfred Hitchcock returned from the grave. He returned their reverence and questions about the show's adult following and deeper meaning by saying, "It's purely a kid's show, and that's why it has kid-type humor in it. That's why it's got boogers and stuff in it." The cartoon is so good, Kricfalusi can talk that way and get away with it.

And the cartoon boom is not limited to cable. The independent stations that have allied themselves with Fox Broadcasting are bringing good cartoons and great marketing to broadcast TV. Baltimore's WBFF-TV (Channel 45) is representative.

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