Will kids go looney without Saturday toons?

Ever since the mid-1960s, Saturday morning has been the equivalent of Christmas for kids.

It is one of the few times network programmers pay attention to the peanut-butter-and-jelly crowd - airing hours of cartoons featuring everything from crime-solving canines to pesky rabbits. In its heyday, public-affairs shows and sports were banished until after noon, and kids couldn't wait to camp out in front of the TV in their pajamas to see what Scooby-Doo would do next.

But America's traditional cartoon culture is changing in ways that could affect the Saturday morning regimen in households across the country. The era in which Saturday morning on the traditional networks was mainly cartoons, and mainly for children, is over: Networks are nudging out cartoon slots to make way for live-action comedies for teens and weekend editions of the "Today" show. The reason? Saturday mornings are busier now. And networks can hardly compete with the cartoons available to kids all the time on cable TV.

NBC announced earlier this month that it is leasing its Saturday space to Discovery Kids, from the Discovery Channel. Fox is considering leasing as well, and is eliminating its weekday afternoon kids block starting in January. "What you have, is essentially [broadcasters] saying, 'We're going to be a service provider for the nonchild audience,'" says Jennings Bryant, director of the Institute for Communication Research at the University of Alabama.

That may be a blow to Gen-Xers, who can't imagine their formative years without "Fat Albert" or the "Smurfs." But today's children will never know the difference, say observers. They were born into a world with a wealth of kid outlets from cable channels to video games to the Internet - and their cartoon choices on TV are wider and of better quality than those their parents had.

What they will be missing, though, is the shared cultural touchstones that come from everyone sitting down to the same programs at the same time through a medium that was free - much the way adults watched "Roots" or "MASH." Modern kids are more likely to recall "what Disney video they watched 10,000 times," says Timothy Burke, co-author of "Saturday Morning Fever" and a cultural historian at Swarthmore College.

Kids' cultural icons won't necessarily come from TV in the future, says professor Bryant. Nor are icons likely to take hold as quickly as they did when viewing was more concentrated. He anticipates video games and the Internet driving the common threads that run through popular culture. "The nonmass media ... will increasingly provide the stimulus for the new cultural phenomenons," he says, but notes they won't be "symbols whereby everyone recognizes what the icon is."

"By and large," he says, "you'll never see it at the same level as the Bugs Bunny phenomenon or the Road Runner phenomenon or the Mickey Mouse Club - where everyone in a generation recognizes who these characters were."

Part of the reason is that everybody is watching at different times. Now that they know they can find something on TV to watch 24 hours a day, children - like adults - have adapted their TV-watching habits to fit around their increasingly busy schedules. "You see the first signs of it in the late '80s, but the '90s is an entirely different paradigm for watching television," says Professor Burke. "There isn't a concentrated day of four to five hours of intense television watching. It means that Saturday mornings have been reclaimed for soccer practice."

Originally, he says, Saturday went to the kids because "no adult would be caught dead watching" so early. But infomercials and weekend editions of morning shows are more prevalent. ABC, the only one of the original Big 3 networks to air five hours of kids TV on Saturday mornings (courtesy of parent company Disney), is even exploring the idea of adding a Saturday edition of "Good Morning America." NBC and CBS already air editions of their morning shows.

With cable networks focusing on kids, traditional broadcasters no longer have to feel responsible for serving children much beyond the three hours of educational programming the government requires of them, says Bryant. And kids' shows don't generate big ad dollars for networks, especially in a recession.

"One of the reasons there's a sea change at the moment is because the networks are not getting the same returns in the kid business on their investment. And that's due to the softness in the market, along with the incredible competition," says Cyma Zarghami, executive vice president of Nickelodeon.

The traditional networks did spark widespread hits as recently as the 1990s, with Fox's "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" and the WB's "Pokémon." More recently - even before NBC's deal with Discovery - networks were borrowing from cable channels with bigger libraries: ABC uses shows from Disney, while CBS has seen improved ratings recently by using pre-school programs from Nickelodeon in its Saturday lineup.

But it is kids with cable who have a better chance of seeing the shows with all the buzz, like Nickelodeon's "Spongebob Squarepants," or the Cartoon Network's crime-fighting "Powerpuff Girls."

Nickelodeon - now 22 years old - has the top-rated programs on all of cable TV (excluding premium channels). No. 1 is "Spongebob," a cartoon about a kitchen sponge who lives at the bottom of the ocean. It is neck-in-neck with another Nick favorite, "Rugrats."

It is cable channels where the cutting-edge kids' cartoons are being created today. "The great success of cable programmers has raised the bar for everyone - helped create a more demanding audience, which in turn has led to better programming all around," says Jonathan Barzilay, senior vice president of ABC Kids and cable channel Toon Disney.

Adults longing for the nostalgia of their youth, will have to look to The Cartoon Network and websites like yesterdayland.com. As pop-culture professor Bob Thompson puts it, with cable, "All of the sudden, Saturday morning isn't all that important anymore."

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