October 16, 2014

NEEDELL | Farewell to an Old Friend: An Obit for Saturday Morning

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Sometimes, it’s hard for me to believe that there was a long period in my life during which I would get up around 7:45 a.m., every Saturday morning and believe that it was the best part of the week.

The routine was always the same: Jump out of bed. Stay in my PJs. Scamper to the kitchen. Grab the important stuff — bowl, spoon, milk, Lucky Charms. Race to the basement. Turn on the television. Enjoy the next six hours of bliss.

Like many of you, my golden period of Saturday morning cartoons ranged from around 2000 to 2004. Over those years, my weekly diet chronologically ranged from shows like Little Bear and Franklin (drenched in simple morality lessons to mold the young mind), to Nick on CBS’ classic trio of Hey Arnold!, Doug and Rugrats (in the same morality variety, but for the more mature and sophisticated six year-old mind), and finally to the big boy stuff – Pokémon, Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh, Tranformers, X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (who needs moral lessons, this shit was cool).

Just writing this is bringing out some nearly overwhelming feelings of nostalgia. As is the case for many of you, I’m sure, I really cannot imagine my childhood without these cartoons. I am not even sure I would be friends with my brothers if it were not for Saturday morning cartoons.

Even today, these programs of old are hugely relevant. Nostalgia introduces some sense of commonality, of camaraderie. And these cartoons are a perfect way to get there. I could not tell you how many people in my life have evolved from “acquaintance” to “friend” after a long conversation about Pokémon (not even a little embarrassed – you people know who you are). In a way, which Saturday morning cartoons you watched when you were young provide some form of social equity today.

However, none of what I described above will apply to America’s most recent batch of children.

Saturday, October 4 marked the first time in over 50 years that not a single block of broadcast network television aired an animated program.

And it seems like nobody even batted an eye.

Perhaps it is because of how slowly the Saturday morning cartoon faded away. Maybe it is because we are adults now, and most of us have not been keeping track for 10-plus years.

I don’t know. But I find it odd that such a staple in American society — a seemingly promised cultural presence for generations — could die out without so much as a whimper.

For those of you who have not been attune to the decline of Saturday morning cartoons, there are many factors that are believed to have contributed to its fall. Unfortunately, I only have so much space in this column, so I will only be able to highlight a few.

While we may not have noticed, the decline actually began right when many of us were coming of cartoon-watching age. While I was mostly a cartoon guy myself, ours was the first generation of children to be widly targeted by live-action sitcom programming. Shows like Saved By the Bell and Boy Meets World were largely popular, and a first for children’s programming. These shows blazed the trail for LizzieMcGuire, Drake and Josh, Hannah Montana, iCarly and other similar programs that slowly pushed cartoons out of focus.

Another factor was the sheer abundance and availability of cartoons throughout the week. With the rise of cable networks such as Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Disney Channel, which offered a variety of cartoons all throughout the week, kids no longer had to starve until Saturday mornings to satisfy their hunger for cartoons. And while these cable networks provided some of the classics (even some that were aired through broadcast networks on Saturday mornings), they undeniably watered down the field on Saturday mornings.

Video games have also played a big role in the fall of Saturday morning cartoons. When I was young, I remember a lot of the video games I played being related to the shows I watched, via licensing. This was a big plus for networks and game-makers alike. However, as video-game consoles have gotten more advanced, so have the games — both in quality and variety. Now, kids have virtually infinite gaming options to entertain them on Saturday mornings, and they are largely opting for those over cartoons.

Perhaps the most intriguing cultural factor in the death of Saturday morning cartoons is the stigma it has assumed. Over the years, there has been an increased focus on child health and obesity. Whether intentional or not, this movement has brought with it some degree of disdain for the concept of the Saturday morning cartoon, through its association with a lethargic lifestyle. The weekly routine of my childhood has been widely targeted by child-health advocates as one of the primary contributors to the problem of childhood obesity.

I am not saying that any of these cultural shifts or the death of the Saturday morning cartoon is a good or a bad thing. Sure, I look back at the times I had and the lessons I learned fondly. But maybe kids will be better off without them. I don’t know.

But it is undeniably weird. Like I’ve said, I cannot imagine my childhood without pajama-dressed Saturday mornings in front of the television with my brothers. Generations of young Americans have been doing the same for over five decades.

Saturday morning cartoons were a constant that I may have taken for granted. And just like that, it’s over. My kids won’t have that. And that is just so strange to me. It’s not quite as dramatic as the loss of an old friend or caretaker, but the feeling is similar to me. It’s an empty feeling. One that I maybe could have filled had I just known to say goodbye one last time, before it was too late.

So this column is my farewell to Saturday morning cartoons – an important part of my childhood, and an important contributor to the man I am today.

To say goodbye to Saturday morning cartoons, I would like to dedicate this verse, followed by a moment of silence.

“I close my eyes only for a moment, and the moment’s gone

All my dreams pass before my eyes, a curiosity

Dust in the wind, all they are is dust in the wind.”