Come with me as we go back in time to an ancient period in human history and explore the phenomenon known as the kids block. This is that period of the day when a group of shows aimed at kids that were primarily animated aired on television, sometimes on Saturday mornings and sometimes on weekday afternoons, but the peak of this phenomenon was the mid-sixties to the mid-nineties, which means I grew up able to enjoy it just long enough before it completely died. Saturday morning cartoons did exist well into 2014, but it was becoming less and less lucrative for networks to invest in programming blocks when cable networks like Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Disney Channel started airing kids shows all day long, and once streaming services like Netflix came along that was the final nail in the coffin.
Children’s television often aired on weekend mornings in the fifties, but it didn’t become a deliberate programming strategy until the sixties when networks realized that making programs for kids was also a good way to advertise to kids, particularly toys and cereal. Animation was always popular on television whether it was Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, Woody Woodpecker or old Disney cartoons, so original animated programming from studios like Jay Ward, Hanna-Barbera and Filmation made up the bulk of kids programming in these blocks for years.
Animation was more expensive to produce than live action, even TV cartoons with limited animation, but young viewers cared less about watching reruns over and over so it was a good investment, and the experiment worked. Even cartoons which used to air in prime time started airing on Saturday mornings as a way to save money, including Hanna-Barbera’s The Flintstones, Top Cat, The Jetsons and Jonny Quest.
Many of these cartoons were formulaic and similar but it didn’t matter. There were superhero cartoons (Spider-Man, Space Ghost), band cartoons (The Archies, Josie and the Pussycats), animated versions of live-action franchises (Gilligan’s Island, Star Trek), babyfication (Muppet Babies, A Pup Named Scooby-Doo), live-action shows with animated segments (Banana Splits, H.R. Pufnstuf) and cartoons used to sell toys (He-Man, G.I. Joe, Transformers, My Little Pony). Some franchises like Star Wars and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were not created to sell toys but ended up becoming some of the fastest-selling toys on the market thanks to their enormous popularity.
The using-cartoons-to-sell-toys thing had consequences. Children’s TV watchgroups objected to the commercial aspect of these blocks and pushed for more educational programming. Educational shows aimed at kids were common on PBS but less so on the big three networks NBC, CBS and ABC, aside from the occasional Schoolhouse Rock! and Science Court. Watchgroups have been vocal about making cartoons less violent and more wholesome since the sixties but it wasn’t until the mid-nineties that the FCC began the E/I (educational and informational) mandate on children’s programming. This muzzled the artistic freedom of many TV creators and led to a decline in the popularity of Saturday morning cartoons, in addition to cable television’s rise and the domination of on-demand home viewing.
Anime dominated Saturday morning cartoons in the 2000s thanks to the popularity of shows like Pokémon, Dragon Ball, Digimon and Yu-Gi-Oh! but even that wasn’t enough to keep viewers tuned in. By 2014, after years of programming blocks like The Disney Afternoon, Fox Kids, Kids’ WB!, Disney’s One Saturday Morning, 4Kids TV and Qubo, kids blocks finally disappeared and are now just a faint memory in the minds of a few people old enough to remember them.
I still remember many of the animated shows I used to watch as a kid, not just on Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons but on cable. Believe me, I also loved Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Disney Channel. So I decided to make a list of the TV cartoons that shaped my childhood the most. These aren’t necessarily the best cartoons I watched (although many of them are good). These are just the ones I remember loving as a kid. Many cartoons I love that aired in these days are not included in this list because I only became a fan of them later in life after watching them on DVD, like Batman: The Animated Series, Samurai Jack and Avatar: The Last Airbender. It only includes cartoons I loved while I was a kid. This also doesn’t include anthology shows featuring older cartoons like The Bugs Bunny Show. Enjoy this glimpse into my childhood.
Rocky and Bullwinkle
The Alvin Show
Alvin and the Chipmunks
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
A Pup Named Scooby-Doo
Garfield and Friends
Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers
The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!
Tiny Toon Adventures
The Adventures of Tintin
Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog
The Magic School Bus
Pinky and the Brain
Timon and Pumbaa
The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest
The Angry Beavers
The Wild Thornberrys
Mickey Mouse Works
Buzz Lightyear of Star Command
House of Mouse
The Legend of Tarzan
The Proud Family
TMNT: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles