The 90s was a decade of new beginnings—and some endings.
The syndication market had become oversaturated by studios enjoying the freedom of network constraints and not as viable as it once was. However, studios still found it preferable to networks as they were able to sidestep many of the regulations networks had to adhere to. Especially since Congress had passed the Children’s Television Act in 1990. The act declared that networks had to air and keep a record of educational content they broadcast for children, restrict the amount of advertising in programs for children—especially if it was a product related to the show—and ensure kids could tell the difference between the show and the commercial. Cable channels were exempt from these rules, so stations like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network could continue to produce and show whatever kind of programming they wanted.
When Disney pulled the hit DuckTales from a FOX-affiliated local station in favor of airing it on an independent station it owned, FOX head Barry Diller removed the show from the rest of their stations and began working on programming to counter Disney’s upcoming The Disney Afternoon. That was the Fox Children’s Network, a joint venture between the Fox Broadcasting Company and its affiliates. Headed up by animation veteran Margaret Loesch, the block originally ran for half an hour on weekdays and 3 hours on Saturday mornings. In 1991, it was renamed Fox Kids Network (or simply Fox Kids) and expanded to 90 minutes on weekdays (3 hours in 1992) and 4 hours on Saturdays. With Fox Kids came the first offerings of the all-new Warner Bros. Television Animation: Taz-Mania, Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs and Batman: The Animated Series. Loesch was even able to take care of some unfinished business from her Marvel Productions days and bring X-Men to the air, followed shortly after by Spider-Man. The biggest get, however, was the acquisition of Saban’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers that propelled FOX to become the #1 network.
In 1989, CBS began labeling their Saturday morning programming as CBS Kid TV, which introduced Fido Dido as its mascot in commercial bumpers. As they entered the 90s, their schedule was still largely comprised of Muppet Babies, Garfield and Friends, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Pee-wee’s Playhouse. CBS would enter into a deal with Disney to air programming provided by the studio, resulting in The Little Mermaid: The Series, Timon & Pumbaa and Aladdin: The Series calling the network home while they also aired in syndication on The Disney Afternoon. Between 1993-96, CBS rebranded their Saturday mornings several times: CBS Saturday, CBS Toontastic TV, CBS Saturday Morning and CBS Kidz. 1994 also saw the addition of the sub-block Action Zone, which was designed to compete with other action-heavy programming. Ninja Turtles was revamped to be less comical and was aired as part of it along with WildC.A.T.s and Skeleton Warriors. Ninja Turtles was the only show to survive and the sub-block was cancelled; although the series retained the branding for the duration of its run.
ABC attempted to play off of the popularity of its’ Friday night TGIF block by introducing the similarly-structured MCTV (More Cool TV). Live-action stars from the network’s Saturday offerings would appear every half hour or so to host the day’s programming, such as the cast from Land of the Lost or MC Hammer, who was starring in Hammerman. The branding was abandoned in 1993. In 1996, Disney acquired ABC and jettisoned all of the shows not made by the studio, with the exception of The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show from rival Warner Bros. as it was under contract to run, and Science Court, produced by Burns & Burns. They began their own programming block, Disney’s One Saturday Morning, and populated it with shows produced by them and originally featured on The Disney Channel or Toon Disney. It beat out Fox Kids in the ratings for everything except Power Rangers.
Just before Disney’s takeover of ABC, Warner Bros. entered into a partnership with the Tribune Company to form their own network: The WB. With it came the children’s programming block Kids’ WB. They reclaimed their shows from FOX (whose success, ironically, actually partially inspired the creation of the network), airing Animaniacs and its spin-off, Pinky and the Brain, along with the debut of Superman and the revival of Batman: The Animated Series. The biggest break for the block, however, was when they began airing the English dub of the anime Pokémon. It led the network to surpass FOX in the ratings and inspired other networks to look into anime they could import not only to compete, but because it was cheaper to do so than produce an entirely new show from scratch.
NBC had been struggling through a good portion of the 80s with only a few real hits to its credit. One of those hits came in 1989: Saved by the Bell, a sitcom that was a reworking of The Disney Channel’s Good Morning, Miss Bliss. Despite harsh reviews, the series ended up becoming the highest-rated series on Saturday mornings and the most popular teen-oriented series in history. NBC made the decision to abandon cartoons in 1992 and focus entirely on trying to duplicate Bell’s success with similar programming. They renamed their programming block Teen NBC (or TNBC) and debuted shows such as City Guys, Hang Time, California Dreams and Bell spin-off, The New Class.
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By 1996, events were set in motion that would further change network Saturday mornings. The FCC strengthened the Children’s Television Act, mandating that every network had to air at least a minimum of three hours of educational and informational content per week. To alleviate the burden on affiliates, most of the networks chose to schedule these programs during the Saturday morning blocks and began heavily revamping them around these new guidelines. CBS would launch Think CBS Kids in 1997, airing an entirely live-action line-up including Wheel 2000, Sports Illustrated for Kids, and The Weird Al Show, along with older shows Beakman’s World and Fudge. Like NBC, they would fill up the remaining time with a news program. The move was met with low ratings, and in 1998 CBS contracted Nelvana to provide their programming in the block CBS Kidshow. Saban Entertainment merged with Fox Children’s Network to become Fox Kids Networks Worldwide, later Fox Family Worldwide after acquiring The Family Channel. FOX would buy out affiliate interest in Fox Kids to finance the network’s NFL package, and the block saw its time reduced while Saban handled its programming. They largely left fulfillment of the E/I requirements up to their individual affiliates, although would eventually incorporate reruns of The Magic School Bus. The WB used Histeria! to help meet the requirements, scheduling it on weekdays during the block. NBC’s line-up was already designed to meet the requirements set forward by the FCC, as their shows often dealt with social issues.
This would mark the beginning of the end of network Saturday mornings going into the 21st Century…
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