Toons of the 2000s: The End of Broadcast Kids TV - Part 1
If I turn on my local CW station at 7am, I’ll see their local news. If I turn on the local MyNetwork station at 3pm, I’ll see Maury telling some poor soul he’s the father. If I turn on the local Fox-owned station at 10am on a Saturday, I get to see an infomercial. In 2000, all three of these stations were airing cartoons at the times I just mentioned; today, none of them do. Ten years ago, three networks were offering new programming on Saturday mornings; today, there is only a single provider. What was unthinkable a generation ago has come to pass – if ad-supported broadcast kids’ TV is not completely dead, then it is certainly on its deathbed.
To be fair, the end of broadcast kids’ TV is not a new phenomenon. Its roots can be traced back to 1992, the year NBC decided to drop cartoons in favor of news and teen-oriented shows. By 1999, the marketplace was in clear decline. Syndication was all but dead, and CBS had decided to drop out as well. Most of the big networks were now airing educational-oriented programming for the majority of their Saturday morning schedules, as a result of the FCC’s new E/I regulations.
Still, the differences are quite stark. Here’s a list of networks offering kids’ programming in 2000:
- Fox Kids (new series)
- Kids’ WB (new series)
- ABC/Disney (new series, E/I focus)
- NBC (TNBC, E/I)
- CBS/Nick Jr. (E/I)
And here’s what you can see today:
- The CW4Kids (new series)
- ABC/Disney (E/I, Disney repeats)
- NBC/Qubo (E/I)
- CBS/Cookie Jar (E/I)
You’ll note that, save for ABC, none of the networks or programming blocks that existed in 2000 exist in 2009. Only CW (the merged WB and UPN) is providing a traditional, non-E/I Saturday Morning lineup, and that’s leased to 4Kids. ABC is almost entirely Disney Channel repeats badged as E/I, with the exception of Power Rangers – which many affiliates simply don’t show and is concluding at the end of the year anyway. CBS and NBC are all E/I shows aimed predominantly at preschoolers, and those are sandwiched around news. You’ll also note the absence of Fox, which used to air Fox Kids and then 4Kids before ending that contract earlier this year. It’s out of the business, and its replacement by infomercial advertising speaks volumes.
This is just counting the wreckage of Saturday mornings. Weekdays are even worse – no network airs kids’ programming Monday through Friday. The kids’ programming that does air is usually E/I and sandwiched at weird hours of the day. So how has a once thriving landscape turned into a desert?
The slow death of Fox Kids
By 2000, there were really only three competitive broadcast kids’ blocks: Fox Kids, Kids’ WB, and Disney’s 1 Saturday Morning franchise. CBS had signed into a deal with Nelvana to produce the CBS Kidshow, and NBC was still plugging their long-running TNBC block.
Fox and WB were still running kids’ blocks on weekday afternoons, but their programming emphasis had long shifted to Saturday mornings by the turn of the decade; weekday afternoons were mainly repeats of shows with long runs. That isn’t to say there weren’t a few attempts to make weekdays worthwhile. Fox Kids tried a block of anime imports on Friday afternoons at one point. Kids WB made several attempts to give the weekdays their own brand, including an ill-conceived idea to use the “Toonami” branding on its otherwise unrelated afternoon block.
But at Fox, the kids’ network was looking increasingly like a nuisance rather than a legitimate part of the weekday schedule. Part of this was due to the overall evolution at the Fox network itself. When Fox Kids was launched in 1990, Fox was a small band of independent stations, which thrived on kids’ programming and sitcoms. It was a logical move to add that type of programming to the new network.
But by 2000, Fox was no longer an upstart. It had hits like The X-Files. It was airing the Super Bowl and the World Series and had a robust sports department. Fox even had a news department in the form of Fox News Channel on cable; FNC would break in on the main network in cases of breaking news. In other words, Fox was now operating like a traditional network.
By 2001, Fox had become an established network, and its affiliates were increasingly looking like traditional network affiliates as well. Some of them, in fact, were former ABC, CBS, and NBC affiliates that had made the jump to Fox after the network scored its legendary NFL coup in 1994. These stations made their money from soap operas and talk shows in the afternoon and profitable local news in the evenings. Most of them wanted nothing to do with kids’ programming, and many of the new stations shunted Fox Kids to lesser-watched independent stations. Even the Fox-owned stations turned away from kids’ programming, towards syndicated programming and ever-expanding news lineups. Nearly all of them were doing expanded morning news shows at the turn of the decade; many of them have since started evening newscasts.
The network’s growing affiliate base wanted this very non-traditional programming block gone from their lineups. Cullie Tarleton, then head of the Fox affiliate board, echoed the sentiment of the majority in saying, “It’s not working for us and it’s not working for them… fundamentally, we want out of the kids business.” An initial concession was made towards the affiliates – Fox Kids weekdays was moved from its longtime 3-5 spot to an earlier 2-4 time period, freeing up the crucial 4pm hour.
Fox was stuck with its kids’ block partially as an obligation to its fledgling cable network, Fox Family. Technically, the Fox network was not running Fox Kids. Fox Family, a separate joint venture between Fox and Haim Saban, was in charge of the programming block.
The short and turbulent life of Fox Family is a fascinating story in and of itself. The joint venture was essentially one misfire after another. Under its watch, Fox Kids tanked in the ratings, relying only on the aging Power Rangers and Digimon franchises. Fox Family never gained any traction after the new ownership canceled every show on the former Family Channel. An effort to make separate Boy and Girl networks achieved publicity and criticism, but almost no distribution. Fox Family was struggling and Fox and Saban decided to bail. Fox Family was sold to Disney for nearly $3 billion dollars in what is widely regarded as one of Michael Eisner’s biggest mistakes.
Fox kept the US Fox Kids block, but Disney now owned virtually all of the programming still airing on it. This was enough to make Fox finally relent to affiliate pressure. The last weekday Fox Kids block aired December 28, 2001. Fox then put the remaining Saturday block up for sale; 4Kids Entertainment, producers of Pokemon, won the bidding. Fox Kids breathed its last on September 7, 2002; 4Kids’ FoxBox premiered the next week. After 11 years, Fox was done programming for kids.
And now, this message about your local station…
Ever wonder why court shows, talk shows, and local news shows litter the schedules of your local Fox and CW affiliate? They’re cheaper to produce. Court shows and talk shows can be set up for comparatively little money. Revenue from these shows is split between the syndicator and the local station, although the local station keeps most of the money. Local news is even cheaper; the station cuts out the middleman entirely and gets to keep all of the money it takes in during the broadcast.
Most viewers are familiar with the networks rather than the local stations, but the stations have a lot more clout than most of you think. NBC’s recent decision to move to Jay Leno to 10pm for five nights a week has been accompanied by a lot of nervousness from their affiliates. As you saw above, as Fox grew in stature, the makeup of its affiliate body changed dramatically. Most of the network’s stations took on the character of the bigger former network affiliates that joined the fold.
And if the stations weren’t former network affiliates, increasingly they were owned and controlled by the more established stations. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 eased limits on television station ownership and made possible the concept of a duopoly – that is, one company owning two television stations. Most duopoly relationships operate like the one in Philadelphia, where CBS owns both KYW-3 and WPSG-57. Generally KYW, the CBS affiliate, runs WPSG, the CW station, and the stations share programming. The effect is one station running on two different channels.
You might think that duopolies would be more conducive to cartoons. You would be dead wrong. A 2006 study by Children Now examined a number of affiliates, studying both duopolies and independently owned stations. The duopoly stations showed significantly less children’s programming overall than the non-duopoly stations.