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The Vortexx of Saturday Mornings

Saturday morning cartoons (and certain live-action programs like Beakman’s World and Power Rangers), once a childhood staple, are getting closer and closer to irrelevance. Some blame this on cable and its offerings of programs once exclusive to Saturday mornings. Others blame stringent FCC regulations that make it difficult to make money out of Saturday morning programs. Still others simply blame the quality of the programs that have run on Saturday mornings for the last decade, essentially blaming the decline of Saturday mornings (or SatAM) on 4Kids Entertainment.

Speaking of 4Kids, they are scarcely a shell of what they once were. It is hard to believe that ten years ago, 4Kids had launched the Fox Box, a powerhouse SatAM lineup that grew to include a critically-beloved incarnation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Italian import Winx Club, and various anime edited and Americanized to varying degrees such as Shaman King, Tokyo Mew Mew (localized as Mew Mew Power), and, of course, their infamous dub of One Piece.

The Fox Box is long gone, as is 4Kids on Fox period. A few years ago, 4Kids switched to where Kids’ WB! was on the CW (the events that created this odd situation would require a separate article). With the demise of Kids! WB went a long history on Saturday mornings. While 4Kids briefly ran some Kids WB! shows like The Batman and Spectacular Spider-Man, 4Kids’ finances were already spiraling down the drain and despite some good ratings from those shows 4Kids could not afford to run any of the Kids! WB series after the transition period to TheCW4Kids was over. Even though, in Spider-Man‘s case, the second season was already completed.

4Kids got sucked into a vortex they could not get out of, the SatAM business bankrupted them. In the end, 4Kids tossed their infamous CEO, Alfred Kahn, out the door. But it was to virtually no effect;  TheCW4Kids has essentially been comatose for the last couple of years. The number of new shows can be counted on one hand: Dragonball Z Kai, the re-edit of the classic anime that was already run on Nicktoons Network, Tai Chi Chasers, a quickly forgotten Japanese/Korean co-production, and Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal, an new entry into the long-running anime franchise. Many assumed that 4Kids would just stay in stasis until it finally ran out of money, or the contract with the CW would run out, whichever first. Essentially, a clock was ticking down until a quiet end to the SatAM tradition, leaving nothing but syndicated E/I programming airing in those hours if at all.

So when Saban Brands purchased the block and the assets to its programs (besides Yu-Gi-Oh! which went to Konami), it was a shock to a lot of people. After all, Saban has been largely dormant in the kids TV side since Saban sold Fox Kids to Disney in 2002.

But, in some ways, it should have been expected. Haim Saban has been a man on a mission to re-enter the kids’ television business over the last couple of years. After all, he had previously pulled another surprising coup by buying the rights to Power Rangers back from Disney and scoring a TV deal with Nickelodeon. And let’s face it, after getting out of the kids’ TV business early in the last decade (ironically his kids’ block Fox Kids got turned into 4Kids’ Fox Box), he would not be getting involved in this business again unless he thought he had a chance at scoring some profits out of this.

Perhaps the desperation of 4Kids to get out of the business, along with Konami attempting to purchase the full rights to Yu-Gi-Oh! lock, stock, and barrel, created a perfect storm to give Saban an opportunity. So over the summer, the two purchasing parties negotiated with 4Kids, which essentially did a fire sale. Saban attained rights to nearly everything 4Kids still had (with the exceptions of Tai Chi Chasers and a couple other shows), along with broadcast TV rights to Dragonball Z Kai. Konami managed to get the full rights to Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Konami and Saban reached an agreement to continue running both classic Yu-Gi-Oh! and the Zexal spinoff on the block. In the meantime, 4Kids technically still exists, but other than hints and rumors of a show called Beastkeepers, they have been silent as to their plans.

So now, we have gotten to here. The name of the new SatAM block is Vortexx, and from what little we have seen of the upcoming presentation it’s trying to look both slick and fairly minimalist at the same time. But unless the name of your block is Toonami, the shows matter more than the packaging. And despite only two months of owning the SatAM block, Saban has indeed managed to provide a diverse lineup that mostly replaces the rerun-to-death lineup TheCW4Kids has been using for the last year or so.

This is your primer on the new lineup, premiering on August 25th. All times are standardized in the Eastern Timezone, please check your local Vortexx affiliate for when the block is actually on the air:

The 7:00 AM hour (E/I):

Cubix: Robots for Everyone
A holdover from Kids! WB that has managed to stay on the 4Kids block, Cubix has not aged well, and its entertainment factor is questionable, but its purpose is to give Vortexx part of an hour of E/I programming to encourage affiliates to carry it. It’s basically a warmup.

Rescue Heroes
The first of the “new” shows, Rescue Heroes premiered in 2004 originally, but has been mostly obscure since then, and its debut is to a mostly fresh audience. Again, like Cubix, its purpose is to fulfill the E/I requirement. I will admit to not knowing much about this show so I will leave this brief, but neither this or Cubix have been featured for promos for the Vortexx lineup, perhaps showing that Saban Brands has an ambivalent attitude about the E/I requirement as much as many older viewers.

The 8:00 AM hour:

Power Rangers: Lost Galaxy
A curious choice for Power Rangers‘ return to broadcast television. Lost Galaxy is a fan-favorite series, however, and I suspect that like another show I will get into later, Lost Galaxy may be a play towards older, more nostalgic viewers more than kids. Lost Galaxy is the last Power Rangers series connected to the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers continuity, albeit very loosely. It is notable for being the first Power Rangers series to kill off some of the heroic characters. That’s right, the Rangers’ efforts will not be without consequences. A very harsh, but perhaps, necessary lesson for all of us, kids and adults alike.

Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal
The spinoff of the original Yu-Gi-Oh! series will continue here from the 27th episode. Konami is reported to keep using the same cast and recording staff, so don’t expect many dramatic changes in how Zexal is presented. Zexal reportedly starts taking on a more dramatic, serialized air from this point onwards as well, as opposed to utilizing a more episodic format like it did for the first season.

The 9:00 AM hour:

Iron Man: Armored Adventures
The first big surprise on the block. Iron Man: Armored Adventures recently concluded on Nicktoons Network after two 26-episode seasons. Nicktoons has been lobbying Marvel Animation for season 3, but after a change of management during the production of season 2 (as well as being purchased by Disney in the meantime), Marvel . . . let’s put it this way, has less than zero interest in making another season. However, the 52-episode run is nothing to sneeze at, and because Nicktoons is not widely available, this Iron Man series will be brand-new to a lot of people, kids and older viewers.

Saban Brands’ choice to acquire this series makes sense. Iron Man has gotten a much larger profile among superheroes thanks to the success of the two Iron Man live-action films and The Avengers. This Iron Man series is a little more offbeat, following a teenaged Tony Stark trying to find himself after his father’s apparent death, and, in a Peter Parker-esque way, tries to ensure that what happened to his father will never happen again by building and donning the Iron Man armor. Very different, and the critical response to this approach has been mixed, along with the response to the CGI visuals used by the show.

Editing concerns for this show have been muted. Iron Man’s violence is sci-fi-oriented which allows for a greater separation from reality (which theoretically should allow more action to run unedited), and death is more of an implied factor than something directly addressed besides Tony’s father. Language is also on the tame side. Plus, editing a CGI show is just plain expensive and difficult, and I doubt Saban would have invested in acquiring rights for this show if they had to edit a lot.

Justice League: Unlimited
Like Power Rangers: Lost Galaxy, I suspect that the venerable JLU may be a play towards older viewers more than kids. JLU is the end of an era, of a 15-year-span of the DC Animated Universe that started all the way back in 1991 with Batman: The Animated Series (oddly enough on Saban-dominated Fox Kids), and ended on Toonami in 2006 with this show. In a way, this makes sense in a karmic way. Saban ran the beginning of the DCAU, and now it gets to run the ending. JLU has aged very well over the years, and after being off the air for so long it is practically new to today’s kids much like how Lost Galaxy and Iron Man will be.

Although Vortexx has been putting Batman in the forefront of its JLU advertisement and presentation, it should be mentioned that Batman’s supporting cast and rogues gallery are absent from JLU. This was due to a SatAM Batman cartoon, simply titled The Batman, running on Kids! WB while JLU was premiering on Toonami, and DC didn’t want brand confusion. While Vortexx’s decision to advertise Batman is understandable considering Batman is the most well-known DC Comics superhero right now, will kids be disappointed as it becomes clear that The Joker, Two-Face, and other villains will never appear? Or will they never notice and just allow JLU to entertain them?

There have been other concerns voiced about running JLU instead of its predecessor Justice League. JLU carries over many storylines from the original 52-episode Justice League series, which may make certain developments less impactful, or, more importantly, significantly confusing for viewers watching the show for the first time. Unlike Iron Man; there are editing concerns as well. JLU premiered exclusively on Toonami for its run, and it used Toonami’s looser editing standards to provide some seriously brutal fights, and even a few character deaths. How that will play on SatAM broadcast remains to be seen.

The 10:00 AM Hour:

WWE: Saturday Morning Slam
Like Iron Man and JLU, this half-hour production is another shock. TV-PG on SatAM has rarely, if ever, been tried before. And professional wrestling, despite some attempts at being more family-friendly in recent years, the WWE remains highly controversial. This has been noted with the recent announcement that blows and grabs around the neck are, for now, disallowed for matches taped for this show. While this production will contain a full wrestling match, there will be a lot of focus on profiles of various wrestlers and behind-the-scenes footage. In a way, this program is almost a WWE infomercial. Time will tell if this experiment will work.

Dragonball Z Kai
On August 25th, the second half of Kai will finally premire on Vortexx, following up the musclemen of the WWE with the musclemen of Dragonball Z. DBZ Kai was edited further from its censored version on Nicktoons Network during its first run, and it’s expected that the edits will remain consistent for Kai for the remainder of its episodes. Kai has managed to garner some decent ratings for TheCW4Kids though, even in reruns, so new episodes should provide a decent boost for Vortexx, and Kai has the advantage of following up the WWE juggernaut.

Dragonball Z Kai‘s edits have gotten some infamous attention (such as turning the skin color of a certain character named Popo blue instead of his natural black). It should be mentioned that neither 4Kids Entertainment or Saban Brands were/are in control of the Standards and Practices here. The CW is dictating the edits. Unless Saban wants to encourage the CW to relent on some things, like they seemingly got the CW to relent on pro wrestling, there won’t be any changes to the presentation. At the very least, though, Kai has a very strong and faithful English dub, and the re-edit allows for significantly improved pacing over the original DBZ.

The 11: 00 AM Hour:

Yu-Gi-Oh! Classic

The show that will never go away. The original Yu-Gi-Oh!’s appeal will not wane, and so the repeats of the show, a mainstay on various SatAM blocks since 2001, will continue. It is unknown from where classic Yu-Gi-Oh! will start from at the time of this writing.

Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal
An encore of the previous week’s premiere at 8:30.

 

In short, the Vortexx lineup is packed with a lot of well-known, venerable properties that will be new for many of the kids tuning in to watch the block. It’s a smart but budget-conscious lineup, considering how old some of these shows really are. It is a much-needed refreshing of the last true SatAM block on broadcast TV, however, much like Toonami was a significant refreshing of Adult Swim’s dying Saturday night anime block.

Just like Toonami, however, what we have here with Vortexx is something experimental. A starting point. Ratings will dictate whether more shows will join the lineup, and whether future programs will be exclusive to Vortexx if not completely original in the first place. While viewers period are helpful, kids are the most important factor. They hold Vortexx’s fate in their hands . . . and the fate of SatAM for that matter. And won’t even realize it or care if they do. All they will care about is whether the shows are good.

Well, Saban Brands and Vortexx did what they could in a very short amount of time to provide good programming. Now, it’s a waiting game. Soon, we will see whether Vortexx provides a perfect storm that revitalizes SatAM, or is simply a mere drizzle on cracked, dry desert ground.

The results will say a lot about the current generation of kids . . . and where kids’ programming will go as we go further into the 21st Century.

No pressure, Saban Brands. No pressure.

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