Losing a Childhood Tradition

The first weekend of October this year saw a historical moment: the first weekend in what I’ve heard is over fifty years without a Saturday morning cartoon block available to basic television channel viewers.

That’s actually not true. Depending on your local market, there is still a Saturday morning cartoon block…comprising nothing but cartoons bearing the E/I rating. It’s not even the first time we’ve hit this point. When the FCC ruling in 1998 that led to what is currently being called the end of the Saturday morning cartoon block era, most of the major networks had already moved on from offering cartoons on Saturday mornings, the notable exception being CBS’ joint venture with Nick Jr in the mid to late 90’s. Within a year of that shift, though, the WB and Fox organized their own mostly non-educational cartoon lineups in the after school and Saturday morning programming blocks.

A number of us have some sort of relationships with cartoons, from our childhood, from our teens (when we were trying to be too cool for cartoons), and even into our adulthoods. So, many of us over the last couple of weeks have expressed some sort of loss of our own childhood, our happy memories of Saturday morning rituals centering on cartoon viewing. Some of us have been so unable to let go of that aspect of our childhood that recent years (really, the last decade or so) has seen numerous reboots of beloved childhood cartoon and toy franchises, wanting to recapture that period and share it with a new generation.

For me personally, it was for a long time a combination of after-school and Saturday morning cartoons that shaped so much of who I have been and who I have become. In school, clear through grad school. I often did my homework while watching cartoons. (I’m one of those people who can’t work in a dead silent environment. It drives me insane.) I’ve used cartoons to connect with students. (Right up until it became cool to be a Whovian, I got pretty far knowing the difference between Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, and it was my students who got me into Avatar: The Last Airbender…mostly because they were shocked I wasn’t already watching it.) Some of my earliest Halloween costumes were cartoon cosplays. If I had any sort of artistic skill, I likely would have jumped at the chance to become an animator. I love watching behind-the-scenes videos, just to watch animators work. I’m not going to lie: I think animators are kind of like magicians. (Oddly enough, my love of animation and voice chasing did not actually play directly in to my becoming an audiobook narrator. Sort of. It’s really hard to explain.)

It’s so weird to think that now those avenues for connection, for creative reaction…don’t exist at an easily accessible level for kids any more. It just seems wrong.

Chocolate-Covered Broccoli and Children’s Play

This fall, American children are being treated to something never before seen: Saturday mornings without a single cartoon not bearing the e/i rating. In 1998, the FCC ruled that basic stations had to serve at least three hours of educational content a week, and so stations decided the easiest way to do that was to dedicate a programming block already targeting children to that cause. The e/i rating is given to children’s programming that meets certain criteria, both education and marketing related. (I used to have a really good resource on e/i, but the site appears to have been taken down. Sorry.) They’ve commonly been isolated to PBS, although other stations have woven them into their line-ups.

At first, this doesn’t seem like much of an issue. Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney all offer Saturday morning blocks. But while nearly every home in America has a television, just under half of those homes has some sort of cable service. That means kids in just over half of these homes don’t have access to cartoons that aren’t trying to shove some sort of learning down their throat. I know what  you’re thinking: Isn’t that a good thing? How can we make the cable companies come around and stop making our children stupid? And that’s not a healthy way to think.

We can’t process a lot of information coming at us constantly. This is part of the research-based thinking in how daily class schedules are designed in schools. The brain needs time to process what it’s just been exposed to. This is actually one of the keys to learning. If the brain doesn’t get that time, the material bounces off like a skipped stone on the water. This isn’t just true at school, but everywhere in life. We’re nearly always in situations that expose us to new information, to new skills. Without down time, our brains just can’t handle it and burn out. Kids are the same way; and for just over half the kids in this country, they’re now limited in how they can choose to spend that necessary down time. (I’ll just let you think on the ramifications of that.)

It’s almost like we’ve been led to believe that if we aren’t laying out very obvious teaching moments 24/7, kids can’t possibly learn. But just because a kid isn’t being told by a big fuzzy creature that two and two together equals four (as happened in Magi Nation, a cartoon from a few years ago aimed at tweens), it doesn’t mean the child isn’t gaining something useful from watching a cartoon that has no deliberately educational elements. Children’s play has long been inspired by the characters and worlds they meet through cartoons. They become inspired to draw, to write, to incorporate their favorite cartoons into their imaginative play. And sometimes, the skills inspired by watching cartoons as a child become a career path. That’s not insignificant.

This isn’t to say all cartoons bearing the e/i label are painful mini-lessons. A handful of cartoons, such as the much beloved PBS cartoon Arthur and the perpetually re-launched Winx Club (although it’s only the mid-2000’s series that achieved this distinction), focus more on character building skills that have formed the basis for so many social-emotional curricula…without taking the preschool show tack (where it is needed because this may be the first time those very young children actually hear any of this. Preschool shows really are their own class.) of being very literal about what is going on.

It took well over a decade from the initial ruling to reach this point, but I think we’re going to see a pushback. Whether it comes in the form of relaxing restrictions on what all children can be exposed to or higher quality educational cartoons remains to be seen. It should prove interesting, though.