What Became of Saturday Morning Television?

While growing up, there were several events that I could always look forward to. Halloween, Christmas, my birthday and the Fourth of July were occasions I could faithfully rely on to deliver a wonderful memory. Unfortunately, these special days happen months apart, but happily, there was another pleasant tradition that took place every week, year after year. I’m referring, of course, to Saturday, or, to be more specific, Saturday morning in front of the TV. For as long as I can remember, all of the commercial television stations in the Bay Area would devote 5-6 hour time blocks exclusively to children’s programing on Saturdays, usually beginning at 8am and continuing into the early afternoon.  Cartoons, adventure shows, kid variety and children’s education programs were featured from breakfast until lunchtime, giving many of us no real reason to change out of our pajamas long after waking up.

As you can tell by this article’s title, Saturday morning television has gone through many changes over the years, and is virtually unrecognizable from what most of us remember. Today, the four major networks are now presenting sports, news shows and infomercials in place of anything remotely geared towards children. Yes, I’m aware that there are now cable channels that are entirely aimed at kids (Disney Channel, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon ) but those networks offer kid’s stuff 24/7, robbing Saturday mornings of any remaining uniqueness….if fact, with so many organized activities available for children weekdays and weekends, I’m wondering if Saturdays hold any specific significance to the present young generation as opposed to us “Boomers.”

Children’s programming goes back to the advent of commercial television, almost 70 years ago when NBC introduced “Howdy Doody,” a puppet show that appeared weekdays at 5:30pm. Network producers quickly learned that the youngsters watching the show represented an important consumer demographic, and programs directed at children would be the perfect vehicle for promoting cereal, candy, toys and even toothpaste to an impressionable audience. Before long, “Howdy Doody” had plenty of competition, as all three networks began chasing after the youth market, while local affiliates and independent stations began to produce their own shows. Of course, weekday programing geared towards children could only be effective during after school hours, but Saturdays were wide open. Thus began the Saturday tradition that found me a most eager participant.

I’m guessing most kids would simply wake up on Saturday mornings, turn on the TV, and start searching for a show of their liking. My sister Patrice and I were much more methodical. Every Friday night, we would tear out the Saturday page of the television listings and plan, in detail, the next day’s viewing. Starting at 8am, every 30 minute interval until late afternoon would be covered,  With four channels to choose from, sometimes our decision making wasn’t easy, and there were the inevitable disagreements, but Saturday mornings were too important to allow for much squabbling…we were always willing to compromise, probably the only time we were so cooperative with each other. Although my impressive memory cannot accurately recreate a typical Saturday morning in front of the Daley TV set, we are all fortunate (?) that one of Brian-Patrice schedules, circa 1962, has survived. As I transcribe what is on the list, I will attempt to explain, as best as I can remember, the decision making employed for each choice.

7hqdefault:30am  “Popeye” KRON Channel 4…An easy choice, as the other stations were offering programs about hobbies and science, while Popeye was an “A” list cartoon star. As much as I admired the popular sailor, I never could wrap my brain around what he and Bluto saw in Olive Oyl…and Bluto got his ass kicked every week due to his obsession. Despite the obvious propaganda, I never grew to like spinach.

8am “Cartoon Time” KGO Channel 7…I loved seeing generic cartoons from the 1930’s and ‘40’s, and the best ones were those produced by Warner Brothers. Best known for “Bugs Bunny” and “Duffy Duck,” the studio also created dozens of cartoons featuring no one from their fabulous roster, but usually just as entertaining. I especially enjoyed the travel log that featured the camel who insisted, despite what the narrator said, that he was thirsty.

8:30 “Ruff and Reddy” KRON Channel 4…”Ruff and Reddy” was Hanna-Barbera’s first foray into television, debuting appearing in 1957. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera went on to greater heights with Yogi Bear, the Flinstones and the Jetsons, but the dog and cat duo of Ruff and Reddy remained a favorite long after their show ceased production in 1960.

9am “Captain Kangaroo” KPIX (CBS) Channel 5…Although the Captain is best remembered as a weekday morning staple, “Captain Kangaroo” was also included on CBS’s Saturday morning lineup from 1955 until 1968. Watching the Captain was always a refreshing break from the usual noisy and frantic pace set by almost every other children’s program. I’ll never forget Captain Kangaroo’s (Bob Keeshan) short tribute to JFK given in November of 1963, when “Captain Kangaroo” returned to the air after being pre-empted by network assassination and funeral coverage. Let me also add that another reason for choosing the Captain was that his NBC Channel 4 competition was the “Sheri Lewis Show” which I never forgave for replacing “Howdy Doody” in 1960.  Trivia: Bob Keeshan was the original Clarabell on “Howdy Doody.”

9:30am “King Leonardo” KRON Channel 4…Long forgotten by most, “King Leonardo” was the original Lion-King, ruling Bongo-Congo with the help of his loyal companion, a skunk named Odie O. Cologne. Better remembered is Tudor Turtle, who with the help of a lizard-wizard, would live out his various fantasies, until his failure to handle the situation would inspire his cry, “Help Mr. Wizard! I don’t want to be (that week’s fantasy) anymore.” “King Leonardo featured voiceovers by the great Jackson Beck.

FuryNotKing10am “Fury” KRON Channel 4…I’m sure everyone over the age of 50 is familiar with “The story of a horse, and the boy who loved him.” A live action show, “Fury” starred Bobby Diamond as young Joey Newton while Peter Graves played his father Jim Taking place on the Broken Wheel Ranch, Joey would constantly find himself in danger, only to be saved by his extraordinary horse, who seemed as smart as Lassie, but unable to unlock doors and climb in and out of windows like the famous collie. “Fury” was never terribly exciting, but it did feed my lifelong hope of owning a horse, which, sadly, never happened.

mitymous10:30am “Mighty Mouse KPIX (CBS) Channel 5…Even at age 8 or 9, I found Mighty Mouse cartoons to be a bit childish, but I also thought Terry Toons animation was very good compared to the quality that was employed for most television productions…In any case, “What a mouse…what a mouse!”

11am “Rin Tin Tin” KPIX (CBS) Channel 5…This live action show was comprised of reruns, some episodes already 8-9 years old. Set at a U.S. Calvary fort in the 1870’s, Rinny was a German Sheppard who was about as smart as Lassie, but was decidedly more aggressive. Of course, Lassie was never asked to fight Indians, so maybe she was just holding back.

11:30am “Top Cat” KGO (ABC) Channel 7…”Top Cat” was kind of an urban version of Yogi Bear, preferring to live off his wits rather than put any real effort into life. Voiced by Arnold Stang, “Top Cat” was inspired by the Phil Silvers’ character, “Sargent Bilko,” in fact, Maurice Gosfield, who played Private Doberman in the “Bilko” series, was the voice of “Top Cat’s” Benny the Ball.

220px-Gloria_Winters_Penny_Sky_King_1952Noon “Sky King” KPIX (CBS) Channel 5…Another rerun, “Sky King was a contemporary Western, which was obvious due to the fact that the main character owned and operated a twin Cessna airplane known as the “Songbird.” Every week, Sky (Kirby Grant) would use his piloting skills to apprehend smugglers, bank robbers and evil foreign spies, often with the help of his niece Penny (Gloria Winters). It always seemed to me that Penny, who was very well developed in the chest department, would constantly get herself kidnapped. Each kidnapper would tie Penny up, always making sure the rope was bound tightly around the chest area, accenting her impressive rack. Man, I miss that show.

I would love to describe the rest of the shows that were telecast that day, including the Three Stooges, “The Magic Land of Alakazan” and “Rocky and His Friends”, but to be honest with you, Patrice and I seldom made it past noon. Our mother, apparently sickened by the sight of two healthy children lounging in front of the TV on a glorious Saturday, would toss us out of the house on our respective ears. We never thought she would notice.

Saturday mornings remained kid’s territory for many more years, developing animated programs that featured comic-book favorites (Superman and Archie), or becoming used as a dumping ground for recently canceled prime-time shows (“Batman,” “The Monkees”). But as the Baby Boomers grew older, the networks adjusted their programing to maintain its relevance with an aging demographic. By the 21st Century, children’s shows had long been outsourced to the cable networks, allowing Fox, NBC, CBS and ABC to run, at least in the fall, wall to wall college football. This is fine with me…every generation should have their own traditions, and develop their own notion of what a certain day of the week should mean. But for me, as much as I like college football, I would not be least bit disappointed if an Ohio State-Indiana matchup was pre-empted by “Sky King”…no one ever gets tied up in football.

Notes: On September 14, 1968, “The Archie Show” made its Saturday morning television debut on CBS. An animated version of the popular comic-book icon, “Archie,” not only featured all of the title character’s pals, but also included a music component by having the cast form a faux band. One of the songs performed by “The Archies” was “Sugar, Sugar,” which surprisingly became the Number 1 song of 1969. There is a musical legend that “Sugar, Sugar” was originally offered to The Monkees, but was rejected, with prejudice, by Michael Nesmith, but the historical time-line suggests this never happened. “Sugar, Sugar,” recorded by studio musicians, featured Ron Dante’s lead vocal.

8 thoughts on “What Became of Saturday Morning Television?”

  1. This is one of my favorites of your posts, because it reminds me of shows brother Steve and I watched, but I had forgotten about, or I should say, hadn’t thought about recently. As a parlor game, the question might be, who among our generation didn’t see at least one episode of each show you mention? In my brother’s and my case, that would be a negative: we remember them all. Favorites at Emalita Court included Fury (Steve liked horses), Sky King, and Rin Tin Tin. The idea in our house was to get up early and turn the television on before the parents got up (or in our case, before Mom got up, as Dad often worked on Saturdays), and more or less slide into the day with these shows. We were definitely not permitted to watch shows into the late morning or afternoon: Saturday was for fresh air and some mild chores, plus there was still the sense that some kind of evil rays emanated from the television screen. You couldn’t sit too close, and prolonged exposure might be harmful. Today there’s no reason to program kid’s shows on Saturday morning. Cable and the internet provide on-demand entertainment for children at all times. Was Tom & Jerry its own show, or a cartoon feature among others? I watched a few episodes of Tom & Jerry when my children were little, and they were pretty edge. One unforgettable episode in particular terrified my son: Tom Cat was thinking about doing something evil. He a devil on one shoulder telling him “Go Ahead,” and an angel on the other saying, “Stop!” — which pretty much sums up childhood.

    1. Jeff: The “Devil-Angel” bit was repeated many times in various venues…I wonder who first came up with it? It was used in “Animal House,” when the young college freshman ended up alone in a bedroom with a passed out girl…The Devil, of course said, “Go ahead…f*** her!” I don’t think Tom or Jerry’s Devil ever said that.

  2. Wow, great article. Notably missing, Shirley Temple, but I think I must have sneaked back in and watched her in the afternoons. I remember one magical Saturday when they did a Shirley Temple marathon. I was in heaven, where were you?

    1. Patrice: Shirley Temple was usually Sunday, and besides, if you saw one or two of her films, well, I think you can fill in the rest. Remember the one where she was an orphan, but her cute singing and dancing won the hearts of everybody around her? Which one was that again?…Oh yeah….all of them.

  3. I guess I was still sleeping in my crib for most of these shows. Flinstones and Johnny Quest must have come on later in the day. Maybe Mom was kicking you out to give me, Sharon and Jan a chance at the t.v? Nice article. – Diane

  4. BD, you’ve done it again! Brought me back to my Saturday mornings as a kid with 5 other siblings all watching cartoons while eating pancakes in our pajamas. We too had to be shewed out of the house by our mother to go outside and get some fresh air. That was o.k. because all the other kids in our neighborhood watched the same cartoons and we carried on discussions of all our favorites. Then we got to play together all day. And do it all over again the next Saturday. Life was so perfect then! Thank you for another superior article!!

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