Modern animation of the United States from the late 1980s onward is sometimes referred to as the “American animation renaissance”. During this period, many large American entertainment companies reformed and reinvigorated their animation departments following a general decline during the 1970s and 1980s.
First-Run Syndicated Animation
The older Bugs Bunny and Popeye cartoons made way for first-run syndicated cartoons such as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Rambo: The Force of Freedom, ThunderCats, Dennis the Menace, My Little Pony, The Transformers, G.I. Joe, Voltron, and reruns of Scooby Doo, Garfield and Friends and The Pink Panther, among many others.
In 1987, The Walt Disney Company tried its luck at syndication; DuckTales went on the air that September and lasted 100 episodes. The success of DuckTales paved the way for a second series two years later, Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. The following year, the two shows aired together under the umbrella title The Disney Afternoon. In 1991, Disney added another hour; the block aired in syndication until 1999.
These cartoons initially competed with the nationally broadcasted ones. In the 1980s, national TV only aired Saturday mornings, not competing with the weekday and Sunday blocks of syndication aired by local independent stations but; however, by the 1990s, Fox and then WB started airing weekday afternoon blocks. By the end of the 1990s, both syndicated and national TV ended up losing most of its children’s market to the rise of cable TV channels like Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and Cartoon Network which provided appealing children’s entertainment throughout the week at nearly all hours.
As the 1990s began, the “Big Three” networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS) were no longer a three-way oligopoly. The fledgling Fox network launched their Fox Kids programming block on weekdays and Saturdays in 1990, while The WB joined the competition with a kid’s programming block shortly after the network’s 1995 launch.
When NBC compared the success of the live-action youth sitcom Saved by the Bell to the paucity of their animated hits, they gave up on cartoons in 1992, instead concentrating on live-action teenage shows with their Saturday-morning TNBC block. ABC was purchased by Disney in 1995, and Disney transformed ABC’s Saturday schedule into a series of Disney-produced animated cartoons collectively named One Saturday Morning. CBS was simply never able to come up with any new hits once the shows that anchored its late 1980s/early 1990s Saturday morning lineup—Muppet Babies, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Garfield and Friends, etc.—ran their respective courses. When CBS was purchased by Viacom, which also owned Nickelodeon, Viacom simply repurposed much of the Nick Jr. lineup—in addition to adding a Saturday edition of the CBS morning-news program The Early Show.
As a result of years of activism by Action for Children’s Television and others against shows they believed blurred the line between entertainment and advertising, the Children’s Television Act was passed in 1990. It began to be strictly enforced in 1996. The Federal Communications Commission began requiring three hours a week of educational and informational program intended explicitly for children, at times when children were awake. Since this required three hours to be “off limits” to programs aimed at the general public, the networks naturally chose to air them on Saturday morning, when children were already watching. As a result, almost every Saturday-morning network show is required to contain some educational content. Fox and The WB worked around this problem by airing short one-hour weekday children’s blocks instead of morning news shows, but those weekday blocks no longer exist (with the notable exception of PBS, which continues to have large weekday children’s programming blocks as of 2010). Nonetheless, there were still a few toy-based children’s programs in the 1990s, particularly Power Rangers and Pokémon.
Cable networks were not subject to these—or most other—FCC requirements, which allowed their series to have more leeway with content than network shows.