NBC's decision to replace Saturday morning cartoons with a weekend version of the "Today" show, taking the network completely out of the business of programming for young children, drew mixed response Friday. The move was seen by some as a blow to children's programming. But one longtime children's advocate praised NBC for targeting older kids, who traditionally have been underserved.
NBC said Thursday that it would essentially cut its Saturday-morning programming for children in half next season, replacing cartoons from 8 to 10 a.m. with "Saturday Today." That will be followed by two hours of programming aimed at children in the 9 to 16 age range: the current hourlong live-action series, "Saved by the Bell," and two new half-hour shows--one most likely structured as a news magazine and designed to conform to new federal rules requiring television stations to provide educational and informational programming for children.
"I think it's unfortunate," Judy Price, vice president for children's programs and daytime specials at CBS, said Friday. "I think all networks should be in the kids business. In the short term, it's going to be a sales positive (for NBC). But I don't think it's better for children's programming in the long term. I think it's a healthier situation when there's more programming for children."
NBC's pullout marks what some industry leaders believe might be a permanent shift in the way network television serves youngsters.
"What's happening at NBC is indicative of what's happening at all the networks," Jennie Trias, vice president of children's programming at ABC, said Friday. "All the networks are concerned about their financial situations. And if NBC does really well with this, I'm sure CBS and ABC will look into it as well."
NBC's move came in the wake of aggressive intrusions into the Saturday morning market by the Fox Broadcasting Co., whose Fox Children's Network eased ahead in ratings earlier this year, leaving NBC in an unprecedented fourth place.
And Fox, in a move that Children's Network President Margaret Loesch said is a direct response to NBC's announcement, plans to add an extra hour of children's programming to its Saturday morning lineup next fall.
"I have 15 programs in development right now," Loesch said. "Now that NBC has announced what they're doing, it is our plan to expand."
NBC's decision to develop a program that conforms to the requirements of last year's Children's Television Act, which threatens stations' licenses if they fail to provide educational and informational programs for children under 16, won the praise of children's television advocate Peggy Charren. She said that it will be the first program developed at a network level specifically aimed at the new rule.
"It's only a half-hour out of the broadcast week," said Charren, head of the consumer group Action for Children's Television. "On the other hand, it's a half-hour more than the children have gotten from any network."
Charren said that she is not concerned about the loss of programming for young children because she doesn't think cartoons serve a positive purpose and they are available on other channels in any case. Teens, on the other hand, are underserved by broadcasters, Charren said.
However, NBC's cutback on cartoons will force animation companies to seek new outlets for their programs.
"It makes you sad," said Robby London, senior vice president of creative affairs for DIC Enterprises, which produces four of NBC's six cartoon shows, including "Chip & Pepper's Surf's Up Saturday" and "Wishkid." "I started off in (the animation) business as a writer, and I think the first show I ever had on the air was an NBC show."
With the NBC move long rumored, London said that DIC had already begun to search for syndication outlets for its NBC shows, and has found distributors for two of them: "Captain N and Super Mario World" and "Wishkid," which features the voice of "Home Alone" star Macaulay Culkin.
NBC's decision will not force layoffs at DIC, because work on those series already had been finished, London said.
Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment, said that the network was moving away from programming for young children in order to capture viewers that were not already served more successfully by the other three networks.
"If you look at the programming available, there's a tremendous amount of it that looks the same, and it was hard for us to distinguish ourselves," Littlefield said in an interview Thursday night.
Under the new approach, the network does not plan to air any animated programs Saturday mornings unless presented with "a 'Simpsons'-like program" with appeal to the 9-to-16 age group, Littlefield said.
ABC, CBS and Fox will continue to concentrate on young children, executives said, because, as Loesch said, they represent a bigger market on Saturday mornings than teens and preteens.