SATURDAY MOURNING Ready, willing cable

The Kelly household in Rockville, Md., has four kids and three TVs. Typically, there's a children's show on at least one of the sets. While Sue Ellen Kelly fixes dinner, the kids are likely watching one of Disney's many cable channels. Later that night or on Saturday afternoons, it's probably Nickelodeon, another cable channel.
On Saturday mornings, everyone's out the door.
"It's the swim meet or the basketball game or the hockey game or the baseball game or whatever," Sue Ellen said. "I don't even think the kids turn on the TV on Saturday morning."
The television battle for kids is over. Cable has won. The major networks -- dogged by a decade of rising production costs, low ratings and declining advertising revenue -- have thrown in the towel, as a recent spate of deals illustrates.
Further, a common kids culture -- the Saturday-morning cartoon ritual, when millions of children watched the same shows at the same time -- is becoming a collateral victim of the changes.
Castoff: This week, Fox sold its Saturday-morning block of programming to 4Kids Entertainment Inc. This follows NBC's move in December to lease three hours of its Saturday-morning programming to Discovery Channel. Over the past two years, CBS and ABC have farmed out their Saturday-morning programming to corporate cousins, Nickelodeon and Disney respectively.
For the first time, none of the four major networks will produce its own kids shows, which is significant: Network-made children's programming was once a building block of programming, a way to hook the next generation of viewers. But even the WB, which caters to young audiences, recently stopped providing kids shows to affiliates. The WB has partnered with the Cartoon Network to show that channel's cartoons on WB stations.
In television's early days, when there were only three channels, networks discovered a captive advertising target in kids. Shows such as "Howdy Doody" were wrapped around commercials for such products as Ovaltine, in which kids were instructed to tell Mom "more Ovaltine, please." If advertisers wanted to reach children, and their parents, they had to go through ABC, CBS and NBC.
This held true for more than 30 years, until nascent networks and cable channels began usurping the Big Three's claim on children. The major networks have been in a death spiral ever since.
Share dives: During the 1991-92 television season, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox combined for 70 percent of kids' Saturday-morning viewing. By last year, that number had dived to 30 percent. For example, CBS's Saturday-morning share dropped from 30 percent to 6 percent, while Nickelodeon's share zoomed from zero to 21 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Kids still want to watch kids programming -- but on their own terms, when they have time to watch. Cable channels Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network offer something the networks cannot: round-the-clock children's programming. The cable channels pull impressive ratings from the key 2- to 11-year-old market during the week, when they also bill their highest ad rates.
Mike Lazzo, senior vice president for programming at the Cartoon Network, said his channel's highest ratings come not on Saturday mornings but during weekday prime time. Further, he added, "You should see our ratings at 3 a.m.," when a surprising number of kids are sprinkled among the audience.
Meanwhile, advertising revenue for kids leader Nickelodeon has "grown steadily" over the past decade, said Executive Vice President Cyma Zarghami. At major networks, it's another picture altogether.
Lee Gaither, NBC's vice president for Saturday morning and family programming, wouldn't release figures but acknowledged that revenue from children's shows has dropped dramatically over the past decade.
By selling their Saturday-morning time, the major networks can stanch the money hemorrhage and actually profit on the deal.
Federal law: In fact, only the federal 1990 Children's Television Act keeps some networks from ditching children's programming altogether. The act led to the FCC's 1996 guidelines requiring affiliate stations to provide three hours of educational or informational television per week.
It is the sole reason behind NBC's deal with Discovery.
"Were it not for the act, there'd be something else there," Gaither said.
How did it come to this?
Part of the answer comes from changing lifestyles, as exhibited by the Kellys of Rockville.
From the 1950s through much of the 1970s, the biggest weekly block of cartoons and kids' shows appeared on Saturday mornings. Millions of American children grabbed a bowl of Cap'n Crunch and plopped down for a good three or four hours of network cartoons such as "Bugs Bunny" and shorts such as "In the News."
"One of the things I remember about TV when I was a kid was cartoon Saturday morning. You did not want to miss it for anything," said Sue Ellen Kelly, 38.
Kids still get up early on Saturday, but many are more likely to follow an activity-filled schedule like that of the Kelly kids. Or, if they're sitting in front of a TV, they may be playing a video game instead of watching a show. And, of course, there's the Internet.
Even with cable's gains, Saturday television viewing from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. by children has steadily declined over 25 years, according to Nielsen. During the 1974-75 season, 35.6 percent of 2- to-11-year-olds in TV households were watching Saturday morning shows. By last year, that number had dropped to 16.8 percent.
Fox Kids may have hastened the trend in the early '90s.
Viewer response: Fox Kids, a division of Rupert Murdoch's Fox network, began six-day-a-week kids programming -- largely after-school shows -- which the other major networks had long abandoned for more profitable syndicated sit-coms, game shows and talk programs. The response from young viewers was instantaneous.
"I was at ABC at the time, and ABC, CBS and NBC were immediately decimated," Gaither said. "We were flattened."
Fox Kids gave birth to the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" phenomenon and dominated the ratings wars. Since the FCC hadn't yet classified Fox as a network, Fox was free from certain broadcast regulations, enabling it to pass off 30-minute toy and game infomercials such as "Sonic the Hedgehog" as children's programming.
"After that, it was like feeding a beast," Gaither said. "Kids just started voraciously looking for more programming."
During the 1994-95 television season, Nickelodeon's ratings came from out of nowhere to dominate the 2-to-11-year-old market, even to today, with shows such as "Spongebob Squarepants." (Aside from premium channels like HBO, Nickelodeon is the top-rated cable channel.)
Yet even Fox Kids wasn't successful enough, and was scaled back to Saturdays only. "Affiliates realized they could make more money with 'Oprah' leading into the news," Gaither said. News programming typically is the biggest moneymaker for stations and networks.
The big networks have begun to turn Saturday mornings over to someone else and tried to make some money on the deal.
Nick Jr.: CBS, part of the Viacom corporate family, decided to go for the unserved 2-to-5-year-old target audience and created Nick Jr., an offshoot of Viacom's successful Nickelodeon franchise, and put it on CBS stations.
"We couldn't compete against Disney -- which had the marketing power to reach children -- and Fox and the WB, and we didn't have the promotional platform to promote to children during the week," said Chris Ender, CBS senior vice president of communications.
At NBC and Fox, children's programming is no longer part of the networks' master plans.
Unlike CBS, ABC and the WB, which are part of larger entertainment conglomerates, General Electric-owned NBC "is not vertically integrated," Gaither said: Even though NBC has a vault of kids programs, it doesn't have corporate-cousin cable channels to air them. Hence, viewers who tune into NBC on Saturday mornings will soon see Discovery Channel fare.
Brand: There's a danger to this strategy: loss of brand identity among younger viewers.
"I have a 13-year-old, and they know the Disney cable channels," said Barbara Kreisman, chief of the FCC's video services division. "As for ABC, NBC -- they don't even know what those are."
Peggy Charren, whose Action for Children's Television group spurred the creation of the Children's Television Act, is unfazed about the networks getting out of the Saturday-morning kid business.
"It's hard to get terribly upset since when they were in it they did so badly at it," she said.