Vortexx and the Death of Saturday Toons by Jerry Whitworth
News broke late May that Vortexx, the children’s programming block on the CW, would be coming to an end to make way for live action programming for a more family-orientated audience. Vortexx holds the distinction of being the last block of syndicated Saturday morning cartoons in the United States. Where channels like ABC, CBS, and NBC once dominated the market, cable channels like USA got into the act before local affiliates of Fox, Warner Bros, and more largely inherited the realm. Saturday morning cartoons came about in the 1960s when television stations wanted to sell advertising space that would appeal to children. So, animation studios that could cheaply produce series were hired and cartoons once only available in movie theaters were telecast on Saturday mornings. The experiment was a complete success. And the only place it could go was up.
When Star Wars hit theaters, not only did it change the film industry, its success in merchandising altered toy companies forever. Wanting to get in on the kind of money Star Wars pulled in but on a more regular basis at a reduced cost, toy companies created what many refer as glorified half hour commercials in licensed cartoons. The 1980s would be awash in Saturday morning cartoons as every major toy company peddled their wares. Toys were selling like mad, especially because of changing attitudes in the American consciousness. Where for decades people were taught to save their money for emergencies and to make large investments, the real threat of nuclear war had many people fear that there in fact was no future and spent their savings with this issue at mind. The ’80s was a time of decadence in this manner until people began to realize their fears were not as legitimate as it turned out to be. Cartoons evolved, while there was still a prevalent toy market, where popular series also now meant ratings (and money again earned from advertising).
By the 90s, blocks like Kids WB, Fox Kids, and Amazin’ Adventures emerged, at first as competition for the stalwarts ABC, CBS, and NBC before WB and Fox knocked down their competitors. Part of this came from a shift from relying on American animation to adapting Japanese shows, be it anime or live action programs like Power Rangers and Beetleborgs. These series provided a new style of animation/action and story, but more importantly were much cheaper to produce because it relied on content already made for another market that mostly just needed dubbing or little footage shot/edited. However, around the ’90s Saturday morning cartoons were beginning their decline. Cable networks like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network premiered which either aired cartoons much or all of the time making programming blocks for syndication to appeal to advertisers obsolete. Further, the focus of children shifted as video games, which could be played any time and provided instant gratification, became the past time of choice (which also heralded a sharp decline in the toy market). Still, the Saturday morning cartoon limped on.
ABC, CBS, and NBC largely abandoned their animated programming blocks as Kids WB began shifting over to Cartoon Network. Fox largely had the last game in town as 4Kids Entertainment, who dubbed popular series like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh!, won a bid to take over the network’s children’s programming. In 2002, Fox Kids became Fox Box which later became 4Kids TV. Again, dubbed and edited anime became the most likely source of content (edits historically drawing a great deal of criticism from preexisting fans of those series licensed). Power Rangers wouldn’t join along for the ride as while 2002’s Power Rangers Wild Force was being produced, the franchise was bought by Disney which was made the crown jewel of the rather weak ABC Kids Saturday block, accompanied mostly with reruns of Disney Channel shows (4Kids would dub Ultraman Tiga likely in an attempt to make-up for the loss).
The CW would put the final bullet in the head of Kids WB (which was a second fiddle to Cartoon Network) in 2007 leading to 4Kids to jump to CW with CW4Kids (and then to Toonzai, arguably to draw parallels to Toonami). 4Kids maintained its anime content and tried to renew interest in the Masked Rider franchise with Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight. In 2011, 4Kids would file for bankruptcy which led to Saban Brands (who bought back Power Rangers in 2010) acquiring all of the company’s properties save Yu-Gi-Oh! (which went to a subsidiary of Konami). Included in the deal was 4Kids’ slot on the CW on Saturday mornings which gave rise to Vortexx. From Toonzai, Vortexx would keep Sonic X, Dragon Ball Z Kai, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal, and Cubix: Robots for Everyone as well as later bring back The Spectacular Spider-Man. Reruns of popular series like Justice League Unlimited and Power Rangers Lost Galaxy were aired, new series WWE Saturday Morning Slam and Digimon Fusion emerged, and Sendokai Champions was slated for the future. A future we now know will never come.