Feeling nostalgic, I flipped around the network channels this morning looking for cartoons. The pickings were very lean. ABC had a lineup for of live-action programs from their Disney Channel tween brand, and CW had reboots of 90s shows like "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Sonic the Hedgehog," plus some dubbed Japanese imports. CBS and PBS seemed to have the best programming blocks, with cartoons aimed at toddlers, including ones based on the "Babar" and "Curious George" books. But try as I might, I couldn't find any sign of Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Tom and Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, Popeye, or any of the cartoons I had grown up with as a kid.
The classic theatricals shorts of the 30s, 40s, and 50s were all over the cartoon broadcast landscape in the 80s, and I remember them being around well into the 90s when I was babysitting younger cousins. They would constantly be moved around on the schedules to fill in gaps, were rebranded and repackaged year after year, but they were always around. I never thought anything of the fact that they were the same cartoons my parents hand watched when they were first broadcast in the 50s, back when television content was scarce and bundling old Warners and Disney shorts into programs like "The Bugs Bunny Show" and "The Mickey Mouse Club" was a novel idea.
It's a rude shock to realize not only that they're gone from our television sets, but how long they've been gone. "The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show," which I can't remember ever not being part of the ABC Saturday morning cartoon block, ended back in 2000 when the Cartoon Network assumed control of all broadcast rights to the Warners cartoons. Since then, it appears they've largely vanished from the Cartoon Network schedules, aside from special holiday marathons and the occasional late night filler. I've had a harder time finding out why the Disney shorts disappeared, but from my own recollection they retired from syndication a little earlier than the Looney Tunes but never showed up regularly on The Disney Channel or any other affiliated stations. As a result, kids these days don't know Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny - not the way we know them.
Since the Warners and Disney characters were such iconic figures for several generations of kids, and have been a merchandising staple for so long, I can't understand why the companies would let them fall out of the public consciousness like this. I know there have been several attempts to revive the characters through new shows. Disney gave us "Mickey Mouse Works" in 1999 with updated versions of Mickey, Donald, and all the rest. The cartoons weren't bad, but they were hardly substitutes for the classics. Warners' attempts were more wince-inducing, including the feature films "Space Jam," and "Looney Tunes: Back in Action," and the notorious "Loonatics Unleashed" in 2004, that tried to reboot Bugs and Daffy as anime-inspired action heroes.
Warners is trying again with a new "Looney Toons" show set to premiere on the Cartoon Network in the fall. It's also prepping new shorts to run theatrically, featuring CGI versions of the familiar characters. Disney, on the other hand, appears to have halted their efforts for now. They did manage one successful rebranding venture with the preschooler series "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse," which is still airing on the Disney Channel. Otherwise, they’ve turned their attention to newly acquired characters like Jim Henson's Muppets and the characters from the Marvel Comics library. As Disney blogger Wade Sampson pointed out a few years ago, you no longer see the company treating Mickey as a major draw or trying to capitalize on his renown.
And yet no one has tried to put the original cartoons back on the air where a new generation can discover them again. Sure, the bulk of the old shorts have been collected into convenient DVD box sets for the public to buy and view at their own convenience, but it's not the same. There's something about waking up at six in the morning on a rainy Saturday, feeling lower than an ant's toenail, and being able to sneak over to the living room couch to watch Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner go at it for a few rounds, to make yourself giggle a bit and feel better again. Alas, those two may have been what got the Looney Tunes kicked off the air to begin with.
In the 80s and 90s, cartoon violence became a political topic, and Peggy Charren's Children's Television Act ushered in mandates for three hours of educational/information (E/I) programming to be shown each week on major stations. New controversies cropped up over stereotyping in the "Looney Tunes," including the claim that Speedy Gonzales was an inappropriate depiction of Mexicans. This isn't surprising considering the age of the shorts, and the fact that they were originally created for general audiences, not just children. Times have changed, and cultural standards and mores have changed with them. Parents are more worried about media content now, and new sensitivities have emerged. If the shorts were to return to broadcast, even in the heavily edited forms that people my age are familiar with, surely the old criticisms would follow.
There's no getting around it. The cartoons of my childhood are gone because this time and this age no longer have a place for them. Maybe things will change, and they'll find a new home – maybe on the content-starved web somewhere – and a new generation can grow up with them.
Until then, Bugs and Mickey, take care and thanks for all the laughs. We had a great run.