Christopher P. Lehman
January 6, 2020 posted by Christopher Lehman

The End of Theatricals on Network Television

In the year 2000, the ABC Television Network cancelled its Saturday morning broadcasts of old theatrical “Bugs Bunny” cartoons, which had aired on either ABC or CBS since 1960. It was sad to see Bugs leave Saturday morning but not surprising. Disney bought ABC a few years earlier. Bugs’s cartoons were not Disney properties, and Disney certainly had its own animated stars to promote on ABC.

Still, it was the end of an era that went all the way back to 1953, when CBS began airing old theatrical cartoons from the Terrytoons Studio. ABC followed suit the following year with broadcasts of Disney cartoons. By the end of the 1950s, ABC also aired Walter Lantz’s films and Famous Studios’s cartoons.

The 1965-66 season was the peak of network broadcasts of theatricals. MGM’s “Tom and Jerry,” Warner Brothers’ “Porky Pig” and “Bugs Bunny,” Terrytoons’ “Mighty Mouse,” Paramount’s “Modern Madcaps,” and Disney fare all appeared on the “big three.” Within five years, however, Saturday morning programming was overrun by cheaply produced cartoons starring superheroes, rock musicians, and teenagers. The old characters were too violent, too, according to parental critics of children’s programming.

After the 1960s “Bugs Bunny” remained the mainstay while more packages of theatricals came and went through the networks. “Pink Panther” was one of the last successful theatrical stars to successfully transition to the small box, airing from 1969 to 1979. However, the distinction of the last new network program of old theatricals belongs to The Daffy-Speedy Show, which aired on NBC from 1981 to 1983. After 1983, any theatrical stars would appear only in new animation for network television, as in CBS’s Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures. The only places for the old theatrical cartoons were either local stations for syndication and cable networks, except for ABC’s The Bugs and Tweety Show.

So, as 2020 begins, remember it’s been 20 years since theatricals were on weekly network television. Here’s a little tribute to the way it once was:


  • In Australia, the Kids WB programming block that runs from 7 to 12 on Saturday and Sunday mornings has always kicked off with a half hour of so-called “Classic Looney Tunes”. Unfortunately it has a strong bias towards the DFE and 7 Arts productions of the sixties, with their horrid Bill Lava musical scores. Worse yet, they often cut to commercials in the middle of a cartoon! There’s no excuse for that.

    On the plus side, they do air some legitimate classics, which are never cut for content. “Ballot Box Bunny” and “Bugs and Thugs” are shown with the firearms gags intact, and even in recent years I have seen McKimson’s “Bushy Hare”, featuring the Aboriginal Australian “Nature Boy”.

    The Kids WB format went on hiatus in mid-December, presumably to give the hosts a break for the summer holidays. If it doesn’t resume after Australia Day at the end of this month, then, what with all of these cartoons readily available on home video, the Internet or streaming services, I can’t say I’ll miss it much.

  • While it was sad in a way to see Bugs Bunny (and all classic cartoons) disappear from network TV, never forget the last ever ABC broadcast in 2000 contained their censored version of “The Grey-Hounded Hare”, which had a whole 30 seconds inexplicably excised; so now it looks as though the dog created a smoking crater after falling from the sky rather than blowing up from Bugs’ dynamite. Even though network censorship didn’t ultimately curse all copies of the Warner cartoons, it did render them unrecognizable and remove the artists’ credits for decades. And, never forget that CBS’s early hatchet jobs on the Terrytoons have resulted in thirty seconds to two minutes missing in the available surviving copies of all the black-and-white cartoons. We can be grateful for the childhood nostalgia of the fun openings and bumpers, and that they didn’t permanently affect all classic cartoon libraries.

    • The last episode also accidentally stuck a commercial in the middle of “Guided Muscle”.

      While the show’s ratings were still decent enough to justify keeping it on the air, it was pretty clear by 2000 that Disney wanted to promote Disney-owned animation efforts — my only surprise was that Cartoon Network didn’t pick up the show at least for a Sunday or late night time spot, especially if all the original color bridging segments do exist in the Warner’s vaults or as WB properties overseas.

  • When I was growing up in Puerto Rico in the ’70s and ’80s, they showed all the theatrical cartoons dubbed in Spanish. Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry and UPA were my favorites. (they even showed Rooty Toot Toot and The Tell-Tale Heart, despite being more adult.) It wasn’t until I got cable in the mid eighties that I got to see them in the original English, including the Disney shorts on the Disney Channel. Nowadays, networks won’t show anything older than five years ago, and I think our culture has lost something because of this.

    On a side note, I’m interested on reading about the history of Disney shorts on network television. I am aware of cartoons shown on the Mickey Mouse Club and Wonderful World of Disney anthology shows, and I’ve already mentioned the Disney Channel, but I’d like to know what else was there.

  • I seem to recall that, by this time, local stations had already replaced old theatricals with new and off-network syndicated shows. At least part of this was due to Ted Turner consolidating ownership of the Looney Tunes and some other popular staples for his own cable channels. Also, the syndicated stuff was pre-censored, pre-packaged, and usually pre-sold by merchandising and promotion.

    Other vaults evidently gathered dust, although I recall a Nickelodeon show featuring pre-UPA Columbia shorts. And B&W was, by the 60s, essentially worthless to stations broadcasting in color.

    As for Disney toons, my late boomer memory is that they almost never appeared intact off a theater screen. The weekly hour show edited them together, replacing opening and closing titles with new bridging animation and/or a host, usually Uncle Walt or Ludwig Von Drake. Later, the syndicated “Mouse Factory” maintained the formula with guest hosts connecting themed clips.

    MMC would follow the model of other network cartoon shows and replace original titles and credits with generic cards. Thought: Was this to discourage snipping the cartoons out of the television shows for other use? I understand many shows were distributed to stations as 16mm prints, which were often intercepted en route to the dumpster.

    Disney shorts were never sold or licensed on their own to either network or local television — at least in America, to my knowledge. Some could be rented in 16mm or bought in 8mm, but that was it until the Disney Channel and home video.

  • I remember that bizarre Porky Pig show from when I was a kid. It was a Warner Bros production, right? The characters are way off model. Yosemite Sam looks to be the same size as Tweety, and in one scene, it looks like Porky towers over Foghorn Leghorn!

    • Farmed out to Hal Seeger’s studio in NY, animated by Fleischer/Famous legend Myron Waldman. I guess WB gave them the comic book models, with no size comparisons.

    • In a strange way, the Porky Pig opening is charmingly off-model. Yes, the animation is pretty bad, the size-relations ratio is all wrong, but it’s very much a product of its time. The children in this could have been background characters in an issue of Little Lulu. It’s fun because it’s not desperately trying to be cool.

  • For the record, this is NOT the ORIGINAL music track for the opening theme of “Mighty Mouse Playhouse”. This was used only in the 1965-66 season (the show’s eleventh on the Big Eye).

    The previous ten seasons had the show’s theme opening with a drum roll, not the “reverse pyramid” chord sung by a male quintet. The opening was processed in black-and-white, as CBS had prety much stopped its limited colorcast by 1959,

  • “So, as 2020 begins, remember it’s been 20 years since theatricals were on weekly network television.”
    Well, not quite. I recall that during some occasional episodes of ABC’s “The House of Mouse” (2001-03), they occasionally snuck in a classic theatrical short in additional to the TV cartoons. I recall a February 2002 episode where they showed “Mickey and the Seal” (1947) and I was quite surprised and amazed that they showed it that morning which would be the only bright spot that day when I found out Chuck Jones had died.
    Also, I’m pretty sure the main reason ABC dropped “The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show” was because Cartoon Network was getting the exclusive TV rights of Looney Tunes which turned out to be an ill-advised move later on

    • Yeah, that’s what I recall too. Disney would’ve been happy to keep BB&T on, as I believe it was still pulling in the ratings. But Warner pulled it, Looney Tunes on Nickelodeon (which was still being given primo time slots, so its numbers must’ve still also been good), and anything that was still remaining on TBS, TNT and Kids’ WB for the Cartoon Network airing. It was a terrible idea, I thought; by doing that it greatly limited the cartoons’ exposure to new generations and pretty much assured their falling from viewers’ minds.

      And of course, it wasn’t too long before Cartoon Network cut back on the hours it turned over to Looney Tunes and eventually pulled them altogether. They’ve been dumped on the ultra-obscure Boomerang channel, and WB still refuses to license them to anyone else. With the boom of nostalgia-themed diginets in recent years, you’d think a one-hour Looney Tunes block on a Saturday morning or something would be a hit. But WB seems content to let the classics wither.

    • Good point. If Disney wanted Bugs gone, they would have cancelled it as soon as they bought the network.

  • Sorry for the late post but I’m happy to report that theatricals are still on the network, waay over here, in the People’s Republic of China. Golden Age shorts are being broadcasted regularly on the state-run China Central Television and some local child-oriented channels such as Kaku (Beijing). Tom & Jerry series is most popular, owing to absence of dialog,

    I, as a millennial born in Sep. 2000, was introduced to Warner Bros shorts while receiving intravenous injection for pneumonia at a local clinic. Titles dubbed into Mandarin include “Baseball Bugs” and “Rabbit of Seville”, to name a few. “Bugs Bunny” itself was rhymed to Chinese “Tu Ba-ge 兔巴哥”, translated as “Brother Rabbit”.

    I guess few of the guys from Termite Terrance would have envisioned their legacy living on in a completely different time-space, devoid of any understanding of the underlying gags, English puns or 40s/50s American cultural references, but still managing to capture the curiosity of complete outsiders like me.

    Oh well.

    • No offense, but you’re Gen Z actually.

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