Every Saturday morning at least one out of every three commercial minutes available on the three television networks is used to extol the virtues of ready-to-eat cereals.
Breakfast-food companies spend about 90 percent of their total advertising budgets on TV and, says one network executive, “You might say they invented Saturday morning.”
The demand for time is now so heavy that more and more sponsored programming is spilling over into Sunday morning, once almost exclusively devoted to religious programs, documentaries on soil conservation, and other such profitless affairs.
The needs of advertisers, for better or worse, have shaped not only the commercial messages but the program content as well. The influence of the cereal companies, however, actually seems to have raised the level of programming on occasion; a case can be made to support the view that the Bullwinkle Show, on which General Mills has relied heavily and successfully for the past eight years to sell Cheerios, has been one of the funniest and most creative series in the history of the medium. (Bullwinkle is that moose at the right.)
Producer Jay Ward and his principal accomplice, Bill Scott, have rewarded pun collectors with episodes entitled “The show must go on, or give ’em the acts,” “All in fever say aye, or the emotion is carried,” and “Transatlantic chicken, or hens across the sea.” For warmth, wit, and imaginative nonsense, the carryings-on of Yogi Bear (long identified with Kellogg) cannot be far behind.
General Mills controls 350 half-hours of Bullwinkle in the US and has been rerunning them in the belief that new crops of children keep coming into the market even as the older crop turns away from it. Instead of a turnover in material, that is, General Mills has capitalized on the audience turnover.
This tactic worked for many years, but there seems to be a limit. These days, Bullwinkle is relegated to Sunday morning and Yogi Bear has been dropped from network schedules. Humor, it turns out, is out. Such shows have not held up against the likes of Aquaman (below) and a rash of other adventure cartoons.
ABC and NBC started the trend away from classic animal humor two seasons ago when they came out with The Beatles and Atom Ant (above), respectively. Then, last year, CBS introduced seven new shows on Saturday morning, four of them “realistic” adventure shows, and quickly ran away with the ratings.
Those kids and their parents who might regret the loss of Yogi and the weakening of Bullwinkle cannot hold the cereal companies alone accountable. So great is the demand for time and so central in the networks’ thinking are the ratings that sponsors have nowhere near the power they once had to influence program content.
Indeed, the cereal companies cannot even insist on the protection they were once granted almost automatically. “ABC and NBC will advertise two competing cereals per half hour,” says one agency media man, “and CBS is willing to put three cereals into a half hour, promising only that the very next spot won’t be a competing product.”
The production team of Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, who created Yogi Bear, have adjusted to the change. Hanna-Barbera Productions, bought by Taft Broadcasting Co. last year for $12 million, now has almost half the cartoon shows on the networks on Saturday morning. Six are new this season, none of these straight humor.
Jay Ward has just three, and only one of them is new: George of the Jungle, a dopey Tarzan-type who swings on vines and unerringly collides with large trees. Says Ward: “If we were just coming out with Bullwinkle today, we couldn’t get it on the air.”