One hour weekday block to launch with Bill Leff, plus three hours on Saturday mornings
On the same day Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the Peanuts gang packed up their bags and headed to Apple TV’s streaming service, there was another announcement – one returning classic Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons back to broadcast television.
Weigel Broadcasting’s MeTV announced Monday it is launching an hour-long strip of cartoon fare weekday mornings in a yet-to-determined time slot titled Toon In with Me beginning in January. The block is being hosted by Chicago radio veteran Bill Leff, who worked at WGN-AM, WLUP-FM, and other radio stations and is also a stand-up comic, with experience at Second City. He’ll be joined by Kevin Fleming, whose credits include writer of several animated shows on Cartoon Network, and Lelia Gorstein, who co-wrote and appeared in the film Love Dump.
In addition, MeTV is also adding a three-hour Saturday morning block of cartoons also starting in early 2021, but will not have hosts.
“Toon In With Me will evoke the hosted children’s shows of decades past, blending nostalgia, fun, charm, comedy and cartoons, reimagined with new, original, live-action characters,” said vice chairman of Weigel Broadcasting Neal Sabin. “It all adds up to a new program for viewers of all ages, ready to share the fun and positive energy together weekday mornings.” Original live-action sketches featuring Leff, Fleming, Gorstein, and others are being planned for the show to serve as interstitials.
In fact, Leff said he watched those children’s shows of years past growing up in Chicago as he told Robert Feder, citing Chicago hosts Bill Jackson and Ray Rayner as influences, the latter doing a similar show for WGN-TV from 1962 until his retirement on January 23, 1981.
The return of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies marks the first time any Warner Bros. cartoon material has aired on broadcast network television since The Bugs Bunny & Tweety Show left ABC in 2000, a long time Saturday morning staple on the network and CBS. In addition, the MGM shorts featuring Tom & Jerry, Droopy Dog, and the Tex Avery catalog will also appear on Toon In. These were a part of the Tom & Jerry Show, which ran on CBS from 1965 to 1972 (in edited form), and subsequently in syndication for about two decades.
In September 2019, MeTV brought The Flintstones back to broadcast after a 25-year hiatus and has been a major success.
Children’s cartoons and animated fare were a big business for independent stations and syndicators, practically printing money for them as late as the early 1990s when The Disney Afternoon and Fox Kids had afternoon kids blocks. But changes came in the mid-1990s when The WB (Kids’ WB) and UPN formed and had their own blocks, practically eliminating the kids’ syndication business. With more kids shifting away to cable amid other alternatives, by 1999 local Fox affiliate execs were asking the network to drop Fox Kids because it was no longer profitable for them, finally doing so in 2001 while Kids’ WB weekday block ended in 2006.
Saturday mornings were also a huge profit center for the three major networks from the 1960s through the 1980s with Fox Kids joining the race in 1990, later joined by Kids WB. But the arrival of the FCC’s mandatory three-hour E/I rules and a shifting children’s TV landscape decimated the business as the major networks and local stations found running news shows and paid programming became more profitable. The shift started in the late 1980s, when a few NBC affiliates started pre-empting the network’s Saturday morning block for local news, a key in forcing the network out of the Saturday morning cartoon business in 1992 by expanding Today, although some teen-oriented shows remained. CBS followed suit in 1997 and ABC in 2011, though by that time, was airing mainly live-action repeats of Disney Channel sitcoms.
Even the long-running and cherished Bozo Show succumbed to these changes, becoming a Sunday-only show in 1994 and was revamped three years later to make it more educational-friendly in a move criticized by viewers. WGN pulled the plug in 2001.
It’ll be interesting to see if Toon In works. While not really targeted only to kids per se – basically Boomers and Gen Xers who grew up watching this fare wanting to relieve their youth, it is a nice respite from the depressing news of the day and infomercials on other channels, even if it’s only an hour every weekday.