Tom Ruegger, the creator of the TV show Animaniacs, held an “Ask Me Anything” discussion on Reddit a few days ago in which he attributed the end of WB cartoons to the success of Pokemon:
Q: What caused the end of these WB cartoons? Did Steven Spielberg or the WB decide not to be involved anymore?
A: Kids’ WB was handed Pokemon for free and it pulled down big numbers — so then they wanted everything for free.
Pokemon was the first anime to air on WB after it moved to the network from UPN. It of course saw huge ratings, which lead the network to importing more anime shows, such as Cardcaptors, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Astro Boy, and Megaman. Kids’ WB aired the shows for cheap and reaped a ton of money from them, which removed the incentive to invest in original content like Animaniacs. (Why spend money making new shows in America when you can import them for cheap from other countries? Ah, globalization!)
Children’s programming blocks were also declining in the ’90s due to a variety of factors. In 1990 and then again in 1996, stricter FCC regulations were put into place that demanded stronger educational content from children’s programming. This is why we had “Sailor Moon Says” during Sailor Moon – to make it more “educational” and easier to air under FCC regulations.
The FCC also banned tie-in advertising from children’s programming in the ’90s, which cut off the main source of revenue most cartoons had enjoyed until that point. This is why you have never seen a Pokemon commercial during a Pokemon episode or an actual Yu-Gi-Oh card in a Yu-Gi-Oh episode – it’s illegal to use children’s shows to directly advertise your products to kids (though of course the mere existence of a Pokemon show to advertise the franchise doesn’t count). And of course networks can still advertise Pokemon commercials, just not during an actual episode of Pokemon (since it turns the whole show into an advertisement).
The decline of children’s programming blocks in the ’90s was also due to the availability of VHS tapes and cable networks to watch cartoons whenever you wanted (just like the decline of TV today due to the Internet), an increase in after-school and weekend activities for children, and the increasing legalization of no-fault divorces in the ’70s and ’80s throughout the United States, which caused a spike in divorce rates and lead parents to spending any free time with their kids (“turn off the TV, son, let’s go to Disneyland – I love you more than your mom!”).
At least this is what they taught me in film school… $150,000 in debt later. :p