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The real reason these popular '90s cartoons were canceled

The '90s were a golden age of television animation. There were, suddenly, more places to watch cartoons than at any other point in TV history: Dedicated kids channels like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon sprang into life, broadcast networks still aired cartoons on Saturday mornings, and after-school animation blocks like Fox Kids reigned supreme. Darkwing Duck, Tiny Toon Adventures, X-Men: The Animated SeriesThe Powerpuff Girls – there was a cartoon out there for everyone.

But like the rest of television, the realm of kiddie cartoons was a business — and a competitive one at that. There was a profit to be made from selling advertising on all those shows, churning out merchandise, and expanding into movie and video games. Networks, executives, and animators had to make tough decisions about what cartoons to keep, and what cartoons to kill. Many animated series, as a result, seemed to die early, much to the confusion of fans. Here are the reasons behind a few of those still-controversial cancellations.

Beavis and Butt-Head ran its course

Beavis and Butt-Head was a cultural phenomenon. After debuting on MTV in 1993, millions of kids and adults watched the two giggling, moronic metalheads determine what bands were "cool" and which "sucked," when they weren't terrorizing their neighbors, teachers, and Burger World customers. Not everybody liked Beavis and Butt-Head, of course: Politicians called out the show for encouraging antisocial behavior, and one family blamed Beavis's pyromania for leading to a deadly house fire. Nothing, however, stuck. Beavis and Butt-Head were the world's favorite idiots.

After 200 episodes and the big-screen Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, creator (and voice of both main characters) Mike Judge decided it was time to end it. "I actually wanted to stop a little sooner," he told the Los Angeles Times. "After the second season, I thought, 'How are we gonna do this anymore?' I was completely burned out." Judge stuck around for seven seasons, but in 1997 moved on to other projects, like his Fox animated series King of the Hill.

Pikachu killed Animaniacs

While most 1990s cartoons were ostensibly made with children in mind, some shows were so clever, referential, and sly that adults could absolutely love them as well. Perhaps no "kids" show was more popular with adults than Animaniacs, which follows the adventures of Yakko, Wakko, and Dot Warner, three old-timey cartoon characters more or less imprisoned in the water tower on the Warner Bros. movie lot. The Warner siblings satirize cartoon tropes while being completely self-aware, offering up innuendo-laced dialogue (followed by Yakko's catchphrase, "Goodnight, everybody!") and biting social commentary (episodes were given a point as an afterthought via "The Wheel of Morality"). 

Animanaics ran for five seasons and spun off its most popular side characters (laboratory mice Pinky and the Brain) before Kids WB killed the show in 1998. According to creator Tom Ruegger, the end came due to a definitively just-for-kids show and a very adult business decision. You see, Kids WB had acquired, very cheaply, the rights to a Japanese anime series with massive commercial potential. "Kids WB was handed Pokémon for free and it pulled down big numbers," Ruegger said in a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" Session, "so then they wanted everything for free." Animaniacs cost WB too much money to make and promote, so off it went.

Spawn didn't spawn other hits for HBO

To the majority of people, Todd McFarlane's Spawn looked like a show for kids. After all, this was 1997, when most animated content was produced for a juvenile audience. Plus, it was based on a popular comic, also widely considered a medium for kids and tweens. But Spawn was based off Todd McFarlane's top-selling comic series, an extremely dark and violent story about a former assassin who gets murdered, sent to Hell, and ends up working for Satan. Spawn wasn't anything anyone was ever intending to air between Totally Spies and Pokemon — as such, the cartoon adaptation was produced by HBO and aired late at night.

Spawn ran for three seasons and won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program. Spawn's third season was a bust, however, and HBO's animation division was withering on the vine. After enduring numerous production difficulties, the show earned a quiet cancellation in 1999. Thus ended Todd McFarlane's Spawn — well, until a Spawn reboot, anyway.

Batman: The Animated Series ended before it could decline

The first show focused on the Caped Crusader since cornball classic Batman left the air in 1968, Batman: The Animated Series represented a breakthrough in television animation and comic adaptation. Moody, quiet, and literally dark, it demonstrated that there was a market for dramatic superhero content that could appeal to children and adults. This Batman was so highly regarded that Fox aired the show in prime time for a while, and in 1993, released Batman: Mask of the Phantasm in theaters. Voice actor Kevin Conroy even tops lists of the best Batman actors

In other words, Batman: The Animated Series was really good and nobody wanted to mess that up. But in 1995, after three years and 85 episodes, the series left the air. "They didn't stop making the shows because the audience wasn't there or the actors weren't there, they stopped, really, because the creators ran out of ideas for stories," Conroy revealed in 2018. "And they didn't want to compromise on the quality of what they had and start creating kind of silly stories." A wise decision for all involved — seeing this particular Batman jump the shark would have been truly devastating.

A Fox executive just didn't like The Critic

The Critic is an animated sitcom about a snobby, hapless New York City movie reviewer named Jay Sherman. He hates most movies he sees (Hollywood claptrap satirized in brief clips on his show, Coming Attractions), tries to raise his son as best he can, and fends off his wacky family. "We did it for ABC, and ABC goes, 'We love it!' And then they cancelled it after seven shows," Lovitz, the voice of Jay, told The AV Club. Thus it moved over to Fox and aired immediately after The Simpsons, where creators Al Jean and Mike Reiss had worked as writers and show runners. 

According to Lovitz, The Critic brought in excellent ratings for Fox, retaining 90 percent of the huge Simpsons audience. And yet, in 1994, Fox pulled the plug. Despite a solid performance, an executive at the network thought the 8:30 p.m. Sunday time slot could be better utilized by taking a chance on a new show. "The guy who ran the network then, John Matoian, just didn't like the show," Jean told UGO. "He preferred a show that no one remembers called House of Buggin' with John Leguizamo." That sketch comedy show debuted in early 1995 in place of The Critic, and lasted a mere 10 episodes.

Gargoyles wasn't popular enough for Disney

After four seasons of silly cartoons and wacky adventures, the syndicated Disney Afternoon programming block mixed things up, adding Gargoyles to its lineup in the fall of 1994. This contemplative and sometimes violent show (in which characters shed actual blood) is stylistically different from its Disney Afternoon predecessors, like Goof Troop, TaleSpin, and DuckTales. Similar in tone and approach to Batman: The Animated Series, Gargoyles concerns the day-to-day activities of magical beings who protect New York City at night. Unlike Batman, however, they are architectural gargoyles by day, imbued with the spirits of 1,000-year-old Scottish folk creatures. 

Gargoyles ran for three years and 78 episodes, and while that speaks to moderate popularity, creator Greg Weisman has said it was cancelled because it wasn't a mega-hit. "It didn't perform up to expectations," he said. "Disney really wanted it to outdo Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, and it failed to succeed at that."

The Angry Beavers went out in a blaze of glory

Angry Beavers tells the story of two beaver bachelors named Dag and Norb who live in an Oregon forest. By 2001, four seasons had aired and cancellation seemed imminent. "We were significantly over budget, behind schedule, and had generally worn out our welcome," co-creator Keith Kaczorek told Vice. Realizing that the end was near and any attempts to churn out high-quality episodes on the cheap and on time would be too little too late, Kaczorek and the rest of the Angry Beavers staff decided to go out on a blaze of glory. 

Kaczrorek and show staff writer Roger Eschbacher wrote a script for a series finale episode called "Bye Bye Beavers," an installment equal parts dark and meta. Dag and Norb come to realize that they are not real, but cartoons, and that their show is about to be canceled, which means they will cease to exist. Somehow, someway, Nickelodeon green lighted the script. "We got approval to do the episode, every step of the way," Angry Beavers writer Micah Wright told Vice. But when executives noticed all the jokes making fun of Nickelodeon, they reversed course. "They saw it all put together and said, 'Wait, this makes us look bad,' so they killed it," Wright explained. The script was never animated, but a recording of the show's voice actors reading it was made, which leaked online in 2006.

Not enough bros watched Dr. Katz

Upstart cable network Comedy Central spent most of the early 1990s as a dumping ground for pre-existing comedic material. Its daily lineup consisted largely of reruns of Saturday Night Live, The Kids in the Hall, and the original British version of Whose Line is it Anyway? By 1995, the channel was experimenting with original programming, and one of its first new shows was a low-budget animated series with largely improvised dialogue called Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist. Comedian Jonathan Katz voiced a therapist whose clients were all stand-up comedians, who'd lay on his couch and relate their neuroses (but were really just doing bits from their stage routines). He also had a lazy, adult son named Ben (voiced by future Archer and Bob's Burgers star H. Jon Benjamin) and attempted to have a social life.

Ironically, it's Dr. Katz's own success that led to its demise. The show helped put Comedy Central on the TV map, showing that the channel had a unique sensibility and was a home for animated TV. Two years after its debut, South Park debuted on Comedy Central and became a monster hit, particularly with young, male viewers. Dr. Katz attracted an older audience, and since it wasn't in the demographic that the now South Park-obsessed network was trying to lure, it got canceled.

NBC jettisoned all Saturday morning cartoons to make room for sports

With the arrival of child-friendly cable networks like Nickelodeon and the popularity of syndicated shows like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, the ratings for Saturday morning cartoons — once just about the only thing on TV for kids — had started to slip. NBC president Brandon Tartikoff analyzed the budgets and found that the average Saturday morning cartoon cost $300,000 to produce. Tartikoff and his team realized that it would be much cheaper to get rid of the cartoons in favor of news shows or sports. 

In 1991, NBC signed a long-term contract with Notre Dame to air the college's games on Saturday mornings. It cost the network about $1 million a game, which was still cheaper than programming six hours of cartoons every week, plus it could charge higher advertising rates for football than it could for kid stuff. In 1992, NBC did away with cartoons altogether in favor of a lineup of a Saturday edition of Today, football games, and a block of low-budget sitcoms like Saved by the Bell. That meant the entire 1991-1992 Saturday morning schedule was eliminated. Among these mass cancellations: Wish Kid (starring Macaulay Culkin), ProStars (in which Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, and Wayne Gretzky become superheroes), Yo Yogi! (a '90s update of Yogi Bear), and the Nintendo-themed Captain N and the New Super Mario World. Alas, poor cartoons — we never really got the chance to know you well.