Imagine If... | USA Cartoon Express Was Still On The Air in the 21st Century

Originally Posted by Jeff Harris

Actual Events: From 1981 until 1998, the USA Cartoon Express was the premiere animation block on cable television, airing at 6 PM EST on weeknights and dominating Sunday mornings in the 80s and the early 1990s on the USA Network. It was the home of cartoons from nearly every major North American animation company, including Hanna-Barbera, DiC, Saban, Filmation, Nelvana, Toei, Marvel, Graz, Viacom, Film Roman, Universal, and even Disney. The only things they never showed were Looney Tunes, MGM, and Disney shorts and their derivatives.

The Cartoon Express was the home to everything Hanna-Barbera's classic stable of superstars (including Scooby-Doo, preventing Cartoon Network from airing the series for two years), Transformers, He-Man, Voltron, Robotech, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, G.I. Joe, Superfriends, Terrytoons, Harveytoons, The Real Ghostbusters, Mighty Max, Jem, Gargoyles, Sailor Moon, Denver The Last Dinosaur, Sonic SatAM, heck, nearly every show from the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s had a place aboard the Express in its 17-year history.

In 1998, after nearly two decades on the air, the USA Cartoon Express made its last trip around the station, and USA completely disassociated itself from animation and children's entertainment altogether,

2006 marks the silver anniversary of the USA Cartoon Express. The block, which is the longest-running animation block on the air today, has overcome many obstacles and internal competitions over the years, and yet, it remains one of the most-watched blocks on cable television.

And they owe a lot of it to Sailor Moon.

The USA Cartoon Express underwent a name change in the mid-90s to USA Action Xtreme Team focusing more on action rather than general animation. They picked up a lot of programming at the time, including Mighty Max, Gargoyles, and Sailor Moon. At the time, the afternoon lineup was dedicated to live-action "sitcoms" from Peter Engel, the guy who produced Saved By The Bell on NBC. That ran for two years until USA experimented with the lineup airing a week's worth of Sailor Moon in the afternoon. Surprisingly to the channel, the series had record ratings, which had executives at USA wondering if perhaps now was the right time to bring back the USA Cartoon Express to weekday afternoons. In fall 1998, USA cancelled the Action Xtreme Team morning block and reintroduced the USA Cartoon Express to weekday afternoons at 5 PM, making Sailor Moon the marquee property on the hour-long block. The show aired along with Mighty Max Mondays through Thursdays and Gargoyles on Fridays with great success every week. In January 1999, USA lost the rights to Gargoyles after Disney launched their Toon Disney channel in April of that year. So, they looked to inspiration from Sailor Moon and picked up what they felt was the male equivalent of Sailor Moon - - Dragon Ball Z.

Dragon Ball Z was already on Cartoon Network's Toonami block in 1999, but they only had the broadcast rights to the first two syndicated seasons. USA outbid Cartoon Network for the rights to broadcast new episodes of the series, completely dominating the 5 PM hour. In 2000, USA expanded the Cartoon Express by an hour and launching a three-hour Sunday morning version of the block beginning at 9 AM, adding ReBoot, Transformers: Beast Wars, Casper, and The Woody Woodpecker Show, which was USA's first original animated series in years. Newly dubbed episodes of Sailor Moon also began in Spring 2000. The series continued on the USA Cartoon Express until 2003 when its contract was expired. Dragon Ball Z remained until January 2005 while Dragon Ball, an acquisition back in 2001, continued to air on a weekly basis to this day, as did the 2004 acquisition of Dragon Ball GT.

USA Cartoon Express moved towards original productions and acquired programming as the years moved on, airing comedic shows like Woody Woodpecker, a new cycle of Rocky and Bullwinkle, and Being Ian as well as action/adventure shows like Totally Spies, Astro Boy, and Class of the Titans.

USA formed an alliance with Corus Entertainment after NBC Universal, USA's owners, became the company's US syndicators for its live-action and animated properties in 2005. Together, USA and Corus announced plans to create an American version of Teletoon launching in January 2007, though they maintained that the Cartoon Express would remain on the USA lineup until at least 2011, in time for the block's 30th anniversary. In the same media event, USA announced the preproduction of numerous international productions including an animated version of Sci-Fi's relaunched Battlestar Galactica chronicling the events that took place before the beginning of the series and a younger Adama and the official announcement of the rumored relaunch of Sailor Moon, Sailor Moon: The Venus Chronicles, which focuses on the solo adventures of the enigmic, yet popular Sailor V.

The train may have been updated, but the Cartoon Express continues to chug along to the surprise and delight of the network that almost cancelled it, USA.

Back to reality: It's gone. And it's never coming back.

USA, and its sibling station Sci-Fi, abandoned animation by 1999. The last version of the USA Cartoon Express, which was then called USA Action Xtreme Team due to its focus on action properties like Sailor Moon, Exo-Squad, Gargoyles, and Mighty Max, aired in May 1998. A few weeks later, Sailor Moon moved exclusively to Cartoon Network's Toonami, shifting that block in a new direction and generating higher ratings than ever before. With the end of the Cartoon Express, USA, like so many other basic networks, conceded defeat to Fox Kids, Kids' WB!, The Family Channel, Disney Channel (which slowly became a basic cable channel by this period), Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon for the hearts and minds of the nation's youth.

Regardless, USA had become the most-watched cable network in the country, building itself up on off-network reruns, particularly the Law and Order SVU and Criminal Intent franchises and House, M.D., original programming like Monk, The Dead Zone, The 4400, and Psych, and the returning WWE Monday Night Raw. Does USA need animation? Not really, although the late afternoon hours, which used to be dominated by the USA Cartoon Express in the 80s to mid-90s, is among the lowest-rated period on the network. With limited choices in programming on Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon, USA could take advantage by offering up something different for younger audiences, especially if they could get programming from independent studios like DiC, Nelvana, and Entertainment Rights/Classic Media.

You can't really proclaim "Characters welcome" if you don't welcome animated ones.

See what's next to imagine.


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