The USA Cartoon Express is a programming block consisting of animated children's series which has aired on the USA Network since September 21, 1982. Cartoon Express has the distinction fo being the first structured animation block on cable television, predating Nickelodeon's Nicktoons and Cartoon Network by a decade.
In September 1982, USA Cartoon Express was announced by USA as one of six new shows on its fall schedule. The Express originally aired during the early evening hours, replacing a prior block called Calliope which continued to air on Sunday mornings until 1993. Eventually, a "Sunday Cartoon Express" would debut that took up the full Sunday morning. Curt Chaplin served as the unseen "Cartoon Announcer", providing voice-overs for the block's opening, closing and commercial bumpers, continuing in this role until 1992.
The initial lineup consisted mostly of series from the Hanna-Barbera library. Well-known properties like Scooby-Doo, Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, Space Ghost, The Smurfs, and Jonny Quest shared space with lesser-known properties like Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch, Inch High, Private Eye, Dynomutt, Dog Wonder, and countless others, as well as numerous spinoffs of The Flintstones such as The Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show.
By the end of the 1980s, more cartoons aired on the Cartoon Express, including Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Jem, G.I. Joe, and The Real Ghostbusters.
In 1991, Cartoon Express premiered Voltron and Denver, the Last Dinosaur, two series from World Events Productions. In October, Turner Broadcasting purchased Hanna-Barbera and launched Cartoon Network one year later, thus taking a chunk of Cartoon Express programming with it. The only Hanna-Barbera shows on the Cartoon Express afterwards were The Smurfs and Scooby-Doo, which left the Express in 1993 and 1994 respectively.
In the summer of 1993, Cartoon Express paired Denver, the Last Dinosaur with the new series Dinosaucers to capitalize on the popularity of Jurassic Park. In the fall, Cartoon Express introduced two original series, Itsy Bitsy Spider and Problem Child (based on the film franchise); both failed to catch on with viewers. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became the new marquee series on the block, and USA also acquired the broadcast rights to Terrytoons shorts like Deputy Dawg and Mighty Mouse. From 1994 to 1995, several DIC Entertainment series were shown on Cartoon Express.
In 1995, USA Network premiered USA Action Extreme Team with the launch of shows based on the Wing Commander Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat video game franchises and Savage Dragon comic book franchise; it initially aired only on Sunday mornings. The 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 one year earlier, in April 1998. 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 then announced a deal with Cartoon Network, which would have the two networks simulcast 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 and also aired on Fox Kids for non-cable viewers. Newly dubbed episodes of Sailor Moon S also began on Toonami and the Cartoon Express 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, which USA and CN acquired back in 2001, continued to air on a weekly basis to this day, as did the 2004 CN/USA 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 WarnerNBC, USA's owners, became the company's US syndicators for its live-action and animated properties in 2005. Together, USA and Corus 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, named Sailor Moon Crystal, a more faithful anime adaptation of the manga.
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.