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The Age of Prime Time Animation

Every network on TV seems to have a prime time cartoon thesedays. Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman explores some of the causativefactors behind this rush to the evening tube.

The Simpsons started it all. © Fox Broadcasting Company. All Rights Reserved.

The Age of Prime Time Animation has arrived with a vengeance, and the toons are set to take over our nights. Series such as The PJs, Dilbert, Futurama, Baby Blues, Home Movies, Family Guy, and The Downtowners are marching to our small screens in unprecedented numbers, and there are more purportedly in the works. Every network, it seems, wants to take a crack at an animated series, and this begs the questions: Is this a trend, a fad, a product of genuine audience demand, part of a cycle, or an act of enlightenment (or desperation, for that matter) by the networks? One thing is certain -- there is a set of causative factors behind this rush to prime time deserving of some exploration.

However, there is one caveat. This topic can only be explored, not explained. I have long ago concluded that television executives make their decisions based on some bizarre combination of studio politics, sponsor pressure, focus-group feedback, buzz, hype, spin, the conviction that the public's collective IQ hovers in the double-digit range and the recollection of any concept that has ever worked before. This might explain, say, The Secret Diaries of Desmond Pfeiffer. On the whole, the industry is as unpredictable as Marilyn Manson at a debutante ball. This holds even more true when decisions are made on the basis of "narrowcasting" to specifically designated, minutely defined demographic sectors.

The Stage Is Set

To no one's surprise but the network's, the public proved to be smarter than anyone had predicted. The 1998 network television season opened to great fanfare, but by mid-season, nearly half the offerings had gone unlamented to well-deserved graves, and old favorites were losing viewership as well. The Big Three [ABC, CBS, NBC] suffered in particular. They watched in dismay as cable stations and newer, independent networks stole a march on them, slight as it was. It was obvious to indies such as FOX, UPN, and WB that the same tired sitcoms, which consisted largely of put-downs and witless sexual innuendo, would not pull television into a new Golden Age, much less keep viewers entertained for long. One of their solutions was to try their luck with prime time animation. It now appears that this nostrum has turned into a major formula for success. Or so it is hoped...

This move was not as risky as it seemed; for one thing, prime time animation had begun to hold its own in the 1990s. There had been prior efforts, to be sure, but most of them failed miserably and are now long-forgotten by the general viewership. This decade was by far more auspicious for prime time animation due to several factors: a larger and more knowledgeable fan base, technical improvement of the medium, increased availability of overseas facilities, and a surfeit of both animators and the schools which were training them. In other words, there was a confluence between a multifaceted boom in animation and a decline in traditional TV viewing habits, creating a case of "prime" timing. The first meaningful shot was fired in 1990 when Matt Groening landed The Simpsons in prime time territory, but that shot was not truly felt until that show broke the prime time animation longevity record previously held by The Flintstones. A sponsor could now begin to trust a toon for the long run.

King of the Hill. © Fox Broadcasting Company. All Rights Reserved.

Big Gains

Of course, Homer and family were not alone; Mike Judge scored (huh-huh) a major hit with Beavis and Butthead, and this series birthed a prime time spinoff that commands a devoted following today -- Daria. Scarcely had Beavis and Butthead giggled over their last Def Leppard video when Judge struck again with King of the Hill. Comedy Central launched a popular, long-running show of it's own featuring Squigglevision superstar Dr. Katz, but truly broke the bank with Matt Stone and Trey Parker's South Park. Of all these series, South Park gave the greatest indication that a hot animated series could bring in ratings bigger than Colorado and earn more merchandising cash than a mountain of salty chocolate balls. Now that animation (after many years of consignment to Saturday morning backwaters) was seen as a lucrative draw, the inevitable happened.

The ratings game is a savage one, and once a new show goes down, it is typically consigned to the eternal halls of trivia. For many of the independent networks struggling for viewership, these losses are tough, expensive, and more than a bit humiliating. FOX in particular was hit hard in 1998 but soon realized that, in the words of a venerable old folkie, when you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose. FOX hired Doug Herzog (the astute honcho who brought Cartman and Co. to Comedy Central) as their entertainment chief and before one could say, "D'oh!" had committed to The PJs, Futurama, and Family Guy. One would think that with Disney at the helm ABC might be next to follow suit, but it was WB who jumped in with Baby Blues and The Downtowners. Next, UPN decided to let viewers toon in to Dilbert and Home Movies. If these seven new series are not enough for you, stay tooned. There are at least five more in the pipeline that may be coming to your small screen by next season.

The PJs. © Touchstone. All Rights Reserved.

So, to answer our original questions: We can call this a trend. There will be more animated prime time series in TV programming. We cannot truly call this a fad; that would be better applied to say, the "camp" live-action superhero programs, such as The Green Hornet, Captain Nice and Mr. Terrific, that aired in prime time following the success of Batman (1966) and then disappeared just as quickly. Animated series will prove far more enduring; the Cartoon Network proves that almost daily by punishing us with Scooby Doo in all of his seemingly endless permutations. A product of genuine audience demand? Partly. It's more of an educated guess by the execs when they commission proven talent like Mike Judge or Matt Groening to produce a new series, but then, prior ratings support those guesses. An act of enlightenment or of desperation on the part of the networks? Well, that depends; while one must applaud the new willingness to break conservative ranks, buck conventional wisdom, and commit to prime time toons, remember that profit is always the bottom line. If enough executives are convinced that a fresh animated series that might break out à la South Park is better than another stale cop show that dies after five episodes, well, then that's what we'll get.

Dilbert. © UPN. All Rights Reserved.

Live Long and Prosper

One might think that this "toon boom" would be cause for universal rejoicing. After all, the triumph of the animation nerds is at hand: E Pluribus Toonheads. Now there remains only one last question: Will prime time animation become a permanent fixture instead of a mere trend? There is the possibility that the networks, hungry for the next South Park, will artificially inflate the toon boom by mimicking each other's moves. With product in great supply, there are enough animation projects to slap up on the screen if need be, but does this ensure quality viewing? A head-over- heels rush to flood the airwaves with animated projects may be exhilarating in the short run, but tiresome in the long run.

Some of these projects will need special care if they are to prosper; take UPN's Dilbert for example. It has never been easy to develop a comic strip into a successful cartoon. The most notable success was arguably Charles Schultz' Charlie Brown property, but this was a fairly simple concept to adapt to animation. Something like the adapting of Doonesbury required genius on the order of John and Faith Hubley to make it work, and that for only one memorable special. Dilbert possesses the kind of cerebral humor that will make that toon more of a challenge to produce, and, to date, the challenge is being met. /P>

As Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and now Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy, have proven, there are no shortages of twentysomething hotshots with outrageous WIPs hanging around that could be developed into the nextHOT TOON. Throw enough of them at the screen, and one or two may stick, right? The danger of this approach is that not all of these artistes are going to be suited to the rules and rigors of network broadcasting, as Nickelodeon painfully discovered in their dealings with John Kricfalusi. Handing out the big bucks to unproven talent could painfully backfire. Also, an edgy, rave-inspired toon may guarantee something notably different, but may not play to all audiences. One example was Peter Chung's brilliant if erratic Aeon Flux series, in which the emphasis was on action, ambiance, and artistic style rather than plot; this would have been a difficult series for viewers who were not sophisticated fans of animation.

The Downtowners. © Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

Finally, will networks have the courage and good sense to let some animated series crash and burn without pushing the panic button and deciding that prime time animation is not, and never was, a viable programming option? Let's be realistic here. If enough animated shows are produced, the chances are that some of them may break out big, some may do decently, and others will outright reek like Stimpy's litterbox. Can programming execs, before jumping out the window screaming Fish Police!, accept the fact that some shows will fail? Consider the situation last summer in which NBC pulled the plug on Stressed Eric. This decision was made in seemingly less time than it took to roll the credits across the screen. A modicum of patience will be needed while toons find their place as a major fixture in the prime time world. I sincerely hope that those networks who are committing to animated series are willing to let them settle in and settle down before rushing to judgment on the basis of a slow start.

These worries aside, let's just give thanks that our beloved art form is being given a bigger break, and that an entire nation can begin to discover what we diehard fans already know: animation can be, and frequently is, the most versatile and entertaining medium on the planet. Even with commercials for 4X4 trucks, nacho chips and fabric softeners stuck into them, these new animated ventures just might turn out to be the best thing on television this coming year.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.