Sean Maclennan Murch explains why animated shows targeted toward adults are becoming a more popular approach for some networks.
I'm sitting on a plane, headed for the Banff Television Festival in Alberta, Canada. The topic of adult animation weighs heavily on my mind. I have been asked to moderate a panel regarding the future of animation. The panel topic is admittedly a broad one but the more I contemplate these two issues, the more I realize that they are intrinsically linked. Put more simply, adult animation is emerging as the key to survival in an increasingly difficult industry. Difficult, because the proliferation of new cable and specialty channels has effectively spread out the available revenue over a larger market, thereby decreasing each broadcaster's buying power. From a ratings standpoint, broadcasters are being forced to define further their target audience in response to the multitude of new channels.
How does this affect animated children's programming? Specialty youth and children's channels are enjoying strong ratings in their age demographic. Thus, broader-based network and cable channels are being pushed to refocus their efforts on a different demographic. Rather than competing for young eyeballs in the traditional morning and after-school blocks, they look to older audiences. The result: a decrease in shelf space for animated children's programming. This trend has, in part, paved the way for animated adult programming.
Animation Grows Up
From a creative standpoint, this is widely received as good news. It's no secret that the majority of animators and writers prefer to work on shows aimed at an older audience. Abby Terkuhle, president of MTV Animation and creative director of MTV, was North America's first pioneer in the area of adult animation. His network continues to produce and showcase the kind of programming that has made this genre feasible both domestically and abroad. On the topic of creative process, Abby points out that, "For us, producing adult animation is in some ways akin to the creative process experienced in music. It gives our writers and animators an opportunity to experiment with their art and to come up with new techniques and formats. Going back to the early days, it started with something as simple as splashing paint on the MTV logo."
Looking at the line-up of successful animated programming in North America this year, it is apparent that the industry has moved to a more sophisticated, edgier and decidedly older audience than that of three years ago. Even our children's shows are skewing older with shows like Rugrats, Sam & Max and Cow and Chicken. There are also more animated adult programs than ever before. As Terkuhle points out, "The success of shows like Beavis and Butt-head, The Simpsons, and King of the Hill have allowed for a wider acceptance of adult animation in the marketplace. There was always a stigma attached to animation--that it was just for kids. While we are still challenged by that perception, the industry has come a long way to accepting adult animation as viable programming. As a result, we currently have programs like Daria and Celebrity Death Match."
Bob and Margaret is an adult series due to air this fall on Comedy Central in the US, Channel 4 in the U.K. and Global Networks in Canada. The series is based on Alison Snowden and David Fine's Academy Award-winning short, Bob's Birthday. In a recent discussion with Fine, he pointed out that he has, "always been inspired by films from the NFB and Britain that are adult films like The Big Snit [by Richard Condie] and Why Me by Janet Perlman. Alison and I have always been making adult films. The big transition has been doing adult series for prime time television, for the general population. That has happened because of The Simpsons, in the first instance. It lead to a whole renaissance of quality animation, for children as well as adults, like Ren & Stimpy. The marketability and huge potential of animation was re-realized because of the Simpsons."
Risk Taking May Pay Off
From a program development and sales perspective, there is a major challenge to be faced. How do we convince broadcast programmers that an animated half-hour sitcom can go head to head with its live-action counterparts? Certainly, the precedents are there. The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Beavis and Butt-head, and South Park to name a few. The stigma remains though. Animation is for kids. At this stage, most programmers will admit to the success of the aforementioned shows. However, there is an often an underlying supposition that these shows were "one-offs," that they got lucky. This is an increasingly difficult argument to sustain when the successes just keep coming. Part of the problem is that by and large, we work in a fear-based industry. Most broadcasters are afraid to roll the proverbial dice. There is too much at stake. Ratings, advertising revenues, and ultimately careers are lost with bad programming decisions. There are, as always, exceptions to the rule. Abby Terkuhle is one of them. As Abby points out, "We have always taken chances, and they have paid off. With a network so closely linked to the music industry, it is essential to not only keep up with the times, but to stay ahead of them." As the competition for finite advertising dollars increases, it will be necessary for broadcasters to take more chances. In some ways, it is less a matter of taking chances, and more a question of keeping up with the Joneses. As Comedy Central, MTV and Fox enjoy much success in this area, other broadcasters may be taking a risk if they don't begin to explore the world of adult animation. Many of North America's current programming blocks include an animated sitcom. These blocks will often hinge on that show, putting more than just one half hour slot at stake. Character Makes the Difference What separates the successful adult series from the rest? Fine suggests that, "It is the writing quality and the voice quality. If you look at a show like South Park, the strength is in the writing and the characterization. If the stories aren't there and the characterizations aren't there, it doesn't matter how good it looks." In terms of Bob and Margaret, David's hope is that the series will be "viewed and enjoyed as funny stories, not put into the pigeon hole of, `This is animation.' It should be a prime time series that happens to be animated, as opposed to an animated series put in prime time." As Canada's first ever prime time animated series, Bob and Margaret will, in many ways, set the tone in this country for how animation will be perceived by the prime time viewing audience. As we roll into the fall, we will also see more animated prime time series out of the U.S. and indeed, internationally, with show's like Stressed Eric from the U.K. Animation has undoubtedly matured as an industry. Some people will argue that adult animation today is merely a renaissance of the early days, when cartoons were played in the theater ahead of adult features. Realistically though, it goes much further than that. Innovations in design, technique and format have made the animation industry as diverse as live-action. Today's animated programming runs the gamut from children's to drama, sitcom to variety, and even reaches as far as documentary. It is now widely accepted as a medium with which to entertain, inform, and to unleash the imagination of the viewer. The freedom of animation allows us to tell stories that cannot be told in live-action, and often adds considerable value to those that can. The recent success of all-day animation services like Teletoon and The Cartoon Network provides evidence that there is a demand for animated programming of all types. It is now the responsibility of creators, writers and producers to keep the momentum going with well written, provocative and entertaining shows. Sean Murch has worked in the development, production, financing and sales of animated film and television programs for the past eight years. He has lived and worked in London, Paris, San Francisco, Vancouver and most recently, Toronto. In 1998, Sean joined Nelvana Enterprises as Director of Canadian Sales and Distribution. In addition to his sales duties, Sean also sits on Nelvana's development committee and is responsible for program development in Canada.