While prime time animation might have disappeared from the big three, it is alive and thriving on cable. Rick DeMott reports on where the sauciest of television animation can be found.
With failures like Sammy, Clerks, Mission Hill, Stressed Eric and God, the Devil and Bob, some people in the industry are saying that primetime animation is dead. However, with the networks shying away from toons, cable is bursting forth with animated projects left and right. And the big deals are for toons geared toward an adult audience. I chatted with execs from Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, Showtime and TNN, each of whom have made big deals in the past year, to see what they think is the current climate regarding animated programming for the grown-up demographic in the U.S.
It's Going Swimmingly!
First let's start with the network that is striving to be the #1 destination for every kind of animation in the world -- Cartoon Network. Due to the resounding success of their Sunday night "Adult Swim" block, the network recently announced that it would expand the block to five nights a week. "Adult Swim" is the highest rated time slot on the network and is bringing in advertising dollars from companies that have never advertised on the Toon Net before. The adult programming especially allows the cable station to sell ad time to R-rated films and adult clothing lines like Levi's. "Adult Swim" was a long time in the making and really started 8 years ago when Keith Crofford, vice president of production for Cartoon Network Productions, spearheaded the creation of Space Ghost: Coast to Coast. Quickly the subversive and adult nature of the show grew a cult following, which proved that adults -- especially 20 and 30-somethings were really interested in watching mature animation.
"At first, we didn't know if we were going to last 13 days, 13 weeks, or 13 months. And now it's eight years later," Crofford said.
In regards to whether primetime animation is dead, Crofford said he felt the industry is cyclical. He went on to say that lousy product is destined to fail and that when "people find a program they identify with they keep watching." Crofford pointed out the success of The Simpsons as proof that primetime animation is still vital. That series he said was the "holy grail" that others must look up to.
Cartoon Network wanted to air more adult animation because a third of their audience was between 18-34, however there wasn't a proper niche in which to air such programming. "Adult Swim" organically grew out of Space Ghost's success and allowed a time slot for more adult-oriented shows. Crofford said with "Adult Swim" they now have the opportunity to search out more mature content from other markets. For instance, the expanded "Adult Swim" will feature six series from Japan including Cowboy Bebop and InuYasha. Moreover, the network has rescued several series that moved off the major networks like Futurama, Baby Blues, Home Movies, Mission Hill and The Oblongs. Plus, the network gets a chance to develop their own original programming like Aqua Teen Hunger Force, The Brak Show and Sealab 2021 and create specials like The Groovenians and Private Eye Princess. With the viewers and the demand already there, Cartoon Network is clearly addressing the desires of their audience for more grown-up entertainment.
Cowboy Bebop (left) came from Japanese television, while Home Movies was developed for UPN before it re-found a home on Cartoon Network. Cowboy Bebop © Bandai Entertainment; Home Movies courtesy of Cartoon Network.
Animation Is Central
Next we have Comedy Central, which has never shied away from adult-themed toons. South Park still ranks as their most watched program. Recently, the station announced that it too had resurrected four programs that came and went from the networks. The cable net obtained 30 episodes of Dilbert, which is based on the popular comic strip; 6 episodes of Clerks, based on the cult-hit film of the same name; and 13 episodes of both Gary & Mike and Undergrads. Kathryn Mitchell, Comedy Central's senior VP of programming, said that upon viewing the ratings of the initial order the network may opt to order new installments of the four series. Like many of the execs that I spoke with Thompson said viewers come to cable looking for an alternative to the networks and that cable has the opportunity to take more risks.
Adult animation needs are met with original programming by Cartoon Network: Aqua Teen Hunger Force (left) and Sealab 2021. Courtesy of Cartoon Network.
In regard to risks, she said that animated programs present a major cost risk, especially for a full season, 26-episode run. Another type of risk can be with edgier content and she feels that American audiences have grown to except animation as adult entertainment. After over a decade of the Simpsons, Mitchell feels that the stigma of cel animation being only for kids is fading away. She also pointed out CG animation in theaters and video games as another area where animation is making in roads with older audiences. However, she said that bigger risks can also yield bigger disasters when the projects are not right, like in the case of the theatrical failure of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.
The next big risk for Comedy Central comes in the form of their recently optioned toon series based on the life of Hollywood's playboy producer Robert Evans. The laugh channel beat out TNN in a heated bidding war for the rights after Evans brought execs from various networks to his house to show them what they would be getting. And with an English butler, a young blonde girlfriend and heavy metal band Guns-N-Roses' Slash wandering the grounds everyone was intrigued. Lauren Corrao, Comedy Central's senior VP of development and original programming, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal, saying, "The girlfriend did put it over the top. We have several people there, all of whom said it was the highlight of their career." However, Evans didn't get everything he wanted because the network still won't let him call the show, Pussy Power. So with what looks like an animated version of The Anna Nicole Show on their hands, Comedy Central is definitely showing that toons for adults is a viable part of their business plan.
Showtime went to the Web to get WhirlGirl (left) and Queer Duck. WhirlGirl, courtesy of Visionary Media, and Queer Duck © 2000 Mishmash Media/Icebox, Inc.
When it comes to resurrecting animation that was on life support, Showtime went to a venue that is one big iron lung these days -- the Internet. The pay station's Website -- Sho.com -- has always been an advocate for toons on the Web, airing the first regular-broadcast weekly Web series, Whirlgirl. Peter Keramidas, senior VP of programming and new media content, said the network was looking for short subjects to lead-in or follow-up their original series. During the search Showtime's executive VP of original programming, Gary Levine, showed Keramidas some Webisodes of Queer Duck, a Web series which aired on Icebox where Levine previously served as president. Keramidas said after 9 years in the industry hearing over 75 script ideas a week he has come to the point where "he's heard it all," however Queer Duck struck him as something original and complimented Showtime's live-action series Queer as Folk perfectly. At first, Showtime only aired Duck's previously produced installments, however the popularity of the shorts spurred Showtime to produce new episodes of their own.
Programming from across the Pond: Bob and Margaret (left), courtesy of Comedy Central, and Aaagh! It's the Mr. Hell Show! © 2001 Peafur Productions/Sextant Entertainment.
Keramidas said out right that the stigma of animation as only for kids is dead, also pointing out the success of The Simpsons as proof. He said while animation provides a unique hook to attract an audience, viewers these days are more discerning, especially cable viewers who are searching out alternative programming. Keramidas stated that Showtime's goal with all their original series is to find programming that is distinct enough for premium television and presents stories that others cannot tell. When looking for animation, Showtime has no mandate just the desire to find good stories and good animation. The cable network has gone across the Atlantic twice to bring the U.S. unique programming in the form of Bob and Margaret and Aagh! It's the Mr. Hell Show! Moreover, the network is also exploiting its Internet ties with programming obtained through their online festival alt.sho.com.
Making a Strong Stand
Last but not least is the new TNN, which made the big announcement a few months back that they were launching a primetime animation block featuring a new Ren and Stimpy. I asked Peilin Chou, head of TNN development, why the cable channel made such a commitment to toons and she said they just fit with their target audience of 25 to 34 year olds. She said the demographic grew up on a diet of animation and don't think of animated programming any differently than live-action programming. The Gen-X demographic is searching out extreme entertainment and animation can get away with even more extreme subjects than live-action can. Chou said they wanted to make a statement and the animated programming they have committed to has the same edgy comedic sensibility that is compatible with the network's other programming.
TNN will roll out their toons next spring including Gary the Rat, based on the Internet series of the same name, and Stripperella, a superhero show from comic book legend Stan Lee. Chou explained the new Ren and Stimpy is not for kids this time around and said she doesn't feel creator John K has any resentment over being kicked off the original series, which aired on sister-channel Nickelodeon. Gary provides a bit of star power to the line-up with Kelsey Grammar on as the creator and voice of the title character. Chou said that Grammar always saw the series as a television project, but felt the Internet was a great place to develop it. In regards to Stripperella, Chou said its a classic Stan Lee comic book tale in the same vein as the Austin Powers films. Plus, it provides the network with the star-draw of Pamela Anderson, who will lend her voice to the title character. Chou said the network is very excited about the block as a major brand-defining venture. With 10 other animated programs in development, the network has a lot to work with.
So it seems that if adult animation is fading from the traditional networks, cable is picking up the banner for a younger audience who only knows an age with The Simpsons and is looking for something a bit edgier. With more and more animation saturating the mainstream, by the time Gen-Xers are collecting social security the Disney-fied stigma on animation may be a distant memory. Crofford was right the business is cyclical, however each time around the circle just gets a bit larger and only time with tell how big it can get.
Rick DeMott currently works for sound production house BadaBing BadaBoom Productions and animation company Perky Pickle Studios. In his free time, he works as a freelance writer and a regular contributor to the humor Website, PorkPony.com.