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Primetime Animation Fills Growing Niche TV

Gerard Raiti studies the migration of animated primetime programming from the major networks to more specialized networks and reveals that maybe 2000 wasn't such a bust after all, rather just a shifting of sorts.

God, the Devil, and Bob cancelled after NBC aired four episodes. Sammy and Clerks cancelled after two episodes. I refuse to mention Stressed Eric! Does anyone else see a trend out there? If so, then cross off "Television Executive" from your list of would-be professions.

Stressed Eric stressed NBC executives! © NBC, Inc. All rights reserved.

My fellow Americans, the state of primetime animation is not good. The four aforementioned shows represent the best primetime animation that ABC and NBC have produced since 1998. This is a tragedy disenchanting to fans of animation, none of whom like to see animation repeatedly sullied across the broadcast world.

Nevertheless, the last few years have seen a formidable renaissance in primetime animation heralding back to the glory days of the 1960s with The Flintstones and The Jetsons. In 1989 as The Cosby Show was winding down, Matt Groening and FOX ushered in a brilliant, new epoch of comedy with The Simpsons. Currently, it is the longest running sitcom on U.S. television and has been a defining phenomenon in the world of entertainment. Since this once poorly animated sitcom on Thursday nights has impacted the world in such a profound way as "D'Oh!" many have tried relentlessly to duplicate its success.

The Powerpuff Girls is just one of Cartoon Network's well performing shows. © Cartoon Network.

Consequently, there is currently more primetime animation than ever before, which is both extremely exciting and dangerous based on how the networks treat it. Between Futurama, The Powerpuff Girls, King of the Hill, Daria and Dilbert to name just a few, there is a plethora of different animated styles designed to satisfy everyone. Nevertheless, not all animated series perform like The Simpsons, just as all live-action series do not perform like Seinfeld. Many shows are simply bad. But while primetime animation has failed on ABC and NBC, FOX, The WB and Cartoon Network have had repeated success. (CBS has wisely chosen not to partake in the primetime animation melee and focus instead on the highly lucrative reality TV market.) In addition, Cartoon Network astonishingly posted the highest primetime ratings of any cable network during its most recent quarter. Therefore, primetime animation can be successful on non-major networks. This is the trend that can be successfully mimicked and is proven.

Daria continues a steady performance for MTV. © MTV Networks.

A Discrepancy Between Majors and Minors

Regardless whether a television show is animated or not, its success is dependent upon two variables: the show's quality, and the timeslot and level of promotion the show receives. Network executives are responsible for both since they select which shows are picked up and how the network will promote them.

According to Linda Simensky, Vice President of Original Animation at Cartoon Network: "Networks are not taking into account that animated shows are different than live-action ones... [Primetime] animation needs to be developed and produced differently. The networks are not seeing that."

Brad Turrell, Executive Vice President of Network Communications at The WB, shares Simensky's views and acknowledges other causes for inconsistencies in primetime animation: "Primetime animation is very difficult to do these days. It's always been difficult to do. The Simpsons is an anomaly.... It will go down as one of the greatest shows in the history of television. Some people have it even higher than that on the list. It raises the bar to a very high level. All the shows that have followed have been judged against The Simpsons. I think primetime animation is hindered because The Simpsons is so clever and well defined. Nothing can quite live up to it. That's not to say that primetime [animation] will not work."

UPN gave Dilbert several tries to draw a crowd. © UPN. All rights reserved.

Devout Cancellation

So what went wrong with primetime animation on ABC and NBC? A spokesman for NBC states that God, the Devil, and Bob, Sammy and Stressed Eric were cancelled because "ratings were not at a satisfactory level to continue to air them." Fair enough -- that is an obvious reason to cancel any show. To demonstrate how poorly they performed: in late-March, God, the Devil, and Bob received the lowest ratings in NBC history for an 8:30 Tuesday night timeslot. Ouch! Nearly 50% of viewers of The Drew Carey Show chose not to watch Clerks -- an abysmal percentage! Meanwhile Sammy had a household rating of 3 during its second episode...

However, this hat trick of fiascos could have been avoided because these shows should never have been aired in the first place...

God, the Devil, and Bob

premiered superbly in March 2000, miraculously garnering 14.42 million viewers, sandwiched between "Must-See" powerhouses Friends and Frasier. More impressively, those ratings came despite nine NBC-affiliates refusing to air the cartoon due to religious concerns. Now, if nine network affiliates refuse to air a show before it premieres, is that not a clear indicator that the show is destined for failure and should not be broadcast? Isn't it surprising that no one at NBC realized religious humor would be deemed offensive by many Americans? Especially in light of recent events where media draws political correctness accusations at the drop of a hat. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace received complaints from nearly every religious and ethnic group on the planet it seems. Moreover, the most wholesome of the wholesome, Disney, can't escape as lyrics were even changed before the release of Aladdin. On top of that however, Caryn James of The New York Times wrote in March 2000: "Beneath [God, the Devil, and Bob's] supposedly risky premise, the series is just one more benign and stale family sitcom."

Now, let's take a look at Sammy. Family dysfunction is never fun. Whether it is live-action or animated, a father deserting a family and returning only upon a child's fame and fortune a hilarious comedy it does not make. Didn't anyone think that this wouldn't ring true to the traditionally sappy U.S. primetime audience? In their ways, both Homer Simpson and Hank Hill are sincere family men just trying to get along, be happy and capture a little part of the American dream for their families.

The NBC spokesman tried to explain: "If a show is funny or compelling, we look at it, regardless of whether it is animated or not. We picked up those particular shows because we thought they were different and had a chance." But were they really different? These shows were different because they were animated but not really "different" in television form. They are still a type of sitcom -- a common form of television programming with which the traditional networks are very comfortable. However the sitcom may not be the best forum for animation. Cartoon Network's Simensky explains: "There's something about the cartoon format that does not format well as sitcoms. Cartoon characters throughout history are complex. Animation works when it's character driven.... Sitcoms are often about one-dimensional characters. So-and-so lost his keys and is locked out. How many times has that been done! Character is most important -- much more than the situation.... Networks are trying to make animated sitcoms, and they're not working."

Despite poor ratings, canceling a show after two episodes is practically unheard of in live-action. (That is not to say that it never happens as the case was last season with FOX's P.L.AY.) Generally, it takes at least a month for many viewers even to discover new shows, especially if the replacements come mid-season. In June 2000, Clerks creator Kevin Smith voiced his disdain with ABC's premature cancellation of his show: "What more can I say about the wonder boys in charge of ABC that I haven't already?... I know the ratings weren't great, but there were only four more [episodes] to go. It was about the only bone they could've thrown us." With Smith's cult following viewership might have increased if his fans had been given time to find the show and turn their friends onto it. The Simpsons was not a hit the first time it aired. It was several seasons into its now astounding run before it became a worldwide icon. This is something executives tend to forget. There was a time that insiders speculated The Simpsons might die due to a change in the day that it aired. It takes time to build an institution.

Not to justify ABC and NBC's respective decisions, but many of their executives were unaware of the lead-time that goes with animation. When a network picks up an animated show, the network orders six to thirteen episodes roughly six months prior to the premiere of the show. This is a partial cause for the cancellation of primetime animation because if an element in the cartoon is deemed unacceptable, a network of ABC or NBC's caliber cannot afford to lose six months of ratings on the gambit that an alteration will work. The NBC spokesman confirms that, "[Lead-time] presents problems. In a live-action show, if you see that certain scenes are not working, you can re-shoot if you have to. That is just something that can't be done with animation."

A Growing Niche

FOX was a young, punk network when they gambled on The Simpsons and it worked. Today the pattern is repeating itself. Due to the proliferation of channels, television is generally becoming increasingly specialized. The non-major networks are succeeding because animation is helping to define the specific niche audience they are trying to capture and they can afford to take the risks. Imagine media's evolution from Hunter-Gatherers to Division of Labor: each network is now assigned a specific group-targeted genre -- the premise on which cable television was founded. NBC, for example, targets, "Adults 18-49. NBC has a somewhat more upscale profile than other networks. We're looking for shows about young urbans like Will and Grace or Friends, or more sophisticated comedies like Frasier," whereas The WB targets 12-34 year olds. According to Turrell, "85% of our revenue is derived from that... We're more specifically targeted."

This specialization of television and animation is paying off for Cartoon Network. Simensky explains that Cartoon Network's ratings proliferate during the summer since children are not at school. Moreover, this most recent summer proved interesting as adults comprised a third of Cartoon Network's primetime ratings. Simensky attributes this to Cartoon Network's variety and superior quality of original entertainment. "Everything we do here is about the couple new shows [we add] each year. So we go above and beyond the call of duty.... Adults tune in [over the summer] when repeats are on networks. They get an evening of original shows mixed in with classics like Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry, and early signs show that those viewers are staying."

The PJ's are now on the WB. © 2000 The WB Television Network.

The primetime animation that is surviving on network television is not performing stupendously, i.e., ranking in the top ten; however, performance is a relative thing. For example, The PJs lost its home at FOX after last season, but The WB wisely gambled and picked it up. "We thought it was funny," said Turrell. "We thought it was innovative [and] had a lot of life left in it. It had only been on the air for a season and a half. It's now our highest rated show on Sunday." However, The PJs' ratings on The WB are actually lower than its ratings last season on FOX. Part of the reason for this dip, could be the fact that a lot of fans are still trying to find the show and are unaware that it has started again on The WB. "It's successful from [The WB's] point of view. That's how we have to look at it." Hopefully, as the network keeps the show on, word of mouth will spread and it will build a loyal following. (Another point that is worth re-pointing out here is that while this show is set in the projects, the show still focuses on very real human relationships and the protagonist, Thurgood, while at times bumbling, has a heart of gold. Underneath the neighborhood drug addict, this is a sweet show -- unlike Sammy. And unlike Bob, God and the Devil, these characters are shown attending church and holding Bible study.)

Cartoon Network's anticipated new hit, Sheep in the Big City. © Cartoon Network.

Feeling a Little Blue?

The newest kid on the block is The WB's Baby Blues, based on the comic strip from Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott, and developed and executive produced by Jeff Martin (The Simpsons) and Pete Ocko (Weird Science, Dinosaurs). In September, The WB announced its pickup of a second season of Baby Blues. So far it has been one of the highest rated comedies in the history of The WB. Part of Baby Blues' success is attributable to The WB's acquisition of Sabrina: The Teenage Witch from ABC. Together, they are establishing The WB as a contender on Friday nights. Turrell explains that Baby Blues was actually picked up more than a year before it premiered, but "[The WB] didn't have a good time slot for it. We needed shows that were compatible, but we didn't have anything on the network that fitted. We have a night with lots of drama; then an Urban Comedy night; and then some more drama.... [Baby Blues] has done well warming up for the teenage-girl market which Sabrina has brought us. Maybe around midseason we'll move it after Sabrina."

For the time being, ABC, NBC and CBS are staying away from animation. It took ABC eight years from the failure of Capitol Critters to venture with Clerks, and prior to Sammy, primetime animation had not been made exclusively for NBC since 1964's Mr. Magoo. Fox will be airing Gary and Mike and The WB has picked up Film Roman's much anticipated, politically incorrect Oblongs. Cartoon Network is anticipating a hit from the forthcoming Sheep in the Big City by Mo Willems, and have picked up UPN's cancelled Home Movies, which will be resurrected in the spring of 2001. It would be nice if someone re-picked up Mission Hill. Despite winning many awards, including Italy's Cartoons on the Bay, the show has still fallen by the wayside.

Coming soon to the WB, Film Roman's animated comedy, The Oblongs. © 2000 The WB Television Network.

The WB's Turrell says, "We like the fact that the other networks shot their shows, so the landscape is not filled with a lot of primetime animation. The Simpsons and one or two [animated] shows on The WB can work [successfully]." However, the sum total of this equation is an abundance of primetime animation -- just in different locations and at a softer volume. As the smaller networks try to build a strong specific audience they are using animated shows in the mix to attract and grow their demographic. Luckily for the shows, these networks can also keep them around for more than a few episodes to try to build a loyal following. Has the year really been so much of a disaster? No, it's been more of a learning experience -- one that if it had been intelligently studied months ago would not have even been necessary. The fad of primetime animation is over. It has come back to an intelligent center, a much better place for animation to prove itself as a viable primetime form of entertainment.

Gerard Raiti, a resident of Baltimore, has reported on animation, Broadway musicals and comic books for various publications including and Newsweek.