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What Makes a Hit a Hit?

Joe Strike tries to uncover the special something that turns an animated idea into a long-running, hit television series.

Forget about critical acclaim or cult classic status. If theres one thing important in the entertainment world, its coming up with a big fat hit, a show or movie that has everyone talking and the media lining up to interview your stars.

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Originally lambasted as evidence of the decline of family values, The Simpsons (left) has transformed into the model for American households. Dexters Laboratory (right) has been a stalwart series in building Cartoon Networks brand of entertainment. © and The Simpsons and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Dexters Laboratory © Cartoon Network.

The stakes are even higher when it comes to animation. With their cross-generational appeal, sky-high licensing potential and ability to attract audiences even in their umpteenth rerun and beyond, cartoons are indeed no longer kid stuff. Programmers and producers scheme and dream to cook up that hit, but it in the long run even a sure-fire concept can go down in flames while the little show that no one even noticed turns into a national phenomenon. Its a process more alchemy than science, with creators working harder than ever in search of that secret, mystic ingredient capable of transforming what might be programming lead into ratings gold.

Hits tend to hang around longer these days too, with primetime mainstays like The Simpsons in its 15th season and relative newcomer King of the Hill entering its sixth. Even though cartoons can be repeated endlessly and still hold on to younger viewers, a 24/7 outlet like Cartoon Network keeps adding new episodes of its classic series: the promotional value of premiere episodes, their potential for later home video release or just the importance of keeping a series fresh all justify the investment. Shows like Dexters Laboratory (now in its seventh season with 78 episodes under its belt) and The Powerpuff Girls (already with 78 episodes in its fifth season) are regularly put back into production or rewarded with one-time specials. The Powerpuffs, for instance get their shot at the holiday season with Twas the Fight Before Christmas in December.

Newer Cartoon Network series are being rewarded with higher production orders right off the bat. Last years Codename: Kids Next Door and the new Duck Dodgers and Teen Titans shows all received 52-episode orders. While aging shows may be a problem for most networks, Nickelodeon is keeping Rugrats in play by aging the shows toddlers into tweens. After 169 episodes and 12 years of the babies original adventures, 15 episodes of the follow-up series All Grown Up! are about to begin airing, with 10 more in the scripting stage.

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Cartoon Networks Mike Lazzo (left). Lazzo photo © Cartoon Network. Sidney Clifton (right), svp head of development at IDT Entertainments DPS/Film Roman.

Well, if I knew what makes a hit, Id be a very wealthy man, muses Cartoon Networks Mike Lazzo. TV introduces dozens of shows every year, and more and more of them are animated. So the first thing we look at is what is the idea? Is the idea going to stand out in a very crowded marketplace? Animation tends at least to get noticed, but then its all execution; but it does help you.

Sidney Clifton, svp head of development at IDT Entertainments DPS/Film Roman agrees that the eyeball-grabbing power of animation is a recurring factor in network decision-making. Every five years or so the broadcast networks take a stab at primetime animation, most notably with The Simpsons and King of the Hill, and most recently with Family Guy and Stripperella. On many shows, however, people kind of forgot about character and story, and created very cartoon-Y cartoons rather than animated series.

The characters werent necessarily that strong, and in many cases there were gags but not shows, which is a death knell in primetime. Adults got it and then left.

Clifton points to what everyone agrees is the make-or-break factor when it comes to TV animation. You have to start with great writing, and keep in mind that on the networks, she said. The foundation for the series should probably be a family. The families can be traditional or non-traditional, and exist in worlds that are ordinary or not. But again, if you write it well and find a visual style that supports the writing, rather than coming up with a really cool look and making the writing of secondary importance, in primetime somebody will take the gamble.

Over at FOX, vp of corporate communications, Scott Grogin, backs up Clifton. Its the writing. If it isnt on the page the voices cant do anything with it. But more than that, its a shows point of view.

Lazzo also cites writing over design. Did the look of South Park help it succeed? The cutout paper look helped, but I think the show wouldve succeeded in any number of styles the writing and the idea were so fresh and original it wouldve stood out anyway. Beavis and Butt-Head hardly moved at all and the writing helped it stand out too.

Lazzo adds that a shows pedigree can make a big difference. If an individual has a track record that is meaningful that certainly helps too. Ill open Matt Groening or (The Family Guys) Seth MacFarlane or (King of the Hills) Mike Judges submission first. Having a success under ones belt carries weight with Grogin as well. When somebody like Mike Judge comes in with Beavis and Butt-heads track record, were going to listen. King of the Hill was more suitable to broadcast but still had his distinctive point of view.

Arthur offers children award-winning entertainment over its 115-episode and growing run on PBS. All characters and underlying materials (including artwork) © Marc Brown. © 2003 WGBH.

Were not ready to announce anything yet, Lazzo said, But were talking to some people with broad backgrounds in cartooning and animation whove done prime-time before. Were hoping to have their projects on the air next fall and in 05.

Arthur, PBSs longest running series is now in its eighth season and will see a ninth in 2005, with 115 regular episodes and two primetime specials already produced. Were not running out of stories, boasts Elizabeth Coté, national senior publicist from Bostons WGBH, the PBS affiliate that originates the series with CINAR. It mirrors the lives of real kids, and therell always be stories about kids to tell.

Coté credits a number of factors for the shows long-running success. Arthur is book-based thats the reason we started with it. Marc Brown created the characters over 25 years ago and wrote and illustrated many books starring them before we became involved. Marc is also the series creative producer, which definitely keeps its quality up.

That quality has earned Arthur a Peabody Award as well as three Emmys for Best Animated Series. For years it was the top rated series for the 2-11 crowd and still hits the number two or three spot on occasion. The most impressive evidence of the shows ongoing appeal however may be its upcoming spin-off series, Postcards from Buster. The new show (a 20-80% mix of animation and live action) follows Arthurs rabbit friend across the U.S. as he sends video postcards back to his buddy, and gives the aardvark face time in a second PBS series. One two-part December Arthur episode serves as introduction to the Postcards, which premieres in 2004.

Remember most animated series, like live-action, wont get past 65 episodes, according to Mary Bredin, director, acquisitions and programming and part of the worldwide programming strategy of Disney/ABC Cable Networks Group, because thats enough to strip it five days a week for 13 weeks, which is the standard U.S. season. Long-running series for Disney in Europe have been Sabrina, Recess and Rolie Polie Olie.

On occasion a project makes it through the door on solely on the strength of an artists vision, without a strong story or characters backing it up. In cases like that your job as a development person job to help the artist find the story, says Clifton. Sometimes artists are writers and sometimes theyre just not. If thats the case, you find someone to work with artist to give voice to the story theyre trying to tell: what is it tonally, who is this character, why do I like him or her, what is driving them and what is their world like?

With writer-creators, once you know who these people are, the property can almost start drawing itself. Then because we have access to amazing artists in-house and in the overall animation community, you find somebody who you think can resonate with the writer; someone who first of all, can translate what this person is trying to get across. You also have to ask yourself if the chemistry is going to work, because at the end of the day these people have to like each other if theyre going to spend hour after hour creating a show together.

Sometimes getting a show on the air is only half the battle. Beyond having writing that makes a show and its characters come alive, Clifton sees network support as critical. You have to have a network that has a vision and some balls. You can come up with a lot of great stories that are interesting, but at the end of the day, if the networks dont buy into your vision, or if you have people there saying, this is a little different from the stuff we know and were just not sure about it, rather than taking that gamble its just not going to work. You have to give it a chance, your show needs to be given shot.

Even The Simpsons might have a harder time getting and staying on the air today than it did in the late 1980s. The networks just arent giving shows the time they used to, said Clifton. Their attitude nowadays is it has to be an instant hit, period. Theres so many things in their pipeline that if its not a slam-dunk, then lets just move on.

Futurama carried over fans of The Simpsons, but never took a strong foothold in the FOX lineup. Futurama © and ™ 1999 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Futurama may be a case in point of how everything can come together almost. One would think that a Matt Groening-created series featuring some of the best writing and animation on TV and a loyal following would have a lock on becoming the next Simpsons. Yet Futurama just barely made it through five truncated seasons and 72 episodes a not insignificant number, but a fraction of The Simpsons total and still growing output.

Grogin offers FOXS perspective on Futurama and its animated brethren: Primetime animation is a niche market, and we have to make sure any show we put on appeals to a substantial audience. You couldnt do Kid Notorious (Comedy Centrals latest raunchy offering) or South Park on a broadcast network not necessarily because of their language or theme, but because they have a narrow point of view. Personally, I enjoy Kid Notorious; its perfect for a niche network, but not for us.

Futurama had a loyal, but a relatively small core audience, Grogin said. It connected very strongly with 18-34 year old men, but it didnt do so well with 12-17 year olds and it didnt appeal to women at all very similar to The Family Guy, by the way. By comparison, The Simpsons has high demographics across the board.

Those higher Simpsons demographics translated not only into higher ratings, but also into sizeable licensing and merchandising revenues as well, according to CNs Lazzo. A lot of the original production money was recovered very rapidly. There was a good revenue story with the Simpsons that I dont think was replayed with Futurama or The Family Guy from the ratings standpoint.

Both cancelled series have become ratings winners for Cartoon Networks late-night Adult Swim block, where they reach a far greater concentration of their prime demographic. In recent months, rumors have surfaced of a possible revival for either or both series via a co-venture between the two networks. Based on the cost per episode and the number of viewers they actually brought in for FOX, they probably werent the kind of properties that made sense for them to continue, says Lazzo. Family Guy has sold a large number of DVDs for FOX, so there has been interest to a degree in that property. Weve been talking for months about that type of thing [a joint effort] with FOX. Whether something will come out of it is too early to say. [Editors note: Sources confidentially report that FOX will resume production of Family Guy with 35 new episodes in that could return in January 2005. This would make it the first time a canceled series has been revived due to DVD demand and ratings success in syndication.]

Surprising DVD sales have awoken executives to the popularity of Family Guy. ™ © 2001 FOX Broadcasting.

There hasnt been an equivalent situation with Futurama to date, Lazzo offers. It did quite well on DVD but didnt sell the numbers that Family Guy sold. In fact, King of the Hill didnt sell the numbers that Family Guy sold. Family Guy seems to be one of those shows that worked in cable much better than it did in broadcast.

Lazzo goes on to describe the fate of any number of network shows, animated and live-action alike. I think a large part of that was that you couldnt find the show. When it first premiered I thought it was a pretty good show, but not the kick in the teeth The Simpsons had been, and I lost track of it because they moved it on the schedule. Then I tuned in the second season and went, wow, this show feels really fresh and funny now.

It happens all the time: great little shows just tend to get lost, explains Lazzo. Audiences are fickle and you have to have a critical mass there or it just doesnt make sense for the programmer to stick with it. Very often shows are stopped before they can find that audience. Its a sad state of affairs, but I understand why it happens.

Unless viewers make an effort or have the luck to revisit a series after its worked out its early kinks or moved around the schedule, the networks will take it as a rejection on the audiences part. Its a self-fulfilling prophecy that usually ends with (in the eyes of the shows partisans) a premature cancellation. Anyone (like this author) who watched Futurama get pre-empted week after week by lengthy football telecasts or double runs of The Simpsons can tell when a network has given up on a series long before it actually leaves the air.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was writing this article, she described without any prompting Rugrats appeal to herself and her daughter: We all knew somebody like Angelica or Tommy when we were growing up not just the nice side of kids, but how they act and behave when theyre at their best and not so best.

Margie Cohn, Nickelodeons svp of production and development, was downright delighted when I told her about my friend. Thats wonderful its so great when the audience understands what youre trying to do. Cohn credits Rugrats duration to the series writing, and the appeal of the shows well developed characters to its deeply devoted audience. In fact, she credits those fans with the inspiration for the new series. We found out kids so identified with the babies that they always wondered what the characters would be like at their age.

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The success of The Rugrats allowed for a spin-off, All Grown Up! © Nickelodeon.

Nickelodeon wondered too, and their curiosity led to All Grown Up!, a 10th anniversary Rugrats special that aired during summer 2001. The fantasy episode (with the babies themselves imagining their tween-years futures) turned out to be Nicks highest rated special ever, delivering Super Bowl ratings to the channel. A two season order of 35 episodes followed, leading to the premiere this December of All Grown Up! the series, produced by Klasky Csupo.

Its not the end of the line for the Rugrats babies, however: a handful of original episodes remain unaired, and the channel is constantly thinking of new ideas for the characters, according to Cohn. One idea is to have them star interpretations of classic fairy tales that could air as Nick specials or go to home video. Theres still a lot more we can do with them without beating a dead horse.

Which seems to make it all the more strange that the channels ultra-hot SpongeBob SquarePants is currently on hiatus with only 60 episodes under its belt. Its not due to any stinginess on Nickelodeons part, says Cohn. We very much want to do more SpongeBobs, but right now Steven Hillenberg wants to concentrate on the movie version [currently set for a year-end 2004 release]. SpongeBob is a creator-driven and Steven doesnt want to divide his attention between the series and a movie.

Were hoping we can start production on new episodes sometime next year. Believe me, when a show like SpongeBob becomes a phenomenon and people demand to see more of the characters, we want to make them happy.

Putting a show together and selling it to the right network is an interesting combination of skill, technique and chemistry. Im actually a yenta, laughs Film Romans Clifton, comparing herself to a Jewish matchmaker. My job is to make the matches its the fun part. After all the homework that you do, ultimately if you sell it, thats Plan A youre jumping through a hurdle at every turn. So if you have something they buy into, thats the first hurdle. You cross your fingers a lot, hoping that youve made the right combination there too.

At the end of the day were not in control of events. The most you can do is your homework and go out with quality product. You hope that the buyers are on the same page as you are. Sometimes they are. But they are not, you simply say thank you, and try it again.

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Gary Levine (left), Showtimes evp of original programming. Margie Cohn (right), Nickelodeons svp of production and development.

Those networks and their programming staffs all approach their jobs differently. Gary Levine, Showtimes executive vp of original programming has a unique set of criteria when it comes to judging potential programming for his premium cable channel, animation or otherwise. Were always trying to find quality programming thats both sophisticated and yet noisy, provocative and unique at the same time. We wont do noisy lowbrow programming, or middle of the road quality shows. If we did, why would anyone bother to come to Showtime?

Meanwhile, Spikes standard for putting shows into development is far more succinct: whether or not it is relatable to guys, the relaunched channels target audience, according to Peilin Chou, the networks development vp. Thankfully, none of the people interviewed for this article cited technology as a deciding, or even minor factor in which shows they consider for air, thus sparing all another 2D vs. 3D debate.

There probably isnt a secret ingredient that can guarantee, or increase the odds of a primetime animation hit, if there were, the networks would be wall to wall in them. Maybe its more of a secret formula, one that isnt really all that secret: a creator with a vision instead of a knock-off a network willing to give that vision time to realize itself and connect with its audience and viewers who recognize a show theyve never seen before as one they want to watch week after week.

Joe is a New York City television writer/producer with a lifelong interest in animation, and who remembers watching Astro Boy when it first aired in the U.S. His work includes numerous promotional campaigns and special events programming for cable outlets including Bravo and the Sci Fi Channel. He interviewed veteran animation exec Fred Seibert in Animation World Magazine in 2003.