Animation World Magazine, Issue 2.12, March 1998

Tuning in to the IBCTA

by Sherry Niedelman

The IBCTA panel on "Finding a Niche." Front row,
left-right: moderator Fred Seibert, panelists Bill Kopp,
Sue Rose, and back row: Corky Quakenbush, Brown
Johnson and Mike Lazzo.
Photo by and © Craig Skinner/Celebrity Photo, courtesy of WAC.

As I, a hopeful creator/future filmmaker for non-violent media, planned my trip to the second year of the World Animation Celebration, there were a variety of topics at this year's International Business Conference of Television Animation (IBCTA) that caught my eye. Abuzz with energy, a standing room only crowd of people from as far as Puerto Rico, Portugal, Canada, Italy and Brazil, hushed as the IBCTA kicked off its two-day event with a screening of prime time animation. The first panel then tackled the question, "Why is Animation Suddenly Working in Prime Time?"

Prime Time Animation
Leading the panel screenings was MTV's Celebrity Deathmatch, a clay-animated show with a rather violent theme, targeting 18-24 year-olds. Comedy Central's taste in wit and humor was revealed when they showed
Alison Snowden and David Fine's hysterical and eccentric short, Bob's Birthday. When Bob & Margaret, its spinoff series, hits the air it will give competitors a wake-up call. Klasky-Csupo's new The Wild Thornberrys looks like it will cross over from kids to mainstream, and hopefully the story lines will emerge to be as exciting as the detailed visuals.

Prime time content is geared for those of us who grew up mesmerized by Saturday morning cartoons, opening entirely new markets and distribution channels for the up-and-coming creator to pursue. The emphasis is on comedy and drama that is visually advanced, striking and often crude and shocking; which offers plenty of room for the unbounded artist to create an impact. David Simon, the co-head of DreamWorks Television Animation, stated that grown-ups want more of a challenge to inspire and stimulate their minds versus Saturday morning's simple physical gags. This is where the telling of a good story appeals to a wider, more mature viewer. Another interesting point that was brought up is that `prime time' is becoming different places on the clock depending on the channel. For instance, HBO places animated programs on a late night track in a non-traditional prime time slot, whereas Fox has animated shows starting at 8:00 p.m.

There was some disagreement among panelists on the future of prime time in regards to the extreme political correctness of our times. Some felt that a tricky button is being pushed as everyone busts out of social norms. However, I agree with David Pritchard, president & CEO of Film Roman, who, in reference to MTV's Deathmatch., asked, "Why tune in to someone getting killed each week?"

Overall, the panel agreed that formulated ideas are foul, and anyone seriously interested in pitching a concept must know the development process. A pitch must have a concept that stands out, strong characters and good writing. If the executives laugh during a pitch, it is a good sign!

Finding Your Niche
In the panel on "Finding Your Niche: Creatively Getting Your Show On the Air," there was a diverse blend of humor presented from Mad TV, Blues Clues, Pepper Ann, Tales from the Crypt, and Space Ghost Coast to Coast.

Mike Lazzo, the visionary behind Cartoon Network's Space Ghost Coast to Coast talk show, believes enthusiasm, passion, and an experimental `try this' attitude gets things done. Space Ghost `s crew had to experiment in order to learn how to cheaply create the outrageous live-action/animation show that features interviews in outer space. Sue Rose, creator of Disney's Pepper Ann, described how she made the show she wanted to make. As she said, "It's about time girls got the show they deserve." Today 40% of Pepper Ann's audience is made up of boys, which questions that old belief that girls will watch boys shows but not vice versa.

Doug Herzog of Comedy Central delivered a
keynote address. Photo by and ©
Craig Skinner/Celebrity Photo, courtesy of WAC.

Doug Herzog of Comedy Central, and previously of MTV, gave the keynote address with quippy flair, opening with the fact that Comedy Central is "willing to probe where everyone else is afraid to go." His manner kept the room going as he wowed and wooed about their new hit, South Park. He said that Comedy Central is willing to go the distance with a humor brand for the 18-49 male/female split, which makes up 75% of their audience. Herzog went on to a Q&A and defended Comedy Central's approach to promoting South Park. They do not run commercials during the day and run the programming at the responsibly late hour of 10:00 p.m. "If your kids are watching South Park at 10:00 p.m. at night, where are you?" he said. Pushing the boundaries and creating fresh comedy is a dangerous thing that hinges on a hotbed of first amendment issues.

Social Responsibility
Dialogue was quite heated among panelists and attendees setting out to define "social responsibility" in an FCC-mandated climate, in the panel "Can Social Responsibility Lead to Success on Television?" The FCC qualification states that a show has a board-certified educational consultant, which is at times skirted around and not necessarily de facto. Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and all other cable stations do not have to comply with the FCC mandate. On all of the stations, what is considered educational has become rather subjective in terms of actual programming. Hopefully, good programming is going to have social responsibility baked into it.

There was disagreement on this topic among panelists who noted how kids want to be entertained at home and learn at school. The difference of opinion appears to be in the hook of the medium. Producer Gordon Hunt of Hanna-Barbera made a point, "Social responsibility sounds forbidding. Your package should be wrapped in humor. Don't ignore that in social responsibility or you won't get any response from kids." Cassandra Schafhausen of CINAR Films said, "We want kids to learn to be better citizens out in the world, with more control over their lives and their feelings, and to feel good about themselves. What we look for is an effortless frame of reference."

When Cartoon Network asked children what they liked in a cartoon, the focus groups said that they like to relate to the characters and learn new facts, see reflections of justice in heroes and the heroes in themselves. Perhaps children will end up dictating their own morality.

A few conference-goers complained about how the panelists did not cover the promised topics but rather used the forum to talk about themselves. There wasn't much in the way of receptions for socializing. However, the closing reception on Friday night was intimate and pleasant, though a bit cold due to El Niño's rain. I am quite satisfied with this year's IBCTA, and feel there was a well-rounded menu of topics that gave dimension to the animation industry.

Sherry Niedelman is a Los Angeles-based independent artist, writer and educator, who promotes non-violence in media through affiliation with the Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles County.

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