The Major TV Trends and
Moments of Last Year

by Michael Swanigan

Last year, like all years for animation artists, started with the big question, "When will the work begin?" And like almost every year, the work didn't really start until early spring. First of all, it's off to NATPE in New Orleans for the executives to see if there are any great new shows announced. What a shock. There's nothing. Now that the networks have their own studios, they have no or little need to order shows from smaller animation houses. These network-studios can make their own shows with a bigger piece of the pie going back to the corporation. In the future you will see less of the little guy selling shows to the big networks, unless the network is getting a piece of the action. This is not a good sign for animation artists, but let's take a look at how 1998 treated the big studios.

Silver Surfer. © Saban. Silver Surfer is exclusive property of Marvel Entertainment Group Inc.

The Big Business of Kids
The first big news of the year was that Saban was going to be producing a show based on another Marvel comic character, Captain America. Into the second production storyboard, Saban had a few problems getting Captain America going and had to drop the series. The Silver Surfer had a bumpy lift off for the second season, and never really got off the ground before hitting a wall. Over at Sony, they wanted to start a Starship Troopers animated series, but the movie wasn't the hit they wanted and it became a hard sell. They did have Godzilla though, the blockbuster movie of the summer...which promptly fell flat. However the animated series has become the number one rated new animated series on FOX Kids. Yep! The lizard came to television with a vengeance. Of all the FOX Kids' shows, this was the only new break-out series. The year was indeed off to a slow start.

Godzilla proved to be a bigger creature on the small screen than in theaters. Photo © and 1998 Fox Kids. All Rights Reserved.

In January, CBS announced that they were getting back into the kids market with all new animation for the fall. Wow! That means more work. But wait, CBS also announced that the Canadian animation studio NELVANA would produce their entire Saturday morning line-up of six shows: Franklin, Anatole, Dumb Bunnies, Flying Rhino Junior High, Birdz and Mythic Warriors: Guardians of the Legend. The new line-up marked CBS' return to Saturday morning animated programming after poor ratings in the 1996/97 season caused the network to go with live-action programming in 1997/98. CBS made a last-minute programming decision to move the debut of its new, animated Saturday morning line-up back to October 3, two weeks later than the announced date of September 19. In addition to the entire line-up delay, CBS further pushed back the debut of one of the series, Mythic Warriors: Guardians of the Legend, because of production delays attributed to the "complicated animation techniques" being used for the show. It was replaced with reruns of the NELVANA series, Tales From the Cryptkeeper, and when Mythic Warriors finally appeared midseason, it didn't make much of a ratings impression. Thus far, CBS has received mediocre ratings and still has a second season coming from NELVANA. They unsuccessfully tried to be too FCC-friendly and crashed.

Flying Rhino Junior High is one of six shows produced exclusively by NELVANA for the 1998 CBS fall line-up. Photo © NELVANA Limited.

New player on the block, Rough Draft Studios has been given five episodes of the animated Baby Blues series in addition to Matt Groening's new show Futurama. Thirteen episodes of Baby Blues have been ordered and will air in fall `99 on the WB primetime schedule. The first eight episodes are being completed by Warner Bros. Television Animation. Now over at Warner Bros. they were working on their FCC friendly series, Histeria! Of course it aired, but not enough kids watched it, so Histeria! was canceled and stopped production at 52 episodes instead of the scheduled full season of 65 episodes. Word came out later in the fall that anywhere from 70 to a 100 people are part of a massive lay off at Warner Bros. Television Animation -- just in time for the holidays. This is bad news not only for the people losing their jobs but also for the animation industry as a whole. Pinky, Elymra, and the Brain is also going to Cartoon Heaven and won't be renewed for the `99 fall season as was planned. Let's hope the new Batman Beyond is something of a hit.

Over at DreamWorks, they aren't doing much better. Sure Toonsylvania was a huge hit on FOX, but Saban, for unknown reasons moved it to Mondays and only ordered eight new episodes for the `98/`99 season. Their first and only primetime big budget mini-series Invasion America was a ratings hit on the WB! evening line-up, but was sent to Kids WB! where it did poorly in the fall ratings. Don't look for more episodes anytime soon. The whole DreamWorks TV animation crew was let go mid-summer with no plans for new shows. Again, where could they sell new programs when the network-studios do not want to pay high prices?

NBC quickly canceled Stressed Eric after suffering stressful ratings for the British import. Photo © NBC, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

NBC aired only three episodes of the primetime animated series Stressed Eric before pulling it off the air due to disappointing ratings. NBC's reaction to cancel Stressed Eric may seem to have been premature, but the network is not giving up on the primetime game. In fact, NBC has ordered a fully-animated pilot of a new series created by comedian David Spade (Just Shoot Me). Tentatively titled Peewee, the show is being developed for animation by Sony Pictures Imageworks, for possible launch in January 2000. The pilot should be ready by January 1999.

Not every network seemed to fear the FCC rules requiring a certain number of educational hours of childrens programming. It certainly didn't spell disaster for the networks as projected. In fact, ABC did quite well with their wholesome Disney Television line-up. A lot of networks and studios had other problems besides the FCC, leading to a year that was overall not great, but not too bad either.

A Look Into The Future
Gaze into my dusty, cracked crystal ball toward the big moments and trends of 1999...

...Here's a look at some upcoming cartoons, with some forecasting of my own based on insider talk and loose lips. I will also try to explain why I believe these predictions will come true, and what they may mean for the foreseeable future of animation.

The big question is, as usual, will there be work for the artist? Well, yes and no. There will be new shows to fill the space of all of the shows that failed this past year. But, not all of the work will be done in the U.S. More and more studios are looking overseas for cheaper labor to produce their shows. With fewer studios to pick from, the animation artist will find it a little harder to find the great paying job he or she had last season. The seasons are getting shorter and shorter as well.

There was a time when the bigger studios had work year round, but with all of the majors laying off their crews due to poor ratings, no place to sell their shows or just having the artists work twice as hard to meet shorter deadlines before the holidays with no plans to bring them back until spring...things could get tight.

`Superheroes will make a small comeback,' some say, but past cycles and the history of television animation, say different. Yes, there is still talk of Captain America getting another chance on FOX and even the early return of new episodes of Spider Man, but these ideas are still in the talking stages. Though superheroes were bounding out of every studio in California like The Mask at Film Roman and Men in Black from Sony, spearheading the charge was Warner Bros.' animation crew with Batman: The Animated Series. This stylish masterpiece, with excellent scripts and outstanding production values, had been making the superhero genre respectable once again, but that was then, and this is now.

Hyperion's Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child continued its second season on HBO in 1998. Photo © HBO.

This past year shows like Men in Black, The New Adventures of Superman and Batman and Invasion America had low ratings. Todd McFarlane's Spawn never found the viewership it needed on HBO. Saban's Silver Surfer series with all of its CGI and 2D animation didn't make it to a second season either. This is not good, people. Maybe the kids who watched these shows have grown to look toward other shows like Dawson's Creek or other live-action teen series. Whatever the case, they are not watching superheroes.

HBO will launch its new 24-hour channel, HBO Family, in February 1999, entering the family programming business on a full-time basis for the first time. The network's programming line-up will include several new programs, of which four are animated series aimed at pre-schoolers. A Little Curious is a mixed-media show that is being produced by New York-based Curious Pictures. It will feature CGI and puppet characters based on everyday objects. George and Martha is a 2D animated show based on James Marshall's children's books about two hippopotamuses. It will be produced by NELVANA with Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, as executive producer. Cinar Films will also deliver a 2D animated series, The Adventures of Paddington Bear, based on Michael Bond's classic books, and from Hit Entertainment will come Anthony Ant, a 2D animated story of an ant and his adventures in Antville.

Several already aired animated series on HBO will be moved to HBO Family, like NELVANA's Pippi Longstocking, Babar, and Cinar's The Little Lulu Show and The Country Mouse and City Mouse Adventures. HBO Family will also serve as a testing ground for pilots before they air on the main HBO channel. The Sissy Duckling, an animated musical written and produced by Harvey Fierstein, will air in 1999 and Goodnight Moon, a mixed-media special about bedtime stories that will include animated shorts, will debut in late 1999. Also slated to air are Animated Epics from S4C and Animated Odyssey, a mini-series from Poseidon Pictures. HBO is developing other new projects as well.

Animating Primetime
Other studios will try and get those late night ratings. There was a time when cartoons in primetime were considered TV poison. Remember shows like The Critic, Capital Critters and Fish Police? Things have changed with South Park being the big break out series of the year for late night television. There is a saying in the animation industry..."Nobody wants to be first, but everybody wants to be second." Case in point: every studio wants a primetime hit. King of the Hill sure comes close, but is still not the runaway hit that South Park was for Comedy Central. In 1999 you will get the chance to see a lot of studios take a shot at second place. With shows like...

Futurama, Matt Groening's follow-up to The Simpsons, and Family Guy, 25 year-old newcomer Seth MacFarlane's show, will augment Fox's primetime powerhouse. Futurama has large shoes to fill. Let's hope it is all it's supposed to be. Family Guy (Film Roman) revolves around an atypical New England family and introduces a quick style that features many funny flashbacks.

Roswell Conspiracies (BKN Network, syndicated), produced for primetime by the new BKN Studios (i.e. EPOCH Ink, the same company that brought us Captain Simian and the Space Monkeys), is not based on the comics of the same name. Instead the stories involve mysteries from Area 51 and X-Files-like plots.

The Downtowners. © 1998 The WB Network.

Downtowners (Film Roman) is about a diverse group of teens and twenty-somethings sharing a loft in a fictitious big city. This could be animation's version of MTV's The Real World. Thirteen episodes of this primetime animated series have been ordered, from executive producers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein (The Simpsons).

Dilbert (Columbia TriStar/Sony) is set for a January 25, 1999 premiere on UPN, and is based on Scott Adams' popular cartoon strip of the same name. All pre-production is being done here in the States. The series is being animated in Korea as most are.

Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery (New Line) is proceeding to become a primetime animated series, which will be co-produced by Mike Myers and Erwin Stoff! Myers is planned as the voice of the title role, but no animation house has been selected as of yet.

And even later in the year...

Peewee (NBC, Brillstein-Grey) will feature more primetime David Spade (Just Shoot Me) as a comedy animated series supposedly loosely based on his dysfunctional family. Set to debut in January 2000, this is a sure sign that many people will be hoping that NBC is struck down by the Y2K bug early.

Toons From Planet Orange is a new half-hour special featuring eight animated short films commissioned by Nickelodeon and directed by artists in Australia, Germany, Latin America, U.K. and the U.S.

CGI Will Be Up and Running Next Season
Like I said...everyone wants to be second. Voltron and War Planets are ratings winners. Of course, everyone wants a winner they can call their own. Mainframe was the only player in this field, but not anymore. Every studio wants their version of the hit film of the year like A Bug's Life and Antz made for television. Mainframe is already hard at work on a few new ideas. Looking back into my old, cracked crystal ball I see coming...

The future is anybody's guess, but there are plans for some great things, as well as a few bombs. But, that's the animation field we all love, and no one is really able to gauge a show's success until people turn on their televisions and tune in.

Michael Swanigan has over 25 years of experience in animation having worked as a director, animator, layout and storyboard artist, and development/writer. He is currently a director on World Events' CGI series Voltron. In addition he has published and written several books on animation including Hanna-Barbera's World of Super Adventure and Animation by Filmation. He also publishes and edits the international quarterly animation magazine TOON Magazine.

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