Betting on Adult Toons

Nov 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Cable networks are taking chances on animated programs for grown-ups in unprecedented numbers, but so far those shows have struggled to attain widespread viewer attention.
Comedy Central’s Robert Evans pseudo-bio “Kid Notorious,” VH1’s satiric “VH1’s ILL-ustrated,” Showtime’s “Free for All,” MTV’s update of “Spider-Man” and Spike TV’s “Stripperella” and “Gary the Rat” are among the more daring high-profile efforts that have yet to find a broad audience.
“It’s so hard to do entertainment based on animation,” said Cartoon Network Senior VP of Programming Mike Lazzo. “Programmers want one on their schedule … but it’s very, very difficult to make it work.”
As for why programmers suddenly want adult animation in the first place, Mr. Lazzo has a suspicion.
“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I totally think it’s Adult Swim,” he said.
It might be arrogant, but it also might be true: Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s three-hour, ’round midnight block continues to dominate the attention of young male viewers, regularly pulling in more men 18 to 24 than anything else on cable or broadcast (with the exception of “Late Night With Conan O’Brien”). And competitors have taken notice.
“I think people thought of Cartoon Network as a place for kids, but everybody pays attention to numbers and success,” said Lauren Corrao, senior VP of original programming at Comedy Central.
The genesis for Adult Swim can be traced to the Cartoon Network’s debut in 1992, when executives were surprised to discover that about a third of their audience was 18 and older.
“We were shocked to see that consistently across dayparts, and we knew right then and there [adult programming] had a lot of potential for the network,” Mr. Lazzo said.
In 2001 the network debuted the three-hour Adult Swim block at 11 p.m., two nights a week. Earlier this year, the block expanded to five nights.
For Mr. Lazzo, whose network recently added the “Star Wars” spinoff “Clone Wars,” the new crop of shows represents less of an adult animation renaissance than a common case of trend-spotting.
“When `The Simpsons’ first premiered, within months you had `Capital Critters,’ `The Critic’ and `Fish Police,”’ Mr. Lazzo said. “Then came `South Park,’ and you got `God, the Devil and Bob’ and `Clerks’ and `Sammy.’ It’s just television behaving as television often does.”
One reason for the unique success of Adult Swim is, however, Cartoon Network’s use of repurposed shows that originally built a fan base on Fox-namely Matt Groening’s “Futurama” and Seth MacFarlane’s “Family Guy.” Both struggled for attention on broadcast, then went on to achieve glory in syndication and in DVD sales.
This is particularly the case with “Family Guy,” a show Fox tossed around the schedule like a hot potato and that never seemed to complement its surrounding programs. Since a cartoon is so radically different in content and execution from most other types of programming, it can be crucial to block a show with similar content.
“Animation tends to be a fish out of water,” Mr. Lazzo said. “It can sometimes get a little lost. Networks occasionally just don’t know how to market it or deal with it. Here, we gave `Family Guy’ the perfect environment to succeed in.”
Even with a suitable environment, however, adult animation remains high-stakes programming. Despite positive reviews, enormous publicity and placement on a network known for satirical animation, the Oct. 23 premiere of “Kid Notorious” brought in a respectable, though hardly blockbuster, 1.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. Meanwhile, “VH1’s ILL-ustrated’s” Oct. 17 premiere garnered about 347,000 total viewers; and MTV’s “Spider-Man” premiered July 11 with 825,000 total viewers. Ratings for Showtime’s “Free for All,” which debuted July 11, were not available.
The recent disappearance of Spike TV’s animated slate The Strip, which included “Stripperella,” “Gary the Rat” and “Ren & Stimpy’s Adult Party Cartoon,” is also conspicuous. Though Spike TV said it remains dedicated to resuscitating The Strip in early 2004, it’s unclear whether the network will order second seasons of its original series or move on to new animated concepts.
Kevin Kay, executive VP of programming and production for Spike TV, pointed out that The Strip was a demographic success.
“If you look at the history of our network, the average viewer at TNN was like 57 years old,” Mr. Kay said. “Whereas [the] animation block skewed 27-it helped bring down the median age of the viewer. And at Thursday at 10 [p.m.], you’re not getting older guys anyway.”
Even modest numbers can be an achievement when dealing with animation, as the difficulties involved in pulling off an animated hit are legion. First, American adult animation generally means you’re doing a comedy, which is tough in any format. Then add the responsibility of creating a whole visual universe from scratch. Then subtract the ability to reshoot a scene that’s not working (once a product comes back from the artists, you’re typically stuck with the result).
Not to mention that animation is pricey-a half-hour episode of a premium toon such as “King of the Hill” can cost up to $1 million. Though digital Flash-based animation programs have helped reduce the average production cost for shows such as “Gary the Rat” and “Kid Notorious,” the work is still labor-intensive. And celebrity voice talent drives costs even higher.
On the other hand, a hot adult animation program is guaranteed to attract the much-coveted “lost boy” demographic. Also, quality animation often has a timeless quality-you can rerun an animated hit show for years.
Plus, noted Mr. Kay, “If you hit a show right out of the ballpark-like `South Park’ or `The Simpsons’-that’s a whole other line of revenue in merchandising and ancillary money.”
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that more animated shows are in the pipeline: Spike TV has more than a dozen animated programs in the works. Showtime recently announced the anime import “GTO” for its SHO Next channel. Comedy Central plans to expand its animated slate next year with two new programs: “Drawn Together,” which places traditional animated characters in a reality game show format, and the tentatively titled “House Arrest,” a Denis Leary project where animation is added to stand-up comedy routines to create a new visual component to the jokes.
And let’s not forget the Cartoon Network. Mr. Lazzo said Adult Swim may expand to Saturday night and, if the multiple system operator planets align, to its own network.
“We’ve talked about [an Adult Swim network] for quite some time,” Mr. Lazzo said. “There’s no doubt we could program and produce for one. If we could get the distribution, we’d do it tomorrow.”
The current stance toward animation is reminiscent of a recent episode of “The Simpsons,” where a television executive was asked whether a certain style of programming was a fad.
His blithe response: “Fad or not, it’s here to stay.”