Spike Retooling Its Toon Strategy

Nov 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Spike TV yanked its much-touted animation slate from its schedule last month, putting “Gary the Rat,” “Stripperella” and “Ren & Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon” on hold until next year. The move prompted intense industry speculation that the first network for men may be retreating from its high-risk efforts to create animation for an adult audience.
Not true, said Kevin Kay, executive VP of programming and production for Spike TV.
“We played them a lot,” Mr. Kay said. “They were all over the schedule and did well, and at one point we thought, `Let’s take them off’ so they don’t burn out. And it’s so funny, because I’ve been hearing rumors that `Stripperella’ had been canceled before it even went on the air.”
Mr. Kay said the network is developing several new toons, including “Big-Headed People” from producer Warrington Hudlin (“House Party,” “Boomerang”). It is a political satire featuring characters with huge heads discussing everything from Osama bin Laden to what it’s like to be a black Republican.
“Big-Headed People” joins a development slate that includes projects involving Hank Azaria, Howard Stern and John Leguizamo, all of which are expected to become part of the Thursday night block dubbed The Strip.
The long-term plan is to develop The Strip as a permanent block of rotating original programming. The block will be based on HBO’s Sunday night model-where shows cycle in and out throughout the year-as well as Cartoon Network’s late-night “Adult Swim.”
Cartoon Network President John Lazzo said, however, that Spike faces an uphill battle. “I think Spike looked at us, looked at Comedy Central and `The Simpsons’ and said, `We can do that,”’ Mr. Lazzo said. “But it’s very, very difficult to make this work.”
Thus far, The Strip has been a modest success for the Viacom-owned network since it relaunched earlier this year. In its weekly 10 p.m.-to-midnight block, “Ren & Stimpy’s Adult Party Cartoon” averaged 826,000 viewers, “Stripperella” averaged 801,000 and “Gary the Rat” garnered 755,000. Though hardly a blockbuster performance, all represented double-digit time slot increases from the previous year.
“We wanted to get younger,” Mr. Kay said. “The animation block skewed 27. It helped bring down the median age of the viewer. It’s `Stupid Male Humor Night,’ for lack of a better term. But if you hit it right out of the ballpark-like “South Park” and “The Simpsons”- there’s all kinds of ancillary revenue streams [in merchandising].”
One unexpected complication has been a lack of new episodes from Spike’s most popular animated title. The network ordered nine episodes (an original order of six, then an additional three-parter) of “Ren & Stimpy’s Adult Party Cartoon” from creator John Kricfalusi. The network only received three.
Mr. Kricfalusi, now working from his new Spumco studio in Canada, has a history of warring with networks over content and delivery issues. In 1992 he was famously fired from Nickelodeon for pushing the network standards envelope on the original “Ren & Stimpy” series.
A representative for Spumco declined to comment, but Mr. Kay indicated that-despite the delay-new episodes are forthcoming. “John is an incredibly talented artist and he doesn’t want to let anything go until it’s finished,” Mr. Kay said. “He wanted to tweak it a bit more, and we probably pushed him a little fast.”
The fate of the Pamela Anderson-voiced “Stripperella” and Kelsey Grammer toon “Gary the Rat” is more murky, however. Both were pulled after about seven of 13 episodes aired. Mr. Kay said the remaining episodes will run in the first quarter of 2004 when The Strip returns, but the net has not yet decided whether to order a second season.
As for the new Spike TV programming, Mr. Kay said the network has about 18 animated projects in various stages of development. They include:
* “Howard Stern: The Teenage Years:” A self-explanatory look at the shock jock in high school. The series is in the scripting and design stage. Mr. Stern will executive produce and may provide narration, but an actor will voice his character. No completion date is set. “We’re trying to get to a point that Howard feels comfortable with it,” Mr. Kay said.
* “Zilch & Zero:” A John Leguizamo project about two slackers working in a video store who try to draw lessons from their favorite movies. “They’re not so smart and use lessons that they learned from movies in their everyday lives with disastrous results,” Mr. Kay said. The show is tentatively scheduled for next summer.
* “The Immigrants:” Spike TV has ordered six episodes of the series from “Rugrats” producer Klasky Csupo. The show is a broad comedy about two tenement dwellers seeking success in their new country. It stars Eric McCormack and three-time “Simpsons” Emmy winner Hank Azaria. The series should debut in April or May.
Video game-related programming is another genre Spike TV is exploring with its upcoming Video Game Awards. Mr. Kay said one eventual goal of the network is to figure out how to cross-breed video game content and adult animation.
“We want to figure out how to use video games as a part of animation for a series that taps into what the experience is like,” Mr. Kay said. “We’re experimenting with found footage. I think it could be big.”