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Adult Animation: Toons Grow Up

Aug 30, 2004  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Alan Hill

Special to TelevisionWeek

Bart Simpson’s neighborhood is far more crowded than when he first hit the small screen in 1987.

Animated programming geared for adult audiences in prime time and late-night was once a rarity, but today, thanks to the growing cable landscape, swifter production technology and an audience-particularly males 18 to 34-hungry for different forms of entertainment, the genre has a respectable piece of the overall TV programming pie.

Fox developed several potential animated comedy series for the 2004-05 prime-time season and picked up “American Dad” from Seth MacFarlane and its own Fox Animation as a midseason entry as well as additional episodes of Mr. MacFarlane’s “Family Guy” series for next summer. Other networks, including Comedy Central, Cartoon Network and the Sci Fi Channel, have found an adult audience for animation. Even HBO may soon come on board.

“Animation lends itself to satire more easily than live action,” said Craig Erwich, executive VP, programming, for Fox. “The potential scope of the imagination in animation is greater, and adult audiences react to that. For example, you couldn’t portray a radioactive Homer Simpson in live action.”

Erik Richter, co-creator of “Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law,” one of the successes of Cartoon Network’s weekly, six-night Adult Swim 11 p.m.-5 a.m. programming block, explained the form’s success another way: “Certainly cartoons used to be just for kids, but we grew up,” Mr. Richter said. “When you can write something and both a 7-year-old and a 78-year-old laugh, that’s even sweeter.”

Perhaps ironically, when animation filmmaking began early in the 20th century, it was targeted at adults, not children. During the 1920s and 1930s brothers Roy and Walt Disney’s studio began to market cartoons as family fare. Even during that period Warner Bros.’ “Looney Tunes” may have had kid appeal, but the humor in the dialogue was often decidedly adult.

With the advent of television, “Looney Tunes,” “Betty Boop” and other cartoons were relegated to kid-friendly time periods. It was not until “The Flintstones” from Hanna-Barbera premiered in 1960 that there was a prime-time network animated series with a satirical slant for adults. This was followed by Hanna-Barbera’s “The Jetsons” and Jay Ward’s “The Bullwinkle Show,” but even these went to kids platforms for endless reruns.

Attempts to revive animation in prime time mostly failed until Fox spun off “The Simpsons” from “The Tracey Ullman Show” in 1989. Fox’ revenues from the series have hit a reported $2.5 billion in the 15 subsequent seasons.

“`The Simpsons’ completely changed the thinking on animation that appeals to adults,” said Jim Samples, executive VP and general manager, Cartoon Network. “Around the world animation is not just for kids, and that global culture has now penetrated America.”

Lauren Corrao, senior VP, original programming, and head of development for Comedy Central, said the popularity of animation translates to demographic numbers that programmers can understand. “Any network is going to program the best possible shows to lure the audience,” said Ms. Corrao, whose network’s “South Park” just completed its highest-rated season ever this past spring.

“Animation will lure in the 18 to 34 male demographic when you get it right,” she said.

Both Fox and Cartoon Network have found Madison Avenue-friendly key adult demographics with animation. According to Nielsen Media Research, “The Simpsons,” aside from being the longest-running entertainment program currently on the air, leads its Sunday time period in viewers of both genders, 18 to 34, for the 2003-04 season.

According to Nielsen Media Research, Cartoon Network attracts a 13 percent greater audience among men 18 to 34 for its Adult Swim block than does “The Late Show With David Letterman,” and among men 18 to 24 it has a 36 percent greater audience than even late-night leader “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” Cartoon’s ratings among adults 18 to 34 have increased 50 percent for the 2003-04 season over 2002-03, reflecting the success of Adult Swim.

“We started from a position that one-third of our audience was adult, but they were spread around the day,” Mr. Samples said. “We thought we needed a destination for them, so we came up with Adult Swim. It has exceeded our expectations.”

Mr. Samples noted the block has been expanded from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m., and that the network is developing twice as many original programs for adults than for other dayparts.

Cartoon Network has ordered additional episodes of such favorites as “Family Guy,” which had a three-season run on Fox, and “Harvey Birdman” as well as new shows including “The Venture Brothers,” “Squidbillies,” “Tom Goes to the Mayor” and an untitled Seth Green project. The Time Warner-owned network is also planning an animated series based on Aaron McGruder’s politically charged comic strip “The Boondocks.”

Comedy Central has ordered episodes of “Shorties Watchin’ Shorties,” described as an animated stand-up comedy show, and “Drawn Together,” which Ms. Corrao called “the first animated reality show” and is expected to premiere in October.

The network’s “Odd Todd” is an example of how far programmers will go to find successful new ideas. Its creator, Todd Rosenberg, launched the concept on a Web site. It features an unemployed 20-something who’d rather sit at home and watch TV than work in a middle-management job.

“We’ll look for ideas wherever,” Ms. Corrao said. “The competition is fierce, and it is helpful when there is a fan base from something that already exists.”

Animated development is all around the dial. HBO has tapped David Cohen, formerly a “Simpsons” writer, to develop “The Poor Bastard,” with an offbeat world view.

The production-to-delivery time for animation is still longer than with live action, though the time difference has decreased in recent years. The average sitcom can go from script idea to on-air in 12 weeks or less. Animated programs produced overseas with cell animation may take six to nine months for delivery.

Increasingly, animation is entirely produced in the United States. Thanks to Macromedia Flash software, animation can be produced entirely by computer in three to five months, and wherever the animator is based.

Content runs the gamut from fantasy-action to family shows, though the desire to target young adult males is frequently evident. The Canadian-produced “Tripping the Rift” on Sci Fi is set in a comic intergalactic milieu, with its female characters drawn with plunging necklines and ample, bobbing cleavage.

The target audiences are loyal and willing to spend additional dollars to own a piece of their favorites.

“The DVD sales from animation make it even more lucrative,” said Michael Ouweleen, “Harvey Birdman” co-creator. “But if you look at history you also find that animation, particularly animated comedy, holds up over time.”