When buyers of cartoons for TV talk about what they look for, they talk in terms of characters, of course, but also of diversity and balance. Balance between old and new, between entertainment and education, between younger and older viewers. What’s more, they’re doing this balancing act for an audience they are no longer a part of.
Karen Barnes, vice president of development and programming for the Fox Children’s Network, says good cartoons are “good stories well told.”
One she is banking on for next season is a miniseries based on Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi story “Red Planet.” Despite being written years ago, Barnes says the coming-of-age story is full of “characters that kids can relate to.”
For Jennie Trias, president of ABC children’s programming, the cartoons that work are those that strike chords with children.
Consider “Masters of the Universe,” a cartoon action series from several years ago.
“For any child, the idea of holding that sword up and saying ‘I have the power,’ of which we do know they have none — on a psychological basis, I think a lot of that resonates with them,” she says. “That’s an important criterion for choosing shows for Saturday morning.”
ABC retains a psychologist to review children’s shows. The consultant’s job, Trias says, is to answer one question: “Is this something we as adults think kids will like, or is this something kids will like?”
A series at CBS, Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” has proved popular with parents and little girls, says Judy Price, VP for children’s programming and specials. Stories often revolve around the young mermaid’s conflicts with her father and how the two work out problems, certainly a theme children can identify with.
“The Little Mermaid” will continue in CBS’ Saturday morning schedule next fall, and will be joined by Disney’s “Aladdin.”
Price sums up the aim at CBS: “In terms of Saturday morning, what we provide for children is a kind of escape programming, but responsible escape programming that does balance popular properties such as “The Little Mermaid” or “Aladdin” and also leaves room and opportunity for new things.”
Nickelodeon has its own Nicktoons –“Doug,””Ren and Stimpy,””Rugrats” and “Rocko’s Modern Life”– each with its particular appeal. When it comes to acquired cartoons, the kids’ network is looking for some of the same things.
“We look for humor-based, character-driven cartoons,” says Diane Robina, VP of acquisitions. “We go for more evergreen classic characters: Bullwinkle, Underdog, Looney Tunes, Muppet Babies.”
Coming to Nick in April are “Beetlejuice” and “The Alvin Show,” featuring the singing chipmunk.
Robina also buys shorts for specific slots. One spot for them is “Weinerville ,” a comedy show hosted by Marc Weiner, who often appears with his head through a curtain over the body of a puppet.
Animated shorts used on the show are “mostly gems that have been hidden,” Robina says, among them Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing Boing. They fit the look of “Weinerville” because of the “big bodies with little feet,” she says. “I don’t think Looney Tunes would play in that spot.”
Nickelodeon’s preschool fare generallly runs to stories with a moral, she says, with hand-drawn characters. It often comes from abroad, such as “The World of David the Gnome,” produced by Cinar of Canada and BRB of Spain, and animated segments for “Eureeka’s Castle.”
According to Robina, as a source of animation for pre-schoolees, North America is just getting started. Among the more successful work for the younger set, she says, are cartoons based on the classic Madeleine books, from DIC and Cinar, as well as “Babar” from Nelvana.
Diversity is a major consideration in reaching large audiences of children, says Fox’s Barnes. One of Fox’s oldest shows, animator Film Roman’s “Bobby’s World,” will be made into a weekday strip in the fall.
The fall lineup will also include “Tiny Toons” and the “X-Men.””Spiderman,” another Marvel comics hero, will be added, as will the superhero spoof show “The Tick,” animated by Graz Entertainment. Besides offering diversity, the network gets to test ideas.
“There are great things out there that don’t make a good series,” Barnes says. Those ideas, she says, could join the ranks of the short-orders such as “Red Planet.”
The target audience for CBS on Saturday morning is 2-to-11-year-olds. Programs are geared to the older children in its audience, because “younger children will watch up, but the older won’t watch down,” Price says. “A 2-to-5 -year-old will watch fun, lovable characters in a cartoon even if it’s not designed for a pre-schooler. But an 8-year-old is not going to watch pre-school programming.
“Because its audience is diverse, CBS tries to keep its kids’ programming diverse, too. For instance, it tries to work with a large number of suppliers so styles and presentations will be varied,” she says.
Trias says ABC execs decided a couple of seasons ago that “visually, Saturday morning was getting somewhat similar on all the networks.” As a result, “We went looking for visually stimulating shows.”
One candidate the network found, “Reboot,” is computer-generated. “It has the look of a videogame more than anything else,” Trias says. The other is a stop-motion production called “Bump in the Night,” which ABC is co-producing with the creator, Danger Prods. The network has a two-season commitment on the show. “Reboot” and “Bump” are due this fall.
The Cartoon Network is not active as a buyer right now, but it definitely has diversity on its mind. “We’re not out there actively seeking,” says Mike Lazzo, VP of programming. But he adds, “If a studio came in with a project we just loved, we’d listen up.”
The network is a sister company to Hanna-Barbera and has access to Turner’s library. “We have an enormous inventory,” Lazzo says. H-B alone has more than 3, 000 half-hours of animation.
When he started at the Cartoon Network, Lazzo recalls, “one of the first things I saw was that we needed some longform movies.” Acquisitions included Charlie Brown films and “Charlotte’s Web.”
Where it wants to diversify its offerings, the Cartoon Network is putting its money on in-house production.
Hanna-Barbera’s shorts project will bring 48 new short cartoons to the Cartoon Network over two years starting in January 1995. Those animated films will come from a wide variety of animators, and each one is intended to reflect a creator’s approach.
The Cartoon Network is also developing a 15-minute show using segments from a ’60s series “Space Ghost.” Space Ghost interviews celebrities such as Timothy Leary, Judy Tenuta and Susan Powter, author of “Stop the Insanity.” The new show takes animation from the old series, adds new voiceovers and combines it with the interview footage.
Education, too, has to be an issue for the networks. It’s the law.
The networks say they are more than willing to comply, but it isn’t easy.
“The challenge with educational programming for children is to sugar-coat it, ” Price says. “If they think they’re going to be taught a lesson, that’s a discouragement.
“When it comes to Saturday morning, they do have an expectation of fun and escape. Kids have a right to watch a show like ‘Garfield.’ ”
CBS has two largely live-action shows with educational themes, “Beakman’s World,” which teaches science, and “Storybreak,” which promotes reading and has a teacher’s guide for classroom use.
Meanwhile, Fox airs the new series from DIC, “Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?” based on a successful computer game designed to teach children geography. “It’s terrific and getting great numbers,” says Fox’s Barnes. “We’re very committed to the show.”
After watching the show with a group of children, Barnes notes, “They really love the questions that come up just before the commercial breaks. They compete to see who can come up with the answer first.”
Fox expects to announce next month its choice for a weekday morning educational strip for preschoolers. “We’re considering four or five projects now ,” she says.
Message from ‘Cryptkeeper’
ABC has “Cro” from Children’s Television Workshop and Film Roman, and a series that combines message and adventure, “Tales From the Cryptkeeper,” from Nelvana.
“The capital E should be on entertainment, the small e on education,” says Trias of ABC. Storylines for “Cro” have cavemen learning scientific and technical principles by trial and error. “Cryptkeeper” delivers moral tales and sometimes includes educational facts as observations along the way.
At CBS, says Price, “Educationwise we do not look to instill educational values in a show like ‘Garfield.’ That’s pure entertainment, and that’s fine. We also look to have specific educational programs but do them in a fun way.”
Much of the education at ABC is in-house, “trying to understand the developmental psychology of children,” Trias says.
The audience is constantly being replaced. She sees her job this way: “Saturday morning is a stable part of kids’ lives. They move through it. They grow up and leave us.
“I’ll have a whole new batch of kids going through the same issues that the last group of kids have gone through. Now I have to look for a new and different way for them to experience these stories.”