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Draw by numbers

This article was corrected on March 28, 1994,. DIC president Andy Heyward’s name was misspelled in Thursday’s special report on animation.

The cartoon revolution is being televised: Channel by channel on the eventual 500-channel universe, in first-run syndication, on high-tech computer games and through computer-generated images.

Then there’s the expanding international marketplace and the profit bonanza of licensing merchandise, from toys to T-shirts to towels.

The success of mixed-media shows such as DIC’s “Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?” and the ratings domination of Saban’s live-action “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” both on Fox, have made both networks and producers rethink what constitutes children’s programming, how to produce it and how to profit from it.

“The explosion of opportunity and markets is good for every producer, every small boutique, as well as every major,” says Jeff Segal, president of MCA/Family Entertainment and Universal Cartoon Studios. “All these opportunities are great. But on the other hand, the advertising dollar and the subscription base to support this type of programming doesn’t expand with all the options. What was once a $ 300,000 license fee is now a $ 175,000 license fee, or $ 150, 000.

“We’re seeing the growing inclination of exhibitors to want and, in fact, get more of backend of the production. Producers who have to bear the deficit risk find they’re having to share the backend that they used to count on to recoup.”

Every major film studio currently has an entry in the TV cartoon market. The latest are Paramount financing “Duckman” for cabler USA Networks, jointly owned by Par and MCA, and MGM producing 20 new episodes of “The Pink Panther” in-house for a second season of firstrun syndication by Claster TV.

Segal says: “The firstrun market could be seriously impacted by the emergence of a fifth network, whether that’s a Paramount network or a Warners. It will change the way people do business in firstrun.”

For an independent like Saban, the key has been international partnerships to co-finance series like “X-Men.” Saban retains the worldwide TV rights, Fox Children’s Network keeps the U.S. rights, Marvel Entertainment recoups from worldwide publishing and merchandising, and England’s Polygram Filmed Entertainment exploits the worldwide homevideo rights.

“You have to use more international partners,” says DIC Entertainment president Andy Hayward. “The pie’s being divided up into smaller and smaller pieces, and you have to bring in other partners to cover your production costs.”

DIC’s “Hurricanes” was conceived with Scottish Television. “We tried to come up with a project that would travel well in the international markets. Soccer was a theme that everyone could relate to.”

“What’s interesting about today’s market is how eclectic it is,” analyzes Gary Krisel, president of Walt Disney Television Animation. “When we entered the field in the mid-’80s, the syndicated market was completely dominated by boys’ action shows, one indistinguishable from another. The network market was lead by programs like ‘Smurfs’ that were very soft, the networks being very concerned about the level of violence in their programs.

Spice of life

“But kids want variety. The thing that’s different has a big leg up. And we’ll see that pendulum swing every few years. For the near-term, the eclectic nature of kids animation is dividing the audience more minutely. For the first time you have a girls’ show, ‘Little Mermaid,’ which is successful on network television. And it brought a lot of girls to sets. You see a greater segmentation toward niches, where you also have hardcore boys’ action shows that are increasingly aggressive and violent.”

Krisel says shock value is a new element to children’s television. “If you read the press you would think the ratings on these shows is enormous. They just don’t compare at all. But they get the headlines, and that has a big effect on animators, interestingly enough. Particularly the young, gun-slinger animator who is extremely talented. They are less guided by ratings than they are by the press. They think that’s what it takes to be successful. I’m not sure that’s a healthy or mature attitude for the industry.”

Other major studio execs privately say the networks’ broadcast standards and practices have inhibited programming, and that the hot, innovative new shows are now appearing on cable. Several mention USA’s new adult cartoon “Duckman” as an example.

Executive producer Gabor Csupo, who also animated the first three years of “The Simpsons,” certainly agrees. “The tendency lately is that the networks are unfortunately cutting their own throats by being so careful that all the alternative great programming is shifting over. And with that goes the young audience.”

Even at the younger age levels, David Goodman, Saban’s senior VP of domestic television distribution, observes, “The marketplace is moving away from the softer animation. ‘Power Rangers’ has thrown everything for a loop. Part of what appeals to kids is animation, part is live action. It’s not going to be one or the other. A lot is going to be mixed.

“You’re going to be seeing a lot more computer-generated animation, a lot more high-tech virtual-reality look, and the boundaries are going to become less and less defined as to what is strictly a kid’s show. A year ago every programmer would say that a live-action kid show was not going to work in an animation block. But there are no rules.”

DIC’s Hayward agrees with the eclectic, mixed-media outlook for the market. “They’ll always be a place for the Bugs Bunnies and classical cel animation. At the same time, we’re seeing things being developed that are technology-driven. A lot is being conceived with the new interactive technology used for video and computer games. The videogame technology itself is transitioning so that in a year or two everything is going to be on CD-ROM format. There’s a lot of inbreeding going on between the people who work on game development and the creative community working up in the Bay Area.”

As an example, Hayward points out, “We optioned ‘Carmen Sandiego’ three years ago. Originally our intent was to do it as a straight animated cartoon.” The Fox Saturday morning series was based on the computer game designed by Bay Area-based Broderbund Software. “As we developed it, it became a mixture of CGI, classical cel animation, computer graphics, live action, film clips, different styles of cel animation. The bed of the show is a mystery show with two kids searching for a thief, but there’s so much stuff going on in mixed-media bags. The show is doing very well, and we think it’s going to open the door for a lot of innovations.”

Michael Frith, exec VP of Jim Henson Prods., agrees. “So much of what is happening now visually is this mixed-media package. There is a very rich vocabulary of visual media that is available out there. The potential for breaking down the barriers of what used to be thought of as one kind of production or another is terrific.”

Going to the ‘Dog’

A case in point is Henson’s “Dog City” on Fox, for which Frith is exec producer. “Dog City” combines Muppet canines made in New York with animation by Toronto’s Nelvana. Frith expects that new digitizing equipment will allow even more cross-overs between live action and animation.

“Now the puppetry is all shot on video, and the animation is standard cel animation on film. If we want to do any rotoscoping, it become tremendously problematic in time and cost on a Saturday morning budget. There are a lot of wonderful ideas we have that we just can’t do. We’re going to watch a lot of those problems fall away as the various media become more and more possible to integrate through digitalization.”

And old shows will be resurrected with new technology. “Transformers” was successful in the mid to late ’80s. Sunbow Prods. has used computer-generated graphics to give the old animation the look of a videogame. A high-tech video cube rotates with frames opening up within the cube to create futuristic-lookingtransitions from scene to scene of the old show. This “Transformer Generation II” is one of the highest-rated syndicated shows on weekends.

In fact, everything old is new again. Universal has brought back from the dead Frankenstein, Dracula, the Werewolf, Mummy and the Creature From the Black Lagoon as the animated “Monster Force.” It’s all part of a diabolical scheme hatched in the Black Tower.

“At this point we don’t own a network, as our friends at Disney do. We’re not planning to launch one as our friends at Warner Bros. And we’re not Fox,” explains Universal Cartoon’s Segal. “Exhibition being a very important and crucial issue, we’ve decided to take a stab at firstrun syndication. We’ve launched the Universal Family Entertainment Network with the first 13 half-hours of ‘Exosquad,’ and we’ve added a second show to that mix, ‘Monster Force,’ which takes and rejuvenates the Universal monsters in a thriller-action show with comedy.”

Disney’s Krisel admits, “We always have the Disney Channel — which is a great outlet for our product — but none of our TV cartoons has come full cycle yet to get back to the Disney Channel. ‘Ducktales’ has now been on for seven years, and we’re still waiting for it to get a run on the Disney Channel.

“As a special benefit for our subscribers, it gives a sneak preview of our series before they go out to the other distribution outlets. It’s frankly good marketing for us, because it gets the word of mouth going on our shows before we ever get into major distribution.”

U is emulating Disney by putting the finishing touches on a new, 10,000 -square-foot cartoon studio, one of the larger facilities in L.A. They will be doing syndicated shows, a network show and animated movies on the Universal lot. “We send out for ink-and-paint and camera, but essentially they are designed here, written here, and the animators are here on the lot,” says Segal. Previously, U had farmed out its TV animation to San Francisco’s Colossal Studios and Toronto’s Nelvana.

Segal views the current explosion of animation as “a double-edge sword. Competition for available timeslots is stronger than ever. The number of individual artists, designers, model makers is not expanding as fast as the demand for animation. At some point there’s going to be a saturation. And a backlash. Maybe a show like the ‘Morphin Power Rangers’ signals a return to live action. Who knows?”

One backlash has occurred in Washington with the Children’s Television Act, which requires broadcasters to provide programming that serves kids’ “educational and informational needs.”

“The jury is still out on what the FCC is looking for,” says syndicator John Claster, prexy of Claster TV. “The issues still are if one half-hour a week is enough. Or do you need to do something Monday to Friday? When the first license renewal relative to the education act comes up, how will the commission respond?”

All of this has affected production. “There are definitely more shows answering that need,” Claster says. “Clearly more people have provided educational programming, and the stations have bought it. Stations definitely have moved to acquire programming in that genre.”

MCA’s Segal says, “Like everybody, we’re trying to understand where the market is going, where the opportunities are, and develop programming for those opportunities. And it’s very tricky at the moment.”

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