MTV, NMTV, Nick butt heads with the cutting edge

MTV, which brought “Beavis and Butt-Head” to Congress’ attention, has plenty of other animated tricks up its sleeve.

“Animation is almost a visual equivalent to music, so it does have a home on MTV,” says Abby Terkuhle, VP, on-air promotion, who oversees “Beavis” and the compilation series “Liquid Television,” and is developing new series.

Terkuhle points out that the net has been using animated 10-second station identification spots since it began broadcasting 13 years ago. “It was immediately a very popular part of our programming, and a few years ago we decided to expand on that, so we commissioned some short animated films to show between videos,” he recalls.

The first of those short films was “Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions” by Henry Selick, who went on to direct Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” After a couple of other shorts had aired, MTV was approached by Colossal Pictures with the “Liquid Television” concept. “LT,” which just wrapped its third season, showcases short animated films in a half-hour format — one of which was the original “Beavis and Butt-Head.”

At about the same time, MTV’s sister network Nickelodeon was doing a little animation exploration of its own.

Herb Scannell, senior VP of programming at Nick, recalls meeting with several of the network’s executives at prexy Geraldine Laybourne’s house “to discuss things we thought current animation did well — and what it didn’t do well.

“We analyzed what the landscape of Saturday morning television was, and it seemed that the rule was the only way you could get a series on the air was if it had a pre-existing concept — New Kids on the Block had a series, M.C. Hammer had a series, ‘Back to the Future’ … you had to bring kids something they already knew.

“We thought that what animation did well was tell good stories with good characters,” Scannell says. “Looney Tunes was our model — those weren’t characters who came from some pre-existing situation, they came from the minds of animators.”

The resulting first wave of what was called Nicktoons –“Ren & Stimpy, “”Rugrats” and “Doug”– was marked by an individuality of style and sounds. “We went after new ideas and characters for series that did not try to re-create the live-action world,” Scannell says, “but a fantasy world that existed in their creators’ imaginations.”

That reliance on the animators’ imaginations, rather than on pre-sold products, is also very much in the forefront at MTV. “It’s creator-based, as music is,” Terkuhle says. “Animation has such an eye-candy quality, which fits the landscape of MTV perfectly.”

The network has fortified its position as a magnet for animators by opening its own animation studio in New York City last year. The second series of “Beavis” (65 episodes) will be produced there, as will “The Head,” a 13-part serial that will share its half-hour with “The Max,” an adaptation of the Sam Keith comic.

Terkuhle describes “The Head,” created by New York-based Eric Fogel, as the comic adventures of “an Everyman named Jim who wakes up one day to find that an alien has set up housekeeping in his head.” The series is scheduled to bow this summer.

Also on the boards is the daily strip “The Grunt Bros.” from Vancouver-based artist Danny Antonucci. The title characters, an order of monks, are “sort of like kittens,” according to Terkuhle. “They respond to what we consider everyday things in different ways — they might fall in love with a lamp.” The brothers will also interact with videos in much the same way as Beavis and Butt-Head.

Meanwhile, this fall Nickelodeon will unveil “Real Monsters,” produced by Klasky Csupo, which also produces “Rugrats.” Scannell compares the character to the Blue Meanies from “Yellow Submarine,””who are trying to learn what it takes to be a real monster and accidentally stumble into the adult world.”

With their animated successes, both networks are finding themselves bombarded by ideas. Terkuhle notes that, with the MTV studio up and running, even “Beavis” animators are pitching ideas. Besides maintaining a presence at the major markets and festivals around the world, MTV is also able to draw on its overseas affiliates for ideas.

Nevertheless, it is sometimes the network that does the arm-twisting. Antonucci originally pitched “The Grunt Bros.” as a 10-second station I.D., “and we were so attracted by the style that it became a series.”

Nick’s “Doug” started life as a mock-up of a picture book by Jim Jenkins, an art director who had worked on the net’s preschool show “Pinwheel.” Vanessa Coffey, then the head of the network’s animated department and now an executive producer on “Ren & Stimpy,” suggested turning it into a series.

“We’re always searching for people with good ideas, and ask them to tell us about their vision, their design, their characters,” Scannell says. “It’s different than a big pitch at a network; it’s much more informal.”

Some of the characters are showing signs of outgrowing their TV networks. “Ren & Stimpy,” already moving piles of ancillary merchandise, will probably wind up on the big screen; Scannell says scripts are still being looked at. “Rocko’s Modern Life,” Nick’s latest animated success, will bow as a videogame in April — the first interactive product from Viacom Intermedia — and on homevideo in the summer.

Meanwhile, MTV is so confident of “The Grunt Bros.” that a videogame is already being developed. And Terkuhle affirms that, having conquered TV, music (the current Geffen release “The Beavis and Butt-Head Experience”) and the halls of Congress, the ever-snickering pair will eventually make their way into movie theaters; a script is being developed.

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