Consolidation brings isolation

NEW YORK — Consolidation in the kids TV business has left animators part of a closed society these days.

Where producers once were part of a freewheeling competition for slots, there’s now a virtual panic among suppliers who fear being shut out of the pipeline.

The reason is obvious. In the past two years, top tooner Walt Disney Co. bought ABC, and immediately set about populating the Alphabet web’s Saturday morning schedule with inhouse product, while Warner Bros. Animation has used its WB weblet as a prime distribution outlet.

Since merging with Turner Broadcasting last year, Warners now also has the option of using Turner networks, such as the Cartoon Network, as an outlet for both WB toons and product created by Turner subsidiary, Hanna-Barbera, although thus far, only older cartoons from the WB library have appeared on the Cartoon Network, which continues to air new and pre-existing Hanna-Barbera product as it did before the merger.

Likewise, last year, Viacom-owned Nickelodeon created a three-year, first-look deal with prolific indie toon house, Klasky-Csupo, to guarantee itself a steady supply of offbeat product a la “Rugrats.” Another major consolidation is the pending merger between ratings’ leader Fox Kids Network and Saban Entertainment, which will solidify a production pact already in place.

Because of these maneuvers, major independent animation studios which are normally prolific producers of TV cartoon fare — like Film Roman and Canada’s Nelvana, for example — are facing increasing obstacles in getting their own shows cleared on broadcast and cable outlets.

That’s especially true in the U.S., where major players now have their own prolific suppliers to depend on or, in the case of ratings-challenged CBS, have abandoned animation entirely. (NBC dropped Saturday morning cartoons years ago.)

Things have gotten so tenuous that Fox’s cancellation of Film Roman’s “C-Bear and Jamal” (a decision later reversed, as the show will now air once a week this fall on Fox, but no longer on Saturday mornings) led the price of Film Roman’s newly public stock to plummet 40% in February, illustrating just how vulnerable indies have become. Further, when they do agree to take on independently proudced shows, networks now routinely demand a financial stake, in order to profit from the back-end and merchandising deals that hits bring.

The two biggest guns in the industry readily admit their own predisposition toward inhouse product, and their insistence on ownership when dealing with outside suppliers, hasn’t made life easy for indies.

“It’s very tough for independent producers right now,” says Jean MacCurdy, president of Warner Bros. Animation, which supplies the bulk of programming for the Kids WB.

“But it’s important we do have some shows from the outside; we need the diversity. When the same studio starts producing a slew of shows, they all have a similar feel.”

Other players share that view.

“We never want to have all our shows produced by one supplier,” says Margaret Loesch, chairman and CEO of the Fox Kids network. Nevertheless, Saban will produce half of the 14 Saturday morning and weekday strips on Fox’s schedule next fall. And of only two non-Warners shows on the WB’s schedule, one — a promising series called “Calamity Jane” featuring a rare female hero. Even that program has indirect ties to the studio in the sense that MacCurdy arranged to have that series’ French producer, animation house Contreallee, subcontract animation work to WB.

Of course, for those studios allied with distribution outlets, the marriage couldn’t be more attractive: It’s a prime motivator behind the Fox-Saban deal, and is the first tangible programming benefit that Disney has found in ABC.

“Our programming philosophy’s in harmony with Nick,” says Terry Thoren, CEO at Klasky-Csupo, who views the burgeoning kids cable web as “the perfect environment for our point of view.”

Still, while broadcast and cable outlets have come to depend more heavily on their producer partners, these alliances are by no means exclusive affairs. The available slots on any given broadcast network make it impossible to support all of a studio’s output.

Saban has a sizable syndication business that effectively competes with Fox; Disney has its own syndie block and the Disney Channel.

Even Klasky-Csupo — despite plenty of all-day time periods on Nickelodeon — produces the weekly “Duckman” for USA Network, although another series, “Santo Bugito,” flopped on CBS.

The influence of these alliances already is most keenly felt not on flops or hits, but on marginal shows that will get renewals from network partners but rejection from others. Already producers can cite several examples of what they see as evidence of that trend.

But some argue that despite the distribution hurdles, successful shows will find their places on program lineups — that is, if they have a chance to succeed in the first place.

“It’s still a competitive market where shows have to deliver,” says Barbara Fisher, president of Universal Television Entertainment. “In that sense, even though they may have alliances, I don’t think there’s a network out there that wants to close itself off completely.”

Execs also point out that, with new kid-targeted cable webs in the works at Disney, Fox and Discovery Networks, the demand for programming will fuel business even for the so-called independents. Still, those webs’ initially small audiences will dictate lower license fees, which in turn will crimp production budgets and possibly a show’s animation quality.

“The economics are going to be tough,” Fisher says. “Maybe everyone’s going to have to come to terms with being a little different.”

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