Major investment bears fruit

Nick adds animation on MTV Networks' buck

The results are coming in following last year’s announcement by MTV Networks that it would pump $420 million into the creation of original animation. Most of that — about $350 million —was earmarked specifically for kids cabler Nickelodeon. As a result, Nick is building a state-of-the-art animation studio in Burbank and has doubled the amount of animation it broadcasts, with more increases planned.

But Nickelodeon isn’t the only division that has benefited. Sister web MTV has become a major player with expansion plans of its own, and even Comedy Central — the company’s “mom-and-pop shop,” in the words of Eileen Katz, the network’s senior VP of programming — has entered the fray with four animated programs airing and another on the way for ’98.

It’s all part of a strategic plan by MTV Networks and parent Viacom Inc. to create an evergreen cartoon library of classic characters to someday rival longtime kings Disney and Warner Bros.

“Animation is a great business for MTV Networks,” explains Albie Hecht, Nickelodeon’s president of film and TV entertainment. “Animation travels, like music and sports. It drives ratings for our network and works internationally as a library element and as programming for channels around the world.”

Hecht and MTV executive VP Abby Terkuhle add that there will be more synergy between the various MTV Networks now that Nickelodeon’s new animation facility is almost ready for operation, to go along with MTV’s studio in New York and a smaller, digital studio Nickelodeon runs, also in New York. Animators from each network may use the other’s facilities if circumstances or geography require it.

Here’s an update on the latest animation plans for the three MTV networks:

Nickelodeon

Nick’s multimillion-dollar, 72,000-square-foot animation studio in Burbank — to be run by VP/general manager Mark Taylor —likely will open early in the year. The facility will allow Nickelodeon to go to “full capacity,” in terms of staffing its own animated shows in-house, according to Hecht.

“We’ve already doubled our output of animated shows and we’ll double that again in the next five years,” he says. “We’ve done five series in the last five years, and over the next five, we’ll do at least 12, maybe more. We currently have 240 people at our (temporary) Nicktoons studio in L.A., and when we move into the new studio, we’ll be at full capacity and be able to produce five shows at any given time.”

The new studio, however, does not mean Nickelodeon will stop using creator-driven outside producers, such as animation house Klasky-Csupo, creators of “Rugrats,” and indie producer Fred Seibert, who is currently putting together a half-hour program of animated shorts for Nickelodeon, “Oh Yeah!,” set to debut next year.

Indeed, Klasky-Csupo prexy-CEO Terry Thoren says he expects his studio’s relationship with Nickelodeon to grow even closer. Klasky-Csupo currently is producing the “Rugrats” movie for Nickelodeon Films, set for release next fall, and the company also is back in production on more “Rugrats” episodes after a three-year hiatus. Forty-seven new episodes have been ordered, with 26 running during the current season and the rest likely after the “Rugrats” movie is released.

Klasky-Csupo also is in production on a new show for Nickelodeon, “The Wild Thornberrys,” which will be officially announced in early ’98, and the studio is developing other Nick-aimed concepts as well. The company previously made 52 episodes of “Ahhh! Real Monsters” for Nickelodeon, but that show is now out of production.

Meanwhile, Nickelodeon’s production of primetime entries “Kablam!” and “Hey Arnold” continues with second seasons of both programs. “Angry Beavers,” which premiered in 1996, returns with 40 more episodes and Nickelodeon’s digitally produced “Blues Clues,” aimed at pre-schoolers, has 20 new episodes airing or in production.

Nickelodeon also will premiere a new toon, “Catdog,” next fall. The network will produce 40 episodes of that show, about a half-dog, half-cat creature. That, along with “Thornberrys” and “Oh Yeah!,” will give Nick at least three new animated programs for 1998.

MTV

Terkuhle points out that animation has been part of the MTV culture since the weblet debuted more than 15 years ago with splashy animated logos. That started MTV down a toon path it continues on until this day. “We built on those logos and IDs to commission short-form animation and animated musicvideos,” he says. “That led our show ‘Liquid Television’ to package short animated films. On that show, around 1991, we featured the debut ‘Beavis and Butt-head’ film, ‘Frog Baseball,’ and also ‘Aeon Flux,’ both of which later became series for us.”

Since 1991, of course, “Beavis and Butt-head” has been a huge hit. The characters are now a feature film franchise and the show also led to a successful spinoff for MTV, “Daria,” now in its second season with another 26 episodes greenlit for a third season.

“Beavis and Butt-head,” however, will see their final original episode air this month, as creator Mike Judge is focusing on other projects. But Terkuhle says MTV already is discussing “Beavis and Butt-head” specials with Judge and promises the doltish duo “absolutely” will appear again in some original form on the network.

MTV also airs “Cartoon Sushi,” formatted to highlight original animated shorts. Three half-hours of “Sushi” have aired this year, with another slated for December and more in production for 1998.

Also on MTV’s prep table is “Downtown,” a new series which animates real stories told by real teenagers on the streets of New York. Production is just starting on “Downtown” and Terkuhle expects it to begin airing in July.

Three other shows are in development and Terkuhle says all three could end up on MTV. They are: “Hate,” based on an alternative comic book; “Toxik Foxx,” about an ’80s band trying to make it in the ’90s; and “The Clique,” about four college misfits.

Comedy Central

Comedy Central is proceeding at a slower animation pace, but the weblet had a major hit this year with its highly publicized “South Park,” which is currently airing its first season of 13 episodes and has 13 more in production. That show and the network’s other original cartoon series — “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist,” now in its fourth season with a fifth season up in the air — represent Comedy Central’s animation production model for the foreseeable future: simple animation produced inhouse by producers at small facilities. “South Park” is produced entirely in L.A., while “Dr. Katz” is produced out of a Boston computer facility.

“We mainly try to develop talent, grow our own, so to speak,” says programming exec Katz. “We are a niche programmer with a particular point of view and sensibility, so in general, we look for young talent and shows that can get around traditional procedures and succeed on low budgets.”

Comedy Central is developing a third original program to debut in 1998: “Bob and Margaret,” a co-production with the U.K.’s Channel 4, about a married professional couple, based on the 1996 Oscar-winning short “Bob’s Birthday.” Katz says the network has ordered 13 episodes to start, with the show likely to debut in July.

The network also plans to continue airing existing episodes of two acquired properties that previously had short runs on Fox, “The Critic” and “The Tick.”

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