Cablers bare it all for men’s attention

Networks creating more adult animation

A correction was made to this article on July 22, 2003.

Adult animation has finally become big business on cable.

Cartoon Network has its five-nights-a-week Adult Swim block; Spike TV just unveiled the Strip, its brand-new Thursday night programming; Comedy Central will soon add two more adult toons alongside its “South Park” mainstay; MTV hopes its new “Spider-Man” teen toon will scale the ratings; and Showtime, BET and the Sci Fi Channel are set to leap into the fray with animated offerings complete with drug-addicted ferrets, single girls behaving badly and sexy cyborgs.

For the most part, broadcast nets abandoned the idea of developing animation some time ago, creating a natural breeding ground for adolescent-at-heart writers at the cable networks.

“Those writers who prefer the freer form are available and you get networks that want to do something different to establish themselves as an alternative,” says Comedy Central senior veep Lauren Corrao. “Animation allows you to push the boundaries and be more subversive than live action.”

Why the resurgence?

“A decade ago there were many television shows for adults following the success of ‘The Simpsons,’ ” says Warner Bros. Animation president Sander Schwartz. “Some survived but most failed. All it takes is another hit for everyone to jump back into it.”

Schwartz says the renaissance is partly due to a larger number of outlets and more dollars available on cable networks to support the production of animated programming, such as that aimed at niche audiences like the 18-to-34 male demographic.

Spike TV, the station formerly known as TNN freshly relaunched as the “first network for men,” had its highest-rated premiere ever June 26 with 2 million viewers peeping at Stan Lee’s “Stripperella,” voiced by Pamela Anderson. The entire block, featuring John Kricfalusi’s new “Ren & Stimpy’s Adult Party Cartoon” and Kelsey Grammer-voiced “Gary the Rat,” outperformed the previous year’s 10 p.m.-midnight timeslot by 61%.

“We decided not just to launch one show and see if there was an appetite for it, but to make a statement and launch a block. It was pretty risky and compared with some of our other programs it was pricey,” says Peilin Chow, vice president of production and development for Spike TV, of the network’s approach.

Among a further 18 animated projects in development at Spike TV are “Howard Stern: The Teenage Years”; Klasky Csupo’s “The Immigrants,” voiced by Eric McCormack and Hank Azaria; “Zilch & Zero,” with John Leguizamo; and Wesley Snipes-voiced “Strays.”

Unlike animated bigscreen features, the success of the animated cable shows can be hard to quantify.

Cartoon Network’s Mike Lazzo believes if a show makes it to air, it stands a good chance of being a financial success.

“If you can create a sizable delivery with your shows which is going to impact your advertising revenue, you’ll be fine,” he says. “We don’t have to generate a huge network-size audience, and in the case of some of our off-network acquisitions where we didn’t have to pay production costs, it’s very inexpensive. So it’s hard not to make a lot of money.”

There’s more at stake than just profits, however.

“If what we put on gets talked about, if it gets written about, if people watch it, if people communicate on our message boards about it, all of those for us are positive factors. They all define success for us,” says Showtime executive vice president of original programming Gary Levine, whose adult series “Free for All,” from Film Roman, premiered July 11.

“There’s no advertiser paying us more if it does better or less if it does less well. One of the nice things of being in premium cable is the criteria of success are much more forgiving and flexible.”

Given the success of adult, animated fare, can these shows make the jump to the bigscreen?

“I think it’s to do with breadth of appeal. If you can train an audience to appreciate adult-minded animation, you can develop those audiences,” says Levine.

Film Roman vice prexy-general manager Kevin VanHook is confident there will be a market for adult-oriented feature animation, despite the fact that America traditionally equates animated fare with kids. He sees television series such as Sci Fi’s “Tripping the Rift” and Showtime’s “Free for All” as precursors to more feature-length animation.

“The seeds that we plant today in television, will be something that theatrically we may be reaping 10 years from now,” says VanHook.

“The first time one of those pictures pops, then it’ll create more of an opportunity,” says Schwartz. “But any change will be glacial and evolutionary. I don’t think that’s going to be a huge market any time soon.”

For comic-strip writers, many of whom grew up on a diet of “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill,” all these new opportunities are a welcome break.

“There’s simply not a lot of real estate for comic strip artists,” says “Free for All” creator Brett Merhar, citing 53-year-old Peanuts is still one of the widest syndicated strips. “With TV you have all these new stations and they’ve finally beefed up the budgets so they can afford it.”

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