Fox's success colors webs' plans for more projects

“The Simpsons” has made News Corp. as much as $2 billion over the past 17 years, while “Family Guy” is fast approaching the eight-figure mark for the conglom.

Those figures make the profits behind “Friends” and “Seinfeld” look like chump change. It’s no surprise, then, that network execs are anxious to give the animated genre a shot despite high-priced failures of the past.

Fox is casting a wide net , with two pilot presentations already in the works and several more in development.

And CBS is next up at bat, bowing the Stateside version of hit U.K. animated skein “Creature Comforts” — from Aardman, creator of “Wallace & Gromit” — later this season.

Still, it won’t be easy. Few toon shows have successfully launched in the years since “The Simpsons” made it OK for the nets to go animated — and none has worked outside Fox. That’s why webs haven’t emulated the film studios in saturating the market with a glut of animated fare.

Even Fox execs — who have made finding a new cartoon series one of their key goals this year — don’t take their past successes in the genre for granted.

“Just because you have other animated shows on the air doesn’t mean putting another one on is going to work,” says Fox exec VP Craig Erwich. “The show has to stand on its own.”

Gary Newman, prexy of 20th Century Fox TV, says he’s not sure animation is “any harder” than any other type of programming.

“All comedies are really challenged right now,” he says. “The issues for animation are just different.”

For one thing, primetime toons can’t simply speak to kids.

“Adults are a little resistant to join in,” he says. “There isn’t the same instinct among mature audiences to embrace animation like other comedies.

“The shows that work work because they play beautifully on two levels,” Newman adds. “There are jokes in there for kids and jokes for parents. That’s not easy to achieve.”

Mike Barker, who exec produces “American Dad” with Matt Weitzman and Seth MacFarlane, says finding the right tone is key.

“Unfortunately, there’s a tendency in animation to get zany and be outlandish because it’s animation, so why not get cartoon-y,” he says. “But what’s great about ‘The Simpsons’ and what worked with ‘King of the Hill’ and to a lesser extent ‘American Dad’ was that they’re all a little more grounded.”

Then there’s the problem of how long it takes to produce primetime-worthy animated pilots.

The crude style of animation used on “South Park” gives the Comedy Central skein the ability to quickly turn around new episodes. Level of animation on shows such as “The Simpsons,” however, means it takes up to nine months to write and produce a single seg.

Production lag doesn’t matter once a show is an established hit; nets simply produce episodes well in advance.

But for new shows, the lag time becomes a handicap.

f Fox decided today that it wanted to develop an animated comedy about cavemen lawyers, for example, it couldn’t get it on the air by next fall.

“You just can’t go that fast,” Newman says. Developing a pilot presentation and then producing enough episodes for a first season can take well over a year — an eternity in TV land.

“A network may have a programming need when they greenlight a pilot presentation and then might not have that same need 18 months later,” Newman says. “It can be scary.”

Still, the return to animation comes as the nets continue to languish in the half-hour sitcom department. And even if a laffer works, mega-backend coin is no longer guaranteed.

As for toon hits, once they develop any sort of audience, the shows offer up an ancillary market bonanza.

“The hits are so successful, you’d see how everyone would keep trying,” says Al Jean, exec producer of “The Simpsons.” “An animated show can be extremely profitable.”

Shows like “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons” have been huge on DVD, as well as internationally. And the licensing and merchandising revenue can be enormous, as evidenced by the scads of Stewie and Bart Simpson T-shirts and dolls lining store shelves.

They’re also much more cost-efficient than in the past.

“It used to be more expensive to do animated shows, but I don’t think that’s the case now that live-action shows have gotten more expensive,” Newman says.

And unlike live-action shows, there’s no natural time limit on how long they can last.

“These shows can stay on the air for as long as the production team can come up with good stories,” Newman says. “And the characters don’t age.”

It’s not hard to see why, despite the odds of success, Fox continues its quest to find animated hits. Right now, the net is developing a pair of primetime projects from 20th.

Robert Smigel (“Saturday Night Live”) and Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison banner are developing “Animals,” which will spoof suburbia from the point of view of four-legged creatures.

“American Dad” scribe Dave Hemingson is working on family laffer “Two Dreadful Children.” It’s about fraternal twins, born into a redneck family, who also happen to be geniuses.

While CBS is producing “Creature Comforts,” Fox is, for the most part, the only game in town when it comes to primetime animation.

One reason Fox is able to try more animated shows is that it’s the only net to develop a hit to serve as a launching pad for new shows: first “The Simpsons” and now “Family Guy.”

“It always goes in waves,” Jean says. ” ‘The Simpsons’ triggered a bunch of shows, including (Jean’s own) ‘The Critic.’ But they were all met with modest success, at best — until the last one of that wave, ‘King of the Hill.’ ”

In the wake of “King,” a second wave of animation resulted in a few successful entries (“Futurama,” “Family Guy”), but most were DOA (“Mission Hill,” “Dilbert,” “God, the Devil and Bob”).

With a slew of animated corpses littering the primetime graveyard, the broadcast webs eventually lost interest in the form.

But then came the wild success of Cartoon Network’s grownup spinoff, Adult Swim — as well as the explosion of hit TV animation titles on DVD.

NBC attempted to change the game by introducing the ambitious CG entry “Father of the Pride,” from DreamWorks TV. But that pricey entry — meant to be a centerpiece of the Peacock’s 2004 lineup — didn’t impress viewers.

But as cable continues to make waves in animation –coupled with the return of Fox’s “Family Guy” and the nascent success of “American Dad” — a third wave of primetime animation has begun.

“Our animation is a vital part of our brand,” Erwich says. “We’ve got a long history of it. To us, creatively, it’s a very vibrant place to develop.”

Fox even resurrected “King of the Hill,” which was left for dead but will now return in January. With four animated shows now in their stable, the net is desperate for a fifth.

Meanwhile, the Internet has expanded the pool of producers.

“People are doing their own animation on the Net,” Newman says. “It’s become a much more competitive landscape. It’s not as easy as it was a few years ago.”

Expect things to crest next summer with the long-awaited arrival of “The Simpsons Movie.” Pic is sure to bolster interest in the franchise, which could very well augment other animated skeins.

“Maybe this movie is an opportunity to bring some of the older viewers back to the show,” Newman says.

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