New wave of cable toons hit primetime

Twenty years after “The Simpsons” brought animation back to primetime, a new generation of series — and networks — are getting into the toon game.

This time it’s cable that is aggressively pursuing the adult animation world, as a new wave of toons are set to hit the small screen over the next several months.

FX entered the genre last week with a sneak preview of “Archer” (which returns in January), while Nick at Nite recently bowed its first animated series, “Glenn Martin, DDS.” Also, Comedy Central execs say they plan to dramatically beef up their toon lineup — with an eye toward an animation block — starting with original episodes of “Futurama.”

HBO has ordered a second season of “The Life and Times of Tim,” and even TBS plans to join the mix, via the upcoming “Neighbors from Hell.” And Cartoon Network’s latenight companion channel, Adult Swim, continues to score big with its block of animation, even securing several Emmy nods for “Robot Chicken.”

As for the broadcasters, Fox isn’t about to give up its self-proclaimed “Animation Domination” title. The net, where the modern primetime animated series began, is looking to aggressively replenish its arsenal, starting with this month’s “Family Guy” spinoff “The Cleveland Show.”

Twenty years ago, the idea of a primetime animated series was beyond far-fetched; it was seen as unlikely as the rebirth of the Western, or the variety show (two more moribund genres that have so far resisted attempts at revivals).

“The Simpsons” came about thanks to a few lucky breaks, having come out of interstitials on Fox’s unconventional “The Tracey Ullman Show.” Fox itself was an infant, and had more freedom to dabble in genres that weren’t the primetime norm. (“Ullman,” after all, regularly featured music numbers).

It took a while for Fox to duplicate that success. But now the net’s track record is unprecedented, especially given the other broadcast networks’ inability to get into the game.

Animated series aren’t as easy as they look — witness the quick collapse earlier this year for Fox’s “Sit Down, Shut Up” and ABC’s “The Goode Family.” CBS also came up short with its adaptation of the U.K. hit “Creature Comforts,” while NBC’s CGI attempt earlier this decade, “Father of the Pride,” lasted only a few months.

But in success, an animated series can remain a potent player for years, and make a mint for all involved. Animated half-hours are also powerful tools in the fight to bring young men back to the TV screen. And in the case of cable’s increased interest in the genre, the computer age has made some shows much cheaper to produce.

“There’s the repeatability, they seem to have a longer lifespan and when successful, they appeal to the broadest possible audience,” said Nickelodeon/MTV Networks Kids and Family group prexy Cyma Zarghami, who notes that adult animation is in parent MTV Networks’ DNA, going back to the days of “Beavis and Butthead.”

20th Century Fox TV chairman Gary Newman says there are few things as lucrative in TV as having a successful animated show on a network. “The Simpsons,” after all, has repped a multi billion-dollar industry for News Corp.

“It’s the engine that allows us to have all sorts of ancillary revenues of distribution — syndication, home entertainment, licensing and merchandising,” he says.

Most of 20th’s success has come thanks to sister net Fox, where “Simpsons,” “King of the Hill” and “Family Guy” have flourished.

That team has been busy developing several new animated half-hours for Fox, with two — “Bordertown,” from Mark Hentemann, and “Bob’s Burgers,” from Loren Bouchard and Jim Dauterive — on the hot list.

Fox and 20th last year expanded on their commitment to the form, jointly launching the Fox Inkubator program to help cultivate the next generation of animation creators. The program works with animators and writers in developing shortform animation content.

“We’re not looking at these shorts as pilots,” Newman says, “but we’re looking at nurturing young voices and when we find someone who can demonstrate they have a voice, we marry them with a supervisor and move them forward.”

The studio has also broughton an exec, Jennifer Howell, to serve as senior VP of a dedicated animation department to handle its growing output.

Beyond Fox, Newman is pleased to see many more outlets enter the fray, and is now bullish on expanding into cable.

“There’s just one broadcast network playing the animation game, so almost by necessity you’ve got to grow it beyond just Fox,” Newman says. “Cable’s a natural place to expand. We’re excited about our ‘Neighbors from Hell’ (which 20th is co-producing with DreamWorks), and certainly we’re looking at Comedy Central, Cartoon and FX.”

The shift to cable requires a slightly different economic makeup, but execs note that modern computer technology makes it easier, faster and cheaper to produce an animated show today than when “The Simpsons” first relaunched the genre.

“We’re trying to do stuff that’s low cost, and there are ways now to do animation on a modest budget,” says FX exec VP Nick Grad. “I think audiences now don’t make much of a distinction (between animation and live action). Animation doesn’t have the same stigma that it used to. People don’t put animation in the bucket as only for kids.”

If anything, today’s live-action comedies owe a major debt to the “Simpsons.” Shows like “30 Rock,” “How I Met Your Mother” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” have been using more animation cues — quick cuts, asides, lots of absurdities — that originated on “The Simpsons.”

Now even the TV Academy is finally recognizing animation as something more than just a cartoon. “Family Guy” broke down that wall this year, scoring the first outstanding comedy Emmy nomination for an animated series since “The Flintstones” in 1961.

“For the talent involved, the writers, the artists, the actors, the animators, it’s incredibly gratifying to see them recognized by the people in the Academy,” Newman said. “The work they’re doing compares with the best live-action comedies now on the air.”

The growth of the animation biz has also sliced the genre into several subcategories, and each series has its own distinctive look. “Glenn Martin,” for example, uses stop-motion technology (as does “Robot Chicken”).

One thing remains the same, however: These shows can’t rest on the animation alone. They’ve gotta be funny first.

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