Cartoon Network @ 20

To understand where Cartoon Network is headed, it helps to have a look back.

When Turner Broadcasting purchased animation studio Hanna-Barbera Productions in 1991, it quickly looked for a way to capitalize on the enormous toon catalog that came with the deal.

A year later, Turner launched Cartoon Network, cable television’s first network devoted entirely to a creative medium that previously was synonymous only with Saturday mornings.

At first, Cartoon Network served primarily to showcase cartoons that Turner had housed in its vast library, but when it began producing its own original content in 1994 (“Space Ghost Coast to Coast”), Cartoon Network’s vision as a studio began to take shape.

It would no longer be the parking lot for what other studios had produced. Instead, Cartoon Network would work with creators to produce toons that would go on to set the trends for modern-day animation.

“We’re seeking to find artistic talent — true artistic genius — and then create the conditions for them to succeed,” Cartoon Network chief content officer Rob Sorcher says.

In the ’90s, Cartoon Network found that true artistic genius in Genndy Tartakovsky (“Dexter’s Laboratory”) and Craig McCracken (“The Powerpuff Girls,” “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends”), whose shows quickly became the face of the network. But the network’s production future now lies in the hands of a new generation of talented creators who are as influenced by the films of David Lynch as they are the cartoons of Tex Avery.

Pendleton Ward is the creator behind the network’s top-rated hit, “Adventure Time,” a show that follows the adventures of a 14-year-old boy named Finn and his magical dog, Jake, as they fight off monsters in the Land of Ooo. Now in its fourth season, the show has become a $100 million global phenomenon since its debut in 2010.

Ward believes the success of “Adventure Time” is not only due to what the show is, but also where it’s housed.

“Cartoon Network really lets me do what I would like to do with the show,” he says. “We have a lot of freedom. And I’m not just saying that. I feel like this is the one place right now where you can actually do something like this.”

Creator J.G. Quintel and his popular series “Regular Show” have also had a hand in carrying the Cartoon Network banner forward. Originally conceived for the studio’s animated shorts program, “Regular Show” follows two friends, a blue jay named Mordecai and a raccoon named Rigby, as they work as groundskeepers at a local park. The show’s surreal tone and witty dialogue have made it a fan favorite among kids and adults.

Quintel says the studio’s trust in its creators is key to producing shows that work on all levels.

“I don’t think ‘Regular Show’ could have been made anywhere else,” he says. “If I had pitched this anywhere else, it probably would have gotten ripped to shreds going through development.”

In recent years, animation storylines have become more irreverent in both comedy and tone, and “Adventure Time” and “Regular Show” are leading that charge. While some may chalk this trend up as being random for the sake of randomness, others are taking note of how groundbreaking these shows truly are. Both “Adventure Time” and “Regular Show” have been nominated for an Emmy for short-format animated program, with the latter winning this year.

Though the success of their shows continues, Ward and Quintel have passed the torch on to a pair of creators who will debut two shows on the network.

Pete Browngardt, who got his start working on the network’s “Chowder,” will helm “Uncle Grandpa,” a show inspired by a short he produced for the studio years earlier. And Rebecca Sugar, who is known for her writing and storyboard work on “Adventure Time,” is heading up “Steven Universe.” Both shows are slated for a late 2013 launch.

Sorcher says with these two new shows, all the pieces are falling into place.

“This lineup is cementing Cartoon Network Studios as being the driver of the next wave of animation.”

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