Cartoon Network @ 20

The debate at Cartoon Network was always about whether the channel was for children or for animation fans of all ages — and it rolled over into internal soul-searching about the target auds for original programming.

Cartoon Network has marched to its own drummer since its 1992 debut, when the novelty of a channel that only showed cartoons — and that had the vast libraries of Hanna-Barbera, MGM and Warner Bros. to lean on — was more than sufficient to get people to tune in.

Even with the cabler reaching its 20th anniversary, the debate hasn’t gone away.

“We are going to be about a psychographic, not a demographic,” says Cartoon Network chief content officer Rob Sorcher, referring to animation fans as the former. “That tension is responsible for a lot of the success of Cartoon Network.”

It spilled over into the network’s first forays into original series, which most notably included such disparate skeins as “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” and “Dexter’s Laboratory.” One of the keys was that Cartoon Network’s shows have always been storyboard-driven — created by artists — instead of script driven.

Network execs were also largely hands-off, giving wide creative latitude to talents like Genndy Tartakovsky (who created “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Samurai Jack” and the microshorts series “Star Wars: Clone Wars”) and Craig McCracken (“Powerpuff Girls” and “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends”).

“They were the true voice of the beginning of Cartoon Network Studios,” says Cartoon Network prexy Stuart Snyder. “We owe tremendous amount of our success to both of those individuals for our great launch of Cartoon Network originals.”

Says Turner Broadcasting chairman and CEO Phil Kent: “Stu and his team give talented people freedom to do their best work, and they leverage that creativity in smart and strategic ways to differentiate the brand, speak to different audiences and grow the business.”

J.G. Quintel, the creator of the network’s Emmy-winning “Regular Show,” says the free hand the network gave to its creators became apparent to him when he saw in the CalArts animation archives that the student-film versions of “Dexter” and “Powerpuff” looked identical to the eventual series. “It was an inspiration to see that,” he says.

It’s a method that continues, with Quintel saying he pitched “Regular Show” with little more than a sketch on a sticky note and got the OK to begin developing it.

“It was a big learning curve,” Quintel says. “They don’t tell you exactly what to do. They let you make the show and they let you learn from your own mistakes.”

At the time, animation had been largely seen as a genre only for kids. Most TV animation was limited to the Saturday-morning time block, pubcaster preschooler fare or syndicated shows based on toys.

Cartoon Network, on the other hand, was run mostly by animation fans and animators in their early 20s, helping to give an element of hipness to the channel.

“The concept was so novel that it drew a wide audience,” says Sorcher, who was a senior veep with the network at launch. “We shot to the top once we figured out how to package and curate all that.”

Says Kent: “Successful networks evolve. They change with their audience, and they bring and build new fans. That’s especially important — and tricky — in the kids business, (whose) interests and tastes change so rapidly and where questions of what’s appropriate and responsible guide every decision.”

An early digital adopter, Cartoon Network’s website is currently the No. 1 domain with kids 6-11, and the site has had more than 9 million unique visitors per month in 2012. Paul Condolora, senior veep of digital & Cartoon Network Enterprises, says the company’s early investment in digital content paid off.

“We made a name for ourselves from early on around games tied to our shows,” he says. “That’s been a beneficial investment.”

The split between the adult and children’s sensibilities came into focus by the late 1990s. Demographics showed a strong primary appeal to children, but with, as Sorcher notes, a third of the audience being adults, there was room for them as well. That led to the launch of Adult Swim, a block of adult-oriented, late-night animation aimed at young adults.

With Adult Swim leading the charge for older viewers, Cartoon Network has focused more on young viewers, taking the charge around the world to broadcasters abroad and online through digital. Snyder says “Ben 10″ generated $3 billion in consumer products revenues and shows like “The Amazing Adventures of Gumball” and “Adventure Time” — a hit across age and gender demographics — building into the next major franchises.

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