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Seibert plays in MTV’s creative lab

Fred Seibert has long been considered one of the animation industry’s leading advocates of artist-driven cartoons. As president of Hanna-Barbera for five years, until his resignation late last year following the Turner-Warner Bros. merger, Seibert put such fare at the center of the studio’s universe via the ground-breaking “World Premiere Toons” shorts program, which eventually led to three new, full-length cartoon series for the Turner networks and the first new H-B characters in decades.

Artist-driven product also has been at the center of MTV Networks’ animation strategy in recent years. So it wasn’t that surprising when Seibert and MTV Networks got married, in a manner of speaking, in February.

Or, rather, re-married. When Tom Freston, the network’s chairman and CEO, announced he had signed Seibert to an exclusive independent TV production deal, it brought Seibert back into the MTV fold, where he first made his mark in the early ’80s as the creative executive who spearheaded development of MTV’s then-novel animated logos. The deal, which gives MTV, Nickelodeon and VH1 first looks at any animated series created by Seibert’s new production company, Frederator, also allows the former studio exec to get out of the business of the business, and back into the realm of producing, where he says he belongs.

“Being an executive at a studio gave me real insight into what I felt I could bring to the table as an independent animation producer,” Seibert says. “I feel this deal is a perfect fit because of MTV’s philosophy of putting the creative aspects first. With a couple of exceptions, mainly at MTV and Nickelodeon and with ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘King of the Hill,’ TV animation is once again becoming stale. I wanted to continue to be a voice for artistic talent, and MTV Networks was really the only place to do that. Plus, I’ve known everyone at MTV that I’ll be working with for years, and after five years of running a big company, I’m thrilled to be on the other side of the table.”

Initially, most of Seibert’s skills will be utilized by Nickelodeon, although he is already doing consulting work for both MTV and VH1 in the areas of marketing and brand-building. The first show he will produce for Nickelodeon — tentatively named “Oh Yeah! A Cartoon Experience” — will be along the lines of “World Premiere Toons,” a half-hour program, with three new shorts per half-hour. Nickelodeon has committed to 13 episodes for a total of 39 shorts, with each one featuring new cartoon characters and developed by young animators found by the talent-hungry Seibert.

“The show is great for Nickelodeon because it can serve as a character laboratory for us, a launching pad to create spinoff series when hit characters emerge,” says Nickelodeon prexy Herb Scannell. “And it is a perfect project for Fred to develop, because he can seed the format with as many different people as he wants to bring into the tent. That has always been important to Fred — to be entrepreneurial. We will give him the chance to make the kind of shows he always wanted to make because he knows our type of audience so well and knows our philosophy so well. We want to be part of inventing the next generation of cartoon characters, and this move can help us do that.”

Scannell adds that the deal with Seibert is part of the company’s ongoing effort to “lock up creative talent,” a strategy also behind its decision last year to enter into a strategic alliance with Klasky-Csupo — creators of “Rugrats,” among others, and another outfit known in the industry for its creator-driven philosophy.

Seibert happily espouses that philosophy. He practically salivates, for example, when talking about the talent that will be contributing to his new projects. It’s almost painful, in fact, for Seibert to prevent himself from revealing the name of the “19-year-old kid from the Midwest” he recently found to be part of the Nickelodeon project (the “kid’s” deal was not yet final when Seibert spoke with Daily Variety). “He can’t drive a car, but he can draw and write,” Seibert says. “It’s unbelievable. That’s why I’m so happy with the way things turned out.

“At Nickelodeon, they put an emphasis on talent. They put creative executives, rather than financial executives, at the top of their business chain. That’s exactly the type of thing I wanted to get involved with.”

Putting talent first is Seibert’s favorite animation topic. He emphasizes that developing talent and new characters was the most fulfilling part of his five years running Hanna-Barbera. “It was an honor working with talented animators who were able to take the best of the history of that studio and move it into a new generation,” he says, looking back at his H-B run. “I’m very lucky that, everywhere I’ve been, I’ve had such impressive and talented people to make me look good.”

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