Dick Cheney’s quail hunting buddy isn’t the only Texan who recently survived a bullet. Until a few weeks ago, Fox had all but killed off the Lone Star state’s favorite animated son, Hank Hill. “King of the Hill” had been limping along in a tough Sunday timeslot and the network had decided to let the show quietly disappear.
With extra episodes still in the can, production shut down on “King” more than a year ago, even though it continued to air. The show’s writers, vocal talents and production crew had all moved on and “King’s” Century City offices had even been abandoned.
What’s more, co-creator/voice of “Hank” Mike Judge was busy working on new projects, and exec producers Dave Krinsky and John Altschuler were pounding out movie scripts.
“The network had made its peace with ‘King’ wrapping up,” says 20th Century Fox TV prexy Gary Newman.
Then the call came: Fox execs had gone through an 11th-hour change of heart and wanted “King” back after all.
Fox’s decision to revive “King” and order more episodes comes on the heels of another show that the net left for dead, only to see rise again from the Nielsen ashes: “Family Guy.”
Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox TV is close to bringing back a third animated skein that had been axed by Fox — Matt Groening’s “Futurama” — in some limited form.
In the world of animation, characters never really die — especially when there’s still money to be made.
“When you’re lucky enough to create a franchise that resonates with audiences, you have to do everything you can to preserve them — and support their longevity,” Newman says.
That’s particularly true these days thanks to ancillary markets, which has made the afterlife of shows like “Family Guy” and “King of the Hill” even more profitable.
Where marketing and merchandising once made up the lion’s share of secondary profits on an animated skein (in addition to the traditional network license fees and off-net syndie cash), the worlds of new media and technology have opened up several new revenue streams.
The success of “Family Guy” on DVD (as well as on Cartoon Network), after all, is what initially persuaded 20th Century Fox TV to bring that show back. (A skeptical Fox only signed on to the show later.)
A similar surge in interest on cable for “Futurama” — which was hot enough on Cartoon Network that Comedy Central recently stole it away — is what’s fueling the return of that property as well. (20th Century Fox TV hasn’t yet secured a home for new first-run “Futurama” segs, and is still mulling an original DVD release as well.)
It also doesn’t hurt that studios are looking to find ways to make money from clips of animated skeins on mobile phones and via Internet downloads.
“These shows have deeply loyal fan bases,” Newman says. “There’s a great opportunity to exploit that and give the fans what they’re looking for, which is more content. We’re seeing how you can move these fans from one medium to another.
“They love these shows on the network, and follow them to syndication and cable, buy the DVDs, and looking to the future, there’s an opportunity to lead them to cell phones and the Web,” he says. “The point is, we’re about building our brands, strengthening them …. Between syndication, licensing, DVDs, we try to look at this synergistically.”
Newman says the studio is still figuring out how to make money on new platforms like cell phones.
“But even if you’re not monetizing it, you’re strengthening and deepening the roots of your brand — and that has value in and of itself,” he says.
The case of “King of the Hill” reps a more traditional case of a network not realizing what it had — until it was almost too late.
Fox decided to give the show another shot after leftover episodes of the toon skein did surprisingly decently this year, despite frequent pre-emptions and little promotion.
The network’s sibling studio, which continues to reap syndicated rewards off the show, was also pushing Fox to give it another shot.
Also, with “That ’70s Show” and “Arrested Development” ending their runs (at least, in the case of “Arrested,” on Fox), and newcomers like “Stacked” and “Kitchen Confidential” not making the grade, the net could use another well-liked, established comedy.
Fox exec VP Craig Erwich says the continued success of the net’s Sunday-night animated laffer block — “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and “American Dad” — persuaded them that they may have been a little too hasty in dropping “King” from that roster.
“We realized that the show was still creatively vital,” Erwich says. “And the show’s creators and producers felt like there were still stories to tell.”
Lucky for the net, bringing back an animated show is much easier than trying to reconstitute a live-action skein. For starters, the characters don’t age.
Also, voicing an animated character doesn’t require much time for thesps, who can enjoy the extra cash but still work on other projects.
The hardest part is bringing back the creative minds behind the show — but in the case of “Family Guy,” “King” and “Futurama,” the exec producers were still set up at 20th Century Fox TV and were able to negotiate a return.
“We had some luck in availability,” Newman says. “They also all feel a certain loyalty and obligation to fans of the show.”
The biggest problem? Finding enough animation directors and artists to handle the studio’s five animated brands.
“It’s a bit of a high-class problem, causing the demand that’s straining the talent pool,” Newman admits. “But we’re managing.”