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Fox Sets Toons to Warped Speed with ADHD

New content block blurs TV and online borders with quickly produced, loony content

Lining the walls of Fox Broadcasting’s new animation studio in Hollywood are artifacts unexpected for a venture aimed at creating the next generation of bizarro hybrid TV-Internet entertainment: rows of shelves stocked with about 10,000 books.

Nick Weidenfeld, head of the net’s ADHD Studios, inherited the books from his late father-in-law and thought they’d set the right tone for his crew of young animators and writers.

“We’re an animation studio in the digital age, but I wanted to foster a sense of creativity,” he said. “I saw a kid pick up a copy of ‘Animal Farm’ the other day, and I said, ‘Oh my god, this is working.'”

Fine literature is an odd choice for ADHD, which is incubating creations at the opposite end of the cultural spectrum. Consider “Axe Cop,” in which the villain is Doctor Doo-Doo, who happens to be a smart-mouthed pile of poop. Orwell, this isn’t.

ADHD stands for Animation Domination High-Def, an extension of the stalwart Sunday animation block Fox built on two decades of “The Simpsons” and newer hits like “Family Guy.” But in this incarnation, ADHD — a not-so-sly allusion to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — is aimed at an audience that expects the kind of content it can’t see on TV, and for which the Internet is the first screen.

Starting last fall, Weidenfeld’s team began seeding the Web with original shorts and animated GIFs — au courant among Internet natives — to generate brand awareness. But that’s just for starters. ADHD includes a plan for a vast network of digital content that spans the Web (where it’s hosted at betaadhd.com), YouTube, mobile apps, game consoles and VOD. Fox is aiming for the offshoot to create 50 original shortform pieces per year, plus “user-adapted content,” which entails working off contributions from the viewers.

But ADHD also will serve as an animation farm-team to supply content for a 90-minute Saturday TV programming block that premieres on the Web on July 27 at 11 p.m. The lineup of 15-minute shows (“Axe Cop,” “High School USA!” and others) will be interspersed with shorter, offbeat clips.

“We can create content in the digital space, but ultimately the goal is to grow and skim off the best of the best for primetime,” said Kevin Reilly, entertainment chairman of Fox Broadcasting. “I’d like to find the next ‘Family Guy’ out of this block.”

At this point, ADHD Studios is in full swing prepping for the summer TV launch. Weidenfeld joined the project in February 2012, and his initial group worked from a rented house in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles until it maxed out with 30 people.

The new 12,500-square-foot studio on Sunset Boulevard, down the street from the Cat & Fiddle pub, now houses more than 100 staffers. Fox owns the ADHD Studios facility, but the network licenses content from Weidenfeld’s Friends Night production company.

Much of the material is too weird and crass to migrate from online to TV. For content that might seem able to make the leap, there’s a danger even in Fox latenight that ADHD will be too raw for big-brand advertisers, even those trying to target mobile-toting millennials.

“There have been times when they have said, ‘This is not something we can sell,’ ” said Weidenfeld, who ran program development at Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim for eight years. “We have the conversation — we’re not working against the network.”

Fox has asked for tweaks occasionally. At the end of one recent clip submitted for review, a man swallows a young boy whole; note back from net execs was along the lines of “it was kind of a bummer that he ate the kid.” ADHD quickly altered the sequence so the kid now explodes out of the guy’s stomach after being chowed down: problem solved. “That change was at the eleventh hour, and the animator did it in a few minutes,” Weidenfeld said.

The unconventional approach extends to advertising. ADHD, aimed at hard-to-reach 18-34 males, won’t include ad pods with 30-second spots on TV or online. Instead, the sponsorship deals will be branded and original content for advertisers. “To the extent viewers will see ads, they’re going to be organic to the content,” Reilly said.

Fast reaction time is another key to the ADHD approach. Instead of farming out animation work to Asian firms, with a lag time of at least six weeks, the team in Hollywood can shoot out topical spoofs to stay in the social conversation.

Fox’s toons prepare episodes well over a year in advance, said Reilly. “With ADHD, I can say something today and we can have something tomorrow.”

Reilly declined to discuss specifically what kind of coin Fox is pumping into ADHD, saying that it’s not insignificant. The project will run at a “very mild deficit” for about three years before it gains ad traction, he said.

That noted, Reilly is convinced the model is an efficient way to develop quality content, and he’s eyeing other genres Fox might choose to replicate ADHD. “The cost structure of this stuff by its nature is different from TV,” he said. “The digital world continues to explode. It’s fun. And it has promise.”

Drawing Strength

ADHD is active online with fare including:

Harlem Shake ’90s Cartoon Edition”:

“Axe Cop”:

“Charlie Brown Christmas Reunion”:

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