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Cartoons Break Barriers

8/19/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

A 9-year-old watching his favorite cartoon might scratch his head after hearing a superhero character with a huge chin proclaim, ”I put the man in mandible!”

And it’s unclear how an eight-year-old is expected to react after hearing an evil character proclaim, “I’ll show you what magic — along with the proper planning and a little psychosis — can really do!”

The kid’s 17 year-old brother and dad, on the other hand, might well burst out laughing, even though they would have been watching The Fairly OddParents, a Nicktoon aimed squarely at those who wouldn’t know a mandible (a lower jawbone) from a mandrill (a baboon).

HIP SHOWS BRIDGE GAPS

In an era when teens would just as soon chat with their friends online while watching television, a new, hip crop of animation producers has helped bridge the generation gap through such shows as Nickelodeon’s OddParents and SpongeBob SquarePants and Cartoon Network’s Family Guy, among others

OddParents is a particularly effective show in entertaining the whole family because it hits home on so many different levels that it can be enjoyed, as the board game companies used to say, by those from 8 to 80. An Aug. 2 show drew a strong 4.2 rating from Nielsen Media Research among the 12-to-17 set, to rank No. 14 for the week ending Aug. 7. The same episode was No. 10 among kids 6-11 and 10th overall for the week.

Awarded fairy godparents because of an abusive babysitter and apathetic parents, 10-year-old Timmy Turner is an easily identifiable figure with tweens and teens, both facing the same social, familial and academic problems that he does.

Show creator Butch Hartman wanted to make a show with the broadest possible appeal. So he also stuck in hip boomer pop cultural references lines like, “We’re pixies, we’re pixies, strong like Bill Bixby,” a sly reference to Bixby’s TV role as the human side of The Incredible Hulk.

“We get a lot of fan mail from adults who say they watch the show with their kids,” Hartman says. “They say they love it more than the kids. One of the goals we had is we wanted adults to be the ones to turn the TV off. We wanted adults to assume control when the TV came on.”

While adults loved the reference, the kids laughed at the dancing pixies and the teens snicker at its snarky attitude with lines like, “I’m anti-fun and all those fairies can bite my bun.” Transformed into an adult, Timmy becomes bald, gets backaches and is admonished by an old lady he tries to help cross the street.

Hartman has been quoted as saying Timmy, with his sarcasm and quick-temper, is his alter ego. Those are qualities any teen-ager can enjoy.

“It’s like a G-rated Simpsons,” Hartman says, comparing his show’s attitude — not its quality or popularity — to the iconic, longtime primetime animated comedy. “I get a lot of e-mail from teens who want to be artists or live the humor.”

There are little hard data on the amount of co-viewing between teens and their folks: Nick reports that of the average 26.5 million viewers who tune in weekly, about one-third, 8.95 million, are teens or adults.

”I know that it’s a cartoon, but any show that makes a Hillary Clinton joke can’t be written with only children in mind,” 17-year-old Jennifer McKie of Pleasanton, Calif., told the Contra Costa Times last October.

Other teens the newspaper surveyed say Family Guy, which Cartoon shows in its Adult Swim block, was their favorite.

Family Guy could be the king of crossover. Rescued from Fox’s primetime trash-heap because teens and young adults bought the DVDs like it was Seinfeld, the show is an anchor of the Adult Swim nighttime block that Nielsen reports as a separate network. Fox is airing new episodes of the series.

In early August, a Family Guy episode was the ninth most popular show among adults 18 to 49 and second among 12-to-17-year-olds with 1.33 million of them watching.

“The way it mixed random idiocy with smart social commentary is genius,” high schooler Ross Townsend of Danville, Calif., told the Contra Costa Times.

NOT SELLING TO ADULTS

Unlike Nick, Cartoon plays down any teen-adult crossover, largely because it sells the block to a core 18-to-34 male demo. Maintaining the purity of the demo to advertisers and brand purity overall is paramount.

“Teens are the 18- to 24-year-olds of tomorrow, but we don’t sell to them. The truth of the matter is we don’t market to or advertise to teens for Adult Swim,” says Jack Wakshlag, Turner Broadcasting Co. chief research officer, adding that even outside Adult Swim, “We don’t create cartoons for teens.”

Even Nick executives say the teen-adult dynamic is a happy byproduct of its core mission to entertain kids ages 2 to 11.

“We are a kids’ network,” says Marjorie Cohn, Nick executive vice president of development and original programming. “If we turn out eyes toward the parents and pander, we’re removing our eyes from the prize.”

Cohn does take pride in the amount of co-viewing on Nick as proof its shows are filled with strong characters and intelligent dialogue that does not condescend to kids.

Cartoons are cool again and it might be no coincidence that creators are ratcheting up the hip factor in an age where young parents are taking a much greater interest in their kids’ lives than their laissez-faire baby boomer guardians did.

“That’s a trend we’ve been seeing for a while,” says Betsy Frank, MTV Networks executive vice president of research and planning, who termed the increasing familiarity closeness a result of 9/11. “These are areas that have taken on a renewed sense of importance. As families yearn for ways to be together you might say watching television is a fairly easy low commitment way to do something as a family. And it’s not surprising that in some cases animation would be a type of program that would foot the bill.”

Looking to reach the household members who hold the purse strings, advertisers already buy time on shows with the greatest amount of co-viewing, those aimed at ages 2 through 11.

But if parents are watching some shows alongside their older kids, then cable operators might find a fertile local ad sales market selling to those who want their spots to reach an entire clan in a single shot.

There are other implications as well. The more cable executives can show the Federal Communications Commission and Congress that the industry actively encourages family viewing, the less pressure it might feel from Washington on the increasingly heated indecency issue.

Adult appreciation of animation is far from a new development. Bugs Bunny was originally made to entertain adults at movie theaters and in the 1960s, ABC aired The Flintstones, a satire of The Honeymooners, in primetime.

The Flintstones were pretty edgy at the time,” says Buzz Potamkin, president of Project X and a former top executive at animation icon Hanna-Barbera.

But crossover attempts often fail. With its sly puns and Cold War satire, Rocky and Bullwinkle was a cult hit among young hipsters but failed otherwise.

'SIMPSONS’ MADE THE MOLD

After that, animation became strictly a kids’ game relegated to the Saturday mornings and weekdays with producers seemingly more interested in developing toy tie-ins than quality shows.

That all changed in 1989. “The Simpsons made it acceptable for television programmers to run shows like that,” Potamkin says.

Hartman agreed, saying it showed parents that cartoons were not just for kids, and suddenly a hip animated show had crossed generational lines.

Nick took the ball and soon owned the bat, the bases and the entire ballpark by creating character-driven, smart cartoons that parents did not mind watching.

A watershed moment might have been its simultaneous introduction in 1991 of Rugrats, Doug and Ren & Stimpy.

Combining kids’ empowerment with a wink to the grown-ups, Nicktoons came as a tonic to parents who were happy to watch something less cloying than Barney.

“Their entire attitude was 'How are we going to make this a Nick show? How are we going to be different?’ says Jerry Beck, an animation producer, consultant and historian who runs the Web site Cartoonresearch.com. “They built shows around characters and let them run with the ball.”

Soon Nick let loose with more cartoons like Hey, Arnold, and Rocko’s Modern Life that were unusual in being so auteur-driven.

Cartoon Network joined in with shows like Dexter’s Laboratory and the seminal Powerpuff Girls, an irreverent show about a trio of pint-sized superheroes.

ANIME’S ARRIVAL

Perhaps the biggest influence in recent years in animation’s maturity has been the exposure of today’s creative minds to anime. The style, long popular among teens and adults in Japan, reached American shores over two decades ago, but has experienced a boom in the past 10 years.

Anime’s stunning and realistic visual imagery and mythic storylines broadly influenced American animators in the 1990s, says Sean Akins, creative director of development and franchise for Cartoon, and producer of its “Toonami” block. He hopes a new futuristic adventure show of his, IGPX, will carry similar cross-generational appeal when it debuts on Cartoon in November.

Anime-style cartoons began showing up on Adult Swim a few years ago and resonate in such shows as Nick’s fantastical Avatar.

“Teen-agers realized as they grew up, 'This stuff is talking to me,’” Beck says, adding that anime stunned and thrilled him when he first saw it almost 20 years ago. “I had to go get bootleg tapes through comic book conventions.”

What’s new about the present crop of “smart” cartoons is the broadness of the family experience and their ever-increasing sophistication that draws in teens and parents who actively seek out the show.

With scores of new cable channels around, networks seeking a niche could afford to risk giving creators some leeway.

LESSONS FROM 'BULLWINKLE’

Young animators who wanted to make a smart show had learned from Bullwinkle: Don’t make the shows too intellectual or “relevant,” but keep them intelligent.

The Fairly Odd Parents is not made for adults,” Hartman says. “It’s made for a teen-age and younger audience. I don’t write jokes about economic policy. Timmy doesn’t want to buy a house. He wants to buy a tree house.”

Hartman says he also wanted to write a show that would appeal to him and his 30- and 40-something writers. “We write what we thought was funny. We never talked down to kids or up to parents. We’re not out to preach a message. We’re not out to be extra hip. So kids see us as irreverent.”

Hartman says he is careful not to be too topical or his series would soon become dated, a disaster for a genre that depends on endless reruns. Jokes about Brad and Jen are out; yuks about Star Wars are in.

That some of these shows actually became cross-generational hits was serendipitous and foreshadowed by the huge crossover successes of films like Shrek and Monsters Inc.

Access to the Internet and increasingly more mobile ways of getting information has created an increasingly savvy, even preternaturally jaded generation of those younger kids Nick is testing. That has freed up programmers to give cartoons a bit more of an edge and wit for teens and parents to enjoy.

“This generation of kids is vastly more sophisticated than when I was growing up,” says Cartoon’s Akins. “That has allowed for an older demographic. It’s not totally beneath them, not totally benign and silly.”

So far only comedies have achieved co-viewing status.

PARENTS LET ACTION SLIDE

Akin says many action shows speak to kids on a particularly narrow level. “They have a singular viewing experience, but they may watch with friends. When you get to 12, 13 or 14, I think parents pretty much let you watch what you want. Plus the stories — Superman fighting the aliens — they’ve seen that story before.”

Others say kids resist sharing certain shows with their parents the way they would never sit down and listen to gangsta rap together. And some parental favorites, like Comedy Central’s South Park are considered too raunchy to share with teens. “It would be like going to see American Pie with grandma,” says Robert Thompson, director for the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

Even live-action crossover favorites are sometimes viewed grudgingly, Thompson says. “With shows like Seventh Heaven, both kids and parents feel like they are doing each other a favor. Animation is one of the few places where kids and parents can sit down and watch comfortably together.”

Nick and Cartoon are still selling ads geared to little kids. But Thompson predicted that will one day change. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised for Nick to have its programs playing at midnight to 3 a.m. on some hip block on MTV.”

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