When Comedy Central introduced South Park in 1997, many expected the story of four foul-mouthed Colorado grade schoolers to serve as the catalyst for a new generation of animated shows for adults.
But like such broadcast entries as The Flintstones
in the 1960s, The Simpsons
in the 1980s or King of the Hill
in the 1990s, South Park
was an anomaly, not a primetime trendsetter. High production costs and long turnaround times have scared many broadcast and cable networks away from developing such programs.
But new and less-expensive flash-generated animation — and a generation of adults 18 to 49 weaned on MTV: Music Television and Nickelodeon — have led several ad-supported channels to take their primetime stab at the genre.
A host of animated projects from such networks as WE: Women's Entertainment Television, Black Entertainment Television, Oxygen, TNN: The National Network, Sci Fi Channel and Cartoon Network are set to debut in 2003, in hopes of cutting through the primetime clutter of sitcoms, dramas, reality series and crime shows.
The sudden burst of interest in animated projects for adults can be traced to the recent and surprising ratings success of two networks that target kids: Nick and Cartoon. A sizable portion of the 18-to-49-year-old audience presently watches animated fare on those services, according to network executives.
Despite Nick's mandate to target kids and pre-teens, executive vice president Cyma Zarghami said that at different times during the day — and particularly in primetime — one-quarter of Nick's audience is composed of adults.
The network's biggest hit among adults, of course, is the breakout hit SpongeBob Squarepants. That primetime series consistently ranks among basic cable's top-rated shows each month in terms of households. It also scores well among adults 18 to 49, averaging a 1.1 with that group — up 30 percent from last year.
"A lot of those viewers are parents watching with kids, but most of it is people who just love animation," Zarghami said. "Our stuff is very deliberately kid-first, but there certainly is some comedy that works for everybody."
With one-third of its overall audience made up of 18-to-49-year-olds, Cartoon Network Worldwide executive vice president and general manager Jim Samples said the network's successful weekend "Adult Swim" block of programming was a natural extension of the service's primarily kid-targeted lineup.
The late Saturday and Sunday night blocks — which feature such shows as Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law, Home Movies,
and Aqua Teen Hunger Force
— have helped Cartoon elevate its overall 18-to-49 audience in those time slots by 84 percent over last year, Samples said.
"Approximately one-third of our audience is adult, and basically half of those are there on their own and half are watching with their kids," Samples said. "We felt like to deliver to the adult audience we have, we needed to offer product specific to them."
The growth of Cartoon Network's adult viewership has emboldened the network to expand Adult Swim to a Sunday-to-Thursday night format, beginning in January 2003.
And there's still South Park.
Now in its sixth season, that Comedy staple is enjoying a ratings revival of sorts, averaging a 2.1 household rating.
With another animated series based on the life of Hollywood producer Robert Evans set to launch in mid-2003, Comedy believes the genre is once again in vogue.
"It's just another way for networks to deliver smart writing, edgy programming without the boundaries that are placed on us with live-action," Comedy senior vice president of original programming and head of development Lauren Corrao said.
MTV's prep work
TNN general manager Diane Robina said the pump is primed. Viacom Inc.'s networks "have raised and grown this audience over the past 20 years," she said. "Whether it's watching [Nickelodeon's] Rugrats, The Ren & Stimpy Show
or [MTV's] Beavis and Butthead, animation has been the staple of their television diet."
In an effort to reel in adult-animation fans, TNN next year will launch an ambitious slate of four titles: Gary The Rat, from actor Kelsey Grammer (Frasier); Joe Duffy, from veteran writer/producer Ed Weinberger (The Cosby Show); Stripperella, with actress Pamela Anderson; and The Immigrants.
TNN also will air old and new episodes of The Ren & Stimpy Show.
"We are taking a big risk," Robina said. "We're not just launching one series like some of our competitors — we're going out all at once, with three or four projects building a whole night of animated programming. But if it hits, the upside is tremendous.
"We're looking to make a connection with the audience that we're going after, which is the 18-to-49 audience, but also a concentrated sweet spot of 25-to-34-year-olds," she added.
Sci Fi Channel's animated series, set to debut in mid-2003, is Tripping the Rift, a spoof of classic science-fiction movies and shows.
WE: Women's Entertainment Television is developing Committed, a series based on a comic strip of the same name that takes a look at the modern American family.
High production costs still weigh on the genre. Network executives said the cost of developing traditional animated shows often surpass the $1-million episode mark — on par or even more expensive than live-action scripted sitcoms or dramas.
The production cycle for developing animated series remains much longer than traditional sitcoms or dramas — another hindrance. Also, it's often difficult to strike a fine balance among writers, animators the actors who provide voiceovers for the characters.
"It's not easy," Corrao said. "You have to find the right writers and the right ideas, and that doesn't come together that quickly."
On the cost side, computer-generated flash animation has helped, sometimes trimming production bills and cycles almost in half.
With the new technology — and the cost efficiencies afforded TNN by parent Viacom Inc.'s animation studio — Robina said each of its four series will only cost from $200,000 to $600,000 an episode.
Oxygen, BET split bill
Rather than foot the bill themselves, Oxygen and BET will share the costs of developing Hey Monie, a show revolving around the life of an African-American single woman. The networks plan to air the animated series simultaneously.
Neither BET nor Oxygen would reveal costs, but both said it would be difficult for either network to finance such a show on its own.
"I have been looking for an animated series for a long time that would appeal to our audience that was positive and I though this was great series," BET president and COO Debra Lee said. "Animated series cost a lot — that's why we haven't done one before.
"The ability for us to share the costs allows both networks to have an animated series that appeals to our respective audiences," she said.
Animated series have other strikes against them. Unlike sitcoms and dramas, which can be tailored to fit a particular network's programming niche, cartoon programming is still considered a kids-targeted genre, and some programming executives have said they couldn't sell such shows to their audiences.
"Even with the most creative writing and the best story lines, an animated series just wouldn't fit our network brand," said a network programming executive.
Even its fans concede that animation is not for everyone.
"I think that the more alternative networks will continue to look at animation, while the broadcast networks will remain skeptical of the genre," said Corrao, who developed King of the Hill
while at the Fox broadcast network in the mid-1990s.
"It really ends up being about the writing," she said.