Sunday, March 28, 1999

Prime-time cartoon craze

Networks turning to popular, cost effective wave of programming

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Admit it. You're drawn to cartoons.

        Zapping around the dial, all the sitcoms look and sound alike.

        Big living room. Big couch.

        Big laugh track.

        But you never mistake King of the Hill for The King of Queens, or The Simpsons for Suddenly Susan.

        Which explains the current cartoon explosion on TV, as prime-time programmers experiment with ways to compete with cable and lure you back to the networks.

        “With the dwindling (network) audience, the networks are in a scramble to figure out anything they can do to keep people tuned in,” says Matt Groening, The Simpsons creator whose new Futurama cartoon debuts at 8:30 p.m. today (Channels 19, 45).

        Futurama, a comedy set in the year 3000, is Fox's fourth animated series. A fifth, Family Guy, joins the schedule April 11.

        UPN, which debuted Dilbert in January, will premiere Home Movies on April 26 from the creators of Comedy Central's Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist and ABC's Saturday morning SquiggleVision (formerly Science Court) cartoon.

        At least four more prime-time animated series are on the networks' drawing boards for next season.

        “The sitcom seems to be sort of reaching a certain saturation point,” says Larry Charles, the Emmy-winning Seinfeld and Mad About You writer who is producing Dilbert.

        “I think people are looking for something else, some other form to get excited about on television ... whether it be Ally McBeal or South Park,” Mr. Charles says.

        In the past year, programmers have tried a variety of alternative forms to attract viewers — stop-motion animation (The PJs, MTV's Celebrity Deathmatch), desktop computerized animation (South Park, Home Movies, Blues Clues), traditional cel animation (Dilbert) and improvisational comedy (Whose Line Is It Anyway?).

        Tuning in to 'toons isn't surprising, considering the big ratings for cable's crude South Park and the fact that most young TV executives have grown up watching The Simpsons, the longest-running sitcom currently on TV. (Don't have a cow, man!) It premiered in December 1989.

        “The great thing about animation is that each animated show has a completely different look,” says Doug Herzog, named Fox Entertainment president in January. He previously ran Comedy Central, putting South Park and Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist on the air.

        Animation offers other advantages to cost-conscious networks:

        • Cost: Animated series are cheaper than the conventional sitcoms because they don't require expensive sets, studio crews or big-name stars.

        Home Movies, UPN's new cartoon about a single mother (Paula Poundstone) and her friends, doesn't even employ writers. The cast ad-libs for hours in a recording studio about suggested topics, which is cut into 30-minute shows and then animated on computers. The process is called “retroscripting” by the producers, who devised the process for Dr. Katz.

        Animation also allows a handful of actors to fill dozens of roles. On Fox's Family Guy, which premiered on Super Bowl Sunday, creator Seth MacFarlane provides the voices of three main characters (the father, baby and dog) to save time and money.

        • Creativity: While Drew Carey and Dharma & Greg are stuck in their huge living rooms, The Simpsons has proven that cartoons can go anywhere and do anything.And when Futurama goes 1,000 years into the future, you won't confuse it Frasier or Friends.

        “In the year 3000, you can justify anything, make up any crazy gadget or invention that you want,” Mr. Groening says.

        Adds Dilbert creator Scott Adams: “You can also violate some (laws of) physics, and cause-and-effect, and people forgive it very easily, because (of) the animated form. It's much more freeing creatively.”

        But animation doesn't guarantee success, as the first wave of Simpsons imitators found out. CBS' Fish Police and ABC's Capitol Critters lasted only a few months in 1992.

        • Ageless: Unlike the Home Improvement boys, Bart and Lisa Simpson never age. There's no need to hire precocious kids to keep the comedy alive, which happened on The Cosby Show, My Three Sons and Married... with Children.

        “The best thing about animated characters is they can't get bored and tired, and want to run off and make a movie or a different series, or quit on you,” Mr. Herzog says.

        • Accepted: The Simpsons also has proven that adults and children will watch animation together.

        “It's hard to imagine this,” Mr. Groening says, “but when Fox first took the plunge with The Simpsons, it was considered controversial to put animation in prime-time ... That was considered an absolutely unbelieveably risky move.

        “Our idea for The Simpsons was that it was family entertainment in a new sense. Traditionally family entertainment was something which won't confuse Junior and won't offend Grandma. I thought it would be fun to do a show that entertained every member of the family, on whatever level they could get into it,” Mr. Groening says.

        Since The Simpsons arrived, two cable channels have been launched devotedly entirely to animation, Turner's Cartoon Network and Toon Disney.

        Two TV cartoons, Rugrats and Beavis and Butt-head, have spawned hit feature films. Disney's Doug opened Doug's 1st Movie this weekend, while the (tentatively titled) South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut film should be in theaters June 18.

        And all of this can be traced to the Homer Simpson family. D'Oh!

        “Everybody in animation cheered when The Simpsons — no matter what you thought about it — made it as a hit,” says Margaret Loesch, who has developed animated shows for Fox, Marvel Comics, Hanna-Barbera and the Jim Henson Company.

        “The Simpsons proved you could entertain the whole family with animation, if you had good writing and good stories,” says Ms. Loesch, now president of cable's Odyssey Channel, which will be relaunched April 4 with Henson's Muppet Show, Hallmark Entertainment miniseries and Hallmark Hall of Fame films.

        At Fox, Ms. Loesch developed Howie Mandel's Bobby's World (1990) and Louie Anderson's Life with Louie (1995) with an eye on prime-time.

        “Those of us in animation were very frustrated that the traditional networks only let us do children's shows,” she says. “This is an evolution we thought would happen on TV a long time ago. It happened in Europe a decade ago.”


The Simpsons (Fox): 8 p.m. Sunday, Channels 19, 45.

        • Futurama (Fox): 8:30 p.m. today and next Sunday, then moves to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday on April 6, Channels 19, 45.

        • Dilbert (UPN): 8 p.m. Monday, Channel 25.

        • King of the Hill (Fox): 8 p.m. Tuesday, Channels 19, 45.

        • The PJs (Fox): 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Channels 19, 45. Moves to 9 p.m. on April 6.

        • Family Guy (Fox): 8:30 p.m. Sunday, April 11, Channels 19, 45.

        • Home Movies (UPN): 8 p.m. Monday, April 26, Channel 25.

        CABLE TV

Rugrats (Nickelodeon): 7:30 p.m. weekdays, 8 p.m. Saturday.

        • South Park (Comedy Central): 10 p.m. Wednesday.

        • Daria (MTV): 10 p.m. Wednesday, MTV.

        • Celebrity Death Match (MTV): 8 p.m. today; 10 p.m. Thursday.

        • Bob & Margaret (Comedy Central): 6 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Saturday.

        • Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist (Comedy Central): 8 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. weekdays.


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