US Television

History 1938 20043

Drawn for Television

The Flintstones

Saturday morning cartoons were very profitable for the networks.

For more than a decade, American television viewers have seen a renaissance in animated series. But the short cartoon has had a long and profitable history.

It began at the movies.

Animation for film was relatively expensive in the early days of the medium, but that changed in 1914 when a man named Earl Hurd created the cel-a transparent sheet of celluloid that the animator could use to create characters over a background. The cel greatly reduced the time and expense of making a full-length cartoon, but it took Walt Disney to come up with an assembly line method of creating short cartoon stories that could be included in a theatre's line-up. (Disney's 1928 Steamboat Willie was the first major cartoon that used synchronized sound; his 1932 Flowers and Trees was the first Technicolor animated short.)

Disney's success with both Mickey Mouse shorts and longer animated films (such as Snow White) led most of the major film studios to either purchase cartoons from other sources, or (as MGM and Warner Brothers did so successfully) create an in-house cartoon studio. Those cartoons, which were first shown in theatres and aimed at a general, family-oriented audience, were among the first to make it to television (they were sold to local stations looking for filler). It was just too expensive at the time to come up with an animated series especially designed for television.

In 1938, Disney employee Chad Crothkopf produced an eight-minute black and white cartoon that aired that April on NBC. A very small audience saw Willie the Worm; only 50 televisions were said to be in use at the time of the broadcast. In May 1939, NBC previewed the Disney cartoon Donald's Cousin for its viewers on New York experimental station W2XBS (now WNBC).

Crusader Rabbit

But television in the US had to wait until after World War Two for its historic boom. And it took cartoonist Jay Ward to come up with the first cartoon series especially created for TV. Crusader Rabbit, created by Ward and Alexander Anderson, was sold directly to local stations in 1949. Crusader was Ward's first TV effort, but certainly not his last, as we shall see. But cartoons that once were shown in movie theatres became a staple of television shows aimed at kids, usually hosted by a local personality with the cartoons airing within the live action; the genre grew during the 1950's.

Those shows aired on local stations around the country; the broadcast networks generally avoided airing cartoons. But that unwritten policy began to change in 1954, when Walt Disney struck a deal with ABC to provide the struggling network with an hour-long family series. Disneyland not only showed newly-created filmed action series and shorts; it also brought Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and the rest of Disney's animated family to network TV. Disneyland was an instant top-ten hit for ABC; the Disney anthology continued over the next several decades with different titles on different networks. (It remains a staple of ABC's prime time schedule, but the difference is that Disney now owns ABC.)

Heckle and Jeckle

Still, made-for-TV cartoon programmes remained an expensive proposition. It took the studio United Productions of America (UPA), makers of Mister Magoo, to come up with an alternative. The UPA limited animation format used fewer drawings to cut costs yet still had enough animation to please fans. The format, which was launched in 1950, was soon adopted by much of the industry. One of the earlier examples came with the CBS Cartoon Theater, a three-month prime time series hosted by a pre-sitcom Dick Van Dyke in the mid-1950's. It featured Terrytoons cartoons such as Mighty Mouse and the antics of a magpie pair named Heckle & Jeckle. The next TV cartoon revolution came from a pair of former MGM animators.

William Hanna and Joseph Barbara were the masterminds behind the very successful Tom and Jerry cartoons for MGM in the 1940's and 50's. When the studio closed down its animation department in 1956, Hanna and Barbara formed a partnership and decided to concentrate on television. Using the UPA limited animation process, and a reliance on dialogue for entertainment value, they approached Columbia Studio's Screen Gems television division with the idea of a cartoon series for the small screen. Ruff and Reddy, the continuing story of a dog and a cat, was purchased by NBC in 1957; it was a hit.

Ruff and Reddy

All three major networks would turn down Hanna and Barbara's next project. Huckleberry Hound, the saga of an adult-like dog with a Southern accent, was sold directly to local television stations with cereal maker Kellogg's as its sponsor. Huckleberry was an instant success and became the first cartoon series ever to win an Emmy. Huckleberry was just one character in the half-hour series; he alternated with cartoons featuring the mice Pixie and Dixie, the theatric lion Snagglepuss (Exit, stage left) and the Western horse-like character Quick Draw McGraw. Another secondary Hanna-Barbara character, picnic basket-loving Yogi Bear, was popular enough to be given his own show.

Hanna and Barbara were very surprised to learn that a majority of Huckleberry Hound viewers were adults. Using that statistic, the pair approached the three networks with the idea of a half-hour cartoon series aimed at the older folk, airing in prime time. Initially called The Flagstones, it later evolved into The Flintstones, centring on a modern stone age family and their best friends the Rubbles. Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble were loosely based on Jackie Gleason's 'Honeymooners' characters of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton. ABC bought the show and began airing it in September 1960. The series had adult sponsors-Miles Laboratories (makers of Alka-Seltzer and One-a-Day vitamins) and Winston cigarettes. At a time when cigarette ads flooded prime time television, Hanna and Barbara had no qualms having Fred and Barney shill for the filter smokes, with Fred delivering the slogan Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.

Fred Flintstone smoking!

The Flintstones was an instant top-20 hit in its first season; the show's success inevitably led to more prime time animation. That same season, ABC bought the last of the Bugs Bunny and other Warner Brothers cartoons not sold to local television stations, created new openings and closings, and placed the show in prime time. The Bugs Bunny Show was superior in design and scripting to The Flintstones (not surprising, since the cartoons were originally made for movie theatres with a higher budget), but it wouldn't find its true niche until it was moved to Saturday mornings.

Other prime time cartoons came over the next few years. There was Top Cat (Sergeant Bilko in disguise); The Alvin Show (based on the singing chipmunks of novelty music fame); Calvin and the Colonel (a cartoon version of Amos n' Andy; and The Jetsons (The Flintstones in the space-age). Most lasted only one season; The Jetsons was also cancelled after its first season, but became a cult hit in the 1980's and was revived with new episodes.

Another cult classic was Jay Ward's poorly drawn but very clever Rocky & Bullwinkle. The wacky adventures of flying squirrel Rocky and half-witted Bullwinkle the moose also turned out to be wonderful satire on the events and trends of its time-the Cold War, advertising, you name it-and that made it a favorite with both kids and adults. Despite airing on two networks (ABC and NBC) in early prime time, Rocky & Bullwinkle eventually found new life in airings on local television stations and on weekends. So did Ward's other classic cartoons George of the Jungle and Dudley Do-Right.

By 1966, when The Flintstones was cancelled, the broadcast networks stopped airing cartoon series in prime time. That didn't mean animation disappeared from prime time altogether. In 1962, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol aired to tremendous ratings on NBC; three years later, CBS aired the first of the Peanuts specials. A Charlie Brown Christmas (which still airs every holiday season to appreciative audiences) was an instant classic, as Charles Schultz's comic strip featuring Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and Snoopy came to life on television with clever writing and a wonderful music score. (The special actually was made in 1964, but didn't find a sponsor until Coca-Cola backed the show, which captured a 50% share of the audience in 1965.) CBS hit paydirt again in 1966 with Dr. Seuss' classic The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Produced and directed by Warner Brothers cartoon veteran Chuck Jones, it was another instant hit and became a full-length film with Jim Carrey in the late 1990's.

Scooby Doo

Meanwhile, the television networks began airing new cartoons in an unusual location-Saturday mornings. Starting in the early 1960's, the weekend slot became home to both rerun and newly produced cartoons. Some of the aforementioned series found life on weekends, but there were other cartoon hits whose popularity proved to be rather fickle depending on what children were interested in at the time. Some of the more successful Saturday cartoon shows included Scooby Doo, Where Are You?; Josie & The Pussycats; The Beatles; animated versions of Star Trek and The Brady Bunch; The Archies; Space Ghost; The Smurfs; Muppet Babies; Superman; The Road Runner; and The Pink Panther.

Each ranged from pretty good to totally horrid, but the genre was a hit with the younger set.

Saturday morning cartoons were very profitable for the networks (since they could sell ads for cereal and Nestle's Quik, along with toys, Hostess Twinkies and even Flintstone Vitamins.) The federal government occasionally looked into the educational value (if any) of the cartoons; parent groups denounced them and critics ignored them. No matter. Baby boomer children took Saturday morning cartoons into their hearts; the networks eventually added animation to Sunday mornings as well. And they were programmemed the same as prime time programmes; future television programmemer Fred Silverman cut his teeth on daytime and weekend cartoon schedules at CBS. So did Michael Eisner, future ABC programmemer and Disney chairman.

A number of changes came during the 1980's and 1990's. Movie studios once again began making animated features, while a revived Disney churned out new classics such as The Little Mermaid; Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Short cartoons began to appear in theatres once again. The advent of the video cassette recorder led to a boom in cartoons that went directly to video. Cable television networks began taking a growing number of kids away from cartoons on ABC, CBS and NBC. Baby boomers who had enjoyed The Road Runner, Bullwinkle and The Flintstones in their youth began seeking out the old cartoons.

Ted Turner, which bought the Hanna-Barbara studios and its large animated library, fed that boomer audience with the very successful Cartoon Network starting in 1992. For the younger set, cable's Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel provided plenty of animation. In particular, Nickelodeon became the leading network for kids, thanks to original programmes such as Ren & Stimpy; The Rugrats; The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron and SpongeBob SquarePants. Over at the broadcast networks, as the traditional Saturday morning audience slipped away, NBC became the first to get out of the cartoon business, offering live-action programmes aimed at teenagers and pre-teens. Not long after, ABC and CBS cut their losses by offering shows from their corporate network siblings (Disney and Viacom's Nickelodeon respectively).

In the late 1980's, a new force took hold in the cartoon business. Fox, the so-called fourth network, launched an effort to grab kids by offering an innovative Saturday morning cartoon line-up that included such well-done programmes as Eeek The Cat and Bobby's World. Fox soon became the leader in Saturday morning programmes, but lost that title in the late 1990's when newcomer broadcast network WB launched its own Saturday cartoon line-up.

The Simpsons

Fox's true contribution to the genre was the return of prime-time animated series. The Simpsons began as a series of short features that aired with the skits and commercials on The Tracy Ullman Show; producer James Brooks talked the network into giving the unusual family their own series. The creation of Life In Hell creator Matt Groening, The Simpsons began airing weekly in January 1990. It gave Fox its first top ten hit in prime time and a signature series that holds the record of being the longest-running animated prime time series in US history as well as the longest-running sitcom-cartoon or live-in the annals of American television.

Fox and the other networks tried more animated series in the evening hours. Some failed (Fish Police; Capitol Critters; The Critic) while others managed to live for several seasons (Family Guy; Futurama). At this writing, the only non-Simpsons cartoon series to find a niche in broadcast prime time has been King Of The Hill-a show about a modern Texas family that premiered in 1996.

King Of The Hill was created by Mike Judge and former Simpsons writer Greg Daniels. Judge found his footing in animation when he came up with Beavis and Butt-Head, a pair of moronic slacker teenagers that became an instant hit on the cable music channel MTV. (It began as a special on the series Liquid Television and proved popular enough to become a series in its own right.) If violence was a concern of children's advocates during the 60's, 70's and 80's, language and sexual content became a battleground for the new-age cartoons. Beavis gave critics plenty of ammunition, with depictions of animal abuse, glue sniffing and dangerous stunts.

The controversy continued in 1997, when cable's Comedy Central launched South Park, the saga of a quartet of young boys in the small Rocky Mountain town of South Park, Idaho. But these youngsters (created by Trey Parker and Matthew Stone, who provided many of the voices) were not the Simon, Theodore and Alvin of cartoons past. The kids of South Park swore like sailors, dealt with sex and poked fun at current events. Despite (or because of ) its outrageous content, it was also funny. South Park became a smash hit for the struggling cable network, and remains one of Comedy Central's top programmes to this day. (A film version of South Park was also a hit when it hit theatres in 1999.)

By the early years of the new century, the DVD format helped expand the market for all types of animation, partly due to the growing baby boomer population and in part due to the demand by their children. And there's no sign our love affair with animation of all types will end. If television didn't always make cartoons a work of art, it did help give the genre its widest audience ever. And along the way, it brought grateful viewers more than a few classics.


Mike Spadoni (2003)

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