It's pilot season, and prime time television is in a bit of a panic. Sitcom successes - "Friends" and "Frasier" - have retired. Others are on their last legs. Reality shows are digging for ideas.
Competing against video games, iPods, and DVDs, shows that will capture Americans' attention are in demand by TV executives. Ratings are being examined, spin-offs are in the works, and big names are being thrown about.
This year, however, a dark horse has charged onto the TV scene: animation, a genre that to date has provided some of the edgiest and most sophisticated shows on TV. NBC, Fox, the SciFi Channel, and Comedy Central - to name a few - plan to add animated fare to their menu next season. Just as "The Simpsons" essentially saved Fox Network 15 years ago, animated cartoons could become the small screen's pinch hitters, even if they've been benched for a while.
"To a large degree, network programming has quit taking risks and is becoming the same thing over and over again," says Mike Lazzo, a senior vice president at Cartoon Network. "And I think that animation is just something different."
While different, cartoons have also become more accepted, no longer sandwiched between Lucky Charms and Barbie advertisements on Saturday mornings. That generation has grown up - and they constitute a large chunk of the prime-time audience. "The Muppet Babies" may now seem infantile to them, but an animated version of Aaron McGruder's subversive comic strip could spark interest.
"The Boondocks" is just one of five animated shows on Fox's shortlist for next season. Also in the running is "American Dad," created by Seth MacFarlane ("Family Guy") about a suburban CIA employee who is on constant alert for terrorist activity; and "The Phil Hendrie Show," based on the nationally syndicated radio program, about the married life of a once-notorious bachelor.
Fox has had undeniable success with cartoons over the years, first with "The Simpsons" and then with "King of the Hill." Its "Family Guy," which was canceled in 2002, has generated impressive DVD sales, prompting a possible return to network TV.
NBC hasn't had the same level of success. In 2000, when "God, the Devil, and Bob" was canceled after four episodes and "Sammy" after two, the network shied away from animation. But it's now investing millions of dollars in the most ambitious animated show the small screen has ever seen - DreamWorks' computer-generated "Father of the Pride" about a family of lions who star in Siegfried & Roy's act. Scheduled to air in September, the show promises edgy humor and advanced animation.
"Everybody is trying to find a new take on the half-hour comedy. It seems pretty stagnant," says Justin Falvey, who heads DreamWorks TV with Darryl Frank. "Our dream is that this will be the show that reinvents half-hour comedy."
Few comedies earned a spot in Nielson Media Research's top 25 this season, and NBC is hoping the lions will claw their way onto the list. It's a huge gamble, with huge upfront costs to assemble the first 13 episodes - equivalent to making three or four productions of "Shrek."
Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment, had previously asked DreamWorks for a CGI 'toon, but the costs were prohibitive until this year, Mr. Frank says. Advances in technology have certainly made cartoons more feasible - with decreased costs and an accelerated production time - yet in the end it's the story and characters that count, say industry experts. "South Park" is a case in point. The animation is as crude as the language, but the wise-cracking characters have attracted a vast cult following.
Foul language, racy plots, and scantily clad women are seeping into animation, to lure the adults who were raised on Bugs Bunny but now hanker for Jessica Rabbit. Animation is "going to be a little more rock-and-roll, a little rebellious. It's going to push a little harder," says Cartoon Network's Mr. Lazzo. He uses "The Simpsons" as an example. "There are things you can do with those characters that you can't do with live action because it would seem mean-spirited."
In that way, animated shows can sometimes slip by the networks' increasingly severe censors, as well as the FCC, making cartoons attractive to networks who are feeling a bit artistically cramped, say animation experts.
Another attraction is the control that studios have over the characters. Fifteen years later, Homer Simpson still has two hairs atop his head. Lisa will never leave the show for college, and Bart isn't demanding a royalty from Bart T-shirt sales. The voice talent comes pretty cheap, too. "The Simpsons" cast just negotiated a salary rate of around $250,000 per episode, a far cry from the $1 million-plus Kelsey Grammer received for each half hour of "Frasier."
Aside from those incentives, the recent cartoon craze is essentially due to the periodic success of animation, starting with "The Simpsons," then "South Park" eight years later, Lazzo says. The latest indicator, he says, is his own "Adult Swim," a late-night block of adult- oriented cartoons, some of which "plunder the Hanna-Barbera library" and revive old characters - but with a grownup spin. The popular program has expanded from one day a week in 2001 to a six-day schedule last month. "The first thing we saw when we started the network [in 1992] was that a lot of adults were watching," Lazzo says. "It shows that there is some pent-up demand."
And TV executives are trying to capitalize on it. Bonnie Hammer, SciFi's president, calls animation "a much tougher nut," considering the costs, but one worth cracking. She has several cartoons in development, including "The Amazing Screw-On Head," and this year plunged into animation with "Tripping the Rift," a salacious series about a spaceship gone awry. Comedy Central has two animated series in the works. And "This Just In," about a conservative newspaper columnist, recently joined the risqué "Stripperella" on Spike TV.
Animation is less of a risk for cable channels than for big-time networks, which have broader audiences and higher stakes. UPN's spring offering, "Game Over," about the home life of video game characters, has already been canceled. If "Father of the Pride" should fail, a dark shadow would be cast on the future of animation at NBC, says Sarah Baisley, editor of Animation World magazine. "Animation has just as much right to be [on prime time] as sitcoms and dramas," she says. "But no one allows animated shows to fail. They figure every single episode has to be a success. They're given a much higher bar to live up to."