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Cartoon Network to air original live-action programming

The next thing you know, MTV will start airing something other than music videos.

By Michael / June 10, 2010

The debut of Cartoon Network’s newest ongoing series, “Unnatural History” on Sunday night, marks a turning point in the cable channel’s 18-year history.

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The show is the first of its kind for the network, an original live-action scripted series. It centers on teenager Henry Griffin, who’s sort of like a Young Indiana Jones by way of “Freaks and Geeks.” Raised around the world by his explorer parents, Henry experiences culture shock when he’s sent to live with his uncle in Washington, D.C., and enrolled in a special high school located on the grounds of the Natural History Museum.

The show’s pulp adventure premise puts Henry (Kevin Schmidt), his cousin Jasper (Jordan Gavaris) and pal Maggie (Italia Ricci) in the middle of all sorts of mysterious capers. But while Henry can chuck a spear, climb up the side of a building and identify rare poisons, he has no clue how to navigate the locker room jungle. If it sounds a bit like a postmodern Tarzan, you’re not far off, said the show’s creator, Mike Werb.

“He’s sort of like the scientific version of an Army brat. He’s moved around from place to place,” said Werb, who actually worked on a TV adaptation of the "Lord of the Apes," and also wrote the screenplay for "The Mask."

Major commitment

The show’s concept spun out from Werb’s lifelong love of history, fascination with global travels, and what he described as the “typical writer experience of a miserable high school experience.”

“Henry butts up against social conventions and modern high school life,” Werb said. “The kid who can read Sanskrit and ancient dead languages, has no idea how to text.”

“Unnatural History” is a major commitment for Cartoon Network, and a significant risk.

Adding live-action programming could lead some of the channel’s longtime fans to wonder if the home of Johnny Bravo, the Powerpuff Girls and Ben 10, is abandoning its animation roots.

Absolutely not, says CN’s Chief Content Officer Rob Sorcher. “We’re a big network that has a full complement of programming in all formats. The introduction of “Unnatural History” and “Tower Prep” [which debuts in the fall] is part of an overall expansion of programming on Cartoon Network.”

Shocking shift?

Live-action isn’t a completely foreign concept for CN.

The unscripted shows “Destroy Build Destroy” and “Dude, What Would Happen?” are solid hits, and the 2007 live-action film “Ben 10: Race Against Time” also performed well. And really, if a genre-specific channel like the Sci-Fi Channel could feel the need to rebrand itself as the more inclusive SYFY and add reality shows and wrestling to its science fiction and supernatural lineup, is it really all that shocking to see Cartoon Network add live-action programming?

The channel is simply following a path paved by many other cable networks that began offering very specific content, before eventually broadening its programming palette.

“Network must continually look to their programming to provide viewers with fresh programming that is relevant to them and in keeping with the network’s mission,” stated Jennifer Bartner Indeck, Media Director for Luminosity Marketing.