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How To Ruin TV Animation In Seven Easy Lessons

by on July 30, 2005

I’ve been watching cartoons for over twenty years now. The period that began fifteen years ago is universally referred to as a “renaissance” in the American animation industry. In the United States alone, there are six all-animation outlets (Cartoon Network, Toon Disney, Nicktoons, Boomerang, Anime Network, and Locomotion [a channel I can guarantee you’ve never watched]) and more in the works. And I’ve watched it decline from a period of promising rebirth and experimentation to an era of committee-run hack work.

How did this happen?

In the early 1990s, none of us knew for sure what cartoons would work or how they should be sold to audiences, so they basically turned the asylum over to the lunatics (no pun intended). Now, fortunately, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what should go into a cartoon series, how it should be produced, and how it should be controlled and exploited. There’s no excuse for tolerating freedom and creativity.

Today, the rules have been written.

Those rules have emerged from an evolutionary crucible. How those rules were discovered and refined is not part of my topic. It’s not even clear that the networks and studios themselves consciously know what the rules are and how they work. But, based on long-time viewing of animated television, I am now able to state and describe them. If you’re a network programmer depressed by the fact that your schedule is not as dull, hackneyed, and unadventurous as those of your competitors, take heart. I’m here to teach you, in seven easy lessons, how to ruin your animation lineup.

Why am I doing this? Because there are people trying to warn would-be readers and creative types that these rules are, in some conceivable way, bad for business and the remains of the North American industry. As long as the almighty dollar rules, and kids remain suckers–I mean “future consumers oblivious to what occurred prior to the current era”–these rules are essential. So, now, here are seven easy lessons on how to ruin your animation lineup.

Ignore the artists.

This is the most important lesson. The artist is your enemy, because there’s no controlling what might come out of his head.

Most animators are the spiritual children of Tex Avery, the free-spirited anarchist who helped create the Looney Tunes when he was at Warner Bros. and then blossomed into pure anarchy when he moved to MGM. Like Avery, today’s animators know what cartoons can do. They know how funny they can be. And they’re often trying their best to come up with new and exciting stuff.

This is dangerous.

You’ve got big bucks on the line, and you need to be able to predict exactly what will come out the other end so that you can exploit your new “franchise.” Handcuff the artists. Give them their ideas. Make sure that what they produce is just a little bit different from the other stuff that’s out there. It will save you lots of aggravation.

Remember, you’re the boss. You don’t get ulcers. You give them.

Remember that cartoons are only for kids.

Ignore the success of The Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad, and that troublesome Adult Swim block on Cartoon Network. Instead, concentrate on the fact that animation is a kids’ medium. Don’t be dazzled by claims from rebellious writers on the interweb or self-described “historians” that animation is just another medium and one eminently suitable for telling any kind of story. Close your eyes to the experiences of Japan, France, Great Britain, and Canada. Put away the thought that children who enjoy cartoons often grow up to be adults who enjoy cartoons. Walt Disney made sure cartoons were only for kids, and who are you to argue with a genius–especially one that’s been safely dead for forty years?

When you do ignore what I told you and have the nagging desire to make a “mature audiences” cartoon, be sure to give it a fratboy mentality. Fill it with jokes about bodily functions, sexual situations, and pop-culture references that only they would get. This will further reinforce the notion that only the developmentally arrested can possibly be interested in animation.

Live in the “now.”

Alternately: Forget the past.

No one wants to watch the crap that everyone loved five minutes ago, let alone five years ago. Just because you’re rehashing the same old jokes and characters and concepts doesn’t mean you should keep airing the same old stuff. Make it “fresh” by making new and hip versions of the old clichés. And, just so no one notices that it’s the same tired old gags, hide the old cartoons. Banish them to an unwatched, largely unavailiable sister network or onto an ill-supported DVD release. Best of all, lock them in a vault so that no one can see them or, heaven forbid, buy them. That way, not only will your viewers not realize that you’re just repeating yourself, they won’t even realize that you’re not doing it as well as you had been before!

Modernize everything.

You can best ruin your viewers’ memories of the old shows by making “updated” versions of them. Be sure you bastardize them thoroughly. Make the characters into teenagers, kids, or toddlers. Give them ugly makeovers. Put them into “new” situations. The “recast them in the future” situation is my personal favorite.

The beauty of this strategy is two-fold. First, it disguises the fact that you’ve locked away the originals. When someone impertinently asks what happened to a series, you can point to the update to show that you’re still supporting it. Second, the bastardized version will fill its viewers (mostly the freaks who are too old to be watching cartoons in the first place) with such loathing and shame that they will no longer be able to watch the original with the same sense of enjoyment. That will kill demand for it.

When placing season orders, never order more than 26 episodes. When a series has 52 episodes in the can, cancel it or rerun it to death so your audiences will BEG you to cancel it.

This strategy will both save you money (because you’re not ordering very many episodes of what could be a risky show) and give you lots of reruns to clutter up your weekday schedule. That clutter will ensure that your viewers get really sick of the show really quickly. Then you can dump it and move on to the next “new” thing.

The downside is that you will have lots of holes in your schedule when it comes time to get rid of the flagging series. This brings us to …

Foreigners are your friends.

Foreign animation (animation produced outside of North America) makes up 45% of all shows on the air. Fortunately, Sturgeon’s Law applies to foreign shows no less than to American-produced shows. Foreign producers also generally place larger episode orders, so you’ve got a bigger supply to rely on.

Pre-produced animation is a godsend. First, you see the product after it’s already been made, so you’re not relying on those scurrilous, independent-minded American animators. Second, because it looks “different” from American animation, you’ll get points for being on the cutting edge. And third, if you’re really lucky, you’ll land the next Pokemon or Totally Spies.

Be cheap.

Animation is slow, expensive, and time-consuming to make. For budgetary reasons, spend as little on the animation as possible. With the money you save, you can give yourself a nice bonus.

Because you’re a network executive, you probably don’t have much brain space. That might make it difficult to remember these rules. Fortunately, I can reduce everything you need to remember into one succinct sentence: Bugs Bunny is dead.

There are still some good animated programs out there. But even one is too many. Get out there and do your part to destroy American animation!

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