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The Long and Shorts Of It

by on February 23, 2011

When you need a lot of content in a short amount of time, quantity tends to trump quality most of the time. But what if you didn’t have to compromise one for the other? This was Fred Seibert’s goal when the then-fledgling Cartoon Network (who was owned by the same corporation as Fred’s Hanna-Barbera Studios, Turner Entertainment). Instead of creating a full series to freshen up the network’s stale line-up of classic cartoons, Seibert convinced Ted Turner to shell out twice the money for a series of shorts instead, a project hoping to jumpstart several new original programs and evoke the feel of the days of classical theatrical cartoons. The World Premiere Toons premiered on a content-starved Cartoon Network in early 1995 to heavy fanfare, and the project worked out just as planned: The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory, Johnny Bravo, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Cow & Chicken, and to a lesser extent Family Guy (FOX greenlighted the popular and polarizing series after watching Seth MacFarlane’s Larry & Steve short made for Cartoon Network). The World Premiere Toons (later retitled the What-a-Cartoon Show, which was also consequently retitled the Cartoon Cartoon Show) became such a success for the network that the same approach would create later series like Megas XLR and Codename: Kids Next Door.

Seibert would later repeat his success on another station, Nickelodeon. Unlike Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon was already the biggest and most established name in the business with no need to innovate or create new properties en masse, making the concept a tougher sell.
Nevertheless, Oh Yeah! Cartoons was met with similar success in 1998 and spun off three full series, My Life as a Teenage Robot, ChalkZone, and the Fairly OddParents, which still runs to this date. The shorts model had been a proven hit twice, and then the idea suddenly disappeared. The concept of a show consisting of dozens of pilots on the scale of World Premiere Toons or Oh Yeah! Cartoons would not be seen until a decade later by the two networks that started it all. So, what became of the concept’s revival? Unfortunately, not much.

In response to an animation scene brimming with new and diverse talent (some of which inspired by the original shorts projects), Fred got the okay by Nickelodeon brass to create a spiritual successor to Oh Yeah! Cartoons with the apt title Random! Cartoons. While the network was fine with financing the project, releasing it was another problem altogether. The initial 39 shorts were made as planned (with several finished as early as January 2007), and then sat on a shelf collecting dust until the tail end of 2008, where all 13 half-hours were unceremoniously dumped onto digital cable and never seen again. The only two shows to be salvaged from the sinking ship were Fanboy & Chum Chum and Adventure Time, whose viral popularity paved the way for Cartoon Network to snatch up the show when Nick’s rights to the property lapsed. On the bright side, at least Random! Cartoons made it on to television. Cartoon Network’s next attempt at a pilot program would suffer even worse calamity.

The first and only official mention of Cartoon Network’s Cartoonstitute would come at the 2008 upfront press conference, where it was announced that long-time network veterans Craig McCracken and Rob Renzetti would be heading a pilot project to create new properties for the network in an environment that fostered creativity. The reception was enthusiastic, but as time went on, less and less news about the project came to light, almost all of it from artists working on the project. Eventually, Craig himself went on the record saying the Cartoonstitute had shuttered due to the global financial collapse and the resulting lack of funds. The intended 39 shorts were slashed to 14, and it would take many months and a quiet online release for the finished product (what little there was) to see the light of day. The network decided to use their new funds to bring Regular Show and a heavily retooled Uncle Grandpa (as Secret Mountain Fort Awesome) directly to the series stage instead of continuing the project.

It turns out that a lot can change in ten years. Just like how a child will be very different a decade later, the Cartoon Network had “grown up” into a more professional, conservative business model that had less of a need to experiment and a larger stable of original programming that made the idea of churning out a lot of series fast and at once unnecessary. Meanwhile, big Nickelodeon became even bigger, and a network that didn’t need shorts as much in the first place had even less of a reason to use them. The channel’s monster success in the 00’s made them reliant on existing talent with established successes (like Butch Hartman or Bill Oedekerk) and lucrative deals with Dreamworks Animation. The wild west days of cable were gone, and so was the need to be ambitious.

The lack of pilot projects didn’t mean that creativity couldn’t exist, or that fresh faces couldn’t get their dream shows made. Cartoon Network decided to take a less ambitious yet more in-depth approach to developing talent in their studios. Starting with the Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, a talent pool was created in Burbank, and most of the existing storyboarders would either shift to a new show or get a series deal from the network. I admit that I enjoy this method better, in that while shorts projects would end up with a lot of middling material, incubating and developing creators rather than creative ideas, giving them ample time to get in the groove of writing and drawing a television series rather than being given just funding. While funding and encouraging ideas is a noble goal, funding and encouraging the talent to make those ideas possible is a better idea by leaps and bounds, an idea fit for a business with all the time in the world.
Maybe the time has passed for the pilot project. A major driving force behind Oh Yeah! Cartoons was Fred Seibert’s observation of the lack of truly creative animation being produced and encouraged by the industry, something that was for the most part alleviated by the end of the decade. I guess it served its purpose.

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