Crisis on N Earths (N=1): Cartoon Network

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Crisis on N Earths is a recurring subseries in which I address events or works outside of the DC Animated Universe and its characters, but both contemporary and significant to the period under discussion.

It’s October 1, 1992, and something new is appearing on television. Well, a very small number of televisions, anyway–233 local markets carried it at first, including only four of the ten largest in the U.S. (New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Detroit), though within two years it was the fifth-most popular cable network. I refer, of course, to Cartoon Network, the world’s first 24-hour cartoon channel.

This is obviously guaranteed to fail. Cartoons, in 1992, run in the early afternoons when the kids get home from school, Saturday mornings, maybe weekday mornings while they’re eating breakfast. Who would watch cartoons at one in the afternoon, or one in the morning?

Then again, Ted Turner’s empire had already found success with an idea that had seemed similarly guaranteed to fail twelve years prior, 1980’s launch of the first 24-hour news channel, CNN. It had the same problem: a received wisdom in television circles that people watched news at particular times of the day, and would not be interested in tuning in at other times.

So if anybody could make round-the-clock cartoon programming work, it was probably the Turner empire–and they succeeded quite admirably, as today Cartoon Network is one of several competing children’s television channels that rely mostly on animation for their content, though the original has dabbled increasingly in live action in recent years. It is a common part of standard cable packages in the U.S., and has been for decades. And–our main reason for talking about it–in the last years of the DCAU Cartoon Network replaced Fox and The WB as its home.

But that would have been unthinkable in 1992, for the simple reason that in 1992, Cartoon Network carried no original programming. The first original animated show on the network didn’t come until Space Ghost Coast to Coast in 1994, a year and a half after the network’s launch. Prior to that, it showed only “classic” cartoons–Looney Tunes from the 1940s, Merry Melodies, the old Popeye cartoons, the Hanna-Barbera cartoons of the 1960s. Cartoon Network, in other words, accomplished its rise to popularity almost entirely on the weight of programming that was 30 to 50 years old at the time.

To understand how, we must turn to the history of animation, and particularly short-form animation in the U.S. In the 1940s and prior, short-form animation–that is, cartoons the length of a typical television episode or shorter–was primarily distributed to movie theaters, where a standard evening package consisted of one or two feature-length films, one or two cartoons, and a newsreel or documentary. Throughout the 30s and 40s short-form animation thrived in what is now regarded as its golden age–the era that gave us Looney Tunes, the latter-day Merry Melodies, Tom and Jerry, and countless other classics of the form.

But things changed with the rapid proliferation of television sets in the 1950s and 1960s, and corresponding impact on movie theaters. It was simply no longer economically viable for a night at the movies to be an entire night; theaters increasingly cut back, until it became quite odd to show anything other than the main feature.

With the loss of its primary distribution venue, short-form animation was forced to move entirely to television, which as a free-to-view, ad-supported medium had both more content restrictions and smaller budgets. The quality of American short-form animation declined in the 1960s as animation studios subcontracted, used more limited and repetitive animation, and shied away from the slapstick, satire, and vaudeville that had previously characterized the medium, out of fear of offending advertisers.

By the end of the decade, the animated theatrical short was effectively dead. Warner Bros. produced their last animated short in 1969; they would not make another until 1987 when they repurposed segments from the abandoned film Quackbusters, and would not make animated shorts from scratch until work began on 1989’s Tiny Toon Adventures. The Walter Lantz animation studio, creators of Woody Woodpecker and last producer of animated theatrical shorts, shut down in 1972.

Television animation in the U.S. suffered under tight restrictions throughout the 1970s. Animation was widely perceived as a children’s medium, and activist parent groups fought to strip out slapstick and comic violence, injecting (frequently hamfisted) educational and pro-social messages. Small budgets led to cheap production, low-quality animation, and weak writing. The combination of these factors created an incentive to produce formulaic shows, both to ensure acceptability to parents, and to enable studios to recycle scripts, sequences, characters, and plots, thereby lowering labor costs. Independent and artistically-minded creators were largely driven out of the market in favor of factory-style production of low-budget, formulaic dreck such as Scooby-Doo, Josie and the Pussycats, and Superfriends.

In 1981, the toy company Mattel approached Filmation, producers of Star Trek: The Animated Series and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, with an offer. Toys based on cartoons had been solid sellers throughout the 1970s, and Mattel wanted to try the other way around: create a cartoon around a toy line, with the express purpose of selling the toys. Mattel would supply the toys, basic notes, and funding; Filmation would animate the show. The result was 1983’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, the first in a coming horde of “merchandise-driven” cartoons, essentially half-hour toy commercials.

First-run syndication—a system whereby independent television stations bought blocks of programming directly from the producers, without going through a network—boomed in the early 1980s, giving animators a way to avoid network restrictions and sell episodes by the hundred, rather than the dozen. With backing from toy companies, commercials disguised as cartoons flooded the Saturday-morning and weekday-afternoon airwaves, including G.I. Joe, Jem, M.A.S.K., and My Little Pony.

Were a modern fan to look at American animation at the beginning of the 1990s, they would see a television market glutted with cheaply produced, syndicated shows designed to sell toys. A few standout cartoons–Disney’s successful foray into syndication, 1987’s Ducktales, and its successors in the Disney Afternoon programming block; the Warner Bros./Amblin co-productions such as Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs; 1989’s cartoon sitcom for adults, The Simpsons–existed, certainly, but it is only from the vantage point of history that we can see them as the dawn of a renaissance in American television animation. As is always the case with beginnings, there was not actually any renaissance yet.

So to a business-savvy person who happens to own a large library of classic cartoons from the golden age of short-form animation, as well as a newly minted 24-hour cartoon channel, the correct thing to do seems quite obvious: show only the classics. Why bother with new cartoons when you’ve just been through an entire decade that demonstrates that new cartoons are always terrible? Save the money on making them, and draw viewers with the superior, older cartoons.

That this approach worked is a testament to how few and far between good cartoons were in 1992. But times are changing, in more ways than one, and in many ways the DCAU stands at the crest of the incoming wave of television animation’s renaissance.


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