Retroactive Continuity 7: The Decline of American Television Animation, Ducktales, Tiny Toons

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There’s quite a lot happening in the world of American television animation in the period we’re talking about following the first season of Batman: The Animated Series, and through to the end of the second, roughly 1992-4. But to understand what’s really going on, we have to step back a moment, to the 1950s and 60s.

In the aftermath of World War II, a combination of relative prosperity and a cultural shift toward consumerism led to the rapid proliferation of a few new home technologies, television most prominent among them. Only a few thousand television sets existed in the United States in 1940; by 1950 nine percent of households owned at least one, and by 1960 nearly 90 percent did.

This growth in television ownership was naturally accompanied by a decline in movie attendance. Staying at home to watch TV was easier and, not counting the cost of the TV itself, cheaper as well. Movie theaters responded, generally, by increasing prices and reducing what a single ticket purchase could buy. Traditionally, a night at the movies was an extended affair, in which the audience could expect to see not only a feature film, but also a newsreel, one or more animated shorts, and possibly a short-subject documentary. With declining attendance, however, theaters cut back on everything except the feature: newsreels disappeared entirely, and cartoons became an extreme rarity except when packaged by the studio with an animated feature (as is the case today with most major Disney and Pixar releases).

Animated shorts had been the bread and butter of multiple studios, and with their disappearance from theaters those studios turned to television, selling packages of old theatrical shorts to be cut into two- or three-segment blocks and aired as half-hour television series. This has remained a dominant format for television cartoons ever since, even for series original to television such as Animaniacs, Star vs. the Forces of Evil, and Steven Universe.

However, television proved a difficult medium for original cartoons. Budgets were a lot lower than they had been for theatrical shorts, skittish advertisers and network Standards and Practices offices closely policed content, and corner-cutting measures became the new norm. Increasingly, young animators quit to seek out other work. Quality plummeted throughout the 1960s as the use of subcontractors (and consequential loss of quality control) increased, “masterpiece”-style animation gave way to the stiffer, less expressive, and less labor-intensive “limited” style, and fear of losing advertisers drove the writing away from the slapstick, satirical, and vaudeville elements that had characterized the medium in its heyday.

Warner Bros. Cartoons produced their last animated short in 1969; their successors Warner Bros. Animation would not produce any more until 1987, and even those were repurposed segments of an abandoned movie. They would not produce actual original shorts until 1989. The last producer of animated theatrical shorts, Walter Lantz Animation (creators of Woody Woodpecker, among others), shut down in 1972.

But American television animation’s decline had only just begun. In the 1970s, content restrictions became still tighter with the rise of parents’ groups, who campaigned against content inappropriate for The Children–essentially reenacting what we’ve already discussed regarding “Seduction of the Innocent,” but with cartoons instead of comics the target this time. The result was that cartoons were increasingly marketed to younger and younger children, relying on stock gags and plots that had already proven safe from the disapproving glare of advertisers and parents, straightjacketed by network-wide rules on content.

Even then, the nadir was still to come. The final blow to American television animation came in the form of an apparent savior: the syndicated merchandise-driven cartoon. First-run syndication–in which a show was marketed directly to local stations, instead of airing on a network first–allowed producers to make an end run around network programming restrictions, but represented lower advertising revenues. However, this lower revenue could be made up by merchanding, effectively using the show itself as an advertisement for an associated toy line. The formula was completed when the toy company Mattel approached the animation studio Filmation with an offer to fund development of a series based on an already existing toy line, as opposed to marketing toys based on a show. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe began airing in 1983, first of a wave of shows requested, paid for, and largely controlled by toy manufacturers, such as G.I. Joe, Jem, M.A.S.K., and My Little Pony.

These shows were, if anything, even tamer and more cheaply produced than the limited animation of the 1970s, with the added factor that, like the toy industry that drove their creation, they were heavily gendered. Shows primarily featuring characters of a given gender, like Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids or Josie and the Pussycats, had existed prior to the 1980s, but it is with the 1980s that the medium becomes increasingly divided between “girls’ shows” and “boy’s shows.”

A glut of low-quality toy-pushing syndicated shows filled the Saturday morning and after-school airwaves. The rare not-entirely-terrible shows struggled to be noticed amidst a wasteland of near-identical garbage, and with more and more shows, their development paid for by toy companies, chasing after limited airing slots, competition was fierce and failure rates high.

And then Disney came back to the short-form game.

For years, Disney had struggled with the fact that its most popular character–allegedly, at one point the most popular comic book character in the world–was virtually unknown in Disney’s country of origin. Europeans and South Americans adored Scrooge McDuck and devoured both new Scrooge comics and the venerable works produced by Carl Barks in the 1940s, but in the United States he was unheard of. A 1983 animated special, Mickey’s Christmas Carol, had reintroduced the character to American audiences and proven reasonably successful, so Disney began development on a first-run syndicated series. In the process, they made two very smart choices: first, they decided to base the majority of the initial batch of episodes on Barks’ original Scrooge comics, which had the dual virtues of being beloved classics that had withstood the test of time and being almost entirely unknown to American audiences; and second, they outsourced the animation to Japan, where the animation industry was simultaneously booming (meaning lots of eager young talent) and still quite cheap by American standards.

The result was 1987’s Ducktales, which quickly became a major hit, proving that it was possible for a limited-animation syndicated series to be both good and profitable, a combination that had largely eluded animators throughout the 1980s. Warner Bros. Animation saw what their chief rivals were doing, and followed suit by forming a partnership with Steven Spielberg’s production company, Amblin Entertainment, to create original syndicated shows of comparable quality. They got their first hit out of the gate with 1989’s Tiny Toon Adventures, the aforementioned first original animated Warner Bros. shorts in 20 years.

Tiny Toons made an interesting contrast to Ducktales. Both were based primarily on content from the 1940s, but where Disney directly adapted stories and characters, Tiny Toons is almost a sequel, presenting its characters explicitly as the heirs and protégés of the classic Looney Tunes characters, studying under them to master the art of being cartoon characters. It is a cute and funny premise which both acknowledges that, by 1989, cartoons are almost entirely relegated to children’s entertainment, and that there is still work to be done in order to return to the heights of the Golden Age of theatrical cartoons. The writers and animators of Tiny Toons–including among them some names already familiar to us, like Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski, and Paul Dini–might as well have been describing themselves, sitting at the feet of greats like Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, trying to relearn the techniques and theory of an art that had very nearly become lost.

Warner Bros. and Amblin’s next coproduction, however, proved that the art was not lost, and the students had studied well. I speak, of course, of Animaniacs.


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4 thoughts on “Retroactive Continuity 7: The Decline of American Television Animation, Ducktales, Tiny Toons

  1. This is probably the opposite of original insight, but it now occurs to me that Warner Bros. animation has always positioned itself as the edgier and more grown-up equivalent of Disney. It’s interesting how that zigs back and forth between “More violence and innuendo and meta-jokes about this being a cartoon” versus “Taking the material seriously and telling mature stories” depending on era/genre.

    Even on imports, Disney got the stateside distribution for Studio Ghibli, while WB snapped up a number of the less American-kid-friendly anime.

    Unfortunately, WB’s attempts to carry this trend over into live action have started basically combining all the least interesting elements of both approaches.

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  2. That about sums it up, yeah. Interesting because at least where animation is concerned, it’s Dreamworks that’s positioned itself as the adolescent alternative for the past decade or so. (And I think “adolescent” is probably the better term to contrast to “for kids” here–it’s very often a child’s idea of adulthood that’s represented.)

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  3. I’m not sure if it’s fair to lump limited animation in with the poorer-quality works of the ’60s–it’s true that both grew in part out of a desire to cut costs and labor in animation, but limited animation pre-dates stuff like Hanna-Barbera and exists as much a deliberate artistic style as it does a practical necessity.

    Put another way, UPA and Hanna-Barbera may have both been companies that thrived on costing less than Warner Bros. had, but I would hardly rate Unicorn in the Garden on the same level as your average Flinstones cartoon.

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  4. This is a good point and I didn’t mean to say that limited animation is necessarily inherently bad. However, the massive increase in its use that started in the 60s was a cost-cutting thing, and is one of the most visually striking aspects of the decline.

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