Following on the heels of employment charts below, the question arises: So why is employment for teevee animation so sucky?
I think there are several answers, and I'll start with the recent and specific:
1) The Time-Warner animation companies (Cartoon Network and Warner Bros. Animation) have cratered in terms of employment, and they now have way fewer projects going than in earlier years. (There are bright spots. Fred Seibert informs us that "We're just about to start Adventure Time at Cartoon Network, started Fanboy & Chum Chum at Nick" ...)
2) Universal Cartoon Studio has only one series, and that series employs a limited number of people.
3) Nickelodeon, while somewhat busy, is down from previous employment highs.
4) Animation aimed at 'tweens and teens is close to non-existent. At the moment, most animation series target the pre-school and early elementary set. The older demographics are enfolded by live-action, due to Disney's success with Miley Cyrus and the "high school musical" franchise.
5) Business models have morphed as licensing fees shrink. Every studio is tight with a dollar.
We've traveled a version of this road before. Shortly before I started this job, television employment was also sucky.Warners Animation was tiny; the Spielberg animation franchise -- Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain -- was yet to happen. Filmation had just imploded, taking 160 jobs with it. Disney Television Animation was in its infancy, and still a small boutique studio. Mighty Hanna-Barbera was past its peak and employing way fewer people.
There was a grand total of 530 people working in the unionized wing of television animation in L.A. County, which then as now was most of it.
Sound familiar at all?
The point to be made here is that television animation has expanded and contracted for half a century, reacting to market forces, technological and distriburtion changes, and shifting audience tastes. A few examples:
In 1960-61, the rapid expansion of L.A. television animation lifted southern California's cartoon community out of an employment trough created by Disney huge layoffs, commercial animation work drying up, and M-G-M's animation division closing its doors. By 1962 employment had dropped as various series failed.
Through the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, television animation production revolved around the three major network's broadcast seasons. If you worked in the teevee patch, you worked seven months on and five months off, year after year.
In the 1980s, Filmation -- for years almost a "house studio" for CBS -- pioneered the concept of syndicated animated series designed as platforms to sell toys (He-Man, She-Ra). Large episodic orders and year-round employment became the norm. The business model of syndicated animation marketing dolls and action figures was soon taken to the next level by Disney Television Animation.
In the 1990s, syndicated blocks of animation proved highly lucrative with the likes of "The Disney Afternoon" and Warners' lineup. Television animation employment climbed to new heights. A few years later, cable channels dedicated to animation came into existence (Nick, Disney, Cartoon Network) and employment in television animation enjoyed another growth spurt.
Today, unfortunately, technology and demographics drive work levels in a different direction. Young eyeballs now have video games and the internet to occupy them, and the competition from live-action product has also been problematical. Disney's Phineas and Ferb has gotten traction with older kids, but it's mostly the younger-skewing 'toons Dora the Explorer, Mickey's Clubhouse, and Mi-Hao Kai-Lan that are being made. As always, producers look for ways to make the product faster and cheaper, since few companies want to deficit finance and amortize half-hour shows over several years.
We are in, as best I can judge, a spiral of shrinking budgets and demos that will only change when the Next Big Hit arrives in animation, and studios crank up production on imitations and spin-offs in the pursuit of heavy coin. Sooner or later, it always happens.
Lastly, it's important to note there is a bright spot in television. Prime time is going great guns. Not only are The Simpsons still marching along, but Family Guy, American Dad, and King of the Hill are being joined by The Cleveland Show, Sit Down, Shut Up, and The Goode Family. There is, quite frankly, more prime time animation going on right now than at any time in television history.
So, as tight as things are, this is at least one bright sliver edging the gray cloud now hanging over television 'toonland.