Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Weak Television Sector

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.


Unknown said...

We're just about to start Adventure Time at Cartoon Network
I see the show got picked up, but I thought it would be Nick, not Cartoon Network.

Steve Hulett said...

That's what Mr. Seibert told me, so I take him at his word.

Unknown said...

In that case, is production taking place at Frederator Studios, or Cartoon Network Studios?

Anonymous said...

Another problem is that so many of the new cartoons are so terrible. They're ugly, derivative and not funny. El Tigre, The X's, Camp Lazlo, Yin Yang Yo - they all suck. Phineas and Ferb is one of the few bright spots, because it's actually clever at times and it's almost never as meanspirited as too many current toons tend to be. But again it's a rarity. As for Fanboy and Chum Chum - frankly it looks like ass. I give it the life expectancy of a toothpick in a beaver colony.

Anonymous said...

"Young eyeballs now have video games and the internet to occupy them,"

This is one of the stupidest assumptions ever in the industry and one that is parroted by executives who like to carry around a briefcase of excuses as to why they have no sensibility when it comes to finding quality prospects.

I once worked at a studio which shall go unnamed. The owner was a very astute man and one night we were shooting the bull. This was back when the internet was being bandied about as the new frontier of entertainment - perhaps even set to eclipse tv in some of the more sensational articles.

He was sitting in front of his computer and he said, the truth of the matter is that people, of all ages, will always opt against doing this:
(and he leaned forward and gazed into the monitor while gripping the mouse)
When they can do this:
(and he reclined back in his chair, put his feet up and folded his hands behind his head)

There is no contest. The internet is too cumbersome to take away good tv. Think how many times do you run away from the internet to sit on the couch and watch something on tv versus how many times you left watching a good show on tv to watch something on the internet? Quite a disparity there. I grew up with video games and they are nearly always fun in a singular manner. Its easy and effortless to get a few people watching a good show on tv. a few people around a video game can often be full of friction and/or boredom.

Good TV programming rules all other media. When people say it doesn't usually they have failed repeatedly at their job to put good TV programming on the air.

Anonymous said...

You're not seeing the bigger picture. Strong content will always be what draws audience. But what you define as content is completely up to the audience. I myself don't even question the source that delivers the entertainment I enjoy. If I enjoy playing the video game, or enjoy the tv show or webcast or whatever, and, more importantly, I like the price I paid for it, I return for more. Now, how I pay for it and how much I pay is what matters more, and that can be done any way you could possibly think of. Lately, people have been thinking of some pretty brilliant ways to make it easy for me to pay for it. Who in a billion years would've thought you could build a business by mailing DVD's to people? Pure genius.

Hears a good test for you. Ask anyone born after 1985 what they owned first, or what their parents bought for them first - a television or a laptop/game console. Even if you get a 50/50 response, that is a massive change in how your audience views and enjoys content. Massive. And there are unlimited creative ways to deliver content to them that might suit them, customized to their habits and budgets. Audiences have a limited amount to spend on entertainment, but there are unlimited ways to collect fees and unlimited ways to deliver it to them, and in an unlimited number of formats. That's where the competition is, and that's where the market is heading. The traditional television revenue model is floundering because of this.

There is no such thing as 'good tv programming.'

Because tv programming is dead.

Chris Battle said...

"Young eyeballs now have video games and the internet to occupy them"

This is one of the stupidest assumptions ever in the industry

Not true-- it's right on the money. As someone with family in the toy business, it's been shown to me that the toy industry has seen big drops in sales as children's time (and their parents' money) are taken up by video games, internet, and especially DVDs. (It's worth noting that aside from sugar cereals, toys have traditionally made up the bulk of children's TV advertising.) Viewing habits have changed as well: A family gathered around a TV is no longer just "watching television"; They might be watching one of WB's new DTV movies, watching "Enchanted" on pay-per-view, or maybe re-watching that "Cars" DVD for the 100th time.

Anonymous said...

"Cars" sucked!!!


Anonymous said...

Anonymous poster "R" opined:

""Cars" sucked!!!" R.


Now there's the kind of on-topic, intelligent, industry-savvy post that keeps me coming back here day after day. (NOT)

This was an interesting topic. C'mon let's keep it that way, please ?

Steve Hulett said...

"Young eyeballs now have video games and the internet to occupy them"

This is one of the stupidest assumptions ever in the industry

No doubt. I'm very limited. I'm the father of children, and I observe on a regular how they spend their time. And it ain't in front of the set.

You can also look at national stats. The way kids spend their time isn't watching television hours and hours every day. That time is o-ver.

There's now GameBoys and Playstations and computers and the intertubes, which is a huge sea change in how people spend their leisure time.

Anonymous said...

My point is that television is in direct competition with video games in the exact same way that video games are in direct competition with television.

The difference?

Television executives are using the competition as an excuse for having NOTHING produced, nothing in the pipeline and a dismal record for any shows that connect with viewers in any way.

Video game companies aren't stagnant and repeating the mantra "Hey, our product is competing against television for kid's time!" hey don't have empty halls at their companies and use their competition as an excuse.

They go ahead and create content... and if the content doesn't sell, they fire the person who failed at producing it for them. Television - especially the animation studios - should take that page out of their book. The executives should produce something because creating a bad cartoon is better than creating none at all. When the executives have helmed a failure, they get fired.

I'm not sure that I could do better, but I sure as hell can't do any worse. The studios are empty for crying out loud.

Mike Milo said...

"They go ahead and create content... and if the content doesn't sell, they fire the person who failed at producing it for them."
How is this different than it's ever been? In any industry for that matter. You do a bad job you get fired. Simple as that. Granted in TV animation it may seem that there are more visual examples of "a bad job" but in the end you are rewarded/fired for your good/bad results. And there's been a lot of firing/hiring in animation this last year. Especially in development.

I know it may seem bleak out there in TV land but you have to admit, there is a lot of content coming down the pike. CN is doing 50 shorts of which they will surely do some series from, (and there is hope there will be more shorts as well) Nick did the Random Cartoons and picked up Fan Boy and now Adventure Time (which I think is awesome). This might even fuel Nick to do more. Even Fox is getting into the fray with their Incubator shorts program. I've heard somewhere there might be a Disney shorts program on the horizon. Finally, Cartoon Brew ran a story recently about independents getting series pickups from their internet cartoons. There are opportunities for the industrious artist to make his way out there; it's just different than it was.
IMHO: The truth as to why TV animation is lax? People are waititng to see what happens with the election also so everyone is cautious right now. On top of all that the economy is lax. When it picks up, so will animation.
Just my 2 cents. :-)

Steve Hulett said...

The studios are empty for crying out loud.


Those charts I put up? Showing high overall employment? Absolute lies.

When I walk through studios, there's nobody there. I could set off a scatter bomb and nobody would be killed or hurt, the places are so empty.

Nothing going on anywhere. Just tumble weeds, as far as you can see. And an occasional dust devil.

How could anybody believe anything else?

Anonymous said...

the charts you put up showed significant drops in televison studio employment. Thats what we were talking about.

But tell me all about the booming production at Nick, CN, and Toon Disney....

You can develop a split personality in here where you can say its lagging AND say its healthy.

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Anonymous said...

Adventure Time changed my life. It is certainly one of the greatest animations I have ever seen! Good luck on Cartoon Network, I have full faith in you!

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