Saturday, 24 September 2016

TV Takes Over the Cartoon Business

One of the more annoying things about the criticism during the 1950s of cartoons on TV is that the theatricals which began appearing in waves over the course of the decade were “ancient.” One of the reasons critics liked the Huckleberry Hound Show was the cartoons were brand-new, even though some of the situations and gags were borrowed from the same old theatricals the critics were deriding.

I don’t know why the age of the cartoons would bother anyone. Kids didn’t care. They thought Bugs Bunny, Popeye and Heckle and Jeckle were fun and funny, and wanted to see them over and over and over again, much to the delight of advertisers and syndicators. But the supply of theatricals was finite, so a way had to be developed to make animation within a television budget.

It’s debateable when TV cartoons finally became viable. Crusader Rabbit first aired in 1950 but it was really an exception to the rule. More series finally starting appearing in 1957 and then 1958. It can be argued when Huckleberry Hound became a critical and financial success, more production companies realised they could make money copying the Hanna-Barbera model, and that’s when the proverbial dam burst and all kinds of series were proposed and/or developed.

Let’s give you an idea about how quickly things were changing. Here are two stories from Variety, four months apart. You can see the numbers of new series growing. The first story is from March 19, 1958; the second is from July 9, 1958. We’ll be going through Variety for that year and posting cartoon clippings in the weeks ahead.

Cartoons Creaky, But What Do Kids Care!

Many an economist has stated that the field of economics is more psychology than finance.
Change that to child psychology and half the battle is won in figuring the complexities of the business of selling cartoons to television.
Animated subjects, for example, are among the hottest of the syndicated sellers, the object of an almost inexhaustible demand. Yet, although the supply of theatrically produced cartoons is virtually exhausted insofar as their availability to television is concerned, the amount of new cartoon product produced directly for tv can be counted on the fingers of both hands.
If this seems a paradox, it can be explained by two factors, cost and child psychology. First of all, "full" animation is extremely—almost prohibitively—expensive. There have been innovations in "limited" animation that cut costs considerably, and these have been responsible for the few series that have been produced. But more about that later.
As to child psychology, remember when as kids you sat through a movie four or five times on a Saturday afternoon? Well, the same goes for tv. The repeat factor is virtually negligible, and station programmers can use the same cartoon package for years on end, repeating each subject an infinite number of times. Without a complaint from the kids.
What this means is that this inexhaustible demand for cartoons isn't necessarily a demand for new cartoons. Having found that kids will watch the same subjects over again, stations aren't so much concerned about having new product as they are about having some kind of product, no matter how old. The only way a new show stands a chance is if it's priced competitively with the older packages, even though they're reruns.
Bearing the high costs of animation in mind that's the reason so few new cartoon series have been produced for television. Those that have been produced—the list includes the "Crusader Rabbit" series, Screen Gems' "Adventures of Powwow" and "Ruff & Ready," [sic] Terrytoons' "Tom Terrific" and some "Mighty Mouse" entries, and UPA's "Boing Boing" half-hour series—have mainly been produced for network use first and subsequent syndication rerun, or in severely limited animation style, or a combination of both.
Show, Costly Technique
Full animation, as the term implies, involves completely rounded and smoothly moving figures, with the drawings changed in every frame. It's an extremely slow and costly production technique, with costs running up to $100 and more per foot, or some $9,000 for an eight-minute one-reeler. Such a one-reeler, in the context of a full package of cartoons, could conceivably gross better than its production costs, but the risk is high at best. Some costs run higher—CBS laid out $1,695,000 for its series of 26 half-hour "Boing Boing" films, better than $70,000 each.
Fortunately, UPA some years ago pioneered the new animation form called "limited" or "stylized" animation. This involves the use of angular figures, moving jerkily against static backgrounds, etc. UPA technique, drawn in the modern vein, caught the public's fancy and won acceptance for the limited style. This opened the door to many cost-saving devices, all stemming from the fact that the same drawings and backgrounds could be used for many frames instead of single-frame filming.
This limited animation technique is varied in degree, and in its crudest sense can bring in a semi-animated subject at a remarkably low budget. Trick, however, is to keep the costs low without sacrificing too much in the way of quality by using the limited technique. In the main, this has been the course of action used by those companies that are producing new-cartoons for tv. Another trick is to get them sold on a network basis first, then release them for syndication, as Screen Gems has done with "Powwow" and "Ruff & Ready" and Terrytoons with "Tom Terrific." With most of the cost thus written off, syndicators can then match the rerun prices of their theatrical-cartoon competition.
As to the future, stations can expect only a limited amount of new made-for-tv product. Amount of pre-'48 cartoon product still outstanding from tv is insignificant, some Columbia color subjects and a few Metro "Tom & Jerry" cartoons. As for post-'48 cartoons, they are also limited in number, since the business of cartoon-making went into a major decline as television's impact on filmmaking became evident. En masse, the accumulation of post-'48 product from all sources is substantial, but in terms of packages from individual companies, they won't make much of a dent.
So the current flock of libraries, already in their umpteenth runs, will be repeated over and over again indefinitely. As long as the kids don't care, why should anyone else?


Television, for the first time in many years, is due to be on the receiving end of a fresh upbeat in cartoon production.
The boost is occurring at a time when the pool of vintage cartoons, culled from the motion picture libraries of the majors, is closer to the bottom of the barrel. Fresh cartoons are slated to come from Guild Films, Screen Gems, Trans-Lux Television, Sterling Television, Walt Disney and other firms.
Cartooning for video is a tricky, tough business. First, there are the economics of the situation. In theatrical cartooning, virtually at a standstill now with the industry depressed, from $35,000 to $45,000 was spent per short cartoon subject. Most distributors in the tv biz feel that any cartoon short that comes in above the $4,000 per negative level is in trouble. Television, at least in syndication, couldn't support much more.
Then there's the problem of establishing the principal characters for the kiddies. The "Popeye's," "The Looney Tunes," the "Tom and Jerry's" and "Little Lullu's" are part of the American folklore and almost have a pre-natal following. The new cartoon characters have to fend for themselves, building their audiences from scratch.
The relative high cost of obtaining animation, ranging the limited to the full variety, has led a few producers to go abroad for their drawings, doing the editing and narration in the U. S. to get the American flavor. Additionally, foreign cartoons have been utilized with a new sound track, etc., added.
As to the upcoming fresh cartoon productions Screen Gems will have "Huckleberry Hound," already bought by Kellogg for national spot; Trans-Lux Television, "Felix the Cat"; Guild, "Adventures of Spunky and Tadpole." These are being produced in Hollywood or N. Y.
Sterling Television has been distributing two packages in syndication, 104 Cartoon Classics, and the Famous Cartoon Group of 65, both of which had the animation done abroad, with sound track, editing, etc., done in the U. S. Sterling has another group "Daniel Boom" upcoming, and is prepping a fourth group, reportedly tied to record tunes.
In syndication, there also is a new batch of "Crusader Rabbits," as well as a package of "Col. Bleep's" from Richard H. Ullman's outfit, with headquarters in Rochester, N. Y., and "Terry's Toons," from Screen Gems, all product made for tv.
On the nets, ABC-TV has "Woody Woodpecker," vintage theatricals released by Universal-International but fresh to tv; and Walt Disney cartoons slotted in "Mickey Mouse Club" and "Disneyland." NBC-TV has "Ruff & Ready" [sic] out of the Screen Gems lot, a cartoon specially made for tv.
CBS-TV has "Mighty Mouse Playhouse," "Heckle & Jeckle" and "Tom Terrific," the latter slated in "Captain Kangaroo's Show." All of the aforementioned shows come from the Terrytoon outfit, now completely owned by CBS-TV, and represent vintage theatrical shorts seen for the first time on tv. CBS-TV also is telecasting "McBoing Boing," the UPA label, as a sustainer Friday nights from 7:30 to 8 p.m. Net took an awful financial licking with the UPA cartoons, first telecast Sundays without attracting commercial sponsorship despite critical hosannahs.
Terrytoon shorts, distributed by CBS Film Sales in syndication, still have a long way to go before the entire library is released via the market-by-market route. But other libraries, to a varying degree, are facing depletion.


  1. The first article's probably one of the better ones in explaining the differences in the full-animation theatricals vs. the made-for-TV efforts that were becoming more ubiquitous by the month in 1958. (Chandler's also right about the UPA designs and how they transferred to TV -- lots of stuff from the later years of the UPA one-shots stylistically showed up in the incidental character in Jay Ward's Rocky & Bullwinkle, as the much reduced budgets made far less of a difference there than with the later low-budget efforts involving other theatrical characters, such as the bulk of the KFS Popeyes from 1960-61).

  2. As regards to '50s TV cartoon packages, I always presumed the "ancient" designation as referring to the silent-era product. Would theatricals produced in only the prior two decades really be considered antiquated at that point?

    1. I think so. There were critics who complained about cartoons with candlestick phones, old-fashioned box-shaped sedans and other dated things. And a 1930s Ub Iwerks or Van Beuren cartoon didn't have the modern designs of the '50s.