Saturday, 17 March 2012

NBC Comics, Part 2

Television went through an awkward period between its experimental days of the early 1930s and the movement of radio stars to the new medium about 1948. Stations were filling time during the World War Two years with crude, low-budget—and long-forgotten—shows. They knew something was better just around the corner. It was a matter of preparing and waiting.

Syndicators got ready for the explosion of television licenses by coming up with programming proposals. Several of them involved cartoons. But not even the limited animated, Saturday morning kind; that would have been too expensive. Instead, the idea was not to have any animation at all. Cartoons would be just that—panels like in newspaper cartoons.

Two companies with the same name and same idea got to work. Viewers started hearing about it in 1945. Here’s a wire service story.

Artist Launches Two Comic Movie Firms
HOLLYWOOD, March 23 (UP)—Artist Steve Slesinger today announced formation of Tele-Comics, Inc., of New York, to reproduce nationally known syndicated and original comics for 16-mm. distribution and television.
Slesinger also announced launching of another producing company, Telepictures, Inc., of Hollywood, which will produce 16-mm. film in conjunction with a children’s books publishing firm.

Some specifics about how the cartoons worked were revealed in Advertising and Selling magazine that year.

Comics telecast
To test the adaptability of the newspaper comic strip to television, an experimental series was begun recently by Hollywood’s W6XYZ under a short-term contract with NEA.
Labeled by Fred S. Ferguson, president of NEA, as only an experiment to test out the possibilities of television as a syndicate market, the “Telecomics” test puts eight NEA Sunday pages on the air for a half-hour weekly. Panels, unanimated, are separated and transferred to film without balloons. Background character voices dramatize the dialogue, while a narrator supplies supplemental explanation and sound effects are added. The comics being used are “Boots and Her Buddies,” “Freckles,” “Brenda Breeze,” “Our Boarding House,” “Captain Easy,” “Carnival” “Mr. Merriweather” and also “Otis.”

The concept continued to germinate. Here’s a newspaper story from April 24, 1946:

It’ll Soon Be Telecomics
Distributed by International News
“Telecomics”: A group of air-minded experts have come up with an idea for televising Sunday's favorite comic strips the same day they appear in newspapers. As prevued before the American Newspaper publishers association, the comic panel first appears on the television screen without the blurbs. Then, as a narrator begins to tell the story and assumes the voices of the various characters, the blurbs pop up in their right spots. In the case of the "Little King" by O. Soglow, the narrator will have little to do except explain the actions of the lordless little guy.

Billboard magazine covered early television in depth, including the rise of non-animated cartoons. Steve Slesinger’s company inked a deal then went shopping for an ad agency to snare a sponsor, a practice that came from network radio in those days. This is from the edition of April 19, 1947:
A radio-television package deal which may set the pattern for future video sales was set last week when NW Ayer agency took up an option for the Zane Grey comic strip, King of the Royal Mounted, for use over both media. Deal was set with Telecomics, Inc., which owns and controls the comic strip’s rights. Option primarily covers tele rights to King, serialized in five-minute takes, but also gives ultimate sponsor the right to bank roll a 15-minute radio strip made from King if sponsor so desires. Telecomics veepee John Howell stated his firm's desire to stress the video possibilities precludes splitting the package to permit separate sale of radio rights to bidder interested only in that medium.
Should the deal work out satisfactorily, it may mark a new method of marketing packages during video’s long transition period, whereby sponsors interested in purchasing radio rights will be able to secure them only as a bonus to a television deal.
Ayer took the option on behalf of all its clients, feeling the deal offers possibilities for several, and a chance for simultaneous sponsorship by some local outfits in different cities. Telecomics already has completed filming about 150 five-minute television episodes of King, with production continuing. Only one sample radio show has been cut to date.
Technique involved in producing the filmstrip also is heralded as ushering in new potentialities for television sponsors. David Gudebrod, manager of Ayer’s motion picture and television bureau, expressed his enthusiasm by saying it may “greatly ease current agency-sponsor video problems.” Aside from audience participation and sports shows, he said that most video today costs too much for what a sponsor can get out of it. Films for television also cost too much for most sponsors, what with studio, technical and talent expenses involved.
Technique used for King, however, reportedly introduces new methods at costs far below those of the past.
Process used by Telecomics makes use of special optical effects, camera movements, fades, dissolves and wipes which give the semblance of animation without using expensive animation technique. Cartoon characters’ conversation is via traditional balloons, as in newspaper, with words dissolving in and out.

One of Ayer’s clients that was interested in sponsorship was Kellogg’s. Of course, the cereal company invested heavily in animated TV cartoons a decade later with the Hanna-Barbera and Lantz studios.

Billboard of November 22, 1947 featured a lengthy story on the players in TV cartoons of the day, and a battle between two companies named “Telecomics, Inc.”

NEW YORK, Nov. 15—The rush to package cartoon and comic strip programs for television this week threatened to turn into a stampede, with five organizations readying funnies for video. Latest to enter the field was Jimmy Saphier, Coast agent who handles Bob Hope, Herbert Marshall, Man Called X, Date With Judy and other properties. Saphier this week gave the first New York showing of several semi-animated juvenile cliff-hangers filmed in Hollywood by a new outfit called Telecomics, Inc. This firm now joins such others beating the agency bushes or readying shows: Television Corporation, United Features, New York Daily News Syndicate and another firm, also called Telecomics, Inc., which is a subsidiary of Stephen Slesinger Productions. Edgar Bergen also has a hand in the comic pie with a set of animated characters called Telekins. Conflict over use of the Telecomics name this week drew a protest from the Slesinger subsidiary, which may be a prelude to legal conflict over its use. John Howell, veepee of the firm, said they have been protected both copywise and titlewise for nearly a year, and intend to investigate any transgression of the rights.
Samples Shown
Saphier said his version of Tele-comics, Inc., was organized by two former Disney animators. A demonstration of of Saphier’s sample films at National Broadcasting Company (NBC) revealed a couple of blood and thunder juvenile serials titled Kid Champion, a fight opus, and Jim Hardy, Ace Reporter.
A change of pace was the cartoon version of Anatole France's classic story, Our Lady’s Juggler. Semi-animation process had drawings change about once per second, with some held longer or shorter, according to the dialog. Sound strip behind the cliffhangers had voices impersonating the characters dramatizing the action, while the France story was told by a narrator.
Described as a combination of comic strip and radio serial techniques, Saphier’s shows featured original characters, unlike the newspaper comics offered by several other firms. But Saphier said his outfit, too, might attempt to secure newspaper comics should he find any demand for them. His shows will have 12 minutes of story and three minutes of commercial and will be turned out for weekly showing. Cost to sponsor for rights for each 15-minute saga will be about $2000 for use in eight video markets. Saphier said that should sponsor demands require, he would produce daily five-minute episodes or tri-weekly 10- minute shows. Delivery can be promised four weeks after signing of contracts, with commercials prepared according to specifications.
Name Comics Signed
Perhaps the most significant announcement of progress came from Century Television Corporation of which Smith Davis, station and newspaper broker, is president. Century has lined up an imposing list of name comics for exclusive representation in video, including Ham Fisher’s Joe Palooka, Chicago Sun’s Barnaby Clifford McBride’s Napoleon and Uncle Elby, Bell Syndicate’s Mutt and Jeff and about 20 other well-known characters. Initial plans call for selling rights to these characters for use in one-minute animated film commercials, but Century also plans to enter production in January on a sample 10-minute film based on Joe Palooka. Two salesmen currently are making the agency rounds.
The Telecomics, Inc., firm, an outgrowth of the Stephen Slesinger organization, already has prepared a joint radio-television deal around King Features’ King of the Royal Mounted, with purchaser of tele rights acquiring an option on radio rights as well. Unlike all the others, this version uses the traditional comic strip balloons for dialog. Sound is optional. Show will be available to one sponsor only for all video markets and may be had in five or 10-minute version. Five-minute show with sound track costs $500, while silent version with script for reading by local announcer is $250. Ten-minute sound version is $1000, while silent-script cost is $500.
United Features comics are represented for video by Ed Reed, of the New York office of The Des Moines Register-Tribune syndicate. These, including Lil’ Abner, Nancy and about 10 others are available both for use in commercials or as programs.
The New York Daily News Syndicate, which controls such comics as Moon Mullins, Little Orphan Annie, Gasoline Alley and Harold Teen, is understood to be preparing video shows based upon these characters. First rights likely would go to the News’ own New York tele outlet which will open next spring, with subsequent rights in other markets undoubtedly to be made available to sponsors or stations.

It’s hard to say how many of these comics got on the air. And the two Telecomics companies carried on with the same name; the 1951 Broadcasting Yearbook shows Slesinger’s company on Park Avenue in New York and Don Dewar’s on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

Surprisingly, some of Dewar’s comics are available for viewing on the internet. First, “Danny March.”

Here’s “Space Barton.” The voice of the narrator and the bad guy should be familiar as the narrator on many Warner Bros. cartoon travelogue parodies—Robert C. Bruce.

And this is “Kid Champion.” Bruce is the bad guy again.

P.S.: The first reference to cartoons on TV I’ve found is in the September 11, 1944 edition of Broadcasting Magazine. The pertinent part of the story is: “Patrick Michael Cunnings Teleproductions, recently organized Hollywood television film production group . . . has set up an experimental television cartoon studio under Robert Clampett, supervisor-director of Warner Bros. cartoon productions.” What Clampett accomplished, or even if he got programming on the air, is unclear. It was still too soon for TV animation. Yet Clampett soon made his mark on television with his “Beany and Cecil” puppet show and, finally, by 1960 got into the TV animation business for a brief time.

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