For ADULTS only
Advertisers brave cable's naughty animation to reach young men
By Anne Becker -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/14/2004 7:00:00 PM
Hot tub hijinks, lesbian lip-locking, full-frontal nudity and rapid-fire jokes about weight, sex and race. Nothing is off-limits for Comedy Central's latest MA-rated animated hit, Drawn Together.
But where some see bathroom humor, Comedy Central sees a hit and, more to the point, a way to tap into the elusive but lucrative demo of young men. In its second and third weeks, Drawn Together was the second-most-watched show on cable for the night (second only to South Park, which it follows on Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m.) and the most-watched show in its timeslot with all males over 18.
The show's outrageous cast—which includes a superhero of ambiguous sexuality, a naïve princess, a foul-mouthed pig, a Betty Boop look-alike, and a Japanese anime character—rollick their way through crude jokes, pop-culture references and randy antics in each episode.
To what do the show's creators owe their genius in the genre? “We're dorks that like to laugh at cartoons farting and showing boobies,” said Dave Jeser, 31, who created the show with high school buddy Matt Silverstein, 32.
As it turns out, that brand of humor is exactly what many young men want. Last week, Comedy Central said it will buy another 15 episodes of Drawn Together to air next year. With a bleak landscape for sitcoms leaving young viewers channel-surfing for comedic relief, more adult cartoons are airing in prime time than ever in the history of television. And with more A-list advertisers tuning in, more networks—including MTV, Spike and Logo—are injecting animated shows for adults into their schedules.
Chalk up the latest cartoon craze to Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, an 11 p.m.-2 a.m. block of original and acquired shows that regularly beats out some of its late-night broadcast competition in ratings, scoring 137% more 18- to 34-year-old viewers and expanding from two to six nights a week since it debuted in 2001.
The programs aren't all lewd; some are just plain wacky. One of the most popular original series, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, centers on a milkshake, some french fries and a meatball that form a group of detectives bunking together in a house in New Jersey and thwarting villains dispatched by mad scientist Dr. Weird.
The block's ad revenue had grown 200% in the past year, picking up 50 new advertisers in the past 18 months alone. The network is adding new shows to the block like Tom Goes to the Mayor, which strings together still photos of real actors such as Jack Black to tell the story of small-town bureaucracy. It premiered Nov. 14.
Ever since The Simpsons debuted 16 seasons ago, networks have tried to replicate the enormous success of the Fox moneymaker, which this year earned Dan Castellaneta—the voice of Homer—an Emmy for Outstanding Voiceover Performance. More than 6.5 million DVDs of the show have sold, grossing $50 million in sales for Fox for each season on DVD, estimates a source close to the show. Each new episode brings in $2 million in profits on its initial airing. Meanwhile, U.S. T-shirt sales alone took in about $20 million last year.
Another Fox show, King of the Hill, which debuted in 1997, about a beer-guzzling but moralistic redneck propane salesman, has come the closest in longevity.
Fox initially canceled Family Guy, a show about the misadventures of a dysfunctional six-member family, after three seasons in 2002. But when viewers gobbled up 1 million $40 copies of the show's DVD in its first six months on the market, programming executives suddenly perked up and paid attention. The show further surprised cable executives when it scored big in reruns on Cartoon Network. Fox quickly reversed course and reordered the show for a fourth season, to begin airing in May 2005.
While The Simpsons showed U.S. audiences what was possible with adult cartoons, “it has definitely been an up-and-down process as far as what the networks are buying,” says Seth MacFarlane, the 31-year-old creator of Family Guy. MacFarlane, like many of the viewers he seeks for his show, grew up watching The Simpsons in high school and college. His latest effort will premiere on Fox after the Super Bowl: American Dad, a political satire about a six-person family whose father is a terrorist-fearing CIA agent.
While there's no formula for a success, three elements are required to score a sustainable hit adult cartoon: likeable characters, simple graphics and, above all, good writing.
“By far the biggest reason any adult animation show succeeds is the writing,” says Simpsons executive producer Al Jean, who has been with the show since its inception 15 years ago, when it began as 30-second bits on The Tracy Ullman Show. “The shows that have worked have had staffs that really take the time to make the lines funny and evoke emotion.”
Cable is an ideal home for such fare since the medium can push the decency limits—a big appeal for young men—whereas the broadcast networks can be punished with indecency fines. For that reason, most broadcast adult animation keeps to the traditional sitcom convention of centering on a dysfunctional family while the cable toons veer off into realms of absurdity.
In an episode of Harvey Birdman, for example, the lawyer is hired to defend Fred Flintstone, who has become a mafia godfather in Bedrock. Later, Harvey wakes to find the severed head of Quickdraw McGraw in his bed—a take on a memorable scene from The Godfather and a clever pop-culture spoof. In Comedy Central's Shorties Watchin' Shorties, a pair of potty-mouthed cartoon infants watch actual standup routines that have been animated.
Getting young men to laugh isn't easy. Male network Spike TV, for example, struck out with its own adult animation block, The Strip, in June 2003. The shows, including Stripperella, about a crime-fighting stripper, and Kelsey Grammar's Gary the Rat, about a lawyer-rat in Manhattan, performed poorly. Gary quickly dropped to just 300,000 viewers after premiering to 1 million, and Spike dropped the block from its schedule in October 2003.
Insiders say it was because the shows lacked appealing characters and were hurriedly scraped together to get on the air for the network's launch. Critics say the shows were poorly produced and ill-conceived.
NBC's current foray into the medium, Father of the Pride, is struggling to stay alive. Despite its lavish $2 million-an-episode price tag, the network recently shelved the show for November sweeps because it hasn't struck a chord with viewers. One reason: The show uses elaborate CGI (computer-generated) animation, a medium best-known for family-style movies, such as Shrek and Finding Nemo.
“Those images say 'broad appeal' and 'innocuous,' and it's tough to break people of those first impressions,” MacFarlane says. “Hit adult animated shows are really basic, simple, underground doodlish-looking designs, and what that says to the adult audience is, 'Oh, ok. This is not a kid cartoon. It's something more subversive.'”
Advertisers, many of which have never spent money on animated shows before, are warming up to the genre. Although Adult Swim had a hard time drawing advertisers at first, now the block boasts an upfront of its own and has increased Cartoon Network's overall revenue as much as 25% within the year by snagging advertisers in key categories, such as automotive and telecommunications. Clients include Red Bull energy drink, DaimlerChrysler and Chili's restaurant chain.
“Advertisers will pay a premium for hard-to-reach targets,” says Horizon Media's Brad Adgate. “If you're going after young men, you have to bite the bullet a little bit with content and be more risqué.”
No one knows that better than Drawn Together's Silverstein and Jeser, a pair of wired Jersey boys who grew up on a steady TV-toon diet of The Simpsons, Ren and Stimpy and Family Guy and started TV careers straight after college, cataloging shows in Comedy Central's library. They wrote for several failed broadcast programs before Drawn Together.
“When we sit in the writers' room and we're going over jokes, we let whatever gets pitched make it into the shows,” says Jeser, who concedes that neither is an especially good artist. “People in the networks follow bizarre research studies [about what people watch], and usually the funniest thing in the room is the first thing to get cut. We don't pander to an audience.”
Comedy Central, which has put animated shows in nearly one-third of its programming schedule, bought into the concept and placed it in a spot to shine: Wednesday night at 10:30 p.m., immediately following South Park. Comedy Senior Vice President of Original Programming Lauren Corrao was looking for “the kind of show people came in to work the next day and talked about,” she says.
Now the network has more animation in the works, including a show about circus characters. Cartoon Network is considering expanding the Adult Swim block to seven nights a week. The network will debut Robot Chicken, a pop-culture satire by actor Seth Green, the first week in February. More projects are coming, and the network may expand Adult Swim by another day.
“We're not really grounded in any kind of reality so you don't know what's going to come up next,” says Keith Crofford, vice president of production for Cartoon Network. “If you can think it, you can make it happen. Animation's all about the absurd.”
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