Cartoon Network going strong at 25

LOS ANGELES • Detractors thought Mr Ted Turner was looney when he bought the Cartoon Network (CN) 25 years ago. Now, the billionaire is having the last laugh.

Last Sunday marked a quarter of a century since CN burst upon the pastel-coloured landscape of American television animation, redefining the way kids' entertainment was beamed into homes.

Launched when ratings for morning cartoons were falling and The Simpsons was starting to dominate primetime, many thought Turner Broadcasting System's US$320-million purchase of the Hanna-Barbera library was a mistake.

But Mr Turner, whose company already owned extensive back catalogues from MGM and Warner Bros, believed there was a gap in the market for a round-the-clock, seven-day channel showing cartoons that young and old could enjoy. His vision has been spectacularly vindicated, with CN growing from a modest start-up to one of cable TV's most popular programmers, seen in 100 million American homes and in more than 170 other countries.

"The thing that separates us is that we have artists driving the process here for everything," chief content officer Rob Sorcher said.

"That is a fundamental difference from most other studios because the artists are telling the stories through drawings. There aren't scripts getting done in most cases and animators animating them."

In its infancy, the network showed re-runs of The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Scooby Doo Where Are You!, Tom And Jerry, Popeye and many other classics.

It went into original programming with The Moxy Show in 1993, following up with Space Ghost Coast To Coast and, from 1997, Johnny Bravo, which raised eyebrows with its adult humour.

More recently, the network has churned out numerous hits including Steven Universe, Star Wars: Clone Wars, Powerpuff Girls, Regular Show and Adventure Time.

Ben 10, its longest-running franchise about a boy who can turn into aliens, has won three Emmys.

Writer Steven Seagle, whose Man Of Action Entertainment studio produces the show, said one of the challenges has been to crank up the pace for viewers who are getting increasingly quicker at devouring information in the smartphone age.

"When I was a kid, if I found out about something I liked, I'd have to go to a library that might take a day to get to. Now, if anything piques their fancy, they usually have a device, they find out about it immediately and they exhaust it. "

Marking CN out from other animation studios, the network has a "shorts unit", in which artists are not expected to pitch their ideas.

Instead, they just make their seven-minute films and then show executives the result.

It is a process that has spawned nine full series - including big hits such as We Bare Bears. The show - about the adventures of three ursine brothers - is made by Daniel Chong, whose credits include work for Pixar and Disney. "It's great to be part of the Pixar machine, but it is a machine. You're taking a script and boarding it at the behest of the director," he said.

"I'm now in control of the product. We don't have the budget of Pixar, or the time, but I get to tell the stories that interest me."

As well as competition from traditional rivals such as Nickelodeon, CN is under increasing pressure from Netflix's burgeoning slate of children's programming, not to mention Google's YouTube Kids.

Keen to stay ahead, CN delivered triple-digit growth in 2015 for its app and, earlier this year, launched TV-mobile app hybrid OK K.O.! Let's Be Heroes - about a young wannabe who lives in a world populated by superheroes.

While it may be a brave new world in terms of technology, some things never change, said OK K.O.! creator Ian Jones-Quartey.

"Our method of working on the cartoons is we sit in a room, we look at pictures and drawings, we pitch them to one another and we work on the jokes individually," he said.

"That's the same way Warner Bros cartoons were made back in the day. That's how all the Disney movies were made, like Pinocchio, Snow White - all those cartoons."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2017, with the headline 'Cartoon Network going strong at 25'. Print Edition | Subscribe