Drawing Conclusions


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For 20 years, "The Simpsons" has been Fox's billion-dollar baby. The animated show deserves a big chunk of the credit for helping create the one-time fledgling network's success -- and identity. So why is it that two decades into its run, there are no primetime animated programs on any broadcast network other than Fox?

Fox airs "Simpsons," "Family Guy," "American Dad!" and "King of the Hill." "King" abdicates this year and "The Cleveland Show" will step in. And on the other major networks?

Crickets.

Primetime animation is a strange animal in television programming. While features have gone gonzo over the decades with high-performing animated films, TV programmers still act as though primetime animation is a red-headed stepchild, compared to live-action shows.

"There's no question that in 1989, when we started, primetime animation was pretty much nonexistent," "Simpsons" executive producer Al Jean says. "And it was viewed as something for children."

That, at least, has changed, "Family Guy" co-exec producer Mark Hentemann says. "There's a much broader acceptance of primetime animated comedies than when we were starting in the late 1990s."

Still, that's an easier time with viewers, not necessarily programming executives. Over in the cable world, an entire network exists for animation (Cartoon Network) and Comedy Central has hosted a juggernaut of its own in "South Park" for 13 seasons. But even there it has been a challenge to find any new animated programming springing up, despite the potential rewards.

One issue may be cost. "Initially, they're more expensive," Jean says. "But subsequently, they're less expensive. Startup costs are high because you can't just shoot a pilot and test it, you have to order 13 or at least six, and that's a big gamble."

But once a show is established, things level off, with only perhaps a 3%-5% increase in cost each year, Jean says, while on live-action shows a success tends to translate into costs, in part because actors ask for higher salaries.

Another issue is Fox has proved its greatest success with blocks of animation, not solo outings. "Once you get a great anchor like 'Simpsons' for the night, it's very easy to pair a second animated show once you've got a pretty good audience watching," Hentemann says.

But all of that may soon be put to the test as ABC imports "Hill's" countrymen -- Mike Judge, John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky and their "The Goode Family," which premiered Wednesday. And TBS will take its first stab at an animated series with "Neighbors From Hell."

What excited TBS executives about branching into primetime animation was their success with reruns of "Family Guy."

"We like to look at what the audience is already coming to on the network and see how we can deliver a show that shares the same taste," says Michael Wright, executive vp and head of programming for TBS, TNT and TCM.

And once a show is successful, there's that nagging question that pops up each year right around this time: Just what to do about the Emmys? While most shows still offer a shrug and submit into Emmy's animation category, "Family Guy" will again buck the trend this year by submitting in the comedy category.

Hentemann understands his efforts are likely futile: "It does seem that submitting into the comedy category may mean you're giving up your chance at winning an Emmy."

Altschuler agrees that "we're always in-between worlds," specifically with "Hill." "People in animation don't see us as 'cartoony' enough, and then people in live action think we're a cartoon."
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