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Freeform is diving headfirst into the animated space.
The Disney-owned basic cable network has handed out a series order to Praise Petey, from Saturday Night Live co-head writer Anna Drezen, Greg Daniels (The Office) and Mike Judge (Beavis and Butt-head). Annie Murphy (Schitt’s Creek), John Cho (Cowboy Bebop), Christine Baranski (The Good Fight), Kiersey Clemons (The Flash), Amy Hill (Magnum PI) and Stephen Root (Barry) will lead the voice cast.
Freeform, as part of the animation push, is also developing two additional animated comedies — SupaShawty Girls, Funkamatic BangBang as well as Wallflower — as the younger-skewing cabler partners with 20th Television Animation to create a pipeline of animated programming.
To hear Freeform head of originals Jamila Hunter tell it, the animation push predated her arrival at the cabler a year ago and is all part of a larger strategy to target Gen Z and millennial viewers. The cable network recently became the syndicated home for Family Guy — a streaming hit on Disney-backed Hulu — and The Office, which found a new millennial audience on Netflix. The animation push is designed to complement Family Guy — which airs multiple episodes every Friday — and The Office, which begins airing five-hour blocks Monday-Thursday starting Jan. 1. “Praise Petey is an example of that,” Hunter tells THR in an interview about the animation push. (Read it in full, below.)
Praise Petey revolves around Petey (played by Schitt’s Creek Emmy winner Murphy), a New York City “It” girl who has it all until her life comes crashing down. As luck would have it, a mysterious gift from her father gives her a new lease on life as she “leans into” modernizing his small-town cult. Cho plays Bandit, a cult member and love interest. Clemons is Petey’s BFF. Baranski voices Petey’s mother. Hill is Bandit’s mother. Root is Petey’s father. Drezen created the series and exec produces alongside Judge, Daniels and Dustin Davis. Alex Bulkley and Corey Campodonico’s ShadowMachine (BoJack Horseman, Tuca & Bertie, Robot Chicken, Strange Planet, Pinocchio) will handle animation. The comedy, which begins production in early 2022, is produced in-house at 20th Television Animation.
SupaShawty Girls, meanwhile, is from writers/exec producers Adamme & Adanne Ebo and explores what happens to twin college students Yeze and Tule after a lab accident turns them into superheroes and they must learn how to manage their new lives with the growing pains of adulthood. Tiffany Haddish and Melanie Clark exec produce the 20th Television Animation comedy.
Rounding out the slate is Wallflower, from writers Julia Edelman, Danielle Uhlarik and Olivia de Recat. The comedy follows Ren, an introvert who has the power to communicate with her houseplants. With the help of her greenery, Ren navigates the anxieties of being in your 20s.
All three comedies target the young adult Freeform viewer while also filling a void as part of Disney’s larger animated roster. While Hulu is the home for adult-oriented animated comedies like Solar Opposites (from the creators of Rick and Morty), Praise Petey, SupaShawty Girls and Wallflower target the young adult viewer and help round out a Hulu animation slate as Freeform originals are available the day after their linear debut on the Disney-backed streamer.
Here’s more from Hunter on the larger animation strategy:
You joined Freeform a year ago this week after years as ABC’s head of comedy. What have you learned about the Freeform viewer that prompted this animation push?
The animation push predates me coming over. It was one of the reasons I was excited when I took on the development portion of the job. With Family Guy and The Office coming to the network, the linear side of the channel was going to look different. So, developing animation for Gen Z fans of that genre is part of that strategy. Praise Petey is an example of that.
How does animation fit into the Gen Z and millennial demo that you and Tara Duncan are courting for Freeform?
Our brand is Gen Z and millennials, and they consume comedy and animation. Coming from that lens, the thought was, “How can we make content where there’s a whitespace?” There tends to be more men and white men who are the leads in the animation space. So, to be able to zig and make the protagonists not the usual suspects and meet our Gen Z audience where they are in their life experience. That’s the focus of our brand overall. A show like Wallflower is about a young woman who has social anxiety. People now are more comfortable with texting and in real life is very awkward because we spend so much time not with people.
It’s well-known that adult-oriented animated comedies — like Family Guy and The Simpsons — are some of the biggest performers on streaming platforms like Hulu and Disney+. How does the Freeform animated content compare to Hulu’s animated content — like Solar Opposites and Crossing Swords — considering your originals stream on Hulu?
Our lens on all our shows is to put a Gen Z millennial lens on any story. That’s distinctive from what Hulu buys. Our strategy is in lockstep with what Hulu is doing and when their animation originals are. It’s about being complimentary. We consistently touch base about development and our scheduling teams are always talking. The content has to work for Freeform linear and Hulu in order to succeed on both tiers. We do get two bites of the apple. Yes, our programming has an audience on Hulu and no one is delusional about what’s happening on linear. The type of shows that are on Freeform’s linear network are distinctive from Hulu. It’s exposure to two different audiences. Our jobs, with scheduling and strategy, is to maximize both.
All three projects are produced by 20th Animation. What kind of conversations do you have with Marci Proietto about what makes a Freeform animated show?
The protagonist and POV of ours are not going to be the nuclear family. The lens for ours is young adult. Not that there’s not family in it, but it’s family through prism of YA characters. A sullen teen daughter on a network show is a lead on our show. Things that feel more for family or co-viewing, that’s in the bigger ecosystem — Disney+. Marci is working with all our brands and they’re all specific.
What’s the pitch for animation there that got a show from the guys behind Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill?
It was a spec script Anna had written. My predecessors bought it. We went hard for it because it’s a good entrance to the animation space with that level of partners. The point of view and pop culture references felt in alignment with our brand. The show will be a marquee for our brand. It will be the first animated show we do and get the Tiffany treatment.
What’s the long-term plan for how many animated comedies Freeform plans to air on its linear network? Fox has been ramping up its adult animation as Disney owns Family Guy, The Simpsons and Bob’s Burgers, meaning those could someday migrate to a Disney platform. Is there a world in which original episodes of those air on Freeform?
That would be an interesting world. Our strategy hasn’t gotten that far yet. Where we are, we have a consistent rollout plan for year one. Animated shows take longer to produce. The success will be what gets us able to do more. We have to learn more about how our audience responds on linear and on Hulu.
Freeform currently has five scripted shows, with rumors that Grown-ish may be ending soon. With the success of Cruel Summer plus Single Drunk Female and Everything’s Trash coming next year, what does the animation push mean for scripted at Freeform, especially given the limited scheduling you have for originals?
Our goal is to continue to tell stories that reflect our audience and are the types of shows they’re watching. Whether it’s more scripted, animation or unscripted, it’s about the shows. We want more hours, I say let’s get the shows we love. That’s how choices are being made vs. each bucket has to have a percentage. With animation, we have to see what we learn and then we build out. We will be talking about unscripted soon. And there are other ways we are expanding the brand. But we will continue to do scripted and broaden that in execution.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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