First-run syndicated programming has become such an important market for animation that it may be threatening Saturday morning, the bastion of network cartoon shows for more than 20 years.
Executives from major distribution companies recently went so far as to declare that the first-run syndication market has grown so important that "at least one network will be out (of the Saturday-morning cartoon business) within two years or less."
Spokesmen for ABC, CBS and NBC quickly denied the story: Kidvid cartoons will remain on the air, they said.
However, that the rumor could be taken seriously demonstrates just how significant the new syndication market has become. With 26 first-run animated series currently airing on Sunday mornings and weekday afternoons, the networks' Saturday-morning arena is no longer the only cartoon game in town for producers and advertisers.
"For the year ending in September, we produced about 50% of our episodes for the networks and 50% for first-run syndication," said Martin Weinberg, senior vice president of animation operations at Taft Entertainment, the parent company of the Hanna-Barbera and Ruby-Spears animation studios. "We have five different series and two mini-series in first-run--more than 300 half-hours."
Reruns of cartoons--some of them decades old--have long been a staple of syndicated programming. The vast market for original animated series developed only recently.
In 1981, Mattel asked Lou Scheimer, the president of Filmation, a Saturday-morning studio, to create a series based on its forthcoming line of sword-and-sorcery action figures. When Westinghouse acquired Filmation later that year, Scheimer suggested developing the Mattel property for the company's distribution arm, Group W.
"We had a disastrous year; I think we sold only one show (to the networks)," he explained. "I saw the writing on the wall."
"He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" debuted in 1983 to unexpectedly high ratings.
"The year we went on the air, our ratings were phenomenal," Scheimer said. "Advertisers loved it, because with no significant children's programming off-network, they had been relegated to the Saturday-morning ghetto. It became apparent that this was a much better market for us, both financially and creatively."
Over the next three years, the success of "He-Man," both on the air and in the toy stores, led to a spate of animated programs for first-run distribution, most of them financed by toy companies and centering on action figures, including "G.I. Joe," "Thundercats," "Gobots," "Rambo" and "Transformers."
Today, many animation producers feel that syndication offers distinct advantages over Saturday morning, including easier deadlines. The networks order their shows in mid-April for delivery in mid-September; pre-production work on most syndicated series begins a year or more in advance.
The budgets are comparable--$230,000 to $300,000 per episode--but the networks order only 13 episodes per season; first-run series are produced in packages of 65 half-hours.
In addition, because stations pay for completed programs, the studios don't have to submit their work to the scrutiny of the networks' broadcast-standards departments. For years, animators have chaffed at their strictures.
"For Saturday morning, every script, storyboard, design and final show gets looked at by a certain number of network 'suits' to judge if it's worthy of them or whatever," said Tom Sito, a director of Filmation's "Ghostbusters" and "She-Ra" series.
"Many of these people have positions that consist of nothing but looking for mistakes or things that trouble their moralities," he said. "In syndication, we police ourselves. The studio is certainly not unmindful of the wishes and worries of parents. We don't make Ninja-slasher-assassin films."
The stake in the battle between network and first-run children's programming is money, rather than ratings. The networks continue to dominate on Saturday mornings, with a combined audience of 13.3 million children, or 85% of the available audience.
"The competition is really for the total amount of advertising dollars scheduled to be spent on programs that appeal to children," Weinberg said. "The impact on the networks is not so much a reduction in audience as it is a competition for advertising dollars."
While she concedes that first-run syndicated programming "has eroded the advertising pot for the networks," Judy Price, vice president of children's programming at CBS, feels that these shows--like the toys on which they're based--are too age- and sex-specific.
"What we have to do as responsible network programmers for children is meet this challenge in a way that distinguishes our series from syndication," she said. "We've left the hard action-adventure market to syndication. For Saturday mornings, we need more than just boys or just girls. The real challenge is to develop shows that cross the sex lines and age lines."
The consensus among animators is that the present boom in first-run production has glutted the market and fragmented the audience.
"G.I. Joe," currently the most popular first-run series, commands a Nielsen rating of 3.6 (3.1 million homes)--hardly a smash hit, even by the more modest standards of syndication.
Moreover, only 2 1/2 points separate "G.I. Joe" from "Gobots," the 18th-ranked syndicated children's show, which indicates just how thinly spread the off-network audience is.
First-run syndication will almost certainly remain an important market for animation over the next several years, but probably at a reduced scale of production, the producers say. They acknowledge that off-network broadcasting can't continue to support 26 packages of 65 half-hour shows each year, even with substantial underwriting by the toy industry.
"I don't think there's any doubt that there's too much product on the market right now," Weinberg concluded. "There's got to be some fallout. Most, if not all of us, have gone into this business without really knowing where it's going to eventually end up. But it's too big a business right now not to be involved with it."