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Waiting for the New Television Season : Animated Series on Drawing Boards

Although some critics have complained that the list of television pilots in production for the 1989-90 season represents a new low in imagination, artists in the animation industry are encouraged by the lineup. For the first time in years, the networks are considering animated series for prime time.

Fox Broadcasting, in fact, has committed to ordering 13 episodes of “The Simpsons,” a half-hour series involving the characters that cartoonist Matt Groening devised for “The Tracey Ullman Show,” and two other pilots are in production. Ralph Bakshi (“The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse”) is producing “Hound Town” for NBC, and Fox is developing “Hollywood Dog,” a live action/animation combination, based on R.P. Overmeyer’s comic strip in the L.A. Weekly.

Whether these make it will be known in the next few weeks, but even if they don’t, additional programs are in development at various studios. “I think the current interest in animation represents an effort at counter-programming,” says Joe Barbera, the president of Hanna-Barbera, who is developing a prime-time project called “Square One.”

“I think the network people are reaching for something they can show to get people to tune in. You can’t put anything out there in live action that will get people to switch from another live-action show, but viewers will at least take a look at an interesting animated show out of curiosity.”

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“My understanding is that the TV executives who are in power are young enough to remember cartoons as being funny: They have children of their own now, and they want to give them something to watch,” comments Groening, who recently became a father. “Part of the reason I’m doing this is that I’m so unhappy with what has been done--animation for TV is about the lowest form of entertainment in existence. There’s been an outcry about violence on TV affecting children adversely; what really affects them adversely is bad animation.”

Outside of occasional specials and programs of old theatrical cartoons, animation has rarely been broadcast after the dinner hour. The first network series animated specifically for prime time was Hanna-Barbera’s “The Flintstones” (ABC, 1960). The producers had to find a sponsor for the show themselves before the networks would consider it.

“The Flintstones” scored a big hit, running through 1966, and was followed by a spate of prime-time cartoons, including “The Alvin Show” (CBS, 1961), “The Jetsons” (ABC, 1962) and “The Adventures of Jonny Quest” (ABC, 1964). The last regular animated prime-time series was “Where’s Huddles?” (CBS, 1970-71), although “The Joke Book,” a collection of cartoon gags, ran briefly on NBC in 1982.

One reason for the sudden renewal of interest in the medium is the box office success of recent animated features. Together, Disney’s “Oliver and Company” and Don Bluth’s “The Land Before Time” grossed a record-breaking $112 million last holiday season. The Touchstone/Amblin hit “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” was the No. 2 money-making film of 1988, earning $153 million domestically.

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“ ‘Roger Rabbit’ has exploded the industry,” says Bakshi. “ ‘Roger,’ the other recent features and ‘Mighty Mouse’ have shown that animation is for adults as well as kids--an idea that has been a long time coming. I’ve been trying to get CBS to put ‘Mighty Mouse’ on at night with no luck; I can’t even get a ‘Mighty Mouse’ special on then.”

Bakshi, whose ‘Mighty Mouse’ series is more popular with adults and college students than it is with children, will direct “Hound Town” for NBC. Conceived by Tri-Star President Jeff Sagansky, “Hound Town” focuses on a group of dogs in an ordinary American town, who pursue their own lives and observe the curious habits of humans.

Like “Hound Town,” “The Simpsons” is set in a supposedly typical American suburb, but as “Tracy Ullman” fans know, this community is inhabited by quarrelsome humans with bulging eyes and grotesque overbites. Groening describes them as “lovable--in a mutant sort of way.”

“We like to think of this as a celebration of the American family at its wildest,” he says. “There are exaggerated things you can do visually which are hilarious in animation, but would be appalling in live action. In addition to the visual humor, we hope to introduce a level of sophistication in the writing that’s rare on TV.”

“The producers had nothing else in mind when they hired me to do little cartoon inserts for ‘Tracy Ullman,’ ” adds Groening. “But the idea in the back of my mind was to create a bunch of characters that would be vivid enough to get their own show. That was my secret agenda, and it worked.”

The new programs will probably look more like Saturday morning cartoon shows than fully animated theatrical features. The animation for the “Hollywood Dog” pilot will be done by Los Angeles-based Murakami-Wolf-Swenson. The writing, voice recording, direction and design for the others will be done here, but the animation itself will be sent overseas, as it is for Saturday morning kidvid.

“The Simpsons” will go to Korea, through Klasky-Csupo, the studio does the “Tracy Ullman” inserts. “Hound Town” will be done in Taiwan by Cuckoo’s Nest, the studio that animates “Mighty Mouse.”

“ ‘Hound Town’ can’t be fully animated--not on the budgets they give you, even for prime time,” Bakshi says. “But if you’re forced to work in limited animation, you should use it to the best of your ability: Limited animation can be a pure form. If you try to con your audience about how full the animation is, you’re in trouble; but if you use limited with skill an sincerity, the work will stand up.”

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