It wasn't long ago that Walt Disney Co.'s TV animation unit toiled away in the shadow of the film studio, a relatively obscure facet of the company's entertainment empire.
But that was before "Kim Possible" and "Lilo & Stitch" came onto the scene.
The TV animation division is enjoying a much higher profile these days thanks to these animated hits on the Disney Channel. No longer relying solely on the film studio to generate new characters that can feed Disney's much-needed merchandise sales, Disney increasingly is turning to its TV animation unit to launch original characters, as well as leverage existing ones.
"We've been part of the company that is primarily known for making movies. Now we're part of the company that is primarily making television, so we feel like we've found a home with a group of people that values what we do," said Barry Blumberg, president of Walt Disney Television Animation. "This frees us up to do things we've never been able to do before. We're going to do more shows and we're going to take more risks."
The animation unit is busier than it has been in its 20-year history. Led by "Kim Possible" and "Lilo," there are five series in production with nearly 50 projects in development.
"Disney's TV production arm is creating sustainable franchises for the company in a way that's similar to the film studio," said Jordan Rohan, an analyst with Soundview Technology Group.
Disney is expected to unveil this week the newest entry in its lineup, "Disney's Dave the Barbarian," an animated comedy series set in the Middle Ages. Created by improvisational comic and animator Doug Langdale, the television series follows Dave's adventures with his family as they protect themselves from a world of comical foes.
Set to debut in January, the cartoon series is among three new productions that Disney's TV animation unit will debut next year in the hopes of grabbing a bigger slice of the fiercely competitive kids cable television market.
More than 30 Disney TV animation series air seven days a week on Disney Channel, Toon Disney and ABC in more than 80 countries.
To ramp up production and allow TV animators to work more closely with the cable programmers airing their shows, Disney integrated the TV animation unit into the company's ABC Cable Networks Group in January.
Previously, the operation had come under the umbrella of the film studio. The group was formed in 1984 as the primary source of animation for afternoon syndication and Saturday morning television on ABC. But the growth of Disney's stable of cable channels, especially the Disney channel, has created much more demand for original animated TV series, executives say.
The elevation of the TV animation unit, which employs about 300, is a key plank in Disney's strategy to take on Viacom Inc.'s Nickelodeon and Time Warner Inc.'s Cartoon Network, as kids programming increasingly shifts from network television to cable TV.
TV animation has become an important contributor to the success of the Disney Channel, which has grown in the last 15 years, to more than 83 million households from 14 million.
In stark contrast to its struggling ABC Family cable channel, which Disney bought nearly two years ago and is trying to retool, the Disney Channel has been a growth engine for the Burbank-based company.
In the last two years, the cable channel has vaulted from third place to No. 1 in ratings among 9- to 14-year-olds because of the success of original live action movies and original series such as "Lizzie McGuire" and "Even Stevens."
But the channel also has made inroads among younger viewers who typically have been the domain of Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.
Year-to-date, Disney Channel ranked No. 2 in ratings, closely behind Nickelodeon, among kids 6 to 11, a 53% jump in ratings over last year, according to Nielsen Media Research.
That's largely due to the success of two TV animation productions: "Kim Possible," which made its debut in June 2002, and a TV series spinoff from the Disney movie "Lilo & Stitch." The series has become one of the top-rated kids shows since it premiered Oct. 12 and represents the first time Disney has developed a cartoon spinoff specifically for its flagship cable channel.
"They're becoming an important contributor to our success," said Rich Ross, president of entertainment for the Disney Channel. "They're great building blocks for us."