Animation in Prime Time
Network television programmers in the 1950's insisted from the start that animation and prime time television just wouldn't mix. Animation was just too expensive for television and most limited animation looked so bad, no adult would ever watch it. Old animated theatrical shorts, such as early Bugs Bunny, Popeye, Heckle and Jeykle and Felix the Cat were being bought up by networks and tossed on the daytime TV schedules randomly, mostly as filler to entertain children. After all, cartoons were only for the kiddies, right?
The networks seemed to forget that those same animated shorts were designed for movie houses to entertain adults before each feature film. Many of these shorts were filled with comments and actions that were not suited for children. After only a few years, outraged parents and citizen groups put plenty of pressure on TV to clean up its cartoon act. Networks still ran plenty of the same shorts at all hours of the day, but now many of these shorts were presented in 'clean', edited for television versions.
In 1960, third place network ABC, desperately tried almost anything to have hit shows. ABC first expanded their weekday cartoon selection, and then they added cartoons almost all day Saturday and Sunday. ABC made an astonishing discovery. It seemed more adults were watching cartoons than children. More importantly, the prized key groups of males 16-35 were really tuning in.
For the fall season of 1960, ABC shocked the industry by unveiling The Flintstones, not as an afternoon show as the other networks predicted, but instead as a prime time weekly series. NBC and CBS executives laughed, at least until the ratings came out. The Flintstones was a solid prime time hit.
ABC, sensing this new trend may be their pathway to success, introduced two more prime time animated shows, one starring Bugs, the other starring Matty.
Early in 1960, ABC had purchased the entire post-1948 Warner Bros. theatrical cartoon library. These cartoons had never been broadcast on television. ABC strung 22 minutes of cartoons together with new Bugs Bunny bumpers in-between each cartoon and called it The Bugs Bunny Show. This is the series where Bugs and the gang start off singing and dancing in top hats on a stage. The Bugs Bunny Show was another hit for ABC.
ABC also placed Matty's Funday Funnies in early prime time on Sunday nights. This show was fully sponsored by Mattel Toys and hosted by Matty, their corporate logo. It was nothing more than a 30-minute infomercial for Mattel broken up by a few old animated Paramount/Famous Studios theatrical shorts.
For most of the early 1960's, prime time animation did fairly well. But it never really caught on with any staying power. By the late 1960's, the only animation on television, outside of a few seasonal specials, were Saturday morning cartoons.
Prime time animation made a dismal re-appearance in the early 1970's with two Hanna-Barbera clunkers then was gone for about 17 years.
In the late 1980's The Fox Television Network was in the same boat as ABC used to be back in the 1950's, it was in last place. FOX was a network seeking an audience and would do almost anything to get one. The network's hip, young adult-oriented program was The Tracy Ullman Show. It featured about 6 minutes of cartoons 'between-the-acts.' These shorts proved so popular that they were spun off into their own 1990's prime time television series... The Simpsons.
The Simpsons was a mega-hit that almost single-handedly made FOX into an actual competitive television network. The Simpsons was a cutting-edge, irreverent, topical, satirical, scatological, censor-baiting animated show aimed directly at males 18-34.
Within a year, all of the major networks announced prime time animated shows. Every single one failed within weeks of its debut. The networks did not comprehend or maybe just forgot their past failures. They didn't seem to remember that cheap, silly, Saturday morning kiddie fare just doesn't cut it in prime time. It would be a few years before more successful (probably because they were more adult-oriented) shows like Family Guy and King Of The Kill appeared on the scene.
After nearly two decades, The Simpsons is still going strong with first-run shows. At the very end of the 1990's came a return of prime time animation with about a half dozen successful prime time animated series on the air and even more announced.