Fred Seibert is sitting in his New York office, filled with Legos and comic books, talking enthusiastically about his first big failure.
Thirty-two years ago, Seibert was hired away from his agency, Fred/Alan, by Turner executive Scott Sassa after Turner acquired Hanna-Barbera, the animation studio behind series including Scooby Doo and Space Ghost. Ted Turner was in love with his new toy, though others at the company wanted to shut it down. “Ted won’t close the studio because he thinks it’s cool,” Sassa told Seibert at the time. Sassa didn’t want to close it either, though Hanna-Barbera was a seriously distressed asset. Please, Sassa asked Seibert—who had rebranded Nickelodeon a few years earlier—fix this thing.
The first decision Seibert made was to green-light two cartoons: Swat Kats: The Radical Squadron (yes, this was the ’90s) and a much better series called 2 Stupid Dogs. Swat Kats, Seibert now admits, was a boring, by-the-numbers action cartoon he thought could capitalize on current trends, while 2 Stupid Dogs had that certain something he hoped could turn into a marketing bonanza: It was odd.
Alas, young viewers stayed away from both in droves. But when the dust had settled, Seibert knew where he’d gone wrong—by hedging his bets.
“I said to Ted Turner, ‘Look, I just wasted $10 million of your money with 2 Stupid Dogs and Swat Kats, and they both were failures within a month.’ And he said [imitating Turner’s deep Southern drawl], ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘I’d like another $10 million.’”
Seibert got his money.
What Seibert learned developing those two shows was that when it comes to finding unique, oddball programming for kids—the kind of successes you can’t focus-group—your only ally is the law of averages. The idea Seibert and his colleagues at Hanna came up with (which eventually turned into Cartoon Network’s Cartoon Cartoons and Nickelodeon’s Oh Yeah! Cartoons) would give any traditional network executive hives.
“We had to create a circumstance where we were allowed to fail at a very high rate,” Seibert explains.
If 10 pilots seems like a lot for a single season for any network, how about 48 pilots (“41 failures!” says Seibert, cheerfully) culled from a whopping 5,000 submissions? Granted, these were traditional, seven-minute cartoons like the Bugs and Daffy shorts of yore, not multimillion-dollar dramas. But $10 million is still $10 million, whether you spend it on foie gras or potato chips.
Bring on the Bizarre
The resulting animation incubator was called What a Cartoon!, and it changed the production model forever—as well as the tone of children’s animation.
Programs that actually manage to hit the big time among smaller kids—where much of the money in this sort of programming is these days—mostly look kind of, well, bizarre. OK, utterly, brain-meltingly weird.
Take the third episode of Seibert’s biggest success, Adventure Time, in which hero Finn and his shape-shifting dog Jake help a talking pygmy elephant eat the crystal apple she’s always wanted (whereupon she explodes, and the episode abruptly ends). Or consider pretty much everything about SpongeBob SquarePants, a talking yellow kitchen sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea and is friends with a squirrel in scuba regalia. Or even Tweety Bird, for that matter. It’s just not … normal. But wacky as this stuff is, Adventure Time is also the biggest hit at Cartoon Network in years, while SpongeBob is on its third generation of fans, and the Tweety is, well, Tweety.
“Fred is probably the most underrated producer in children’s television,” says Albie Hecht, who now runs HLN and is the former president of Nickelodeon, Seibert’s rival and onetime employer. Seibert took cues from John Kricfalusi, whose utterly bizarre Nick series The Ren & Stimpy Show was both a high-profile success and a major source of agita at the network. It took Kricfalusi a long time to produce and often ran headlong into Nick’s Standards and Practices department.
But Kricfalusi, with loony characters like The Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksmen and insane riffs on ads from old TV shows (“It’s Log! Log! Log! From Blammo!”) inspired other artists. His cartoon, along with Seibert’s gang of seven new shows, pioneered the style Seibert calls “UPA revival” (after the influential, off-the-wall Gerald McBoing-Boing shorts produced by animation studio UPA during the ’50s and ’60s). His roster of programs included Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, Johnny Bravo and the short that would become Fox’s mega-hit Family Guy.
It takes a steady hand to produce unique cartoons. In their early stages, they are as fragile as soap bubbles, and nine times out of 10, they’re also roughly as valuable. “There’s a certain kind of risk taking, and you have to have a gut for it,” explains Rob Sorcher, evp and chief content officer at Cartoon Network.
Sorcher certainly knows from risky green lights. He was AMC’s head of programming when the network picked up Mad Men after HBO passed. The process, he says, is different mostly on the surface. “[Mad Men creator] Matt Weiner could tell you every beat of that pilot because he’s a verbal guy. An artist might not even be very social. Executive notes are not very helpful to a young artist,” he says.
But when all is said and done, it comes down to instinct. “People didn’t get Mad Men, either,” he points out. “’Everyone smokes!’ ‘It’s really slow!’ Same shit on Adventure Time. It has to start with someone taking a risk.” Neither he nor Seibert are men who, when faced with the falling boulder of failure, hold up the tiny umbrella of tradition.
Adventure Time was midwifed by Seibert through his production studio, Frederator, and the birth was complicated. The fantasy series first showed up at Nickelodeon after kids responded with huge enthusiasm to creator Pendleton Ward’s pilot short film after Nick posted it online. But even Seibert wasn’t so sure about it at the beginning.
“I did not want to make Adventure Time,” Seibert admits. “Luckily, Eric Homan [Frederator’s vp of development] had been with me long enough to say, ‘You laughed when he was pitching it, and usually you have a fake laugh. But this was a real laugh.’ And so I said, ‘OK, we’ve gotta go,’ even though it didn’t look like I thought a commercial cartoon was supposed to look.” Ultimately, Nick passed. Frederator’s exclusive contract with the network ended, and Seibert took the series to Cartoon where the network was hurting for a hit. Seibert says Adventure Time was the polar opposite of everything his crew had been doing—clean, squared-off lines and smooth contours, whereas everything on AT was sort of lumpy. “Luckily, my colleagues humiliated me into backing off,” Seibert says. “And it’s magic, it’s beyond magic.”
Money Money Money
That magic is worth serious money. Nick and Cartoon get 52 cents and 20 cents, respectively, per subscriber each month from cable and satellite TV providers. (Disney, which is not ad-supported, gets a staggering 97 cents. The industry average is 25 cents.) Nick and Cartoon also charge a relatively high CPM for advertising, particularly Nick, which controls a majority of gross ratings points in the kids marketplace. One reason they can charge such a premium is that there just isn’t that much inventory to sell, relatively speaking—a maximum of 12 minutes an hour, per the FCC. As far as ad content is concerned, it’s both a hard sell and an easy sell. If you’re looking to place traditional 30-second spots, your choices are Nick, Cartoon and the Discovery Communications/Hasbro joint venture The Hub, which hasn’t managed to woo Lego or Mattel for obvious reasons.
“The kids marketplace, in general, continues to contract year over year, with food regulations, and toys not upping their spend,” says Darcy Bowe, vp of human experience and director, video at media agency Starcom. “The opportunity for networks to gain [ad] revenue needs to go to a new source.” Financial services, cleaning products, insurance ads—Bowe says you’ll be seeing more of this type of advertising shoehorned in between those Lego commercials. (Technically, the networks are supposed to be selling to the parents anyhow.)
More than ever, it is incumbent on the kids networks to generate intellectual property that can realize revenue in a variety of ways. A smaller but still significant source of income for these channels comes from licenses sold to third parties that market toys, pajamas, lunch boxes and other staples of kids’ lives (see infographic, page 26). Disney got its share of more than $39 billion in retail sales of licensed goods in 2012, while Nick products grossed $5.5 billion and Cartoon products $2.8 billion. For the networks, individual licensing deals can stretch into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
One need look no further than SpongeBob, the longest-running kids cartoon on TV, green-lit by Hecht shortly after he took over Nick’s animation division for a 1999 premiere. “It was really quite a remarkable journey with that sponge,” Hecht recalls. “It was one that began with an incredible pitch about a yellow sponge in tighty-whiteys. Something that made me laugh right away was a 100 on the Nickelodeon scale. ‘Interesting’ was the kiss of death, ‘stupid’ was about 50 percent—because you could be good stupid or bad stupid—and ‘weird’ was about 75 percent.
“One day, somebody brought in the latest merchandising … boxer shorts and girls’ thongs. And I realized, we’ve crossed the line—we have a hit.”
As obvious as SpongeBob seems now, it was a surprise to many how hypnotic the show turned out to be. “It was like drugs,” says one exec involved with the show at launch. “The joke around the office was that you’d put it on for the kids so they’d sit still for 30 minutes and you and your wife could go have sex.” SpongeBob SquarePants has grossed some $12 billion in retail sales for Nickelodeon and its licensees over the years. Adventure Time isn’t yet in the same league but contributes heavily to Cartoon Network’s licensing base.
More than two decades after the inception of the first cartoon incubator program, people like Russell Hicks, Nick’s president of content development and production, are scouring colleges and art schools for those students who like to doodle—a lot. “We have a huge student outreach program talking to people in colleges across the country,” says Hicks. “Cal State has a great animation school, and we’ve helped develop a curriculum so that [the students are] more prepared to come and work at a studio like ours.” Nick also has a writers’ fellowship geared to attract folks outside the industry. (One of Nick’s most promising fellows used to be a plumber.)
And Seibert? He’s an early adopter. One of his high school interns in the early 2000s was Tumblr creator David Karp—Seibert has been one of Tumblr’s biggest partisans and most enthusiastic users from the get-go. Frederator has a big online presence in Channel Frederator. With 55 million programming views and 13 million uniques, Seibert is trying to push material directly into kids’ field of vision without the intermediary of TV networks, notably Ward’s cartoon Bravest Warriors as well as Natasha Allegri’s Bee & PuppyCat (both of which must be seen to be believed). Frederator also just made a deal to distribute a pantomime cartoon, Simon’s Cat—which scores insane YouTube views—by a former British ad guy, Simon Tofield. If there’s one thing that’s gotten simpler in the media world over the years, it’s distribution.
That’s not to say that there isn’t interesting stuff still going on in the TV universe. Cartoon’s upcoming series Clarence has attracted plenty of buzz around its unusual style and clever scripts (its creator, Skyler Page, is a 23-year-old Cal Arts grad). Nick has tapped celebrated indie comics artists Dave Cooper and Johnny Ryan (whose other work is more intense) to work on an offbeat, beautiful cartoon called Pig Goat Banana Cricket about, well, those four things.
Meanwhile, Seibert is ready for new frontiers.
“When I got into cable, the ‘real TV’ people didn’t consider cable real TV,” he says. Given the popularity of tablets and smartphones among kids, Channel Frederator seems to Seibert the best way to avoid getting steamrollered by progress. “I have a very flexible definition of TV,” he says.
And as every talking animal knows, when faced with a steamroller, flexible is the only way to survive.