The Story of Kids TV Mastermind Fred Seibert | Adweek The Story of Kids TV Mastermind Fred Seibert | Adweek
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Kids Issue

The Story of Kids TV Mastermind Fred Seibert

Cultivating a whole new generation of weird in animation

Kids TV mastermind Fred Seibert | Photo: Sasha Maslov

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.

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