NEW YORK – Prime-time TV could soon look a lot like Saturday mornings.
Scrambling to fill voids left by sitcoms, revive a reality-flooded landscape and compete with cable, video games and the remote control, networks are scheduling animated shows during the coveted weeknight slots. But historically, prime-time 'toons have had a hard time catching on.
“When it comes to prime-time broadcast, it really has to be broad,” said animated author and historian Jerry Beck, who runs Cartoonbrew.com and Cartoonresearch.com. “That’s a tall order for an animated series. They have to hit the bull’s-eye right away.”
NBC's highly-anticipated "Father of the Pride" (search) animated series, about a family of lions in the now-closed "Siegfried and Roy" Las Vegas act, was skewered after the network's sales presentation to advertisers, casting a shadow over the hoped-for revival of evening cartoons.
"The animated series was in far worse shape" than Horn, industry analyst Jack Myers wrote in a newsletter, referring to Roy Horn, who is recovering from a near-fatal tiger mauling.
Save for a few notable exceptions over the last four decades — "The Jetsons," “The Flintstones,” “Rocky & Bullwinkle,” “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill” — network's prime-time animated series usually die a quick death.
“I wouldn’t want to bet the farm on the potential success of these things,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television (search). “Cable animation is doing really well, but on prime-time network, it still seems to do best as a Christmas special.”
This is partly because stakes and expectations are higher when networks are thirsting after such a huge and widely diverse audience. But broadcasters insist it's worth the gamble.
Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Universal Television Group, admitted that the "Pride" snippets shown to advertisers were sub-par. Nevertheless, he expects the show to be a hit.
"I think we did a very poor job of putting the clips together at the up-front," Zucker told the Associated Press. "But the fact is that anyone who has seen the show as a whole ... the reaction is fantastic."
In addition to "Pride" on NBC, Fox will air the animated "American Dad" (search), about a terror-phobic CIA agent who lives in the suburbs with his family and is constantly on high alert. The show will get special boost when the network airs a sneak peek of it after the special Super Bowl episode of "The Simpsons" next February.
Fox is also planning to broadcast new episodes of the animated “Family Guy” in the summer of 2005. That show catapulted to fan-club status on DVD and the Cartoon Network after Fox yanked it in 2002, ending a three-year run.
Other ‘toons have been tossed around but not yet picked up, including the comic-strip based “The Boondocks” and “The Phil Hendrie Show,” a spin-off of a syndicated radio program about a playboy who got married.
While networks have high hopes for their new animated fare, some members of the audience whom cartoons are meant to capture — 18-to-34-year-old men — aren’t exactly champing at the bit.
“It really has to be something special,” said Michael Kingsley, 30, of New York, who watches “The Simpsons” but doubts he’d regularly tune into the upcoming ‘toons. “It’s not my bag. The whole half-hour comedy format is pretty much dead to me.”
Kingsley prefers dramas like “24” and “CSI,” which have stellar ratings.
Though 33-year-old Dave Kardon of San Pedro, Calif., doesn't watch a lot of TV, he said he would at least take a look at the new animated shows.
“I like the concept of adult-oriented animation,” said the father of a 3-year-old. “It’s such an amazing format. There are so many options that keep it fresh and exciting. I would definitely check those new shows out.”
But, added Kardon — who loves “The Simpsons” when he has time to watch — the cartoons' premieres better wow him. And fast.
“I have a very short attention span,” he said. “If I don’t like them in the first few minutes, I’d never go back.”
Although history has been tough on prime-time animation, there are advantages to taking a chance on cartoons versus sitcoms.
“You never have to worry about the characters growing up,” Thompson said. “And negotiating salaries isn’t the same kind of problem.”
Cable, moreover, has had stunning success with animation. Comedy Central’s “South Park,” The Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim,” Nickelodeon's "Sponge Bob" and MTV’s “Beavis and Butthead” have all been winners.
And despite some industry skepticism of weeknight cartoons, Beck said he's hopeful about their future.
"'The Simpsons' has been on longer than anything in the universe. If that can happen, it can happen again. Lightning doesn't only strike once."