The End of the Creator-Driven Era in TV Animation The End of the Creator-Driven Era in TV Animation

The Hub, a network owned partly by toy company Hasbro, launched a little over a week ago with new animated series including Strawberry Shortcake’s Berry Bitty Adventures, G.I. Joe: Renegades, and My Little Pony Friendship is Magic. The network’s debut closes the curtain on what has commonly been referred to as the creator-driven era of TV animation, which lasted from approximately the early-1990s through the late-2000s. During this two-decade span, the balance of creative control in TV animation favored artists for the first time since the early-1960s, and artists exercised vast influence over the visual style, writing, and overall direction of TV shows. It was a fertile period that spawned dozens of lasting cartoon stars and series, many of which are still as popular today as when they first debuted ten or twenty years ago.

What clearer death knell for creator-driven animation than the reemergence of Margaret Loesch. After running Hanna-Barbera and Marvel Productions in the 1980s, and Fox Kids through the mid-1990s, her influenced waned in animation during the height of the creator-driven movement, but now she is back in the driver’s seat as president and CEO of the Hub.

Watching names like Rob Renzetti and Lauren Faust pop up in the credits of a toy-based animated series like My Little Pony is an admission of defeat for the entire movement, a white flag-waving moment for the TV animation industry. The signs have been there for a long time, however, and the Hub is but one indicator in the precipitous decline of creator-driven content, whose demise was hurried along by Cartoon Network and its decision to relaunch with large amounts of live-action programming. The erosion of support for creator-driven animation happened gradually but surely, and today networks clearly prefer established properties over original ideas, and dislike dealing with individual artists who have a clear creative vision.

Nobody denies that the Hub’s shows will perform well and fulfill the programming needs of the network. But then again, nobody suggested that Smurfs, Snorks and Pound Puppies wouldn’t do well in the 1980s either. The reason that creators like John Kricfalusi, Matt Groening, Mike Judge, John Dilworth, Craig McCracken, Genndy Tartakovsky, Danny Antonucci, Bruce Timm, Trey Parker, and Matt Stone stepped up to the plate originally wasn’t because animation was performing poorly. It was because these artists had a vision for the art form that was more inspired, more vital and more consistently creative than those of executives like Loesch; they aspired to create BETTER cartoons instead of simply acquiescing to committee-driven mandates that underutilized their skill and talent.

The creator-driven mentality stubbornly exists among a group of hold-outs and idealists (Pen Ward’s Adventure Time, Devin Clark’s Ugly Americans, Christy Karacas’ Superjail! to name a few), but their numbers will continue to shrink in the coming years. As TV audiences become more fragmented, and advertisers shift ad dollars away from TV, networks will increasingly rely on worn but reliable formulas. They will demand only the surest bets–Looney Tunes revivals, TV series based on feature film characters (The Penguins of Madagascar is already on Nick and Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness is coming soon), shows based on live-action films (Napoleon Dynamite is headed to Fox), and the toy-based ideas that comprise the largest portion of the Hub’s animation programming.

This paint-by-numbers approach to executive management guarantees consistency, but eliminates the rich rewards stemming from the breakout animation hits that defined the creator-driven era. It also explains why so many networks are still coasting on the fumes of their earlier creator-driven successes: this month, the eleven-year-old show SpongeBob Squarepants ranked as Nickelodeon’s top-rated program, thirteen-year-old South Park is still Comedy Central’s best known animation product, MTV is reviving its 1992 creation Beavis and Butt-head, and Fox would not have a Sunday evening if not for its two vintage juggernauts, The Simpsons and Family Guy, which have existed for a combined thirty years. To be totally clear too, these are not retro-fads–these shows have been successful since they first debuted, just as theatrical cartoon stars during animation’s Golden Age often enjoyed popularity over multiple generations.

Do networks and producers deserve to shoulder the blame entirely? That thought was on my mind as I read this quote recently by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails describing his approach to creativity: “I really try to put myself in uncomfortable situations. Complacency is my enemy.” From my perspective, complacency and creative stagnation amongst creators of TV animation has been at the root of the problem.

During the past decade, too many creators compromised their vision to get shows onto air, and too many creators didn’t take advantage of the opportunity once they had shows. In the early-’90s, creators held the attitude that they had been given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to write their own ticket, and they were going to use the moment to make the most amazing cartoon series possible. That vision turned blurrier in recent years. Selling a show became in and of itself a symbol of accomplishment among a subsequent generation of self-satisfied artists whose shows consistently failed to entertain audiences.

There’s an upside to all of this. As one era wraps up, I believe we are entering a new (and even more exciting) period–that of the independent, multi-platform artist. The entire concept of creator-driven is redundant at a time when digital technology has made animation production accessible to all. Everybody creates equally today; for something to not be creator-driven is the anomaly. People make entire Web animated series from the comfort of their bedroom and become famous for it.

As more artists choose animation as a career, they will find themselves unattached to specific distribution formats as in the past. Fewer artists in the future will say, “I want to work in TV animation,” or “My goal is features.” These mindsets belong to a bygone time when television and theaters held a disproportionate sway over other modes of content distribution.

Today’s artist has become as fluid and fragmented as the art form itself. An artist might work on a commercial one month, a TV show another, a Web cartoon series the next. And then comes an animated series for cell phones, a music video, a theatrical short, background visuals for a live performance, and an insert for a live-action documentary. The scene I’m describing is one that is undoubtedly familiar to East Coast animators and many artists working in Europe, and it is spreading.

This new breed of animation artist will pounce at an invitation to work on a TV series should it present itself, but they will not commit themself to a specific format at the expense of their artistic integrity. While everybody loves a steady paycheck, today’s artist can afford to be adventurous because there is more animation being produced than ever before and opportunities lie around every corner.

At the end of the day, TV animation isn’t going anywhere, and future Margaret Loesches will still find plenty of willing peons to fulfill their orders for extended toy commercials. But the overall trends are becoming more clear every day. Current market conditions and general conservatism in TV animation continue to erode the quality of series animation, especially content-wise. The creator-driven movement has all but flamed out, and few hit shows or perennial cartoon stars have emerged in the last five years. Most importantly, talented young artists are deserting TV as a full-time career option, not only because there are fewer promising opportunities for creators, but because the animation ecosystem beyond television is healthier and more diverse than ever before.