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Adapting or Dying


Jeffrey Tucker’s ode to The Jetsons overlooked the fact that the series only aired for one season in primetime and was considered a commercial failure in its initial run. Nevertheless it proved to be an important step in the animation industry’s transition from primarily producing theatrical cartoons to working in the still-developing medium of television. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, who produced The Jetsons, were pioneers of this new age.

Hanna broke into the animation business in 1930 when a friend referred him to the newly opened Harman-Ising studio in Hollywood, which was then producing “Looney Tunes” for a buyer who re-sold the theatrical cartoon shorts to Warner Brothers. In 1937, the same year that Walt Disney released his first feature-length cartoon, Hanna and several Harman-Ising employees left to start the animation studio at MGM. It was there that Hanna, a talented producer and musician, teamed up with Barbera, an artist, and together they created “Tom & Jerry,” which yielded about 150 theatrical shorts over the course of 17 years. Hanna & Barbera eventually rose to head up all animation production at MGM.

But as it tends to do, the market changed. Theatrical cartoons enjoyed a boom in the late 1930s and 1940s, but by the 1950s television was already scaring the major motion picture studios. MGM closed its animation studio in 1957. Hanna & Barbera immediately decided to open up their own studio (with $30,000 in combined savings) and do what was thought to be impossible — sell cartoons to television.

Hanna-Barbera understood that animation for television could not be produced on traditional theatrical budgets. A typical seven-minute “Tom & Jerry” cartoon cost MGM $35,000. Hanna figured out a way to make a five-minute television cartoon for just $3,000. Hanna-Barbera’s first series, Ruff and Ready, debuted on NBC in December 1957 and ran for three seasons. Although color television had yet to reach the market, Hanna shrewdly insisted on producing Ruff and Ready in color to ensure they wouldn’t be rendered obsolete.

By 1960 Hanna-Barbera had 11 shows in production, including its first cartoon for primetime, The Flinstones. The success of that show prompted a companion series in The Jetsons. Bill Hanna later described the series’ development and reception in his 1996 autobiography, A Cast of Friends:

In general theme The Jetsons may appear to be the mere flip side of The Flinstones, but each series had quite a distinct look, tone, and feel of its own. The visual elements employed in The Flinstones were to look as solid in suggestion as the name of their hometown of Bedrock. The paints and colors used in the scenes were generally earthy and warm, and the artwork thick-textured and substantial. Boulders, caves, and primitive implements were all drawn in a manner calculated to project a massive and rounded physical impression of the Stone Age.

While The Flinstones were vividly earthy in appearance, The Jetsons series by contrast, was distinctly airy in its overall design. The characters and costumes, along with the vehicles, props, and structures of the show, were drawn in a streamlined mode distinctly suggestive of what our artists envisioned as being the look of the distant future.

[ . . . ]

To our disappointment, however, although we were able to get The Jetsons off the launching pad, the series essentially failed to go into orbit in the primetime galaxy. Despite a great cast, the repletion of gags, gimmicks, and what seemed to us to be very clever and funny storylines, the ratings for The Jetsons seldom managed to climb as high as high as their family space vehicle.

In retrospect, there were probably several reasons why the series foundered at the time. Most obviously daunting was the fact that we were placed in a time slot opposite the formidable competition of two other established family shows, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Dennis the Menace.

Well, you can’t win ‘em all—right away, that is. Despite a game struggle to hold its own in a primetime slot, The Jetsons headed for an untimely splashdown at the end of the [1962—1963] season. Joe [Barbera] attributes some of the show’s early difficulties to an observation that despite the success of The Flinstones, adult television viewers may not yet been ready to receive a greater influx of nighttime animation shows. “Let’s face it, Bill,” he recently remarked. “The Flinstones hung in there for six seasons, but do you remember the bum reviews we got on the show for the first two seasons it was on? We were trying to whet the viewers’ appetites for an expanded menu of our product and they simply weren’t ready for the main course yet.”

Viewers may have been still munching on the appetizers, but we were going to stay in the kitchen working on the entrees. We knew our programs were appealing entertainment, and we were betting that they would want more—during the dinner hour and beyond. The Jetsons’ saga was not concluded. The series was rerun in syndication the following season and were a great success among our young viewers. Over the years, despite numerous network shifts, the series continued to build a huge following, and by 1987 we eventually produced 51 new episodes of The Jetsons that were added to the original shows in production.

Primetime television animation would remain largely dormant, however, until December 1989, when the new Fox network debuted The Simpsons, a show that built upon the “limited animation” principles developed by Hanna-Barbera in the 1960s. Hanna defended his studio against charges that they were somehow degrading the animation medium by adapting it for television:

Over the years, Joe and I have taken our share of heat from critics who have referred to us as purveyors of “cookie cutters” cartoons because of the limited animation systems we advanced. Our shows have sometimes been criticized as lacking the artistic appeal of the traditional full animation theatrical shorts, and our characters described as moving in a wooden or mechanical manner.

These are in great part, I believe, analytical observations often made from the standpoint of reviewers enchanted by the sweep in motion picture cartoons. Such pictures, including I might add those of our own Tom and Jerry, were indeed visually wonderful and marvelous examples of what can be achieved in production nourished by lavish budgets.

Joe and I loved those cartoons as much as anyone else. We loved watching them and we loved making them. But I don’t believe that spectacle in animation was ever meant to provide the sole element of a cartoon’s entertainment appeal. If that had been the case, then animation as an industry might well have entered an infinite eclipse with the termination of those original motion picture cartoon studios.

Like so many things in life, nature, and culture, the motion picture cartoons and the industry that fostered them once found itself an endangered species faced with the prospect of adapting or dying.

Hanna-Barbera adapted well into the early 1990s producing hundreds of series, specials, and made-for-television movies. In the late 1970s, Hanna-Barbera was the world’s largest producer of cartoons and increased demand led the company to expand overseas, opening studios in Australia, Mexico, The Philippines, Taiwan, and Poland, among other places.

Fittingly, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera’s “swan song” was a full-length theatrical release of The Jetsons in 1990. In 1991 their namesake studio was sold to Turner Broadcasting Systems, which incorporated much of the studio’s back catalog into the new Cartoon Network. Hanna died in 2001, Barbera in 2005. Last week would have been Joe Barbera’s 100th birthday.

Skip Oliva is a writer and paralegal in Virginia (skip@skipoliva.com).

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