Cartoons have long existed on the periphery of broadcast television, consigned to the shadowy regions of weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings. The networks' evening programming has been remarkably empty of cartoon series. Indeed, there have been only a pair of prime-time series that have lasted more than two seasons: The Flintstones and The Simpsons. Many of the "television" cartoon characters with which we are the most familiar (Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck, Popeye, et al.) were not actually designed for television, but, rather, were initially exhibited in cinema theaters. On any given day one may view a short history of theatrical film animation on television--as cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s are juxtaposed with more recent offerings. This results in some odd cultural gaps, such as when a viewer born in the 1980s watches cartoons making jokes about 1930s movie stars and politicians.

Cartoons initially evolved in the teens, but their development was slowed by their prohibitive cost. After all, 24 entire pictures had to be drawn for every second of film. Animation became more economically feasible in 1914 when Earl Hurd patented the animation cel. The cel is a sheet of transparent celluloid that is placed on top of a background drawing. By using cels, the animator need only re-draw the portions of the image that move, thus saving considerable time and expense. The acceptance of the cel was slowed by legal wrangling, however, and comparatively few silent cartoons were made.

At the same time that sound and color film technologies were popularized, studios also found ways to streamline the animation process by using storyboards (small drawings of frames that represented different shots in the cartoon) to plan the cartoon and departmentalizing the steps of the process. Thus, something resembling an assembly line was created for animation, making it much more cost effective. Producer Walt Disney was a leader in using these technologies and devising an efficient mode of cartoon production. Steamboat Willie (1928) was the first significant cartoon with synchronized sound and Flowers and Trees (1932) was the first to use the three-color Technicolor process (which became the cinema's principal color process in the late 1930s). Disney was so protective of these new technologies that he negotiated an exclusive deal with Technicolor; for three years, no other animators could use it.

The final key to the success of the cartoon was an effective distribution system. During the silent era, cartoons had been created by small studios with limited access to cinema theaters. In the 1930s, major studios such as Paramount, Warners, Universal, and MGM each signed distribution deals with the cartoon studios, or they created their own cartoon departments--the output of which they then distributed themselves. Since the studios also owned the preeminent theaters and since the standard way of exhibiting films at the time was two feature-length films separated by a newsreel and a cartoon, the animation studios and departments had a steady, constant demand for their product. The late 1930s to 1950s were a "golden era" for the cartoon and it is from this era that most theatrical cartoons on television are drawn.

Cartoons started their emigration to television in the late 1940s when one of the smaller studios (Van Beuren) began marketing their catalogue to early children's programs such as Movies for Small Fry. Other, larger studios were slower to take advantage of the electronic medium. In 1948 the major studios were forced by the U.S. Supreme Court to divest themselves of their theaters--which greatly weakened their ability to distribute their product. In this weakened state, they also had to compete with television for viewers. Disney, however, was among the first of the major cartoon studios to develop a liaison with television networks. Its long-running programs, Disneyland (later known as, among other things, The Wonderful World of Disney) and The Mickey Mouse Club, included cartoons among live action shorts and other materials when they premiered in the mid-1950s. The other studios soon followed suit and, by 1960, most theatrical films and cartoons were also available to be shown on television.

Batman: The Animated Series

Concurrent with these critical and, for the film studios, disastrous changes in the entertainment industry were significant transformations in the aesthetics of animation. Up until the 1950s cartoonists, especially those with Disney, had labored under a naturalistic aesthetic--striving to make their drawings look as much like real world objects as was possible in this medium. The apotheosis of this was Disney's Snow White which traced the movements of dancer Marge Champion and transformed her into Snow White. But post-World War II art movements such as abstract expressionism rejected this naturalistic approach and these avant-garde principles eventually filtered down to the popular cartoon. In particular, United Productions of America (UPA), a studio which contained renegade animators who had left Disney during the 1941 strike, nurtured an aesthetic that emphasized abstract line, shape, and pattern over naturalistic figures. UPA's initial success came in 1949 with the Mr. Magoo series, but its later, Academy Award-winning Gerald McBoing Boing (1951) is what truly established this new style.

The UPA style was characterized by flattened perspective, abstract backgrounds, strong primary colors, and "limited" animation. Instead of using perspective to create the illusion of depth in a drawing, UPA's cartoon objects looked flat, like the blobs of color that they were. Instead of filling in backgrounds with lifelike detail as in, say, a forest scene in Bambi, UPA presented backgrounds that were broad fields of color, with small squiggles to suggest clouds and trees. Instead of varying the shades and hues of colors to imply the colors of the natural world, UPA's cartoons contained bold, bright, saturated colors.

Most importantly for the development of television cartoons, UPA used animation that was limited in three ways. First, the amount of movement within the frame was substantially reduced. Rather than have a cartoon woman move her entire head in a shot, a UPA cartoon might have her just blink her eyes. Second, in limited animation figure movements are often repeated. A character waving good-bye, for instance, might contain only two distinct movements which are then repeated without change. Full animation, in contrast, includes many unique movements. Third, limited animation uses fewer individual frames to represent a movement. If, for example, Yosemite Sam were to hop off his mule in a movement that takes one second, full animation might use 24 discrete frames to represent that movement. Limited animation, in contrast, might cut that number in half. The result is a slightly jerkier movement.

UPA's changes in animation appear to have been aesthetically inspired, but they also made good business sense. Flattened perspective, abstract backgrounds, strong primary colors, and limited animation result in cartoons that are quicker and cheaper to produce. When animators began creating programs specifically for television, they quickly adopted these economical practices, jettisoning UPA's aesthetics in the process.

The first successful, designed-for-television cartoon was not created for a TV network, but rather was released directly into syndication. Crusader Rabbit, created by Jay Ward (of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame) and Alexander Anderson, was first distributed in 1949. Network television cartooning came along eight years later. The networks' first cartoon series was The Ruff and Reddy Show, which was developed by the most successful producers of television cartoons, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera. The Ruff and Ready Show was also the first made-for-TV cartoon show to be broadcast nationally on Saturday mornings; its popularity helped established the feasibility of Saturday morning network programming. Hanna-Barbera was also responsible for bringing cartoons to the prime-time network schedule--though its success in prime-time did not result in a trend. Hanna-Barbera's The Flintstones (1960) was prime-time's first successful cartoon series. It was also prime-time's last successful series until the premiere of The Simpsons in 1989. With Crusader Rabbit, The Ruff and Ready Show, and The Flintstones, the characteristics of the made-for-TV cartoon were established. UPA-style aesthetics (especially limited animation) were blended with narrative structures that developed in 1950s television. In particular, The Flintstones closely resembled live-action situation comedies and was often compared to Jackie Gleason's The Honeymooners. One final characteristic of the made-for-TV cartoon that distinguishes it from the theatrical cartoon is an emphasis on dialogue. Often dialogue in The Flintstones re-states that which is happening visually. Fred will cry out, "Pebbles is headed to the zoo" over an image of Pebbles' baby carriage rolling past a sign that reads, "Zoo, this way." In this way, television reveals its roots in radio. There is an reliance on sound that is missing from, say, Roadrunner cartoons in which there is no dialogue at all. Made-for-TV cartoons are often less visually oriented than theatrical cartoons from the "golden era."



Huckleberry Hound

Since the early 1960s, when cartoons became an established television feature, they have been the source of two major controversies: commercialization/merchandising and violence. These two issues have taken on special significance with the cartoon since so many of its viewers are impressionable children.

Commercialization and merchandising have been a part of cartooning since comic strips first began appearing in newspapers. The level of merchandising increased in the 1980s, however, as several cartoon programs were built around already existing commercial products: Strawberry Shortcake, the Smurfs, He-Man, etc. Unlike the merchandising of, for instance, Mickey Mouse, these cartoon characters began as products and thus their cartoons were little more than extended commercials for the products themselves. It became more and more difficult for child viewers to discern where the cartoon ended and the commercial began. The degree of cartoon merchandising did not lessen in the 1990s--as the popularity of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers attested--but broadcasters did add short intros to the programs to try to better distinguish cartoon from commercial.

The complicated issue of violence on television and its potential impact on behavior has yet to be resolved, but in response to critics of cartoon violence broadcasters have censored violent scenes from many theatrical films shown on television. Oddly enough, scenes that were considered appropriate for a general audience in a theater in the 1940s are now thought to be too brutal for today's Nintendo-educated children.

TV cartoons in the 1990s were dominated by the phenomenal success of Matt Groening's The Simpsons, which thrived after its series premiere in 1989 (first appearing in 1988, in short form, on The Tracey Ullman Show). Its ratings triumph was largely responsible for establishing a new television network (FOX) and launching one of the biggest merchandising campaigns of the decade. In 1990, Bart Simpson was on T-shirts across the U.S. declaring, "Don't have a cow, man!" And yet, despite the trappings of success, The Simpsons was often a sly parody of popular culture, in general, and television cartoons, in particular--as was to be expected from Groening, who established himself as the artist of the Life in Hell comic strip. The recurrent feature of The Itchy and Scratchy Show, a cartoon within The Simpsons, allowed the program to critique violence in cartoons at the same time it reveled in it. And in one episode, The Simpsons retold the entire history of cartooning as if Itchy and Scratchy had been early Disney creations.

-Jeremy G. Butler


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See also Beavis and Butt-head; Hanna, William and Joseph Barbera; Flintstones; Park, Nick; Simpsons; Watch with Mother