Based in Turner Broadcasting's Atlanta offices, Cartoon Network began in 1992 as a kid-friendly haven for the bland library of Hanna-Barbera cartoons. From Atom Ant to Yogi Bear, if you'd seen one, you'd seen them all.
But in a warehouse across the highway from Turner's HQ, a production team began concocting original cartoons from bits of old Hanna-Barbera series - as if they were teenagers tinkering in their parents' garage.
They first tested the waters for grown-up cartoons with Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which earned a TV-14 rating. The original 1966 series followed the superhero formula: Intergalactic policeman Space Ghost thwarted the villainous Council of Doom with help from monkey sidekick Blip. But in 1994, Cartoon Network drafted Space Ghost as a bizarro talk show host, cast former enemies Brak and Zorak as his sidekicks, and inserted taped celebrity interviews with the likes of Donny Osmond, Charlton Heston and the Ramones.
Space Ghost Coast to Coast's appeal wasn't so much its animation but its absurdity. The crew combined salvaged clips from old cartoons with minimal new material. So what if Space Ghost silently blinked behind his desk for what seemed like minutes on end and Zorak's vest changed color every other scene? The late-night curio seized the attention of channel surfers intrigued by its weekly spoof of celebs and talk shows.
Today, the lab produces a full roster of cartoons that anchor the network's 3-and-a-half-year-old Adult Swim block of late-night programming (11 p.m.-2 a.m.). The lineup qualifies as some of the edgiest and most idiosyncratic animation ever seen on TV. It includes Space Ghost Coast to Coast spin-offs such as The Brak Show - a Leave It to Beaver-style sitcom - and the original series, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, featuring a trio of cantankerous fast-food products.
Sealab 2021 is a twist on the 1972 pro-environment cartoon series Sealab 2020, and features a crew of lame-brained scientists who blab about how cool it would be to have a robot body while their undersea facility explodes around them. On Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, the lead character from the '70s series Birdman and the Galaxy Trio has earned his law degree and now defends familiar cartoon citizens from criminal charges, including a DUI against Shaggy and Scooby Doo. A planned addition, Squidbillies, should premiere later this year.
Bolstered by reruns of canceled Fox series like Family Guy, Adult Swim has grown from dorm-room curiosity to crossover success - and on March 28th it will become its own network. Turner Broadcasting has asked Nielsen Media Research (the people who tabulate TV rankings) to list Cartoon Network and Adult Swim as separate basic-cable networks. This means that even though they will continue to occupy the same channel, the two networks will be considered separate (much the way E! becomes C-SPAN 2 very early in the morning in Tampa). If ratings stay at 2004 levels, the new network will rank No. 1 on basic cable among coveted 18- to 34-year-olds and No. 2 among 18- to 34-year-old men (trailing only ESPN).
Adult Swim has also been very successful in the lucrative DVD market. DVD sales for Space Ghost Coast to Coast's first season beat the network's goal by 300 percent, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force doubled the sales of Space Ghost. With the first season of Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law and Space Ghost's third set due out on April 12, dollar signs are flashing in Turner executives' eyes.
Explaining Adult Swim's commercial success is nearly as hard as summarizing a typical episode. In an appropriately animated chat over hamburgers, fries and shakes - a nod to Aqua Teen's edible antiheroes - we spoke to members of Adult Swim's brain trust to find out how they thrive on limited, lo-fi resources, how they deal with fans who think they're stoned, and why gags like the Death Star of David gradually became fair game.
Weekly Planet: Explain how Adult Swim got its start.
Keith Crofford, vice president of production for Cartoon Network: We started 11 years ago with Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which always seemed an adult program lost in the world of kids' shows. Adult Swim came from a desire to expand and create a world for Space Ghost to live in, instead of being just a late-night anomaly.
Michael Ouweleen, co-creator of Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law: The big thing going around the network was that a third of the audience at any given time was adults, and not just parents. And they weren't just watching Space Ghost, they'd be watching, you know, Huckleberry Hound. We knew that adults were watching cartoons. But our sales force was like, "It's cute and everything, but I can't sell it."
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