Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Why Did “The Jetsons” Fail?

It seems odd calling the show a failure. New episodes were made in the ‘80s. There was an animated feature film. And it’s still part of the popular culture for people of certain ages. References to the show, although clichéd by now, crop up in news stories about flying cars or labour-saving technology of the future.

But it was a failure in one aspect. George, Jane, Judy, Elroy et al only lasted a season in prime time before becoming nostalgia fodder through season after season of Saturday morning reruns. So that brings us back to why. It could have been because three family shows were battling for the 7:30 p.m. Sunday time slot (Disney’s “Wonderful World of Color” on NBC easily won the ratings war, knocking CBS’ “Dennis the Menace” out of prime time and into Saturday reruns along with the “The Jetsons”). It could have been because the prime-time cartoon craze had passed (even “The Flintstones” fell from 23rd to 30th). It could have been economics, specifically ABC guaranteeing co-sponsors American Home and Colgate-Palmolive (and later Minnesota Mining and Dow Chemical) a minimum number of adult viewers for a specified number of dollars. Or it could have been viewers thought it was an inverse of “The Flintstones” and one Flintstones was enough for them (the theory expounded by Television magazine in its April 1963 issue). Whatever the reason, Broadcasting magazine reported on April 1, 1963 that “The Jetsons” were moving to kid-friendly rerun time. Marx Toys, which began making licensed Rosey the Robot toys even before the show began airing, bought the time. (As a side note, Television reported in its July 1963 edition “The Jetsons” was consistently in the top five in Japan).

There were high hopes in TV Land for the show. Here’s a syndicated column picked out of a newspaper of September 5, 1962.


TV KEYNOTES
New Cartoon Series Set By ABC

By CHARLES WlTBECK
HOLLYWOOD - The big duds last season were the animated cartoon series. This fall only one new one sneaks in, “The Jetsons” beginning Sunday, Sept. 23 on ABC. Are the grownups going to push the kids aside to watch "The Jetsons," a family who live in the next century? Of course, Hanna and Barbers, producers of "Huckleberry Hound" and "The Flintstones," hope the little darlings will dial in "The Jetsons" to see how life is 100 years from now and kindly include their parents.
This could happen because "The Jetsons" may attract would-be inventors and dreamers. The show is going to be full of mechanical gadgets that we don't have around yet. The writers are sitting up all night playing Thomas Edison. What will be possible in 2062?
Here are a few inventions the writers have come up with so far: a seeing eye vacuum cleaner that will occasionally lift the rug and sweep dirt under it; a mother-in-law car with a rear seat which moves out and up behind the car; a prober pill that will flash reports on a screen as it rolls through a person's innards. Medically the writers ran go crazy over gadgets and may have to restrain themselves.
Push Button Dominates
The dominating influence will, of course, be the push button. There'll even be push buttons exercises for weak fingers. Maybe the forefinger will double in size. For instance. Jane Jetson pushes buttons for food, reading and transportation. When she sends Elroy, age 8, to school she merely pushes the button labelled grammar school, and off he goes down the chute of the Sky Pad Apartment. If it's raining she'll spray a raincoat on the boy. If she pushes the wrong button for him, Elroy will soon return, marked Reject.
The Sky Pad Apartments are equipped with "high level, adjustable living." The Jetsons can adjust their apartment at any level and can even rise above the log or smog. The showers are like our car wash establishments.
Father Jetson will step on a slidewalk moving into a shower. Then he'll enter a dry spin and end up in the talcum and finishing touch area. If he feels tired at the end of a day, he'll take a "husband pacifier." Soft music is heard, cocktails are whipped out and the man is soothed by gentle murmurs.
When George Jetson wants entertainment he'll attend a football game where the players are robots who come apart at the seams with a jarring tackle. The coach merely pushes buttons and in rush Sullivan and Wojahowski, fighting robots to the bitter end.
The idea with "The Jetsons" is to have reasonable inventions that could come from our present culture.
Dress Try-on Trick
Designers have already made dresses of paper that can be worn once and thrown away. That will be old hat in the future. In this series Jane Jetson will go shopping, but instead of trying on dresses, she'll merely take one to a mirror that will show how she looks in the dress. The telephone will have a TV screen so Jane Jetson can put on a "morning mask" If she doesn't want to be seen without her makeup on.
While the gadgets will be the come-on, the family will still be the endearing factor. They have real hearts and they don't eat pills instead of food. George Jetson it hard working and lovable, especially by his big dog Astro who has his own way of talking and always sits next to George.
Then there's wife, Jane, 33, a little homemaker, always pushing buttons and always talking to her mother. Judy, 15, and Elroy, 8, round out this All-American family of the future.
One thing hasn't changed—the humor. Evidently it's the same 100 years from now. No one's figured out what the gang will laugh at then.

Daily Variety liked “The Jetsons,” too. Here’s Helm’s review from the edition of September 25, 1962. ABC fed the show in colour to all owned and operated stations as well as any affiliates that wanted a colourcast. The network ate the A.T. and T. colour charge.

THE JETSONS (Rosey The Robot)
Sun., 7:30 p.m., KABC-TV (Reviewed In Color)
Filmed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera.
Producers-directors, Hanna and Barbera; Associate producer, Alex Lovy; teleplay, Larry Markes; animators, Irv Spence. Don Lusk, Grant Simmons, Ray Patterson; film editor, Joe Ruby. Cast: Voices of George O'Hanlon, Penny Singleton, Janet Waldo, Daws Butler, Don Messick, Mel Blanc, Jean Vander Pyl.
It's one of the rarities of television that a producing studio, using the same formula, can follow one hit with another. More to the credit of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera that it's a cartoon. Many another tried to capitalize on the popularity of H&B's “Flintstones” but none achieved its high estate. By the simple device of looking ahead with “The Jetsons” whereas “Flinty” looks back into the Stone Age, they achieved a new delight for the young 'uns and plenty of looking over their shoulders in this early evening fun show for the tyke monopoly on the home sets. Into the Space Age a few hundred years hence are propelled the Jetsons, whose family life is so simplified that the press of a button can do a thousand chores. When the whatchamacallit goes on the blink a maid is hired and Rosey the Robot directs traffic when the boss is invited to dinner. Every gimmick to imply speed and the easy life is employed with hilarious effect. For a color cast on ABC-TV for its own and other equipped stations, it was a huge success. The tint was clear and inviting and a big plus for sales of color sets. Voices of the characters, many doubling from “Flintstones,” were perfectly matched and the animation finely drawn. Helm.

One thing that dawned on me reading these two pieces is that there’s more talk about gadgets than characters and that may have been another reason the show didn’t work in prime time. TV was moving to more outrageous lead characters—hillbillies, talking horses, witches and so on. George Jetson wasn’t over-the-top. He wasn’t supposed to be. The idea behind the show was to put a stereotypical ‘50s dad and his family in a time that ‘50s science and technology magazines thought the future would be like. With a humorous twist.

Whatever the reason, the prime time failure of “The Jetsons” worked to its advantage. Moving to Saturday mornings put it squarely within reach of the show’s main demographic. Kids liked it and watched the same episodes over and over, just like they did the same Bugs Bunny and Popeye cartoons during the weekday. “The Jetsons” just kept rolling along, attracting three generations of kids. I’m sure it’s the kind of failure most cartoon producers would like to have.

12 comments:

  1. Yowp, I think you nailed it about the gadgets. When I bring up memories of The Jetsons, people will always do their best....or worst Astro imitation, then the rest of the time talk about the " neat inventions ", and how we are heading that way. How many times have we heard; " Wow, just like The Jetsons " ?

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  2. I think the main reason that "The Jetsons" failed is simply, most people are fearful of the future, and nostalgic and warm about the past. "The Flintstones" was a relatively cuddly show about primitive man, the viewer could chuckle about Fred and family's primitive struggles in prehistoric times. But "The Jetsons" looked far ahead to 2062, most people probably couldn't imagine what life would be like by then, and didn't want to try, due to the fear of the hydrogen bomb, overpopulation, depletion of resources, etc. "The Jetsons" just wasn't cuddly enough, although it tried to be.

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    1. That's very possible. Interestingly, Danny Graydon, the author of a book about "The Jetsons," argues that the show was in some sense the last breath of a more optimistic time, before the JFK assassination, Vietnam, the MLK assassination, race riots, and Watergate sapped the nation's confidence in the future. Maybe there's something to be said for that, but, after reading your comment, I'm more inclined to agree with you. People were very, very frightened of the prospect of nuclear holocaust in the 1950's and 1960's, as another Hanna-Barbera cartoon ("Good Will to Men") illustrates. We tend to forget that. Add to that the fact that "The Jetsons" premiered not long after the Sputnik-induced national crisis of confidence, and just before the Cuban Missile Crisis (indeed, new episodes of "The Jetsons" premiered during the course of the Cuban Missile Crisis!!), and it's hard to imagine a show about the future being successful at that point in time.

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  3. It's kind of funny, I always preferred "The Jetsons" over "The Flintstones" growing up. I think it was because it was a finite amount of 24, whereas "The Flintstones" kept going and going and going and had many incarnations before they decided to finally do more "Jetsons" (which I cannot stand). It wasn't allowed to get "bad" until many, many years later.

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  4. Very interesting observation about the emphasis on the gadgets, Yowp. It reminds me of the reason Joe Barbera gave for the failure of "Top Cat" the year before: there was too much emphasis on funny dialogue and not enough on "Flintstones"-type visual gags. So maybe with "The Jetsons," Hanna-Barbera went overboard the other way, focusing too much on visual gags at the expense of verbal humour? Personally, I have always found the dialogue on "The Jetsons" pretty funny (though not as funny as that on "The Flintstones," as Fred has an extremely boisterous personality that generates laughs very easily). It's too bad H-B failed again the next year with "Jonny Quest." Now there is a really underrated show. How "Scooby-Doo" (which is a good but extremely overrated show in my book) is still going strong while "Jonny Quest" doesn't even air on Boomerang anymore is beyond me. Apparently money was the issue with "Quest," if I'm not mistaken. Maybe H-B should have forgone additional programming in order to dedicate more time and resources to "Quest." Surely that would have gotten "Quest" renewed for additional seasons, no? But would that have been profitable? Anyway, great stuff, as always.

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  5. Several years ago an email sig I used went something like this:

    I'm disappointed by the 21st century. Where is my grueling 3 hour work week and my car that can fly to the moon?

    (Years and years after the Jetsons ended their one season on prime time, someone published a kids book in which the Jetsons fly to the Moon for a picnic, and Elroy finds a golf ball left by one of the Apollo missions.)

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  6. The timing was ripe for "The Jetsons." It was a forward-looking era, with the Seattle World's Fair, the Space Needle, and Century 21. The show was a delightful representation of what the future could be like, with contemporary (for the time) characters living it out.

    Pitting it against Disney right out the gate was not the best idea--that probably more than anything determined it would be a one-season show.

    It's true that the gadgets were the emphasis more than the characters. "The Flintstones" was ultimately about relationships and that is why the show worked so well--but also, Fred and company never had to take on the great Disney, who essentially ruled Sunday evening. There are virtually no relationships in "The Jetsons." Only a handful of episodes focus on George and Jane. George never had a best friend. Judy and Elroy never argued or fought or carried on like normal siblings. Their relationship as brother and sister was barely touched upon. Many of the episodes focused on the Spacely vs. Cogswell conflict, which was certainly entertaining and funny, but it took time away from the family, which should have been the centerpiece of the series. "The Flintstones" had warmth, heart, and humor. "The Jetsons" had gadgets, office politics, and humor, but little warmth and little heart.

    Still, "The Jetsons" remain iconic to this day and are instantly recognizable by almost anyone. It was a fantastic effort from Hanna-Barbera and deserved to last longer in prime time.

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  7. It may also have been that in many of the plots, George may have been just a bit too bedraggled by his situation. Fred didn't come out on top all the time in "The Flintstones", but he usually had Barney around to share whatever misery there was at the iris out. George occasionally had Henry as his cohort, but most of the time had to take his abuse from Mr. Spacely (or Uniblab) by himself.

    It made for a slightly depressing, albeit comedic future -- All these new technological wonders, and George Jetson would still end a lot of his episodes as a beaten-down schlub. It just may not have been what early Sunday audiences in 1962-63 may have been looking for.

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  8. 1/22/15
    RobGems.ca Wrote:
    George Jetson owed much of his trials and tribulations themes to "Blondie", which parallels the comedic hardships of Dagwood Bumstead versus his Mr. Spacely-like boss, Mr. Dithers. Though set a century into the future, the problems of Jetson/Bumstead remains the same: both men are browbeaten by their grumpy bosses.Walt Disney owned the Sunday night time slot in 1962-63, so itwouldhave been difficult for any other competing TV show to beat Disney's timeslot in the ratings.Incidentally, both "The Jetsons" and "Dennis The Menace"were Screen Gems TV Presentations, so the staff at SG must have been taken aback by the sluggish ratings for both of their shows against Disney's huge ratings. As for color TV techniques, ABC didn't have as, an telecast departments their rival NBC, who showed the Disney show in Living Color, so NBC won the color wars those evenings for the few that had Color sets. Most ordinary people with average incomes had to settle watching "The Jetsons" or "Disney" in plain black & white anyways. Color TV didn't really surge until1966 when all three major stations finally transmitted their broadcasts to color for good. NBC must have made a wise investment by broadcasting episodes of "The Jetsons" after ABC cancelled the show in September 1963; by that time, NBC made good use of the color presentation of the H-B product, which was always produced in color, even if TV stations couldn't always broadcast them that way.The one question that alwaysescaped me about those NBC re-broadcasts was this: Did the 1964-67 versions of "The Jetsons" have The Screen Gems Dancing Sticks logo appear at the end of the closing credits, like their counterparts "The Flintstones" starting around September 1963 on NBC? I do remember the commercials for Saran Wrap and Scotch Tape, I think they were on ABC broadcasts.

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  9. Glad to see this...yowp. This differs from other prime time HB series in owing to several shows, with two, and two FEMALES in that era mind you, bringing earlier network radio characters to the show-Janet Waldo as Judy in the earlier wildly popular "Meet Corliss Archer" show and Penny Singleton with George O'Hanlon in lieu of Arthur Lake as respectively Blondie and Dagwood, and mel Blanc instead of whoever as Mr.Dithers from Blondie, Jean Vanderpyl as Rosie the Robot (think Shirley Booth in Hazel as the maid..)...on the other hand..Astro and the earlier partial influence's Mr.Dithers would contribute to...Scooby Doo (Astro=SD and Mr.Dithers's last name adopted for the suspect in every SD episode)..Daws Butler, the only previous HB voice among the four Jetsons regulars, did a variation on Augie Doggie in this only prime time HB role, and also Henry Orbit (also Butler) was a space age Walter Brennan.Steve C.

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  10. Minnesota Mining, more known as Scotch/3M, is one of sponsors from The Jetsons, when this series was originally aired in the USA by ABC.

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  11. Besides Gold Key comic book “The Jetsons” #1, the TV ad shown here is the only other reference, during the show’s initial run, where I’ve seen the year “2062” stated. I don’t believe it was ever mentioned on the program.

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