Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Flintstones Risk

There’s nothing like corporate hyperbole.

Witness this line from the head of ABC-TV in 1960: “It’s...the biggest thing in TV programming the free world has ever seen.”

I don’t even think fans of The Flintstones would describe the show that way. But Ollie Treyz did. It’s part of an interesting analysis of the soon-to-be-on-the-air series published in Television Mail on August 10, 1960. It was a British trade publication.

The paper’s focus was on the large risk ABC was taking it putting The Flintstones on the air, since there had never been a half-hour animated show in prime-time, as least in terms of one cartoon being a complete half hour. But in some ways, it wasn’t a risk at all. Old theatrical cartoons airing at other times had been a platinum mine for syndicators and advertisers. Animated commercials had proven throughout the 1950s that cartoons could sell products. So why not an animated sitcom?

The story talks about how movie studios were not exploring the realm of animation longer than seven minutes and under feature length. There was a simple reason. No one was making anything for theatres of that length, animated or otherwise. Columbia was the last studio to make two-reel comedies, and it ended new entries in the Three Stooges series in 1959.

You’ll have to forgive the article below thinking Disney had anything to do with Felix the Cat (other than ripping him off for its own series in the silent days). R.J. Reynolds made Camels but decided to advertise Winstons on The Flintstones.

A similar photo of Associate Producer Alan Dinehart and writer Warren Foster accompanied the story; more than one must have been taken at the publicity shoot. But the version we’ve posted is a little clearer.

A few notes about other cartoons mentioned below: the Rube Goldberg series didn’t go ahead, despite ads in the trades (Joe Flynn and Dave Willock were to star in it), neither did Fearless Fosdick. This is the first I’ve heard about ZIV being behind Mel-O-Toons; they were made in Art Scott’s studio. ABC’s “two more shows” were Matty’s Funday Funnies, featuring Harveytoons characters, and The Bugs Bunny Show.


ANIMATION FINDS CASH SPONSORS
“A sensational development...it’ll start a landslide...the biggest thing in TV programming that the free world has ever seen...”
These are the words of burly, hard-bitten Oliver Treyz, president of the American Broadcasting Company. In London this week for business talks, Treyz also found time to discuss a multi-million dollar gamble into which the ABC network has plunged.
He believes the hot subject this year will be animation. The American network is preparing three new animated shows for the 1960-61 season, and this in itself would be noteworthy. But the important fact is television’s first, full-length cartoon series, designed for adults. “The Flintstones” is a 30-minute show, due to be sprung in the middle of peak-time, and created to win the favour of the buying public.
ABC’s faith in the idea is reinforced by sponsors. “Flintstones” has been signed by Miles laboratories and the Reynolds tobacco company; two concerns who fight a hard-sell battle in a very, very adult world.
The situation of the half-hour shows is modern man and his problems, set against a caveman background. “A Cadillac built out of stone, with square wheels.” (Nearest comparison in Britain: the “Daily Sketch” cartoon strip “B.C.”).
“It’s an adult, family-situation-comedy,” explains Treyz. “And funny...gosh, it’s funny.” Adding, uneasily, “the only thing we’ve got to worry about is whether we get too egg-head. Some of those jokes get a bit, ah, esoteric...”
Far-out or not, there’s nothing unworldly about the hard cash behind the project. Each 30-minute programme is costing ABC about $650,000; by season’s end the joint sponsors will have added several million dollars in buying airtime, to expose “Flintstones” across the nation at 8:30 p.m., on Fridays.
The show is being put onto celluloid by a Screen Gems affiliate, Hanna-Barbera Productions. This is the group which has produced two other, shorter, national animated programmes: “Huckleberry Hound” and “Quick Draw McGraw.” Both of these were sold to Kelloggs; “Hound,” (a 1960 Emmy winner) is now renewed for its third season, and “McGraw” is entering its second year.
Though built specially for television, these two series are much closer in spirit to conventional cinema-animation. In their animal characters and slapstick humour—and the brevity of each episode—they are lineal descendants of Disney’s original “Felix.” [sic]
ABC now is trying to make a major breakthrough in several areas simultaneously. Television has never tried to carry animation for a full half-hour; even the cinema has not commercially explored the limbo which lies between the ultra-short “cartoon” and the 90-minute feature.
One of the difficulties may be sustaining the stories. Says Treyz: “Half-hour animation tells as much as a two-hour movie.” Writers and ideas-men have a harder job in fleshing-out their plots, because the material is burned-up so much faster.
At the same time, the stories will have to be genuine value-for-money. In a live show, script and situation weaknesses can be glossed over by camera padding and director’s “business”; the bald patch can’t be slicked over by animators. Each move, each word, has to add positively to the dramatic action. Can it be done, for half an hour every week?
Even if successful, this is still no guarantee that viewers will tune to pencil-drawings in preference to flesh-and-blood. What odds Mr Magoo stacked against Cheyenne?
No precedent exists, and no way of assessing viewer-reaction can be got until “Flintstones” actually hits the air. Oliver Treyz cheerfully proclaims that he’s as much in the dark as anyone: “it could easily be the biggest flop of all time.” And on top of all these uncertainties; even if animation can win the viewers—will it sell the goods? Can the fantasy-world of cartooning do a good job in carrying a hard-sell for Camels? [sic]
Sponsors are at least willing to take a risk. “I wouldn’t say they’re wildly happy, but they are going along with the idea...” And so are a lot of other people, because ABC is well in the lead, behind the network is an enormous new outburst of animation activity.
Up until now, virtually all animated features in American syndication were produced for cinemas and later released for television.
This year it looks like a turn-about. At least half a dozen syndicators will bring forward new shows made primarily for the small screen.
Paramount are making new Popeye cartoons for TV. Trans-Lux is sweeping ahead on the success of Felix the Cat, by bringing out Rube Goldberg. Animated version of Dick Tracy is on the way; CBS network and Terry toons have started selling Deputy Dawg, and are ready with a second series, Fearless Fosdick. ZIV-UA, one of the biggest cinema producers, has now started on its first animated television series, Mell-O-Tunes.
The ABC network itself has two more animated shows on the way; one of which will also come in on Fridays, only an hour ahead of “Flintstones.”
Financially, animation could prove an extremely attractive proposition. Animated re-runs hold up better than live shows, and many repeats are possible without incurring a large drop in ratings. Animated features costing around $75,000 may eventually earn much more than an action-adventure programme costing $32,000.
Cartoon-type shows also have a broader sales appeal overseas, and can be readily dubbed. But for ABC, their main appeal is freshness. Something new which appeals to young-adult viewers; this is the cornerstone around which Treyz has built what is virtually a new network.
In terms of audience-per-minute, ABC now is the leading American broadcaster; a situation which might have seemed unattainable in 1956.
This position has been achieved by ruthless scrapping of every programme which didn’t deliver the largest possible audience. Treyz junked all of the network’s serious drama and prestige material. “These shows got critical acclaim, but didn’t reach the masses. We figure that no-one’s as smart as the public.”
Most of ABC’s material is now film-series. Result it that though agencies and advertisers—and legislators—may deplore the content, they have to admit that the network delivers the goods in terms of audience. In bringing ABC to this fiscal success, Treyz himself has earned a reputation for ruthless and even unscrupulous negotiation. (Commented one leading American agency recently: “If you’re talking to Treyz, take a lawyer along with you.”)
It is in light of these facts that ABC’s animation gamble has to be assessed. Is Treyz (who’s answerable to shareholders) the sort of man to plunge on a long-shot? It seems improbable.

6 comments:

  1. They inspired me when I was a kid and still do today!

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  2. The story talks about how movie studios were not exploring the realm of animation longer than seven minutes and under feature length. There was a simple reason. No one was making anything for theaters of that length, animated or otherwise.

    Sorry, but this is not so - the ten years prior to the debut of "The Flintstones", Disney had been releasing several two and three reeler cartoons to cinemas. The featurettes Ben and Me (1953), and Donald in Mathmagicland (1959) are almost thirty minutes in length. Similarly, The Truth About Mother Goose (1957), Paul Bunyan (1958), Noah's Ark (1959), and Goliath II (1960) run between fifteen and twenty minutes. These long-form cartoons would continue to be produced by the Disney studio throughout the Sixties.

    And we would be remiss if mention wasn't made of the Fleischer's innovative use of the format with their Popeye and Raggedy Ann "specials".

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    1. A Disney two-reeler on an irregular basis is not, as the article says, "commercially explor[ing] the limbo which lies between the ultra-short “cartoon” and the 90-minute feature."
      There's no exploration to see if they were a viable or profitable theatrical format. They were occasional exceptions to the rule to fill time with a Disney feature, not a regular series of shorts.

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    2. Well, my comment was in response to your statement claiming, " No one was making anything for theaters of that length, animated or otherwise." Obviously, that wasn't the case.

      And while the long-form cartoons were not part of Disney's "regular" production schedule, the fact that they continued to be produced for years afterwards would seem to prove were viable and profitable. Otherwise, why would they bother? I believe the studio found the format was ideal for telling a longer story that couldn't fit into the confines of a short, and without committing to an expensive, time-consuming feature. They kept the animation staff busy during down times. There would be future TV use to recoup production costs. And it kept the theaters from booking an inferior short with the Disney features.

      P.S. I would love to know which Flintstones gags Oliver Treyz considered "egg-headed" and "esoteric".

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  3. I ran the $650,000 through my CPI Calculator and it comes out to about $5.4 million in 2017 dollars. Heck, the six major stars of Friends got $1 million per episode so they had $6 million sunk into just six people. That show must have cost $20 million per episode to produce.

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  4. Here in Brazil, The Flintstones premiered by the late Tupi TV in January 1962, also in prime time (equal as it was in the USA, where this attraction was premiered in September 1960 by ABC [nowadays belonging to Disney]).

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