Animation in the United States in the television era

Television animation developed from the success of animated movies in the first half of the 20th century. The state of animation changed dramatically in the four decades starting with the post-World War II proliferation of television. While studios gave up on the big-budget theatrical short cartoons that thrved in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, new television animation studios would thrive based on the economy and volume of their output. By the end of the 1980s, most of the Golden Age animators had retired or died, and their younger successors were ready to change the industry and the way that animation was perceived.

From the big screen to the small screen

Cartoons were never intended just for children. Cartoons in the Golden Age, such as Red Hot Riding Hood, contained topical and often suggestive humor, though they were seen primarily as "children's entertainment" by movie exhibitors. This point of view prevailed when the new medium of television began showing cartoons in the late 1940s.

One of the first images to be broadcast over television was that of Felix the Cat. In 1938, cartoonist Chad Grothkopf's eight-minute experimental Willie the Worm, cited as the first animated film created for TV, was shown on NBC.[1][2]

As TV became a phenomenon and began to draw audiences away from movie theaters, many children's TV shows included airings of theatrical cartoons in their schedules, and this introduced a new generation of children to the cartoons of the 1920s and 1930s. Cartoon producer Paul Terry sold the rights to the Terrytoons cartoon library to television and retired from the business in the early 1950s. This guaranteed a long life for the characters of Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle, whose cartoons were syndicated and rerun in children's television programming blocks for the next 30 to 40 years.

There were a number of early experiments in limited animation television cartoons. These cartoons usually were about five minutes in length and were episodic in nature, allowing stations to flexibly program them. One of the first cartoons produced expressly for television was Crusader Rabbit, a creation of Alexander Anderson and Jay Ward. A small studio in Florida was responsible for another early adventure serial, Colonel Bleep. Often, existing programs would be a launching ground for new cartoon characters. In 1956, the Howdy Doody show aired the first Gumby clay animated cartoon from creator Art Clokey. Sam Singer earned a certain degree of infamy for his efforts at television animation, which included an animated adaptation of The Adventures of Paddy the Pelican (which may or may not have made it to air) and the original series Bucky and Pepito, both of which have been cited as among the worst of their kind. On the other hand, a long-running series of animated shorts named Tom Terrific was produced by Terrytoons for the Captain Kangaroo show, and this series was praised by film historian Leonard Maltin as "one of the finest cartoons ever produced for television." [3]

Beginning in 1954, Walt Disney capitalized on the medium of television with his own weekly TV series, Disneyland. This ABC show popularized his new Disneyland theme park and began a decades-long series of TV broadcasts of Disney cartoons, which later expanded into the show Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. While Disney recognized that the economics of the medium could not support his production standards and refused to go into TV animation, he still ordered the creation of one character exclusive to TV, Ludwig Von Drake. The character's segments would link compilations of the company's archived theatrical shorts as complete episodes. Walt continued to host the show for the rest of his life, and he became as recognizable to the TV audience as his studio's cartoon characters.


The first major animation studio to produce cartoons exclusively for television was Hanna-Barbera Productions. When MGM closed its cartoon studio in 1957, Hanna-Barbera began producing cartoons directly for television, finding an audience in the evening "family hour" time. The first animated series from Hanna-Barbera were NBC's The Ruff & Reddy Show and the first-run syndication entry The Huckleberry Hound Show. However, the studio hit its stride in 1960s with ABC's The Flintstones, the first half-hour animated sitcom. Like many of its immediate successors it was originally aired during prime time when the whole family would be watching television. The Flintstones was the first of several prime-time animated series from Hanna-Barbera, which included The Jetsons, Top Cat, and Jonny Quest. But after the end of The Flintstones in 1966, Hanna-Barbera largely turned its efforts to the growing market for Saturday morning cartoons, outside of isolated series for first run syndication in the 1970s such as Wait Till Your Father Gets Home.

Hanna-Barbera was notorious for using common tropes in its series. Its original series of the late 1950s through mid-1960s all featured anthropomorphic animals, usually an adult (who would in turn impersonate a well-known celebrity) and child, interacting with the humans of their environment. After the immense success of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, which premiered on CBS in 1969, the next decade of Hanna-Barbera's animated output would follow that show's formula: a group of teenagers solving mysteries or fighting crime, usually with the help of a wacky animal or a ghost. The many incarnations of Scooby-Doo ran uninterrupted on CBS and then ABC for 17 seasons. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hanna-Barbera turned to adaptations of prime time sitcoms. It was not until The Smurfs in 1981 that H-B once again had anything successful outside the Scooby template; it, in turn, led to derivative series (The Snorks and Paw Paws). The late 1980s and early 1990s saw Hanna-Barbera join the numerous studios producing younger and junior versions of cartoon characters for the Saturday morning cartoon market.

Limited animation

One of the problems with producing animation for television was the extremely labor-intensive animation process. While theatrical short subjects were previously produced in six-month cycles or longer, network television needed a season of 10-20 half hour episodes each year. This led to a number of shortcut techniques to speed up the production process, and the techniques of limited animation were applied to produce a great number of quickly-produced, low-budget TV cartoons.

The UPA studio was one of the first victims of the TV-animation market. In 1952, because of his left-wing social activism, John Hubley was dismissed from the studio under pressure from Columbia Pictures (who was itself under pressure from the HUAC). The creative atmosphere post-Hubley was not the same and UPA's theatrical shorts ended in 1959. In order to stay afloat financially, UPA turned to television to sustain itself. The TV versions of Mister Magoo and Dick Tracy were not successful and did nothing to reverse the studio's financial decline. In spite of the 1962 animated feature Gay Purr-ee (distributed by Warner Bros.), which featured the voices of Judy Garland and Robert Goulet and a Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg song score, and the beloved animated special Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, UPA was shut down in 1964.

The Jay Ward studio, producer of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, used limited animation in its series, but compensated with its satire of Cold War politics and popular culture and its off-beat humor. Like the earlier Crusader Rabbit, the Rocky and Bullwinkle adventures were multi-part serials. The Ward studio also produced George of the Jungle, Super Chicken, and Tom Slick. It later produced a series of popular television commercials for Quaker Oats cereals Cap'n Crunch, Quisp and Quake. Another company that used the same animation studios as Jay Ward did was Total Television, most famous for The Underdog Show. Total Television and Jay Ward animated productions were often mixed and aired together in syndication, leading to the two companies' shows to sometimes be confused with each other.

Filmation, headed by Lou Scheimer and Norm Prescott, was another television animation studio that arose in the 1960s. Filmation was most famous for its acquisition of licenses to produce animated series based on other media; it was one of the few companies to keep all of its animation within the United States and did not use the aesthetics of limited animation preferred by Hanna-Barbera and UPA; instead, Filmation productions relied on heavy usage of stock footage, rotoscoping, limited voice casts (Scheimer himself provided many voices) and a balance of licensed animated series with lower-budget, live-action ones (such as The Ghost Busters and Uncle Croc's Block) to stay financially solvent. After a string of success lasting well into the 1980s, Filmation dissolved in 1989.

One of the most infamous users of limited animation was Cambria Studios, which invented and patented a process known as Syncro-Vox, implementing it beginning in 1960. While the process resulted in an extremely economical, quick and inexpensive product (thus making it ideal for television), it had a fatal flaw that prevented it from being taken seriously: the process involved inserting the moving lips of the voice actor over a still frame of a character's mouth. The result was that Cambria's cartoons (Clutch Cargo, Space Angel and Captain Fathom) contained hardly any animation at all, and were effectively pictures (albeit well-drawn ones that were of greater detail than other producers') with words. Cambria switched to a more mainstream limited animation process with The New Three Stooges in 1965, but went out of business shortly afterward.

The 1960s and 1970s

By the 1960s, the perception of cartoons as children's entertainment was entrenched in the public consciousness. Animation began to disappear from movie theaters; while Disney continued to produce animated features after losing its founder, MGM and Warner Bros closed their studios, outsourced their animation, and got out of it entirely by the end of the decade. The majority of American animation came to be dominated by limited animation made for TV and aimed primarily at children. However, there were a number of attempts to challenge this perception during the 1960s and 1970s with ambitious (and often controversial) animated projects that were definitely not for children.


In the 1960s, Walt Disney's current animated films (One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone, the live-action/animated combo Mary Poppins, and The Jungle Book) generated hefty revenue for the studio, as did the regular reissues of earlier animated films. Poppins, in particular, won five Academy Awards (and received with the studio's first Best Picture nomination) and topped the 1964 box office charts while launching the film career of its star, Julie Andrews, who won an Oscar. Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, now on NBC, became a Sunday night television institution that kept Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto in the public consciousness long after their theatrical cartoon series had ended. The anthology series ran until 1983. In 1961, Walt helped to establish the California Institute of the Arts. The founding of the institute was both a philanthropic gesture and a savvy investment by Disney, as the school provided plenty of creative talent for the company in the years to come. In 1966, the studio brought A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh characters to the screen for the first time in two of four animated featurettes (the second of which, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, won an Oscar, the last Walt Disney received).

The Disney empire was rocked to its core when Walt died from lung cancer on December 15, 1966. While the studio tried to remain true to his vision (a common catchphrase of the time was "What would Walt do?"), the level of popularity and acclaim the studio received in earlier years eluded it in the 1970s. The theme parks Disneyland and Walt Disney World (the latter having opened in 1971) ended up contributing more to the bottom line than the film division. Additionally, many veteran animators either retired or died, so the studio had to find ways to replace them. In 1973, Eric Larson started a training program for new animators.

The studio's post-Walt animation fare consisted of the features The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound, the featurettes It's Tough to Be a Bird, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too!, The Small One, Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore, and Mickey's Christmas Carol, and the live-action/animation hybrids Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Pete's Dragon. Some of the films got mixed reactions from critics; Robin Hood, in particular, was widely criticized for re-use of animation from earlier films (especially in the production number "The Phony King of England"), but this was done because the film had fallen way behind schedule.[4] Still, all of these films were successful and many of them received Academy Award nominations (with two wins, one for the short Bird and another for the special effects in Bedknobs). Additionally, in keeping with Walt's original intentions, the first three Pooh featurettes were compiled into the 1977 feature The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

The most devastating development since Walt's death occurred in September 1979, when studio animator Don Bluth led a walkout of himself and 11 of his supporters (a large chunk of the studio's animation department at the time), including Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy. Fed up with the status quo at Disney, he and his acolytes left to start his own studio, which produced the short film Banjo the Woodpile Cat and the feature film The Secret of NIMH.[5] Disney entered the 1980s facing an uncertain future, despite the respectable $39,900,000 gross and some good reviews for The Fox and the Hound.[6]

The end of Termite Terrace

Warner Bros. shut down its animation studio completely in 1963, and the directors of Termite Terrace went their separate ways. Friz Freleng co-founded DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, which produced Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies from 1964 to 1967. Warner Bros.-Seven Arts reopened the studio from 1967 to 1969, but the low-budget cartoons produced were not popular with critics or audiences then or now. The new characters introduced during the Seven Arts period, such as Cool Cat, Bunny and Claude, Quick Brown Fox and Rapid Rabbit, and Merlin the Magic Mouse, never caught on, while the Termite Terrace cartoons remained perennial television favorites through syndication and Saturday morning airings throughout the remainder of the 20th century.

Chuck Jones and MGM

In 1961, Chuck Jones moonlighted as a writer on the UPA feature Gay Purr-ee. When Warner Bros. distributed the film the following year, they discovered that he had contributed to the film in violation of his exclusive contract and fired him. Jones teamed with Les Goldman to form Sib Tower 12 Productions to work with MGM on the Tom and Jerry series in the mid-1960s; his shorts were not as popular as the Hanna-Barbera originals but more so than the Gene Deitch shorts produced overseas in the early 1960s. Jones then began producing a number of successful animated TV specials. His most famous special was How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, a 1966 CBS adaptation of the Dr. Seuss story that still remains popular and has been released on video and DVD several times. Jones also produced three animated adaptations of short stories from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, a full-length MGM feature film entitled The Phantom Tollbooth, and the 1970 TV version of Horton Hears a Who!

Friz Freleng

After leaving the remnants of Termite Terrace behind for good, Friz Freleng and his new partner David H. DePatie went on to produce the Pink Panther cartoons during the 1960s and 1970s, with the cartoons appearing almost simultaneously on television and in theaters through a distribution deal with United Artists. Freleng also produced several TV specials based on Dr. Seuss books throughout the 1970s, including The Cat in the Hat and The Lorax.

In 1981, Friz Freleng retired. The DePatie-Freleng Enterprises studio was sold to Marvel Comics, and it continued under his lead as Marvel Productions Ltd. This new studio focused almost exclusively on toy merchandising, and it found a new audience among young viewers with such action oriented cartoons as G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and The Transformers.

Yellow Submarine

In 1968, the music of The Beatles and the Peter Max-inspired psychedelic artwork of Canadian-born animator George Dunning came together to create Yellow Submarine. Displeased with the previous animated television series depicting themselves, the Beatles themselves had reservations about the project at first and declined to participate beyond providing a mix of older and original musical recordings. However, they were impressed enough with the finished film to appear in a live action epilogue.

Ralph Bakshi

Ralph Bakshi tried to establish an alternative to mainstream animation through independent and adult-oriented productions in the 1970s.

In 1968, Ralph Bakshi, along with producer Steve Krantz, founded Bakshi Productions,[7] establishing the studio as an alternative to mainstream animation by producing animation his own way and accelerating the advancement of female and minority animators. He also paid his employees a higher salary than any other studio at that time.[8] In 1969, Ralph's Spot was founded as a division of Bakshi Productions to produce commercials for Coca-Cola and Max, the 2000-Year-Old Mouse, a series of educational shorts paid for by Encyclopædia Britannica.[9][10] Bakshi was quoted in a 1971 article for the Los Angeles Times as saying that the idea of "grown men sitting in cubicles drawing butterflies floating over a field of flowers, while American planes are dropping bombs in Vietnam and kids are marching in the streets, is ludicrous."[11] Bakshi soon developed Heavy Traffic, a tale of inner-city street life. However, Krantz told Bakshi that studio executives would be unwilling to fund the film because of its content and Bakshi's lack of film experience.[10] While browsing the East Side Book Store on St. Mark's Place, Bakshi came across a copy of R. Crumb's Fritz the Cat. Impressed by Crumb's sharp satire, Bakshi purchased the book and suggested to Krantz that it would work as a film.[10]

Fritz the Cat was the first animated film to receive an X rating from the MPAA, and is the highest grossing independent animated film of all time.[10] With the success of his second film, Heavy Traffic, Bakshi became the first person in the animation industry since Walt Disney to have two financially successful films released back-to-back.[12]

Other animation

A few attempts were made to produce independent feature-length animated films in the 1970s. Several of these were decidedly adult-oriented productions, including Watership Down, Heavy Metal, and a live-action/animated version of the Pink Floyd concept album The Wall (which, although produced in Britain, received wide release in the United States).

Other films like Richard Williams' Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure were less successful. The industry largely continued to ignore or dismiss animation as something only kids watched on Saturday morning television. A notable exception was a series of films based on the Peanuts franchise, beginning with the 1969 film A Boy Named Charlie Brown, which was both a commercial and critical success; the films were made with the same production team behind the acclaimed Peanuts television specials that were airing throughout the time period, led by Bill Melendez.

Commercialization and counterculture

Animation on television focused almost exclusively on children, and the tradition of getting up early to watch Saturday morning cartoons became a weekly ritual for millions of American kids. The networks were glad to oblige their demands by providing hours-long blocks of cartoon shows. Hanna-Barbera Productions became the leader in the production of TV cartoons for children. A number of other studios produced TV cartoons, such as Filmation (Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, The Archies) and DePatie-Freleng Enterprises (The Pink Panther), but Hanna-Barbera had developed a virtual lock on Saturday morning cartoons by the 1970s. Such critics of Hanna-Barbera's style of limited animation as Chuck Jones referred to it disparagingly as "illustrated radio," yet when one show was cancelled, the studio usually had another one ready to replace it because they were so cheap to produce.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, several successful prime-time animated TV specials aired. Because these one-shot cartoons were aired during prime-time hours (and thus had to appeal to adults as well as children), they had to obtain higher ratings than their Saturday and weekday counterparts. CBS in particular allowed a large number of animated TV specials to air on its network, and several of these continue to be repeated annually and sold on video and DVD. The Rankin-Bass studio produced a number of stop-motion specials geared towards popular holidays (including Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town); while Bill Melendez's long-running series of Peanuts specials won numerous awards, spawned four feature films, and even launched a Saturday morning series. Other attempts to bring comic strip characters to TV did not have anywhere near as much success until one of the Peanuts directors, Phil Roman, brought the Jim Davis comic strip Garfield to TV starting in 1982, resulting in 11 specials and a long-running animated series.

This era also saw a number of independent animated short films that were rarely seen outside of "art house" movie theaters. As the Hollywood animation studios faded, a number of independent producers of animation continued to make experimental, artistic animated films that explored new artistic territory in the medium of animation. Short films such as The Critic, Bambi Meets Godzilla, Lupo the Butcher, and many others were almost unknown to mainstream audiences; however, these independent animated films continued to keep the yearly category of the Academy Award for Animated Short Film alive, as well as introducing a number of new names into the field of animationnames that would begin to bring change to the industry in the 1980s.

Animation in the 1980s

Television and toy trends

Though the dominant Hanna-Barbera Productions launched a phenomenon with the 1981 premiere of The Smurfs on NBC, very little else which they produced in this decade caught on. Adding to this was the financial problems of their owner Taft Broadcasting, which was taken over by Carl Lindner, Jr., owner of Great American Insurance Company, in 1987. Two years later, Tom Ruegger launched an exodus of H-B employees to form a relaunched Warner Bros. Animation division. In 1991, Turner Broadcasting System bought the company and its library.

Other studios' offerings chipped away at the H-B Saturday dominance throughout the decade, such as H-B alumni Ruby-Spears Productions' Alvin and the Chipmunks, Marvel and Jim Henson's Muppet Babies, DiC and Columbia's The Real Ghostbusters, and Film Roman's Garfield and Friends. Additionally, the Saturday morning continued to see attempts to adapt prime time series for animation, some successfully (Happy Days and its spinoffs, Mister T, ALF: The Animated Series), others less so (It's Punky Brewster, The Gary Coleman Show, Little Rosie). After three decades of resistance, Disney finally entered Saturday morning in 1985 when The Gummi Bears and The Wuzzles debuted with significantly more substantial budgets; the first-run syndication success of DuckTales, which premiered in 1987, eventually inspired a whole block of Disney-produced syndicated cartoons which forced competing studios to improve their own production standards to compete.

The 1980s also saw a number of cartoons based on children's toys, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, The Transformers, My Little Pony 'n Friends, He-Man, She-Ra: Princess of Power, Jem and the Holograms and Care Bears. There were even cartoons based on Pac-Man video games and the Rubik's Cube. Some of them even inspired feature films. While many of them were successful with children, shows like these were accused of being glorified toy commercials by parents' groups such as Action for Children's Television. These groups also objected to the level of violence in many of these shows. ACT's efforts to curb these trends resulted in the Children's Television Act, enacted in 1990 and strictly enforced by the FCC starting in 1996.

Anime comes to America

Throughout this period, Japanese anime production made a limited impact on the North American market. The most notable work were the television series like Astroboy and Speed Racer in the 1960s, Battle of The Planets and Star Blazers in the 1970s and Voltron and Robotech in the 1980s. As a rule, the imported series were heavily censored to make them acceptable to children; Star Blazers and Robotech were partial exceptions. Although their impact on the art in North America was minimal for decades, the distinctive nature of the anime series created a cult following that grew gradually until the 1980s when Star Blazers and Robotech, with their complex storylines and frank depiction of violence, helped create the groundswell that would lead to the major influx of anime popularity starting in the 1990s.

Music videos

The 1980s also saw the rise of the music video industry, spearheaded by MTV. Artistic experimentation in these short films often resulted in the production of innovative animated sequences that reminded viewers of the potential of animation as something other than Saturday morning cartoons. A number of memorable animated videos were produced during the heyday of MTV, including "Take on Me" by a-ha; "Sledgehammer" by Peter Gabriel; "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits; and "The Harlem Shuffle" by The Rolling Stones (the animated sequences in this video were directed by Ralph Bakshi and John Kricfalusi).


  1. Connecticut Historical Society
  2. Beckerman, Howard (2003). Animation: The Whole Story. Allworth.
  3. Maltin, L. (1987). Of mice and magic: A history of American animated cartoons (Rev. ed.). New York: New American Library.
  4. Hill, Jim (2005-03-17). "Why For?". Jim Hill Media.
  5. Beck, Jerry (1996-06-01). "Don Bluth Goes Independent". Animation World Magazine.
  6. "The Fox and the Hound (1981)". Box Office Mojo.
  7. Gibson, Jon M.; McDonnell, Chris (2008). "First Gigs". Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi. Universe Publishing. p. 54. ISBN 0-7893-1684-6.
  8. Sito, Tom (2006). "Suits". Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson. University Press of Kentucky. p. 50. ISBN 0-8131-2407-7.
  9. Television/radio Age. Television Editorial Corp. 1969. p. 13.
  10. 1 2 3 4 Gibson, Jon M.; McDonnell, Chris (2008). "Fritz the Cat". Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi. Universe Publishing. pp. 58; 62–63; 80–81. ISBN 0-7893-1684-6.
  11. Barrier, Michael (Spring 1972). "The Filming of Fritz the Cat: Bucking the Tide". Funnyworld, No. 14. Archived from the original on 15 April 2007. Retrieved 2007-03-02.
  12. Solomon, Charles (1989). Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation. New York City: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 275. ISBN 0-394-54684-9.
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