July 04, 2020


            The 1980s saw a veritable boom in television animation. FCC regulations became more relaxed under the Reagan administration, meaning studios could partner up with toy manufacturers once again to produce shows based on their products; a practice halted in the ‘60s thanks to children advocacy groups. The syndication market, where studios could sell directly to independent stations and sidestep the networks, became very attractive because without the same FCC guidelines and network standards and practices, they were able to exert more creative freedom in their productions. Anime became appealing as they could be imported from Japan, edited to American television standards, dubbed and aired at a fraction of the cost of producing an all-new show (even though the short runs of some anime resulted in new episodes having to be commissioned from the Japanese studio). The rise in home video also opened up a new avenue for distribution deals and new profits from selling episodes of favorite programs to viewers.

Marvel Productions replaced DePatie-Freleng on the airwaves.

            As a result of this boom, the number of studios rose from four—Hanna-Barbera, Filmation, DePatie-Freleng and Ruby-Spears—to around 30 (Rankin/Bass also produced a few shows, but their primary output was mostly television specials). You had DiC Enterprises ushered in from France by Hanna-Barbera alum Andy Heyward; Sunbow Entertainment, who would oversee the production of various properties based on Hasbro toys; Bagdasarian Productions resurrecting their nearly two decades dormant Chipmunks franchise; Murakami-Wolf-Swenson made their mark licensing the hottest independent comic to date: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; Nelvana, who would drag themselves up from a struggling animation studio into a full-out production company; Saban Entertainment finding their niche of importing and dubbing shows, although their biggest hit wouldn’t come until the following decade; and others. DePatie-Freleng bowed out early, with Marvel Productions rising from its ashes and often partnering with Sunbow.

Here comes Disney!

            And, of course, one of the two big dogs entered the fray: Disney. Disney would produce television animation in both syndication and on the networks. With their massive financial capabilities, they were able to make shows that looked near theatrical quality. At the very least leagues better than anything the others were putting out as the exchange rate of the Japanese yen forced them to find alternative, cheaper countries to outsource their animation work to such as the Philippines. Warner Bros. would also resurrect their animation division, but their first television offering wouldn’t hit until 1990.

The rise in VCR technology meant TV could be viewed at any time anywhere.

            ABC, CBS and NBC weren’t having all that easy a time either. Syndication meant that advertisers were now being pulled in two directions and the networks weren’t making as much money on their programming. Not to mention that cable and satellite television were beginning to rise in popularity, offering audiences even more channels with many catered to a particular market. And, towards the end of the decade, a brand-new network—FOX—would launch and give them all a run for their money; being unafraid to take bigger risks with their programming that the entrenched networks wouldn’t. All of those viewing alternatives, plus home video sales, meant that children could now watch cartoons in more places at more times. Saturday morning was slowly becoming a less viable proposition.

Muppet Babies ushered in the new trend of babyfication.

            The studios took advantage of every trick they could. The unparalleled success of Filmation’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, based on the Mattel toyline, not only made syndication seem attractive to the other studios, but the partnership between toy companies and animation as well. Licenses for other Mattel properties, as well as Hasbro, Tyco and others were snatched up and turned into programs. Further driving studios towards syndication was the success of DiC’s Inspector Gadget. While the networks largely shied away from the toy-based cartoons, they eagerly embraced ones based on the growing video game market. The surprising box office of Nelvana’s The Care Bears Movie inspired other studios to look into doing theatrical films for their franchises. Celebrities continued to be a draw for the studios looking to attract their fans, resulting in the likes of Gary Coleman, Mr. T, Martin Short and John Candy getting their own cartoons. As the 80s marked the rise of the Hollywood summer blockbuster, movies also quickly became fodder for animated shows. One movie in particular, The Muppets Take Manhattan, inspired a whole new trend: babyfication, the process of taking a previously established character and de-aging them.

Lou Scheimer's goodbye letter to Filmation employees that would run as a full-page ad in Hollywood Reporter and Variety.

            But, with every boom there must come a bust. And bust the animation industry did. The syndication market quickly became saturated with more product than the stations had available air time. Most of that product was action-adventure programs that did little to distinguish themselves from each other, driving audiences towards more comedic and cutesy fare simply because it was different. Reruns of The Smurfs were outperforming anything new! Toy companies began to learn that a hit show doesn’t necessarily equal toy sales, and since toys were their business, they gradually began to pull out of showbusiness. The Care Bears Movie’s success turned out to be a fluke more than the indication of a trend as subsequent programs-to-movies fared poorly. The biggest casualty of all was that Filmation was sold to new owners who promptly shut the studio down in early 1989.

Rubik, the Amazing Cube was definitely one of the more questionable ones...

            The 1980s were a turbulent time for animation, full of highs and lows. While you can argue that the animation itself wasn’t always great, there was no denying that the studios made full use of their newfound creative freedom to churn out some inspired, weird (and sometimes questionable) programs.

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