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Nickelodeon Betting on Cartoons : Television: The children's cable channel unveils three animated series Sunday in a bid to create a library of evergreens.


For 12 years, cable television's only channel expressly for kids, Nickelodeon, has been without the most common staple of all children's television programming: cartoons. Although the channel has shown animated specials and wowed the industry with its colorful station IDs, the high cost of quality animation has discouraged Nickelodeon from developing weekly animated programming.

That's about to change in a big way on Sunday. Nickelodeon has invested top dollar in three distinctly different animated series--"Doug," "The Ren & Stimpy Show" and "Rugrats"--that the channel hopes will provide the same legacy for Nickelodeon that Looney Tunes has for Warner Bros., "Tom & Jerry" for MGM or Mickey Mouse and the gang for Disney.

"We know that kids like animation, and that good quality animation lasts forever," Nickelodeon President Geraldine Laybourne said. "Looney Tunes are 50 years old and they still play today."

Nickelodeon, which is owned by MTV Networks, has built its business on original programs with a short shelf life and nostalgic repeats, but its objective now is to create an evergreen library that will pay for itself over years. To do that, Nickelodeon has created three original animated series cast far outside the Saturday-morning mold.

"Doug" is a painfully average 11-year-old kid who muddles through tough childhood experiences, such as getting a goofy-looking haircut or learning to dance, which he carefully records in a diary each night.

"Ren & Stimpy," who resemble a sort of pop art meltdown, are a depleted asthmatic Chihuahua and his fat feline, hairball-spitting sidekick. Together they careen through a weird world of animated chaos.

"Rugrats," from the producers of "The Simpsons," takes the ground's-eye perspective of life through the eyes of a 1-year-old child, to whom a gleaming toilet bowl becomes a mysterious monolith.

TV networks tend to go to large animation houses with proven track records to develop Saturday-morning series, which are generally patterned after pre-sold characters from movies, toys or comics. Hearkening back to the early days of animation, however, when such free-spirited cartoonists as Bob Clampett, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones oversaw every aspect of their creative vision, Nickelodeon set out to find frustrated cartoonists swallowed up by the current studio system.

"Our way of operating was to cast a wide net to find producers around the country," said Laybourne, who commissioned eight six-minute pilots at a cost of $100,000 each before selecting three. "We had a theory that there were a lot of animators who had private projects they had been working on in their heads for years, but because the networks are so driven by pre-sold characters there was no outlet."

Laybourne's theory turned out to be correct.

"We formed our company with people who ran screaming from the big studios where they had to continually try to fit the script," said John Kricfalusi, 35, whose boutique company Spumco in Hollywood produces "Ren & Stimpy" for Nickelodeon. "Our whole history of working in animation was taking abominable scripts and trying to turn them into something."

Kricfalusi was animation director for Ralph Bakshi's "The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse," which was a miss with Saturday-morning viewers but admired by animators for its cutting-edge style. Ren and Stimpy were created years ago by Kricfalusi as office doodles.

"I tried to sell Ren and Stimpy to CBS, ABC and NBC," he said. "But I just knew at the regular networks there was no way in the world they would buy my stuff undiluted. So I diluted it. I hid the Ren and Stimpy characters, surrounding them by a bunch of kids in a show called 'Your Gang.' And I made up a bogus pitch about it being socially conscious."

The cartoonist also gave that pitch to animation veteran Vanessa Coffey, whom Nickelodeon hired to develop its new animated lineup. But Coffey didn't like the concept: "I hated the kids. I didn't want to do kids. Everybody on Saturday morning does kids. But I said, how about those two characters Ren and Stimpy?"

"I couldn't believe it," Kricfalusi said. "She saw right through it and got rid of the window dressing."

Jim Jinkins created "Doug" one night six years ago while sitting in his New York loft. "It was an incredibly difficult time when every aspect of my life, personal and business, was kind of falling apart," Jinkins, 38, said. "I noticed after a while some of these cartoons were not just about me, but about people in general and the universal issues of self image and the need to be loved."

Jinkins, who has worked with the Children's Television Workshop, tried to sell "Doug" as a greeting-card line and a children's book, but contracts kept falling through. Then Coffey came across the character. She had a hunch kids would be drawn to "Doug," a bumbling everykid who in the pilot dressed as a slug for a school costume dance. In testing later with 800 boys and girls, 98% reported that they liked "Doug" a lot.

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