The arrival of "Fish Police" on CBS tonight brings to three the number of cartoon series now running on the major networks in prime time--joining Fox's "The Simpsons" and ABC's month-old "Capitol Critters."
But if these new shows don't produce big ratings, there may not be any more for a long time.
The exacting process of animation, often requiring a year to turn a script into an episode, does not mesh with the overnight delivery demanded by network television.
"Animation is a very expensive form, and it's difficult to produce because it requires a lot of lead time," said Perry Simon, executive vice president of prime-time programs for NBC, the only network without an animated series on the air or in the works. "I think that in the event all the post-'Simpsons' animated shows fail, you will find a period where networks will tend to shy away from them."
"Capitol Critters," about rodents beneath the White House, already is in trouble, having premiered in January to weak reviews and weaker ratings. It finished 70th out of 76 network series in its last airing two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, another animated series, CBS' "The Family Dog," from filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton, was sent to a Canadian animation house for fixes eight months ago after a complete production breakdown, and will not air until next year.
"You hate to lump anything together in a genre and say, 'The genre will be dead,' but the very difficult logistics involved in getting animation to prime time should be a factor in deciding whether these shows can be a regular part of the prime-time schedule in the future," said Ted Harbert, executive vice president of prime time for ABC.
"I'm sure that's how they see it: 'Well, we tried an animated series last year and it didn't work.' Oh really? " responded Leonard Maltin, author of "Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons." " Why didn't it work? Was it good or bad? Each show has to be judged on its own merit, whether it's animated or live action. Where would the networks be if they condemned all sitcoms on the basis of one bad sitcom?"
But the two forms are different, network executives argue.
"Animation requires a tremendous leap of faith and commitment, because from the time you commit to a project to the day you get it on the air is fairly significant," said Peter Tortorici, senior vice president of programming for CBS. "And to make basic changes, which is a very kinetic part of regular series programming, is hard to do.
"With all of that, we still want to try to do things that visually and in many other ways offer distinct viewing options for people. So most of us in some form or fashion have tried that."
David Kirschner, president of Hanna-Barbera Productions, which developed "Fish Police" from a British comic book, recalled pitching the series to CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky last year.
"What happened as we presented the series to him," Kirschner said, "he's laughing and hitting his knee, and he said, 'Just do it! Just do it! How fast can you have a script?' We turned it around very quickly and brought it back, and he said, 'How fast can you have a pilot?' I explained the process to him, which I've done almost every week since. Every time we have to go through it again."
CBS ordered only six episodes of "Fish Police" and may have problems if the series becomes a hit, given that new episodes take so long to produce. "The Simpsons" was caught off guard by sudden success and did not have new episodes ready in time for the start of its second season on Fox. Just in case, Sagansky has given Hanna-Barbera money to get a head start on scripts and storyboards for future episodes.
"We have 'Fish Police' this month and 'Family Dog' next year," Tortorici said. "If we get something out of them, we'll stay involved in animation. If not, then our participation in animation will be sparing, not only because it's expensive, but it's so risky."