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WB Raises the Animation Ante

October 22, 1995|N.F. MENDOZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Armed with a plan as clever as any designed by wisecrackin' Bugs Bunny, Kids' WB! hopes to draw in the kiddie audience from the big boy networks. It has called in a loan, scooped into the vault, brought a video-game insect to life and created shows with the biggest name in Hollywood.

The current lineup on the WB Network features "Animaniacs," late of Fox's Kids Network, and its spinoff "Pinky & the Brain"; "The Sylvester & Tweety Mysteries," a new take on the Warner Bros. standards, and the wily, if gross, "Earthworm Jim," which crawled to the top of video-game charts. Certainly the shiniest stars on the schedule are the three shows bearing industry powerhouse Steven Spielberg's name--"Animaniacs," "Pinky & the Brain" and "Freakazoid." Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment co-produces the shows with Warner Bros. Animation.

Kids' WB! executives are as enthusiastic about wooing kid audiences as the exclamation point at the end of the fledgling program label's name.

The top priority for Kids' WB!, which premiered in September, was to let audiences accustomed to tuning into Fox for daily doses of "Animaniacs" and "Pinky & the Brain" "know the shows are now coming home to Kids' WB!" says WB Network head Jamie Kellner, who's been with WB since its 1993 inception.

"People think networks produce shows and networks seem to take creative credit, when in fact, studios are the producers. Now people know who should take the bow, and that's Warner Bros. Studios Animation."

Since its 1993 premiere, "Animaniacs" aired on Fox--then it slipped through the cracks.

"Fox had an option they couldn't deliver on," explains Kellner, president of Fox Broadcasting from its 1986 start until he joined WB. "Fox made too many commitments to too many buyers and ran out of time periods."

Basically, Kellner says, part of Fox's contractual agreement with Warners was that "Animaniacs" run in a certain time slot. Apparently Fox promised that slot to someone else, he says. Warners exercised its option and took back its popular show. "I think it was an error they not maintain that prime position," Kellner says.

Representatives at Fox's Kids Network declined to comment.

Fox's loss became WB's gain. Kids' WB! features time slots for both old and new episodes of "Animaniacs" and "Pinky & the Brain." The comic adventures of two ambitious lab mice appears not only on Kids' WB! but introduces the WB Network's Sunday prime-time lineup.

Warner Bros. Animation saw great success with its first Spielberg collaboration, "Tiny Toons," which debuted on Fox in 1990. It offered more contemporary versions of its classic characters, with Babs and Buster Bunny, Plucky Duck and Hamton the Pig owing more than a little to Bugs, Daffy and Porky.

"Vintage" Warners 'toons--Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies--air weekdays on Kids' WB! With a nod to the classics, "The Sylvester & Tweety Mysteries" offer the first new Sylvester & Tweety 'toons made in 30 years.

The kids network also dug up Earthworm Jim, a once spineless creature who now dons a supersuit. The only non-Warners animation show on Kids' WB!, "Earthworm Jim" arrives courtesy of Universal Cartoon Studios in association with Shiny Entertainment.

There's no denying that much of the potential of Kids' WB! comes from shows featuring "Steven Spielberg Presents" in their titles. Spielberg's first association with Warner Bros. Animation came with "Tiny Toons." After 105 episodes, "Tiny Toons" stopped production. In repeats now on Nickelodeon, the series soon will be on WB!, notes Jean MacCurdy, head of WB Television Animation and Kids' WB!

In 1993, the popular "Animaniacs" followed "Tiny Toons" and its 1992 spinoff, "The Plucky Duck Show." "Steven's amazingly involved, given all he does," says MacCurdy, who's been with Warners Animation since 1979.

Spielberg's latest, "Freakazoid," features a teen who's also--surprise--a super-hero. "It was a very tough show," explains MacCurdy. Originally conceived as a drama, it worked when it became a comedy, she says. "It's great, but I don't know if we'll ever do it again."

Kids' WB! might not work with Spielberg in the near future, according to MacCurdy. When asked if Spielberg will develop an annual animated show, MacCurdy laughs loudly and says, "Not with me or with us! I think Steven's in the process of getting DreamWorks animation up and running."

Offers Kellner: "We'd love to work with Steven in the future, but we have a lot of talented people. If he wants to, he can. Where he'll do animation is a bit confused considering all the mergers."

Warner Bros. Animation shows are on other networks also, including ABC, Nickelodeon and Fox (which still has Warner Bros. "Batman" and "Taz-Mania"). The studio also makes theatrical shorts, such as the recent "Chariots of Fur" and "Carrotblanca."

For now, Kellner dismisses Kids' WB!'s low ratings. "It's way too early," he offers, citing low affiliate numbers. While numbers grow weekly, Kids' WB! has only 92 affiliates, compared to 208 for CBS and 173 for Fox.

"I believe that in the next five years we can become the leader in children's programming," Kellner says. "And that's our goal in terms of quality and viewership level."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

CARTOON CALENDAR

Weekends on WB/KTLA

"Vintage" Animaniacs: Saturdays 8 a.m.

The Sylvester & Tweety Mysteries: Saturdays 8:30 a.m.

Steven Spielberg Presents Animaniacs: Saturdays 9 a.m.

Steven Spielberg Presents Pinky & The Brain: Saturdays 9:30 a.m. and Sundays 7 p.m.

Steven Spielberg Presents Freakazoid: Saturdays 10 a.m.

Earthworm Jim: Saturdays 10:30 a.m.

(The shows air on WGN on Sundays between 5 and 9 a.m.)

****

Weekdays on WB/KTLA

That's Warner Bros.! Classic Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies: 3 p.m. (1 p.m. WGN)

"Vintage" Animaniacs: 3:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m. WGN)

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