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Hanna-Barbera Cartoons Inc., founded by the animation team of Joseph Barbera and William Hanna in 1957, rose to prominence as the first successful producers of cartoons for television. They are perhaps best known for developing a formula for inexpensively-made cartoons, which relied on characterization and topical, verbal humor, rather than fully animated action, as had been common among cartoons produced for theatrical release. By the mid-1960s the company had achieved a string of successes including producing the first animated series to appear on prime-time television, The Flintstones. Their success in the 1960s led to a formula of mass production in the 1970s which, according to some critics, stressed quantity over quality. During the 1980s the company began a global expansion of its operations, moving much of its animation division to Asia and creating a complex international distribution network. Struggling to regain its once enviable position in the industry, Hanna-Barbera was sold to Great American Broadcasting in 1987, and subsequently purchased by Turner Broadcasting in 1991 for $320 million. With annual revenues at about $100 million, largely resulting from increasingly lucrative licensing deals rather than direct sales of its productions, the subsidiary was a safe investment for Turner Broadcasting, which later merged with Time-Warner Inc. With the production company and distribution network came a library of Hanna-Barbera shorts and series, approximately 3,000 half hours of cartoons, which were much appreciated in filling time slots on the 24-hour cartoon network started by Turner in 1992.
Company Origins in the 1950s
From the beginning of their careers as animators at MGM studios in the 1940s, Joseph Barbera and William Hanna set out to unseat Walt Disney as the premiere producer of cartoons and children's entertainment. In fact, the pair did manage to upstage Mickey Mouse with the creation of the cat and mouse cartoon characters, Tom and Jerry, in 1940. These short subject Tom and Jerry cartoons were to be nominated for 14 Academy Awards and would win seven Oscars, the first such achievement by a company other than Disney. Joe Barbera modeled Tom and Jerry cartoons on the chase scenes featured in the great silent films of Charles Chaplin and the Keystone Cops. The simple formula of Tom and Jerry was succeeded by greater animation challenges, such as the combination of live-action and animation pioneered by Hanna and Barbera in collaboration with dancer Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh in 1945 and again with swimming star Esther Williams in the 1952 MGM musical Dangerous When Wet.
Despite the success of Hanna's directing and Barbera's writing, MGM management dropped its animation division during the 1950s, citing the rising cost of quality animation and a general malaise in its big studio system. In 1957 Hanna and Barbera no longer had jobs at MGM, so they started their own production company and turned to television, the very instrument that had accounted for the fall of the Hollywood studio system.
Hanna and Barbera were able to staff their new company easily enough since the entire animation division of MGM, with whom they were familiar, were all out of work together. The team had already had some contact with television when they produced advertisements for the popular I Love Lucy show, promos that had to be produced anonymously so that the MGM executives would not know that Hanna and Barbera were responsible. Once MGM let them go, however, the team moved wholeheartedly to the television market. They quickly learned that the method of production they had used at MGM would not be possible with the greatly diminished budgets available to them on television. While Hanna and Barbera had been making Tom and Jerry shorts for $40,000 to $60,000, Screen Gems offered them only $2,700 for five minutes of cartoon time. In order to make a profit they had to rethink their whole approach to cartoons.
Hanna and Barbera turned away from the visual, energetic approach they had used at MGM and focused instead on story and dialogue. The key aspect of creating cheaper cartoons was to limit the number of drawings required. The men adapted a tool they had developed while at MGM in which they produced a test cartoon with approximately one-tenth the number of drawings than the finished product would have. They would use this test to adapt and refine the timing of the film so as not to waste drawings. They realized that they could adapt this process and produce a saleable product based on this limited animation technique.
The limited animation approach was only half of the solution, however. With a lower quality of visual product the audience interest had to be sustained through dialogue. Joe Barbera realized that a team of talented, reliable actors would have to be assembled because the visually restricted cartoons would depend on effective voices for their success. Actors Daws Butler and Don Messick were hired in 1957 as the voices of the Ruff and Ready characters, and the two men would be heard behind Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters for the next three decades. Ruff and Ready debuted on NBC in 1957 and one year later Hanna-Barbera introduced The Huckleberry Hound Show, representing the company's first big hit and introducing the enduring character Yogi Bear, who was to have his own show one year later. Once the company had perfected its production technique of limited animation and high quality scripting and voicing, it proceeded to produce shows quickly while developing and selling new shows at the same time.
Success in the 1960s
In 1959 Huckleberry Hound became the first animated television production to win an Emmy Award for children's programming. According to Joseph Barbera, the Emmy represented something more to the animation team than had the seven Oscars won by Tom and Jerry in that Hanna and Barbera were now the producers of their works and collected the awards as pioneers in a new medium. Where Disney had turned up its nose at the budgets available in television, which permitted only $30 per foot of film rather than the $200 per foot to which movie animators were accustomed, Hanna-Barbera saw a niche where it could outflank Disney.
In 1960 Hanna-Barbera launched the first half-hour cartoon show to air during primetime. The concept was to put an animated, half-hour situation comedy series in the same time slot normally occupied by live action shows. Popular sit-com writers were hired to draft the scripts in conjunction with writers, such as Barbera himself, who understood how to make cartoons work. The Flintstones was to become the company's greatest success, having a six-year run followed by many more years in syndication. The "modern stone-age family" remained the most enduring image of Hanna and Barbera's partnership, eclipsing even that of Tom and Jerry. Almost immediately, the company followed its television success with marketing schemes. The images of their fresh, popular characters were sold to toy manufacturers and were used in product promotions, recordings, Hanna-Barbera's own version of Disneyland called Jelleystone Park in Hew Hampshire, and were even reproduced as Flintstones chewable vitamins.
Hanna and Barbera won yet another Emmy award for Jack and the Beanstalk, a collaboration with dancer Gene Kelly that continued the experiment they had begun with fusing animation and live action in Anchors Aweigh while still at MGM. In fact, Hanna-Barbera's success with Jack and the Beanstalk was in part responsible for the company's acquisition by Taft Broadcasting in 1967; Taft hoped to turn the kings of television animation into successful feature film producers. Even under the Taft Broadcasting umbrella, Hanna-Barbera maintained much the same corporate structure as it had forged during its first ten years of operations, with Hanna and Barbera named co-presidents and co-directors.
Despite its success on television and with the licensing of its characters for products and advertising, Hanna-Barbera remained tiny in comparison to Disney, with only approximately $10 million in sales for 1970. The Taft Corporation was betting that with additional capital Hanna-Barbera could grow into the Disney competitor that it had always hoped to be. In the mid-1960s, Hanna-Barbera produced the feature films Hey There It's Yogi Bear and A Man Called Flintstone, capitalizing on the company's first television successes. In 1972 it produced a more ambitious, critically acclaimed film, Charlotte's Web, based on the popular children's novel by E.B.White. Still, the company's feature films for theatrical release never achieved the same success as its television offerings.
Decline in the 1970s and 1980s
By 1970 Hanna-Barbera stood virtually unchallenged in television cartoons. The company had secured the top three Saturday morning Nielsen ratings and controlled 80 percent of children's television programming. Moreover, as an independent company, it was free to sell its shows to the highest bidding network. But this position was to erode for several reasons as the 1970s progressed. First, Hanna-Barbera was itself partly responsible for allowing cartoon quality to suffer. Limited animation began to look simply cheap to an increasingly sophisticated audience for cartoons. Moreover, competition also increased during the 1970s, with old theatrical cartoons finding a new home on Saturday mornings and with the attraction of imaginative techniques used by a new breed of animators who were more in touch with the young audience of the late 1970s.
In the 1980s founders Hanna and Barbera, both now in their seventies, remained the driving force behind the company. By the end of the decade the company was earning $60 million a year mostly on the strength of increasingly aggressive licensing deals. But, with the notable exception of The Smurfs, a widely popular cartoon show that inspired a cottage industry of toys and collectibles, Hanna-Barbera was lagging in the development of new successful shows and characters, and the company's share of the children's television market dwindled to 20 percent.
Acquisition by Taft and Turner in the late 1980s-90s
In 1987, the Great American Communications Group bought Hanna-Barbera, hiring 35 year-old David Kirschner as CEO and president of its new subsidiary. Great American president Carl Lindner took a great risk with Kirschner, who had little executive experience and had only produced two films, but after a decade in which it appeared that Hanna and Barbera had run out of ideas, youth seemed to be the remedy.
Kirschner's approach to Hanna-Barbera was to soft peddle any of its stock characters that he considered too dated, and hence unmarketable for licensing purposes, and to rejuvenate some of the older characters with new production values. In 1990 the company launched the animated feature Jetsons: The Movie, a project that had been under development before the Kirschner's hiring and one that marked the last time Hanna and Barbera would work together as director and producer. Unfortunately, the film failed to gain a significant audience. And as a result of poor response to the marketing scheme planned to coincide with Jetsons, Kirschner attempted to stop production on a feature-length Tom and Jerry film that Joe Barbera had been working on, creating conflict between the new CEO and the company founders. In spite of Kirschner's reluctance about the project, the Tom and Jerry feature was eventually completed and released in 1992, sparking a rejuvenated interest in the animation team's original success story.
Also under Kirschner, Hanna-Barbera took a bold new approach to combining product marketing and entertainment production with the launching of Wake, Rattle & Roll, a non-animated variety show for kids that aired during Hanna-Barbera's traditional Saturday morning time slot. Following the success of Wake, Rattle & Roll, Kirschner brought Hanna-Barbera into other non-animated projects, most notably a live-action feature film based on The Flintstones, starring John Goodman as Fred Flintstone and Rick Moranis as Barney Rubble and produced by Steven Spielberg.
But Kirschner's strategy of updating the stock of characters had its flaws. By replacing Fred Flintstone's image with that of a living actor, the sale of licensed products from the film were tied directly to the success of the film rather than capitalizing on the long-time recognition of the cartoon character. If the film failed, then products that sported Goodman's portrayal of Fred Flintstone would fail to sell, while the market for products with Fred's old familiar cartoon face would be overshadowed by the unwanted new look. Although the new live-action Flintstones movie earned $37 million in its first weekend at the box office, the marketing scheme was a major disappointment due largely to the competing images of Goodman's likeness and the traditional Flintstones characters.
In 1991 Turner Broadcasting System bought Hanna-Barbera for $320 million. Fred Siebert was appointed president of the company while Scott Sassa, president of Turner Broadcasting's entertainment division, influenced long-term strategy. Turner was not drawn to the company for its new look Flintstones or even its healthy licensing deals, however. The main incentive to Turner was the Hanna-Barbera library of cartoons. Turner launched an all-cartoon cable network, the Cartoon Network, in 1992 and needed as much of the existing established cartoon library as could be assembled. The purchase of Hanna-Barbera gave the new network 3,000 half-hours of cartoons, approximately one-third of existing cartoons, which could then be combined with the already acquired 800 half-hours from the MGM library. The Hanna-Barbera stock of characters were clearly viewed as marketable brands by Sassa and Turner, and many industry analysts expected them to sell off the animation studio. However, company president Fred Siebert was determined to revive the creative animation that had marked the early days of the company.
Under Siebert, Hanna-Barbera shifted its approach to marketing, carrying out aggressive market research prior to new creative projects or marketing schemes. The company also placed more emphasis on its international market during the 1990s, having already shifted much of its production to Asia and believing that the Hanna-Barbera stock of characters and overall style of production translated more easily to foreign cultures than did that of its American competitors. Along with international expansion, Hanna-Barbera prepared for the future with high-tech extensions of its family of characters such as a CD ROM documentary about dinosaurs narrated by Fred Flintstone.
In spite of Siebert's conviction that Hanna-Barbera's reign over the animation world could be revived, Turner's 1996 merger with Time-Warner Inc. seemed to cast doubt on the future of the company as a producer of important new creative projects. One of Time-Warner's first acts on assuming control of the company was to close down the 30-year-old studio that Hanna-Barbera had built in the early 1960s and where many of the company's greatest hits had been conceived. The company was moved to a high-rise office complex already occupied by Warner Brothers Television Animation. Renamed Hanna-Barbera Cartoons Inc., the company was to function as an independent division of its giant parent while sharing some services with Warner Brothers Animation. It remained unclear whether this physical merger was a sign of the Hanna-Barbera's future role as merely one brand in a giant corporation or if the creative spark generated by the company's founders could be maintained.