September 27, 2006
In 2004, the Ottawa International Animation Festival introduced the Television Animation Conference (TAC)—a more business-oriented subsection of the festival that mostly attracts producers, broadcasters and distributors of televised animation. It can be a good antidote to the popular image of executive types—the "suits"—as clueless, non-creative obstacles to good animation. It can also make you want to scream with frustration.
This year, one of those suits was Michael Ouweleen, senior vice president of programming and development for Cartoon Network and co-creator of Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law. In his keynote address—one of the best I've ever sat through—he took a critical look at the forces that are on the lips of everyone who works anywhere near the entertainment industry these days: mobile devices, the Internet, niche marketing and the Long Tail—all things that can and do prompt people to wild enthusiasm or trembling fear. In the case of television, the two thoughts are that these four things will ultimately kill television, or that their effects are negligible.
Ouweleeen's take mirrors mine, that the truth probably lies somewhere in between. In the end, his conclusion was that these forces have started an evolution in television, one that will ultimately benefit us by providing more choices in terms of animation styles and subject matter on the tube. His message to the audience was that TV is far from dead, but if the people in the room wanted to be part of TV's future, they'd have to expand their notions of what they produce and how.
During a later panel discussion called "Not Just for Kids: The Animation Audience," he made an important but rarely stated observation that the broadcast market is driven by advertising not just in terms of finances, but in terms of content. This doesn't mean that advertisers explicitly tell broadcasters which shows to air or what should be in them, but that the advertising model by its very nature constrains what can be made. Advertisers break things down to demographics by sex, purchasing power, and especially age. The thing is, as Ouweleen pointed out, the age breakdowns (like 18-34, 6-11, etc.) were devised by Neilsen in the 1930s, and are utterly meaningless now. He made an example of the 18-34 demo; how much does your average 18-year-old have in commong with your average 34-year-old, really? The upshot is that when you try to make a show to appeal to a certain age range as opposed to for a certain interest or theme, you end up with TV that's bland and scattershot most of the time. Again: it's past time to expand notions of what shows can be made and how.
Also on hand was Fred Seibert of Frederator Studios, who I'd have a hard time calling a suit (I'd say the same about Ouweleen, who looked most at ease in his t-shirt and green-and-black beanie, but he actually wore a suit during the keynote). During the "Cartoons on the Go: Tomorrow’s Media Landscape" panel, he also dispensed funny, easygoing, seemingly common-sense advice that has worked well for him. In a nutshell: Give people what they want, and the money will eventually follow. You may lose money while still searching for a business model or by making mistakes, but when you give people what they want, it pays off in the end. Both Seibert and Ouweleen's perspectives, which are both truly viewer-centric, complement each other nicely, and the fact that both have been successful lends them some weight. And expressing those views in a room full of suits is both encouraging and welcome.