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June 24, 2006

And now the truth comes out.

This past week saw an article published at Newsarama about the apparent demise of Cartoon Network’s Krypto the Super Dog, which is the last DC-related property currently airing on the network (the DCAU reruns on Boomerang notwithstanding).  The article had this interesting little tidbit, provided by a “very well-placed,” anonymous source at Warner Bros. Animation (which is odd, considering the long-running rumors that their animation department no longer exists):

[Cartoon Network] wants to focus on their own properties.  […] While I can understand this, I think that Krypto needs saving.  I know it’s not necessarily the most popular show on CN, but it is a WB Animation / DC property, and so saving it could have very positive repercussions on the long-term DC / CN relationship.  We weren’t able to save JLU or Teen Titans because we didn’t know that they were ending until too late.  But if we act now to start a ‘Save Krypto’ letter-writing campaign to the powers-that-be at CN, it might make a huge difference in the future of the show.  Plus it shows CN there is a large fan base for the DC properties on their network, possibly paving the way for a return to CN of several other DC properties.

Okay, first things first:  even if they didn’t know for sure that the series was going to end, they certainly had an idea that there was trouble ahead.  It’s apparent that both Warner Bros. Animation and Cartoon Network are going through a period of corporate maneuvering—the old guard steps down (or is removed), new management comes on board, and the “fresh faces” bring with them their plans for restructuring / rebranding / overhauling their respective company.  These can be blatant changes (Cartoon Network now airs live-action films) to the subtle (the change from the Cartoon Network logo to “CN” is about as transparent as Kentucky Fried Chicken changing its brand name to “KFC”).  In addition, I’ve heard uncorroborated rumors about the restructuring of the animation divisions (see above) as well as public commentary from Toon Zone’s staff (see here and here) about these changes in management and strategy.  Now, I possess no pretension to being “in the know,” but I do know what I can see with my own two eyes, and this is what I’m seeing:  Warner Bros. and Cartoon Network allowed Justice League Unlimited to die a slow death because of issues involving money and corporate executhink.  And, damn it, I really can't argue with their reasoning.

Despite strong ratings, toy sales, and critical acclaim, Justice League Unlimited suffered from programming decisions that some may consider questionable.  Already subjected to a Saturday night time slot, one-time-only airings, and minimal promotion; Season Five made an unusual debut in September 2005 with “I Am Legion” and “Shadow of the Hawk” both premiering on September 17th (at 10:00pm and 10:30pm, respectively) and “Chaos at the Earth’s Core” and “To Another Shore” airing on September 24th (same airtimes as prior).  After that there was nothing for several months until, after some back-and-forth programming, “Flash and Substance” aired on February 11, 2006, and the remaining eight episodes aired back-to-back at 10:30pm the following weeks, with the only major interruption being a month-long Hayao Miyazaki movie marathon.  It was during their October-February hiatus that we began to hear the reports of the series’ cancellation, and Bruce Timm posted this somewhat cryptic comment on the Toon Zone message boards:

I can’t really get into the reasons why Teen Titans and Justice League Unlimited were cancelled—not about to air my dirty laundry here (not that it’s really all that dirty anyway)—[but] it’s not always just about money and ratings.  If it were as simple as that, it’d make total sense, but while economic issues are certainly a part of the story, there are many other factors as well.  It’s a complicated business, and I don’t pretend to understand it fully myself.

I can’t speak of Titans, but JLU’s ratings have been just fine, thank you very much.  ‘I Am Legion’ and ‘Shadow of the Hawk’ were CN’s no. 1 and no. 3 top-rated shows for the week they aired, and with very little promotion.  I haven’t yet seen our more recent numbers, but I’d imagine they’re in roughly the same ballpark.  Toy sales are solid, apparently:  my sources at Mattel tell me there are at least 3 more major waves of new figures due over the next 18 months.  Doesn’t sound like a failing revenue stream to me.

Now, I will point out that this next paragraph is not about Titans or JLU, but in the past I’ve seen networks deliberately sabotage their own top-rated shows, for a variety of seemingly random, petty, or just plain bizarre reasons, and from speaking to friends of mine in both the animation and live-action sides of the business; it’s not at all an uncommon story.  The stuff that goes on behind the scenes is positively surreal at times—and I’ve only experienced a small fraction of it personally—sometimes simple logic and / or common sense just doesn’t enter into it.

That said, I’ve got no beef with CN whatsoever.  Honestly, I’m almost relieved JLU is over (for the moment, anyway).  It was frankly an exhausting to do, hard to write, extremely labor-intensive to produce…this season and the last especially.  With such an action-oriented show, after awhile it becomes really had to keep trying to top yourself, to keep pushing the envelope for hyper-active action sequences, upping the epic scale, etc.  And honestly I’d rather get off-stage while the audience is still having a good time, before the show just starts running in place / jumping the shark / what-have-you.  Since the very beginning, Cartoon Network’s been nothing but great to us overall, gave us almost unlimited creative freedom to do the show the way we wanted to do it, and bottom-line, that’s the most important thing; if they kept moving our time-slot all over the place or didn’t give us as much promotion as some of their own home-grown shows, so what?  Ultimately these shows will live on in DVD and whatever home-video format comes next, and in future syndications, etc.  I’ve actually been spoiled rotten by the experience; I only hope that whatever project I work on next, I’ll have patrons who are half as easy-going and non-meddlesome as the folks at CN have been.

As for the Warner Bros. Animation side, I found this little nugget of information on TitansGo.net; it’s an excerpt from a podcast created by Teen Titans voice actor Wil Wheaton (which can be accessed here; a partial transcript here).  Here he’s speaking, of course, in regards to Teen Titans, but I suspect that JLU could also apply here:

Some new people came into Warner Bros. Feature Animation—new bosses—and as part of their “We’re here, we’re the bosses, get used to it,” they had all of the existing shows come in and re-pitch—the producers and writers had to come in.  It didn’t matter if the show had been on the air for 10 years or 5 years or if it had only run 3 episodes—they had to come back in and re-pitch it.

Now, setting aside the rumors that Warner Bros. Animation and Cartoon Network’s animation studios have merged, it's pretty apparent that, for reasons that are their own, both divisions were not terribly interested in continuing the series.  This could be because Justice League and Unlimited had cumulatively passed the magic syndication number of 52 episodes (the suits treat them as separate shows only when it’s convenient), but it’s more likely that individual issues led them to put the kibosh on future seasons.

For Warner Bros. (and, by extension, DC Comics), who are busy prepping their characters for a variety of projects on the large and small screens, Unlimited poses problems in regards to the rights issues of its enormous supporting cast.  As previously seen with the controversial Bat-Embargo and the loss of Aquaman to the will-it-be-picked-up-or-won't-it Mercy Reef, the screen rights to the characters cannot be easily divided between multiple projects (ironically, the exception appears to be Batman himself, as his presence on Unlimited was necessary for the series’ continuation).  As Paul Dini recounted on his LiveJournal page, “I had heard people were getting more territorial with certain DC characters (no more Joker in JLU, for instance), but I didn’t know the details.  I knew two years ago when I left, that as heroes (and their villains) got snapped up in live movie options, it tended [to limit] their appearances elsewhere.”  In order to facilitate the upcoming crop of DC-related movie and television projects, they needed the rights back to their heavy hitters.

As for Cartoon Network, it largely boils down to money.  In regards to animated television properties, the companies get their money from licensing and marketing, and Cartoon Network gets more money back from their own homegrown shows than they do shows that are from other studios (or utilize characters owned by other companies).  So, even though Cartoon Network and DC Comics are both owned by the same parent company, CN still needs to pay licensing fees to DC to use their characters.  Based on this logic, it should come as no surprise that this Newsarama article came out the same week that it was announced that Cartoon Network had inked a major licensing deal with Mattel designed to capitalize on their original programming.  Based on this activity, it would appear that Cartoon Network is 1) trying to broaden its audience by airing more than animation, and 2) altering its approach by looking to the Nickelodeon model (own all the licensing rights to your shows, market the hell out of them).  Simply put, they’d rather air the show they can make the most money on.

Again, I’m no expert, but these are the answers I came up with.  There was no grand conspiracy to end the series; they did what was best for their companies.  I don't blame them, but it still sucks.  It’s a shame toothis month’s ToyFare magazine (#108) had an article about the show’s cancellation, and Bruce Timm had a few words about what might have been Season Six:

We had talked just briefly about doing 13 more episodes; we had an idea of doing something that would be a season-long journey through time.  It would give us a chance to revisit a bunch of DC heroes from different [time] periods.  We’d go to the far future and see the Atomic Knights, have an adventure with Enemy Ace during World War I, or do something again in the Old West.  And there was also talk of possibly doing a whole season […] in the Batman Beyond universe.

Still, even without Cartoon Network, I guess there’s hope for future material, as there have also been reports this week of future Timm-related projects, which may or may not tie into DCAU continuity.  Whether or not they feature our beloved territory or blaze a new frontier, we’ll be in good hands.  Just keep those Brainiac Attacks people far, far away from them!

***

Otherwise, things are good.  I'm currently working my way through Season Two of Justice League, and because I helped orchestrate the campaign to get that set in widescreen,  I can't help but feel a sense of accomplishment while watching them.  Also, things are in motion here, as I'm currently working on updates to this website, as well as a few related projects that I can't discuss right now.  Be seeing you.

Yours in chaos,

Karkull

 

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Image courtesy of Toon Zone and The World's Finest.

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