They’re Still Tooning In

On the calendar, it’s a Tuesday morning in 2024.  To legions of eagerly anticipating Boomers, Xers and cartoon lovers, it’s a Saturday morning in some year from long ago, where the biggest worry you may have had was whether or not you would find the 3-D card or the toy you had hoped for inside your box of Super Sugar Crisp. THE STREAMABLE’s Ben Bowman explained in a story that dropped shortly after midnight:

Today, MeTV Toons goes live, bringing back the wacky animated shows you may remember from the 60s to the 80s and beyond. Viewers will see classic cartoons from Warner Bros., Hanna-Barbera, Universal Pictures and Fleischer Studios. This means you can kick back with icons like Woody Woodpecker, Bugs Bunny, Popeye, The Flintstones, Scooby-Doo, Speed Racer and more!

TV LINE’s Dave Nemetz provided a bit more background:

The new channel from MeTV parent company Weigel Broadcasting Co., which will be available on over-the-air broadcast television as well as ad-supporting streaming services…”We are honored to work with the amazing team at Warner Bros. Discovery and others on this network and bring together a truly incredible collection of the world’s best known and most loved classic cartoons, creating a new destination for everyone to discover or rediscover the sheer joy of watching cartoons on TV,” Weigel Broadcasting Co. vice-chairman Neal Sabin said in a statement. “MeTV Toons will be dedicated 24/7 to showcasing the biggest names and most beloved classic cartoons and animated characters. Everyone has a favorite cartoon; it is a universally loved art form. We are thrilled to bring those smiles and memories back to TV with MeTV Toons.

I’ve known Sabin for decades as one of the savviest and most passionate programmers anywhere.  He was just beginning his prolific career with an upstart independent in Chicago when I was tasked with trying to keep their more established FOX-owned competitor in line while they were seeking a new general manager.  My station had somehow been talked into overpaying for reruns of ALF, which by the time it was awaiting its off-network launch was already starting to fade from the Roman candle of popularity that it had when it had premiered a few years back on NBC.  It was, sorry, Paul Fusco, the epitome of a fad.  And nowhere was that reality check more evident than in the 5:30 pm weekday time slot in Chicago, where Sabin’s cost-effective upstart tied ALF in the key advertiser demo of adults 18-49 with then 20-year-old reruns of an otherwise forgotten NBC sitcom of many years prior, Diahann Carroll’s JULIA.   Sabin willingly shared with me how much he was paying per day for his rating points.  It was roughly six percent of what my station was paying, and we were giving up a minute of time to Warner Brothers as well.  I’ve admired him ever since.

That same cost-conscious approach has made him an invaluable ally to the company that employed him then and which he now runs, which started up the original MeTV as a “digi-net” in the wake of the creation of broadcast subchannels once traditional signals were silenced.  Critics chided it as a copycat of cable networks such as TV Land and Nick-at-Nite, which utilized older library product and presented it with a fresh promotional spin and a chance for these shows to be seen at times of day that they once were when they occupied prime time slots decades earlier.  But not only did Sabin one-up these efforts by finding shows that even their programmers hadn’t remembered, he knew enough about viewing frequency–or lack thereof–to know he didn’t need to buy a slew of titles, or even every episode produced, over the course of a license period.  If he was going to air LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY just for an hour on weekends, he’d license just two or three seasons’ worth to get to the 104 telecasts over a year, knowing the actual number of people that were watching two or three times a year was minimal, and they were the kind of people that actually loved a show, or TV in general, enough not to mind rewatching them.

And now he’s taking that approach to the expansion of what has aired on MeTV as a weekend daypart for several years, initially merely as a concession to the requirement that broadcast stations needed to offer a certain number of hours of “educational, family-appeal” content each week.  The definition of what is called “E/I” is ambiguous enough where even classic cartoons qualify.  And, frankly, if you’re a fan, you know exactly how much you do learn from these shows.

What you learn most is how these shows connected with generations that are otherwise forgotten these days, even by the studios that own them.  Many of the shows that aired decades ago in weekday syndication have reverted back to rightsholders that had far less interest than the distributors who made deals based on guaranteed percentages of local kids’ advertising.  Shows that Warner Brothers once coveted and aggressively utilized in the original incarnations of Cartoon Network and its digital cable sibling Boomerang have lapsed into irrelevance in the Zaslav era.

And if Sabin’s sechel wasn’t enough, he’s got some formidable help with this effort.  As the corporate press release touted:

Joining MeTV Toons to share their years of animation expertise and enthusiasm are noted animation author, historian, and executive Jerry Beck, and character voice actor Bob Bergen. Jerry Beck is well known for his numerous insightful and entertaining books on American animation and classic characters, including The 50 Greatest Cartoons, The Hanna-Barbera Treasury, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A Complete Illustrated Guide to Warner Bros. Cartoons and many other works. For MeTV Toons he will help produce original content that will expand and enhance the viewing experience. Four-time Emmy nominee Bob Bergen is a multi-talented voice actor and host, well known for voicing Warner Bros. characters Porky Pig, Tweety, Marvin the Martian and many others. For MeTV Toons he will be the signature voice of the network, bringing the MeTV Toons brand and viewing experience to life with his announcing and acting prowess. Both Jerry and Bob are respected ambassadors for classic animation. Their talents will help make MeTV Toons a unique world-class destination for animation fans.

Beck describes the gifts he’s curated for his fans with the glee of a child who once woke up before his parents on Saturday mornings, more than likely with a bowl of something like Super Sugar Crisp, to watch every possible minute of:

Let’s go over what I can tell you: Number one – this is not another “Boomerang”. As best I can describe it – think 1992 Cartoon Network – TIMES 100. On steroids. Available for free. Everywhere. 

In addition to the entire Warner Bros. library of animated shorts, series and features (which you all know: Looney Tunes, Popeye, MGM, Tex Avery. etc), we’ll be mining the vaults at Sony (Columbia, UPA), Universal (Lantz, Harveytoons, Underdog, etc) and other major studios… We will also be resurrecting classic TV shows unavailable (in some cases) for over 50 years. Tip of the iceberg. Rocky and Bullwinkle, Speed Racer… stuff I can’t tell you about yet because we want to surprise you throughout the first year.

There are NO PLANS for this channel to ever produce new animation (as Cartoon Network did). This is a Classic Cartoon channel devoted to the history of animation.

And lest you think this is merely one obsessive fan’s playground, take a good look sometime at the kind of audience shows like M*A*S*H and THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW pull down on the MeTV mothership.   Hundreds of thousands of viewers per night, often more than they had delivered even when they were more prominently featured on cable.  Cartoon Network originals of this era have a certain appeal to a younger, anime-centric male audience, but similar efforts from even a decade ago didn’t age well.  And the ones they launched with have essentially been orphaned–they don’t even have a significant presence on MAX.

The initial distribution of MeTV Toons will be more limited than the progenitor, and it is admittedly appealing to a subset of that audience at most.  But it’s readily available, for free, to a universe that’s as cost-conscious and selective as consumers as Sabin is professionally.  They may not be the coolest or youngest kids on the block.  But they’re out there.  They’re looking for something they like.  And in times like this, who couldn’t benefit from something as escapist and reassuring as a slate of shows like these?

Incidentally, included in that list are two animated spin-offs of ALF.  I know darn well Sabin paid a lot less than my onetime colleague did.  And maybe he’ll find a way to make it work this time around.

Until next time…

 

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