For years, the system in animation remained the same. The production season for Saturday morning cartoons started in the spring as the orders for new episodes came from the three major networks, NBC, ABC and CBS. Animation artists busted their butts through the summer months and into the fall. As production would wind down, the seasonal layoffs came. By the end of the year, all was silent at the studios as the animation talent struggled through the winter, living off of unemployment, doing odd jobs and waiting for the spring start up.
Some of the artists stayed on during the lull. They were the cream of the crop. Character designers with illustrative abilities who were busy producing presentation artwork to pitch to the networks for the following season of cartoons. One of the few places of year round employment in town was Walt Disney Features which didn't pay as well as the animation studios producing for television did. Their logic was that since the artists were employed full time, they didn't have to offer salaries that were as high. The trade off came in the form of job security. The logic being that an artist's annual salary would measure out against his or her counterpart in television.
By 1979, the system was changing. Studios were sending production work out of town and overseas to Asian animation studios. The animation union, Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Local 839, IATSE, challenged the studio heads and went on strike. The Union won the strike and successfully kept "runaway" animation television production in Los Angeles. But by the time the contract expired in 1982, the executives were prepared. They had studios set up in counties outside of the Union's jurisdiction, in states outside of California and in Asia. Although the union put a positive spin on the outcome, in reality it suffered an embarrassing defeat.
By late in 1982, the American animation industry was in sorry shape. Most studios were empty. There was widespread unemployment. At Filmation Studios, (a major employer in the industry and the studio that produced "Fat Albert", "Blackstar", "The Archies" and "Star Trek" to name a few), more than two thirds of the work force was laid off. The networks passed on everything the studio had to offer except 7 episodes for the second season of "Gilligan's Planet". What saved it was the development of a new animation format and a new approach to the underwriting of an animated series.
In 1982, animation took a turn that would forever change the face of the industry. First run syndication.
Before the strike of '82, the market for television animation was strictly Saturday morning with the exception of a Christmas special here and there. The era of the prime time series of the late 1950s and early 1960s was long gone. What happened that was so significant in the regrouping and expansion of the industry was the emergence of animation broadcast on weekday afternoons. Mattel Toys, prompted by the success of their "He-Man" line of action figures and by a fully animated 30 second commercial which Filmation produced for them, decided to fund the production of 65 half hour episodes of a series based on their toy line. The new format allowed the show to be broadcast every Monday through Friday, on independent television stations nationwide after school for 13 weeks, instead of Saturday mornings for the same duration.
The new format allowed Filmation to wrestle control of its destiny from the whim of any particular network executive. The trouble was that one breed of executive was replaced by another.
Charles Zembillas © 1999
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