MAJOR TOON UP

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The Aqua Teens discover a monster named Willie Nelson living in their attic. But it's kind of a lame, slacker monster, only slightly miffed that the Aqua Teens have been tossing his mail. It's Halloween so they try to help him be scarier, in vain. Dejected, Willie goes back upstairs to get some juice and go to bed. Upstairs, it turns out, is filled with stacks of body parts, from which he extracts his juice. Smash cut to the end credits.

This encapsulates a single 11-minute episode of one of today's television's funnier shows, believe it or not. Just telling you the plotline illustrates just how hard it is to put across the astonishing appeal of the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming block. It's that you have to be there to get it kind of humor. Now, as the networks' annual rollout of more quip-ridden sitcoms and vacuous reality shows spurs more young adults to flip around, more and more are ending up there. Adult Swim, a six-night-a-week after-hours mini network, cobbled of rescued network 'toons, a raft of bizarro, Dadaist originals and a well-worn traffic pattern across the fourth wall, has blossomed as more than a mere bellwether for the attentions of inattentive young men. It's also created the kind of ongoing dialogue with viewers that advertisers have been craving from more mainstream media.

Adult Swim has done everything that exponentially better funded network enterprises have strategized, researched and buzz-phrased over to win back viewers and sate sponsors in recent years. The difference is that Time Warner's Cartoon Network has done it without the strategizing, the hyped research and buzz-phrases. Instead, they've in essence loosed a skunkworks of creative yahoos at their Williams Street Studios to program the block free of linear structure and full of absurdism and stream-of-consciousness riffs, creating a kids club for an adult market long inured to anything mainstream.

It's hard to condense into single linear thought just what these shows are about, and that's the very thing that's driving their appeal, says David Morrison, president of TwentySomething Inc., a Radnor, Pa., research firm specializing in this demographic.

A little less than a year ago, broadcast network honchos blasted Nielsen Media Research for calling attention to the disappearance of young males from network viewership audits. A gradual trickling back of numbers in ensuing quarters prompted network execs to beat their told you so drums, implying that Nielsen tinkered with methodologies to get numbers back up to snuff. However, on broadcast networks, 18- to 24-year-olds were down 9 percent for the entire season, even as ratings for men 18 to 34 on cable rose 14 percent, according to a recent report by Interpublic's media research firm Magna Global. What's more, precious little in this premiere season suggests the networks will be able to stanch the erosion of viewership to younger, brassier media channels.

Over the air TV's programming efforts, as it turns out, played a large part in bolstering Adult Swim to phenomenon status. As of January 2003, Adult Swim expanded from one small corner of Cartoon Network's lineup, late Sunday nights, to a strip extending Saturday through Thursday, 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. Anchoring its Monday-Thursday 11 p.m. to midnight slot were two Fox rejects, Family Guy and Simpsons creator Matt Groening's second TV entry Futurama. Both animated series succumbed to broadcast oblivion after only a few seasons where they languished in schedule slots that didn't help them find their viewerships. Adult Swim established a regular cultural space where both critically lauded, censor-challenging and lushly animated shows could find an audience and develop loyal followings.

By May, something incredible had happened. These toons not only grew Cartoon Network's audience by triple digits, they beat out late night old-schoolers Leno and Letterman for draws of 18- to 24-year-olds. Head-to-head, Family Guy topped NBC's Tonight Show of overall adults 18 to 24 by 11 percent (384,000 vs. 347,000), and CBS's Late Show 127 percent (384,000 vs. 169,000). By summer 2003, Adult Swim could boast top numbers on cable TV for delivery of men ages 18 to 34 in its time slot, a trend that would continue in increments month to month. As of this past July, Family Guy retained that No. 1 slot among adults ages 18 to 34 (up 31 percent), adults ages 18 to 24 (up 42 percent), men ages 18 to 34 (up 9 percent) and men ages 18 to 24 (up 33 percent). Further, the Adult Swim run of Family Guy propelled the series' April 2003 DVD release to upward of a million unit sales, the fourth highest sales for a collected TV series in history of the medium, prompting Fox, in an unprecedented move, to commission new episodes, scheduled to debut this January.

[Adult Swim] really grew up when we acquired Futurama and Family Guy, says Kim McQuilken, executive vice president of sales at Cartoon Network, in the Turner TV unit of Time Warner. Sunday nights got us to where we could expand programming budgets [to acquire the not inexpensive former Fox shows], but that provided a jump-start of awareness for the block.

New viewers quickly clued in to the clubby aura of Adult Swim. Between-show bumpers, white copy over plain black screens, published abstract e-mails to adultswim.com with goofy, oft non sequiturs as responses. Promos as funny as the shows lure viewers to the Sunday night originals, proffering such offbeat concepts as:

  • Aqua Teen Hunger Force, an anthropomorphic Happy Meal including a cretinous, nihilistic milkshake whose arbitrary adventures involve time warps in and around their New Jersey house, occasionally killing or maiming their neighbor Carl, and really lame villains who sometimes end up as really bad roommates

  • Sealab 2021, an update of a categorically awful Hanna-Barbera '70s cartoon, reviving its cast of lily-white undersea do-gooders as variously narcissistic, drug-addicted, power-mad and sex-crazed idiots. Also, every episode ends as the facility explodes.

  • Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, a twist on perhaps the lamest toon in Hanna-Barbera history, as a defense counsel to various other characters from Hanna-Barbera's voluminously lame catalog (Fred Flintstone as Tony Soprano, a giggling Scooby and Shaggy busted for possession), and that often only as a B-story to his miserable travails at the office.

  • Venture Brothers, a Jonny Quest take-off featuring two mentally challenged teen sleuths, their sociopathic bodyguard and an ambivalent arch-nemesis with a Freudian checklist of emotional issues.

Again, none of these scenarios begins to approximate the post-structural comedy of these Williams Street originals, most done with barbaric animation over stories scarcely written to make sense. Advertisers, if they spent at the top level, could even get their brands into original themed promo spots with Adult Swim characters, a unique twist on the old live commercials of the early days of TV.

One shows Sealab's lone sane character, Dr. Quinn, using 1-800-Call-ATT to try to prevent Capt. Murphy from blowing up the base yet again; he gets through but Murphy hits the destruct button anyway. A tie-in spot with longtime sponsor Nintendo smashes the fourth wall, showing MC Chris, an animator who's also become a cult favorite, as a guest voice on various shows, wandering through Williams Street and finding all his co-workers zombified, playing the new GameBoy Advance unit. The title card thanks the punks at Nintendo like we'll get any work done now.

The technique creates a fundamental empathy among viewers playing video games as much as they're Web surfing or flipping channels. It's not that they're not watching TV, they're just not doing it in the standard patterns conventional programmers want them to, in the latter's more lucrative prime-time hours.

Reality TV has taken over the set, and these guys are frustrated by all the retreads and copycats, says Robert Matthews, Nintendo's senior director of consumer marketing. They want to watch things like Adult Swim that keep them off their guard. It's non-linear, they don't know what to expect, but that's good, that's what keeps them coming back. That's a tremendous point of difference these days in a market where, on most every network, you know exactly what you're going to get.

The brilliance of Adult Swim is they can push the envelope of absurdity as far as they want, and they're still miles away from touching any mainstream nerves, TwentySomething's Morrison says.

As with The Simpsons and Comedy Central's South Park, Adult Swim has not just made anomalous hits with its toons; rather, it's freed its creators to make toons a new gold standard for the entire medium. Where that happens, viewers increasingly have to be there, and where they go, ad dollars follow.

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