The debut of Cartoon Network’s newest ongoing series, “Unnatural History” on Sunday night, marks a turning point in the cable channel’s 18-year history.
The show is the first of its kind for the network, an original live-action scripted series. It centers on teenager Henry Griffin, who’s sort of like a Young Indiana Jones by way of “Freaks and Geeks.” Raised around the world by his explorer parents, Henry experiences culture shock when he’s sent to live with his uncle in Washington, D.C., and enrolled in a special high school located on the grounds of the Natural History Museum.
The show’s pulp adventure premise puts Henry (Kevin Schmidt), his cousin Jasper (Jordan Gavaris) and pal Maggie (Italia Ricci) in the middle of all sorts of mysterious capers. But while Henry can chuck a spear, climb up the side of a building and identify rare poisons, he has no clue how to navigate the locker room jungle. If it sounds a bit like a postmodern Tarzan, you’re not far off, said the show’s creator, Mike Werb.
“He’s sort of like the scientific version of an Army brat. He’s moved around from place to place,” said Werb, who actually worked on a TV adaptation of the "Lord of the Apes," and also wrote the screenplay for "The Mask."
The show’s concept spun out from Werb’s lifelong love of history, fascination with global travels, and what he described as the “typical writer experience of a miserable high school experience.”
“Henry butts up against social conventions and modern high school life,” Werb said. “The kid who can read Sanskrit and ancient dead languages, has no idea how to text.”
“Unnatural History” is a major commitment for Cartoon Network, and a significant risk.
Adding live-action programming could lead some of the channel’s longtime fans to wonder if the home of Johnny Bravo, the Powerpuff Girls and Ben 10, is abandoning its animation roots.
Absolutely not, says CN’s Chief Content Officer Rob Sorcher. “We’re a big network that has a full complement of programming in all formats. The introduction of “Unnatural History” and “Tower Prep” [which debuts in the fall] is part of an overall expansion of programming on Cartoon Network.”
Live-action isn’t a completely foreign concept for CN.
The unscripted shows “Destroy Build Destroy” and “Dude, What Would Happen?” are solid hits, and the 2007 live-action film “Ben 10: Race Against Time” also performed well. And really, if a genre-specific channel like the Sci-Fi Channel could feel the need to rebrand itself as the more inclusive SYFY and add reality shows and wrestling to its science fiction and supernatural lineup, is it really all that shocking to see Cartoon Network add live-action programming?
The channel is simply following a path paved by many other cable networks that began offering very specific content, before eventually broadening its programming palette.
“Network must continually look to their programming to provide viewers with fresh programming that is relevant to them and in keeping with the network’s mission,” stated Jennifer Bartner Indeck, Media Director for Luminosity Marketing.
Before it became defined by housewife catfights, Bravo and A&E were outlets for highbrow programming. There was a time when TLC was actually The Learning Channel, and when MTV was actually about the music, and not The Situation. BET, another channel that began its on-air life as primarily a music outlet also diversified with original programming such as sitcoms and original Made-for-TV movies.
Indeck, who has spent 20 years negotiating cable TV advertising deals, believes figuring out the right way to diversify is even trickier for a network that has as clearly defined an image as CN has.
CN has consistently broken new ground in animation with shows such as “The Boondocks,” “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” and its Adult Swim programming block. But that’s not enough according to Indeck. For the network to grow and remain viable to advertisers, “it must create programs to attract new viewers.”
Fordham University TV and Media Professor Paul Levinson adds that CN is “definitely taking a risk by adding live programming to its mix.”
“The Cartoon Network's success in this gambit will depend upon choosing the live action programming that will work with its audience,” Levinson said.
What about cartoons?
CN’s Sorcher, who has been criticized by some bloggers who believe Cartoon Network should be all about…well, cartoons, laughed when asked if the network may be phasing out animation.
“Not at all. We are unleashing a slew of awesome new animated programming that in its own way, is just as distinct and just as inventive and wonderful as these live-action properties we are bringing forward,” he said.
Those new animated offerings include the teen superhero show “Young Justice” and a 21st century relaunch of the legendary Loony Toons. There are also plans for an animated “Green Lantern” series to debut as early as Fall 2011.
[Cartoon Network and DC are both owned by Time-Warner.]
Sorcher has some experience in overhauling a cable network. As a programming executive at AMC, he played a pivotal role in reinventing the movie channel into a portal for quality scripted series by greenlighting the Emmy-winning “Mad Men.”
Ultimately, the executive points out, both sides are after the same thing.
“They [the fans] are looking for quality, they’re looking for excellent TV, they’re looking to be entertained. They’re looking for a hit, and so are we.”
All involved hope “Unnatural History” is that hit. Werb was initially surprised to hear Cartoon Network wanted to hear live-action show ideas. During a long meeting with network execs, Werb came up with the pitch for the show – a throwback to old pulp adventures he enjoyed – off the top of his head. The rest is…history.
For fans who may be hesitant to give a live-action show on Cartoon Network a shot, Werb points out his series has two things that set it apart from other shows on the network.
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