When Ted Turner bought Hanna-Barbera
Here's why the cartoon studio was such a hot commodity.
When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer shuttered its in-house cartoon studio in 1957, animators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera took a gamble and bet on themselves. Newly axed from their studio head positions, Hanna and Barbera risked it all by opening their own cartoon studio. Their joint venture, H-B Enterprises, was one of the greatest American animating houses in history, producing countless iconic cartoon characters over several decades. As H-B Enterprises grew to be Hanna-Barbera, the studio put out hit after hit, such as The Huckleberry Hound Show, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, The Yogi Bear Show, Top Cat, Jonny Quest, Wacky Races, Scooby Doo, Where Are You!, and Smurfs, to name a few.
However, by the 1980s, the animation landscape had changed in many ways that were unfavorable to Hanna-Barbera. Studios like Filmation, Sunbow Entertainment, Marvel Productions, Rankin/Bass, DIC, and Saban Entertainment were able to crank out competition quickly and cheaply. Saturday morning was no longer HB's uncontested kingdom. Now, there were plenty of suitors to the throne, and a lot of them licensed pre-existing properties. Cartoons shifted from focusing on stories to focusing on commercialization; shows like Transformers and G.I. Joe served as advertisements for toys as much as showcases for unique characters with compelling arcs. As the influence of their empire shrank, so did Hanna and Barbera's control over the business they founded. Financial trouble followed as Hanna-Barbera was continuously acquired and sold off by various larger enterprises.
In 1991, Turner Broadcasting System outbid MCA and Hallmark Cards, Inc. to purchase Hanna-Barbera Studios and its library of content. Turner acquired Hanna-Barbera in an effort to stack the cards for his new Cartoon Network, the first television channel to air cartoons 24/7. Hanna-Barbera's back catalog of over 3,500 cartoon shorts was to be the primary focus of their new lineup, while still focusing on producing new cartoons to air on the network.
"We're trying to bring the funny farm back to Hanna-Barbera," executive producer Buzz Potamkin told the Arizona Republic in 1991.
Turner's rapid expansion into children's programming saw them attempt to showcase the cartoons for a global audience. By the time of the acquisition, Cartoon Network was already available all across Europe and was on its way to Asia. Turner saw a path towards world domination, and knew the secret word was "Yabba-dabba-doo."
The lynchpin of the operation was Fred Seibert. Seibert's involvement was a coup for Turner; it was Fred Seibert who helped launch the incredibly successful "I want my MTV!" campaign before adding children's programming to his resume at Nickelodeon. Seibert, like Turner, knew that children's programming was the single fastest-growing sector in the entertainment market, and both moguls sought to capitalize.
"We want visually driven humor that's universally understood," said Seibert. "Is a joke funny in French? That's the rub."
Turner subverted expectations by keeping Hanna-Barbera's cartoon studio open, despite predictions that he'd gut the company to keep their library. Instead, the animation house was encouraged to seek new, innovative projects. The first of these, 2 Stupid Dogs and Swat Kats pre-empted a Hanna-Barbera feature-length live-action/cartoon movie starring Macaulay Culkin, titled The Pagemaster.
"We're not out to find the next Fred Flintstone," said Larry Huber, another executive producer, "but the next great animators."