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The State of the Art: An Interview With Linda Simensky

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One of the more interesting presentation at this year’s Cartoons on the Bay was Linda Simensky’s talk about why she left the Cartoon Network for the less glamorous PBS (Public Broadcasting System). In so doing, she provided intriguing insights into the current state of American TV animation. In short, she saw the focus shift away from experimentation and innovation towards a more formulaic approach, and a shift from programs aimed at a broad audience to one more focused on narrower demographics. It was these transformations, plus a change in her family situation, that led her to leave her high visibility position to one where she might make a greater impact.

Simensky has long been considered one of the most important people in American TV animation; in fact Animation Magazine once named her as one of the “Top 10 Most Influential People in Animation.” Her reputation was gained through her very real accomplishments as Cartoon Network’s Vice President of Original Animation, where she nurtured such groundbreaking shows as Samurai Jack and help establish the Cartoon Network Studios in Burbank. And her departure to become PBS’ Senior Director of Children’s Programming came as complete surprise to everyone in the industry. After all, moving from commercial to public broadcasting when one is at the top of his or her game, especially in animation, is not an everyday occurrence. As such, I recently talked to Simensky about her decision and what she sees as happening in American television animation.

A Lifelong Fan

Linda Simensky, says, “I’ve been a lifelong animation fan. I even tried to do animation in high school, but I was never very good at it.” Her interest became more scholarly when she went to college — she received a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication and a M.A. in Media Ecology at New York University — where she recalls, “I discovered independent shorts and became fascinated with them. I tried to see as many independent films as possible and read anything I could about them, as well as reading old issues of Funnyworld [Michael Barrier’s pioneering animation magazine]. In some ways, I was studying the impact of animation.”

Her scholarly interests continued throughout her career. (Actually, I first met her at a Society for Animation Studies conference.) At one point, she lectured taught animation for two years at at New York’s School of Visual Arts, and she serves on the board of directors of Animation Journal, the premiere scholarly journal in the field. She also served as president of ASIFA-East and helped found the New York chapter of Women in Animation.

Her professional career, though, began with a summer job at Nickelodeon in 1984; this was followed by a year in the Programming Department of the Showtime cable network in 1985-86; she then returned to Nickelodeon, initially working in their Programming Department for three years before moving into animation. She recalls, “When I came there, they were just putting together their animation department; I joined Vanessa Coffy, who was in charge and I was the development person. There were just the two of us. I started as a coordinator and by time I left, I was Director of Animation for Nickelodeon.” It was during her stay, that the cable channel produced such creator-oriented series as The Ren & Stimpy Show, Doug and Rugrats, which had such a dramatic impact on TV animation.

“In 1995,” she says, “I went to Cartoon Network, which was then new; it was a place with a lot of potential. When I came, Dexter’s Lab and The Powerpuff Girls were in their initial stages of development. I was excited by a channel that ran all animation; it was a place where I felt one could experiment and try more. I always prefer startups, or places that feel like startups, rather than places that are stuck in their ways. I want the chance to do some interesting stuff.”

Under her watch, she oversaw the development and production of all their original animated series, such as Samurai Jack, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Ed, Edd ‘n Eddy, Johnny Bravo, Codename: Kids Next Door and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, as well as The Powerpuff Girls and Dexter’s Lab. She was also involved in the development of series for Cartoon Network’s highly successful Adult Swim block, including such programs as Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law and Venture Brothers. In a time of increasing consolidation, when most networks were bringing production in-house, the Cartoon Network was almost alone in increasing the amount of production handed out to independent studios; at the same time, when AOL Time Warner closed merged Hanna-Barbera into Warner Bros. Animation, she fought for the establishment of Cartoon Network Studios.

Personal Life

“But,” she noted, “sometimes personal life starts to intrude on your work. My son Ethan was born and I started watching more pre-school programming; I recalled my days at Nickelodeon when I had worked with Brown Johnson, the Senior Vice President of Nick Jr. [the network’s pre-school programming block] for a couple of months, which I really enjoyed. As he grew up, Ethan watched mostly PBS and I became interested in their shows.

“And because of this, I started thinking about a lot of things, especially about all the action shows [which were increasingly dominating the airwaves] and I became somewhat concerned. Yes, kids really do prefer action shows; personally, I didn’t like them, didn’t enjoy them. I asked, Why were they all action shows? Where were the comedy shows for kids? In other words, whether my son wanted to watch them or not, he didn’t have any options, as everything was all pretty much the same show; they lacked a sense of humor and seemed derivative, featuring the same monkey robots.”

Though some of the action shows that Cartoon Network were starting to schedule, such as the revival of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and The Justice League, were certainly superior to much of the competition, she felt she had to make a decision on what she really wanted to do. ” I had to make a choice,” she says, “I could stay and fight, or I could try something new. And in working for PBS, I saw the possibility of going to the preschool area, which I became increasingly interested in.”

“When I first came to Cartoon Network, its goal had been to make really funny cartoons, which appealed to both kids and adults. By time I left, they had become focused on two audiences: 6 to 11-year-old kids and adults through Adult Swim. I always felt the best shows were those which, like SpongeBob SquarePants, aimed for the largest audience. I think it is shortsighted to concentrate so narrowly.”

“The big vision now in the United States is, ‘Let’s get ratings.’ If that’s your vision, nothing memorable will result. In my mind, whenever you’re making shows, I feel the focus should be to make the best show possible; maybe it will work for ratings and in terms of merchandising, that isn’t the point. For the people in the big offices, it was a great show if it gets good ratings. So the network’s vision was no longer my vision. I wanted to continue to experiment, to make shows with a potential for failure and the ability to do something interesting. Today, there’s a more formulaic approach, with not as much interest in diversity. There seems to be an interest in making action-toy shows, like He-Man and other shows Cartoon Network makes with Warner Bros.; they are not bad shows, but they were not shows I was interested in. The network was starting to feel more like Kids WB [the children’s programming block of The WB broadcast network], which had to do those types of kids-based shows, because they did not have a 24 hour network to build their shows.”

The increasing dependence on toy-based shows, similar to what occurred in the 1980s, with its emphasis on boys’ action-adventure programming, Simensky feels, “is what happens when there is bad economy.” It does not help, she adds, when “broadcasters are faced with increasing number of choices, such as boys vs. girls programming, action vs. comedy, and 2D vs. 3D, as well as the effects of industry consolidation.”

A More Mature Market

She also points out that, as cable has become more mature there is less room for them to fail. “It’s easy to assume,” she says, “that at this point the fate of shows on cable is not dissimilar to more traditional Saturday morning or syndication markets. In other words, they are beginning to feel like the establishment, though this is not true for every cable channel.”

“None of the cable channels for kids are experimenting; in some ways they are better than they used to be, but when one have one discovers something that works, everybody copies it. You cannot always tell anymore which network a show is on and they not as good or innovative as shows were in the 1990s. For instance, we had to fight to get Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, even though it was from the creator of The Powerpuff Girls.”

Though PBS is, in its own way, as establishment as many commercial networks, Simensky went there because she had the sense they were returning to their roots, when they first produced such landmark children’s shows like Sesame Street and The Electric Company. In other words, she feels it will give her more of a chance to be innovative again and room to experiment.

In particular, Simensky sees an opportunity at PBS to develop programming for what is a long-neglected segment of kids programming. “While,” she points out, “there is great programming for pre-school children these days, there is really nothing directly geared for kids between the ages of 5 and 8, and almost nothing for kids 5-8 or 9 with curriculum. Today programmers usually assume that kids in this age range will watch shows aimed at 10-11 year olds. But often these shows are not developmentally appropriate and they have no educational value. So, these kids are really being cheated.”

She points to the example of Cookie Jar Entertainment’s Arthur, which she notes “is one of the strongest shows PBS has made. It’s a perfect show for 5-8 year olds, with just the right blend of pathos and humor, and it’s very funny. It’s like some of the shows I have worked on, but funnier.”

Despite all this, she still has great hopes that animation programming in America will change for the better. “The next big thing that comes along,” she feels, “will be different and innovative, and it will come from someone who gets a broadcaster to trust them. It will be good to see that. It will shake up children’s animation in the same way that South Park shook up adult animation.”

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