Producers resurrect antiquated heroes to brave the new programming reality

The post-9/11 'return to values' mindset has created a programming niche for series developed along the good-versus-evil theme. And since '70s and '80s shows including He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Scooby-Doo pretty much defined that story arc, it's not surprising that distributors and producers are now culling their catalogs for nostalgic nuggets to revisit and revamp.
April 1, 2002

The post-9/11 ‘return to values’ mindset has created a programming niche for series developed along the good-versus-evil theme. And since ’70s and ’80s shows including He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Scooby-Doo pretty much defined that story arc, it’s not surprising that distributors and producers are now culling their catalogs for nostalgic nuggets to revisit and revamp.

Yet while the good-versus-evil dichotomy is a universal and timeless concept, technological advances and the changing entertainment needs of the modern kid audience can make even the best classic series seem dated, which begs the question: How much can you change without detracting from a series’ original cachet?

Although a production deal had yet to be finalized with property owner Mattel at press time, the He-Man developers at Mike Young Productions are already knee-deep in revamp plans for the property. While the original was fairly low-end in terms of animation quality, today’s tech-savvy kids have extremely high-end expectations for their toons. Thus, He-Man in its newest incarnation is a much edgier and brighter series graphically than its predecessor. ‘We wanted to take it 180 degrees,’ says Mike Young Productions partner Bill Schultz. In deference to the nostalgic fan base, changes made thus far don’t affect character personality or back-story, although the alter-ego dilemma had to be broached. Prince Adam, in the original, looked almost exactly like He-Man–the only discernable differences being that He-Man’s hair and skin were a little darker. Since today’s sophisticated kid audience would question that nuance, the new Prince Adam looks considerably younger and slighter than his super alter-ego. Although confirmation of a broadcast deal was pending at press time, the new He-Man is expected to air on Cartoon Network in the U.S. this fall.

Concepts of patriotism, loyalty and justice have also been echoing loudly in the U.S. following the events of 9/11, and no entertainment figure embodies these better than The Lone Ranger. And while He-Man’s producers need to consider the fans of the original series as they reinvent the property, Lone Ranger developer Classic Media–which is currently working on a live-action adaptation for The WB, with a follow-up animated series on the table at Kids’ WB!–have decades worth of TV cachet and a list of rules passed down from the original rights holders to live up to. The Lone Ranger uses silver bullets, but can’t kill people–he doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke and rides a white horse named Silver.

Rather than view these rules as a stumbling block, the New York-based prodco will use them to unravel the mystery of a historical figure. ‘There has to be a reason to revisit, and in this case, it’s telling a part of the story that wasn’t told the first time,’ says Bob Higgins, Classic Media’s senior VP of creative and production. Whether it was the black-and-white ’50s series (ABC), the animated ’60s version (CBS), or the short-lived ’80s reinvention (The Tarzan/Lone Ranger/Zorro Adventure Hour on CBS), The Lone Ranger has generally been depicted as an older man whose omnipresent mask shrouds his identity in mystery. No one knew how he came to be a relentless justice-seeker, why he uses silver bullets, where he got his horse, or how Tonto came into the picture. Thus, Classic Media will go the Smallville route (currently The WB’s highest-rated program among males 12 to 34 with a 3.4 Nielsen rating) to document The Lone Ranger’s late-teen years. Set in the Old West, the series will unravel the mystery of the man behind the mask–’90% of the time he won’t be wearing a mask,’ says Higgins–and the teen issues he faces: racism, family conflict and the ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ question. Still in early development, there’s no word yet on how this will play out in episodes.

Sarah Muller, managing director of Elephant Productions, which is co-producing a new series based on ’70s toon Willo the Wisp with original creator Spargo, offers an alternative take on striking the balance between a property’s established fan base and its new target audience. Assume, to some extent, that you’ll retain the original fans, but otherwise work on it and present it as you would a new series because the contemporary target won’t care about the history, says Muller. ‘I’m afraid children today are much more sophisticated than we were. They have much more choice, and the content is better executed.’ Thus, Muller decided that she had to be extremely vigorous in identifying the original’s strengths, which were ‘a tremendous sitcom premise and great characters.’ Then she had to figure out a way to sympathetically update the look.

While the new series is still at the concept development stage, Muller knew from the outset that certain characters were badly in need of makeovers. Evil Edna–a witch in TV form–will most likely take on widescreen proportions. ‘She will continue to evolve throughout the show,’ getting bigger and bigger or sporting a satellite dish, says Muller. The rendering of narrator Willo will also be brought up to modern technology speed. The original was always a letdown in the eyes of the creators because 2-D animation couldn’t adequately render a wisp of light and smoke. ‘With CGI, we can now improve on that end result significantly,’ says Muller.

Throwing yet another spin on the classic fans-versus-new audience dilemma is the fact that younger-skewing revamps may not draw the same level of original fan support as older-skewing ones might. That said, parents–who might not be looking to watch their favorite preschool series reincarnated–can be instrumental in getting their kids to watch. Likewise, Cinar VP of production Lesley Taylor played an integral role in bringing back Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings (which ran in North America in the ’70s and ’80s as part of CBS show Captain Kangaroo and syndicated series Romper Room)–a show she loved as a kid. In this case, however, the reasons for changing the series–picked up from London’s FilmFair Productions last October–were tied to geography.

Keeping the series the same or reworking from the original, the project would not fall under the definition of Canadian content and therefore would not be eligible for government funding. Yet in securing the rights, Cinar could develop a new series based on the original books by Ed McLachlan. However, even the page-to-screen translation necessitated updates. Since the project now falls under the Canadian content heading, the setting underwent a regionalization overhaul. Whereas Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings previously featured a decidedly British backdrop, the new series takes place in a world styled after Old Montreal.

Other changes included Simon’s garb. The original’s English schoolboy jacket and tie were discarded for a T-shirt and sneakers–clothes contemporary kids wear and relate to, says Taylor. Instead of using the black-and-white Chalk Drawing world, Taylor felt that a blue-and-black backdrop would add a little more life and color to the actions, while still retaining the rougher chalk-drawing style. ‘The actual style is more polished,’ she says, ‘but chalk drawings are chalk drawings–it’s still pure imagination.’ Perhaps the most poignant change, in relation to today’s kid audience, is the fact that Henry–Simon’s friend in the Land of Chalk Drawings–was replaced by Lily, a character designed to appeal to girl viewers. The new series is slated to air on Teletoon in Canada this fall.

There is, of course, another industry camp that doesn’t truck with change, clinging to the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ adage. Such is Warner Bros.’ position with Scooby-Doo, a classic property that, admittedly, has never truly faded. The original Scooby-Doo, Where are You? came out in 1969, with various incarnations–The New Scooby-Doo Comedy Movies (’72-’74), Scooby’s All-Star Laff-A-Lympics (’76-’80), Scooby and Scrappy-Doo (’78-’82), The Scooby and Scrappy-Doo/Puppy’s New Adventures Hour (’82-’84) and A Pup Named Scooby (’88)–following. ‘The originals running on Cartoon Network now rate extremely well (4.5 with kids two to 11, 3.5 with kids six to 11) without anything being new,’ points out Sander Schwartz, president of Warner Bros. Animation. The studio produced a live-action feature set to bow this summer, and a new animated series (working title All New Scooby-Doo!) with a reported budget of more than US$400,000 for each of 13 half hours will anchor the Kids’ WB! Saturday morning lineup this fall. Much of the original Hanna-Barbera team has come back to the project, affirming that Warner Bros. isn’t trying to depart from what made the original so popular–the writing and general character development. Yet beyond giving the characters access to modern inventions such as the cell phone, the only thing Schwartz felt he could improve upon with the new series was the quality of the animation. Says Schwartz: ‘Go back 20 years, and there was only so much you could do with animation.’ Thus, the remake will take advantage of the advances in the form and be rendered in a much higher-quality style.

Improving the quality of animation and slightly tweaking characters, setting and style might work well for producers reviving series from the 2-D world, but what if you’re a producer trying to bring back a live-action series with a puppet as the main character? London’s Entertainment Rights is currently dusting off Basil Brush for a new series set to debut on CBBC and BBC1′s kids block this fall (likely between 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Saturdays). Originally a studio-based light entertainment show, Entertainment Rights managing director Jane Smith sees the new Basil as a tween show with a nostalgia and wit that could draw older viewers. Although Basil is a puppet character that seemed to work well in live-action interaction with humans, Smith was initially unsure about the new format–game show, chat show, travel show? In the end, reminded of the success that ’80s phenom ALF (which might also be attempting a TV comeback) had, Smith decided that a sitcom-esque format would work best. ‘Something like a game show is often limiting,’ explains ER creative director Oliver Ellis. ‘A sitcom can expand upon humor, reacting to what happens from one scene to another, whereas a talk show or game show is more gag-oriented,’ surviving or dying on that one comedic scene. The only non-human character, Basil himself will remain essentially unchanged, occasionally exchanging his. trademark tweed suit and tie for themed garb–such as a trip to Hawaii warranting a Hawaiian shirt. ‘Either way, he’ll still look out of sorts–that’s who and what he is; he’s always been a little out of step with the modern world,’ says Ellis.

The recent influx of classic revivals has alerted Curious Pictures executive VP Richard Winkler to a new business opportunity. He’s developed a new Curious division called The Character Spa, a place where characters can come to freshen up. ‘There’s a lot of equity built up in a number of characters–and that’s value that can be re-exploited,’ says Winkler. ‘The idea came to us a couple of months before NATPE. People were starting to approach us with this in mind.’ Interestingly, most were coming from the commercial side of Curious Pictures’ business. Clients wanted to know how they could take their commercial brands and give them entertainment dimensions.

Thus, Winkler developed a three-pronged mandate for The Character Spa: to revive entertainment brands, to clean up commercial brands, and to faciliate more crossover activity between the two. Looking to align his company with rights holders and aid them in breathing new life into their retro portfolios, Winkler is assembling experts from the animation side of the kids business (both 2-D and 3-D), as well as in the interactive realm (for both toys and games).

Commercial characters haven’t traditionally played much of a role above and beyond their direct promotional responsibility to the brand, but many are now being offered up for licensing activities well outside of their birth medium. The development of Cap’n Crunch as a licensed brand by Florida-based agency Nancy Bailey & Associates is a move that piques Winkler’s interest: Wouldn’t it be cool to find out how the Captain became the Captain? What was he like when he started as the lowly Ensign Crunch?

It won’t be easy to develop concepts like that, says Winkler, but in general, he sees the division as an opportunity to apply his existing skills in a new forum. ‘There are rules that accompany these properties that transcend TV and age,’ says Winkler. ‘It’s hard to launch anything from scratch these days, and these characters had a good run back in their day. Maybe it’s time they were given another chance.’

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