5Qs with… Cartoon Hangover Founder Fred Seibert

/ Oct 28, 2013


Trying to describe Fred Seibert without using the word “legend” turns out to be brutally difficult. In fact, if you’ve watched TV in the past three decades, then you’ve seen Seibert’s work. Well, maybe not his direct work, but certainly projects that were guided by his expert hand.

Let’s jump back to the origins of MTV. For our older readers, remember the color-changing spray paint logo? Yeah, Seibert developed that. And the infamous Moon Man? Seibert. But if you’re too young to remember those, then you’ve probably heard of cartoons like “The Powerpuff Girls,” “Dexter’s Laboratory,” and “Adventure Time.” Seibert helped create and launch all three, among many others.

But Seibert doesn’t seem content to rest on his laurels as a visionary in television animation. No, in 2006, the 61-year-old set his sights on the web and helped launch Next New Networks, one of the earliest multi-channel networks, which in 2011 was bought by YouTube. From there, Seibert founded Cartoon Hangover, a YouTube channel that has been the home to some of the web’s most successful animated shows, including Pendleton Ward’s “Bravest Warriors.”

However, if you’re crunched for time, here’s an abridged description of who Seibert is: He’s a legend.

Luckily, we got a chance to speak with him about Cartoon Hangover, the state of modern animation, and the future of web programming.

You’ve had a long and successful career in traditional media, and then pivoted and founded one of the first true web-TV success stories. Why did you decide to focus on web-native programming when you launched Next New Networks, and since with Frederator Studios and Cartoon Hangover?

Well, my career in television began in 1980 at MTV Networks, around the dawn of the modern cable era, over a year before MTV actually launched, as the head of promotion for The Movie Channel. Coming from radio, I didn’t quite understand what I’d gotten myself into, and I impudently asked our president — Jack Schneider, a former president of CBS — why our company even existed. Didn’t we already have enough television (I had seven channels plus HBO)?

“New distribution demands new programming,” he told me. “And the [broadcast] networks aren’t going to do it. That’s where we come in.” Thirty worldwide channels and billions of dollars earned over subsequent decades proved him right.

Twenty-five years later, when video distribution over the internet began to germinate, with dozens of outlets popping up, I remembered Jack’s words and jumped early at the opportunity. And, if I’m being honest, just working in the realm of broadcast and cable, no matter how satisfying and lucrative, had lost some of its thrill. The new world beckoned.

How has online video changed modern animation? Do you see the landscape improving or devolving since its “golden era”? Is there serious interest from long-time “traditional media” animators in doing something on the web (outside of just Pendleton Ward, of course)?

Actually, I think a new “golden era” in animation is just beginning, thanks to the internet.

The past decade has been a time for cartoon and animation producers (hell, for all filmmakers) to get used to the whole idea of producing for an audience rather than a group of network executives. Experiments — successes and failures — have shown the way to thousands, on everything from production methods to storytelling.

Now, we’re just starting to see the results of that evolution. No longer does a Mondomedia or Simon’s Cat (or Cartoon Hangover) have to be told what the audience “wants,” what the “right” format should be, or what and what doesn’t pass for “popular” programming. Online producers can see for themselves that viewers are significantly more flexible than what we have previously been led to believe.

In 2013, I don’t there are any of the major players, individuals or institutions, that aren’t making their own plans for the online medium. We’ve yet to see who will sink or swim.

Cartoon Hangover just launched a Kickstarter for six episodes of “Bee and PuppyCat” for $600,000. What have crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter done for animators and creators?

Crowd funding has made it possible for animation projects of all sizes to be produced, where not too long ago only small, independent films, or network and studio funded productions, could be realized. It’s truly making the creative revolution possible.

It’s not news to anyone that the internet has allowed niche interests to thrive, and in animation it’s no different. Crowd funding has enabled special interest audiences to see their favorites come to life in ways that television and features cannot support.

A few months ago, I did a Reddit AMA and was asked whether or not our shows would ever come to television. I was happy to answer that as far as we’re concerned, success online is indeed “television.”

The fact that over 13 million people from across the world have watched “Bravest Warriors” this year, and thousands more have helped to fund Natasha Allegri’s “Bee and PuppyCat,” has challenged the notion that major broadcasters are necessary for animation to survive and thrive.

Online animation, being mostly independent, often does not have the resources for 3D animation. With that, there has been a resurgence of 2D and Flash-based animation. What are your thoughts on this digital 2D renaissance?

Like almost everyone 20-years-old and older on planet earth, I grew up with 2D animation and laughed my pants off at cartoons for most of my life. And honestly, ratings prove that audiences feel completely agnostic towards animation technique, the same way that listeners don’t care if a song is played on an “old fashioned” acoustic piano, or the latest synthesizer a technologist can invent.

Whether it be an independent flash filmmaker (I’m talking to you Homestar Runner) or a corporate studio that only believes in computer generated images, audiences will forever love great characters and great stories.

Can you go a little into your “incubator” approach to programming? Do you think this is something other networks should be doing as well?

Basically, what we do is put a call out to animators around the world to pitch our development team a storyboard (or for writers, as script) for a short cartoon. We usually make anywhere from 40-50 films this way over a two year period. All of our series, and some of our feature film projects, have started this way. We don’t ask for “pilots” –a film produced in private, rarely for actual airing, for focus group testing and executive meddling– all of our shorts are meant for airing to audiences. I’ve found the urgency of making a final picture for air puts an energy and focus into the process that a typical pilot cannot ever duplicate.

I’ve been running big idea cartoon incubators for over 20 years, but truth to tell, I just adapted a back-to-the-future development of cartoon series from the great animation studios of the early part of the 20th century. Our “laboratories” that spawned dozens of hits –from “The Powerpuff Girls” to “The Fairly OddParents,” “Adventure Time” and “Bee and PuppyCat”– were directly modeled on how the world found Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Tom & Jerry. In those days, cartoons were made by a small band of animators, one at a time, and released theatrically as one of the short subjects that ran before the feature presentation. If the audience showed their love a second short was commissioned. Some projects puttered out, but Tom & Jerry had 162 over 20 years, and there were 167 Bugs Bunny cartoons.

All networks already do it, but pretty much in secret; we’ve just been happy to always workshop in front of our audience and make them part of the process. To me, it’s just like rock ‘n’ roll singles going out before albums (back in the day, when there were such things). It’s a process that has worked in the creative arts of all kinds for hundreds of years.

 Bonus Round –

You’ve been able to build really successful content businesses out of shows created for the YouTube ecosystem. Some people say that’s very hard to do — why, and what should they be doing to be successful not just on YouTube, but as they grow their businesses across platforms?

It’s rare in the media business for bestsellers to be confined to one audience, one country, one business model or one platform. Too many times in “new media” it seems like the hot new thing will wipe out everything before it, and then we’ll all ride off happily into the sunset. I know it was true for me in the early cable days. We all brashly believed that the broadcasters were fat, lazy, and just over. They’ve made a lot of billions since we made that mistake. Sure, the new day had come and we were becoming viable competitors, but counting out the old guys made us miss a lot of opportunities.

Same thing in the new new world. Anyone who thinks that they can build the business side of their creative freedom in one place, whether it be a undeniable powerhouse like YouTube or elsewhere, is just cheating themselves of the moment. At Channel Frederator and Cartoon Hangover, right from the get go, we’ve looked at things in the broadest ways we can imagine. And we’re not scared of traditional television, feature films, or licensing circumstances, if they’re going to help us further our goals. And our goals have remained the same over the decades. Find great talent who have something to say, help them say it, and bring an audience to the party so they howl as loud and as long as they’d like.

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