Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Television Shows Based on Commercials

As popular as many advertising mascots are, it seems as if television shows based on commercials should be more common. After all, Tony the Tiger, Cap'n Crunch, Snap, Crackle, and Pop, and others are immensely popular, to the point that there has even been merchandise has been based on them. Indeed, in 1939, Snap, Crackle, and Pop even appeared in their own theatrical animated short, "Breakfast Pals."

It would seem even more likely that there would have been more television shows based on commercials given the history of American broadcast television. As powerful as the influence of advertisers is on television today, in the first several years of broadcast television in the United States their influence was even greater. This was due more to the fact that at the time a single sponsor would buy advertising time on an entire show. Indeed, there was a time when advertising agencies actually developed and produced television shows, overseeing every detail from the hiring of the cast to the scripts for episodes. The control which advertisers wielded over television was often questioned in the early days of broadcast television, but would not erupt into full scale controversy until the quiz show scandal of the late Fifties. It would be because of the quiz show scandal and critics such as FCC chairman Newton Minow that the networks would eventually take charge of their own programming. Gone for the most part were the days when a single advertiser would sponsor an entire programme; gone for good were the days when advertising agencies would actually conceive television shows.

Despite the popularity of various advertising mascots and the power advertisers once wielded over the networks, television shows based on commercials have been very, very rare. Not only have they been very rare, but the first TV show based on a series of commercials would not be developed until network broadcast television had operated in the United States for over a decade and a half.

Even before the debut of the first show based entirely on commercials, there would be a series of segments within a TV show which would feature an advertising mascot as its lead character. In this instance, however, there is a bit of a chicken and an egg question. That is, were the segments developed because the character and her commercials were particularly popular, or were they planned all along as a means of promoting the product? In 1960 General Mills unveiled a new cereal called Twinkles. Its mascot was a baby flying elephant, also called Twinkles. Twinkles was historic for three reasons. The first is that it was the first cereal to be named for its advertising mascot, pre-dating Cap'n Crunch, Frankenberry, and all the others. The second is that in its early days a storybook was built into the back of its box.

The third reason is that Twinkles would be the first advertising mascot to appear as a character in a TV show segment. In the Fifties General Mills was not only a leading cereal maker, but one of the most powerful advertisers in television. By 1960 General Mills had already sponsored such shows as The Lone Ranger and The Burns and Allen Show. They provided much of the backing of Jay Ward Studios in the production of their classic shows (The Bullwinkle Show and Hoppity Hooper). Eventually General Mills approached their advertising agency, Dancer Fitzgerald Sample about sponsoring another children's show. The project was assigned to W. Watts "Buck" Biggers was the account executive for General Mills, Chester "Chet" Stover was the copy supervisor on the account, and Joseph "Joe" Harris was the supervisor of animation for General Mills (he created the Trix Rabbit for them). To produce the new show, a production company called Total Television Productions Inc. or TTV for short, was founded.

The show that TTV produced was King Leonardo and His Short Subjects. Not only was the series the first show produced by TTV (who would go onto produce both Tennessee Tuxedo and his Tales and Underdog), but the second Saturday morning cartoon to air on NBC (Hanna-Barbera's Ruff and Reddy was the first to air on the network). Among the segments aired during the show were very brief, educational segments featuring Twinkles the Elephant. While other segments from King Leonardo and His Short Subjects would be recycled in TTV's other shows, Twinkles only appeared on King Leonardo and His Short Subjects. What is more, it also did not appear on King Leonardo and His Short Subjects when it was syndicated. Much of this may be because Twinkles the Elephant did not prove particularly popular as an advertising mascot. By 1965 the story book built into the box had disappeared and Twinkles himself was replaced by a fireman called The Twinkles Sprinkler. Eventually, the cereal would disappear itself. Regardless, given the fact that both the cereal and the cartoon were conceived in 1960, it is difficult to say that the Twinkles cartoons were created due to the success of the commercials or as part of an over all strategy on the part of General Mills.

While it is questionable whether the Twinkles segments were indeed based on the Twinkles commercials, the first series to clearly be based on a series of commercials would emerge from a cereal company. In 1962 Post Cereals introduced a new cereal, Crispy Critters. Its spokesman was a lion named Linus, voiced by Sheldon Leonard. The Crispy Critters commercials proved popular enough that Post Cereals decided to create an animated series based on the characters appearing in their commercials. Post Cereals cut no corners in production the new series, entitled Linus the Lionhearted. Its vocal talent was impressive for a Saturday morning cartoon, then as it would be now. Not only did Sheldon Leonard continue to voice Linus, but Carl Reiner voiced his friend Billie Bird. Other voices on the show were Bob McFadden (as Lovable Truly, the mascot for Alpha-Bits, So-Hi, the mascot of Rice Krinkles, and Rory Raccoon, the mascot of Post Toasties and Post Sugar Sparkled Flakes), Ruth Buzzi (as Granny Goodwitch in the Sugar Bear segments), Jerry Stiller, Jesse White, Jonathan Winters, and others. The segments of the show centred on Linus, Lovable Truly, So-Hi, and Rory Raccoon. The animation was also top notch, better than most Saturday morning cartoons of the day. The various Post cereals were never mentioned within the cartoons themselves. Indeed, the level of writing on the show was such that adults could enjoy it as well as children.

Linus the Lionhearted debuted on CBS on September 24, 1964. Its first season was shot in black and white, while its second season was shot in colour. The show lasted on CBS until 1966, whereupon it moved to ABC. Unfortunately, the show would fall victim to the Federal Communications Commission. In 1969 the FCC ruled that children's show characters could not appear in commercials aired during the same show. ABC then cancelled Linus the Lionhearted. Time would not be kind to the advertising mascots who appeared on the series either. So-Hi, who could be considered a Chinese stereotype, was replaced as the mascot for Rice Krinkles in 1969 by Krinkles the Clown. Lovable Truly ceased to be the mascot for Alpha-Bits in 1971. Even Linus himself was not immune. Although popular enough in the Sixties to inspire both a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon and an animated cartoon, Post would eventually stop making Crispy Critters in the Seventies. Out of the various advertising mascots who appeared on the show, only Sugar Bear has lasted, serving as the mascot of his cereal (whose name has changed from Sugar Crisp to Super Sugar Crisp to Super Golden Crisp to Golden Crisp) to this day.

It is perhaps largely due to the FCC's ruling in 1969 that TV shows based on commercials have been fairly rare since then. In fact, another show based on commercials would not appear until the Eighties. Shortly before that show debuted, however, there would be another that many would mistakenly believe was based on commercials. The character of Max Headroom, an artificial intelligence played by Matt Frewer, made his debut on the British TV show The Max Headroom Show, which aired from 1985 to 1986 on Channel 4. The Max Headroom Show was a music video show, on which Max on served as the veejay. The character proved popular enough to inspire a television movie made for Channel 4, Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future. The movie featured Matt Frewer as reporter Edison Carter in a cyberpunk world in which his mind is digitally recorded to create the artificial intelligence Max Headroom. It is from this movie that the short lived American TV show was developed. It debuted on ABC in 1985 and lasted for fourteen shows. While Max would serve as the spokesman for Coca-Cola, the show itself was based on the British telefilm, not the commercials. Max would later appear in a comedy-talk show on Showtime entitled The Original Max Talking Headroom Show, which ran in 1987.

While Max Headroom may have been best known in the United States for his commercials, he was not created as an advertising mascot. This was not the case for Ernest P. Worrell, the star of several commercials, a TV series, and many movies. Portrayed by Jim Varney, Ernest was created by Nashville advertising agency Carden and Cherry. He began life as a spokesman for local ad campaigns, the first being a advert for an appearance of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders at Kentucky amusement park Beech Bend Park in 1980. Ernest proved very popular as an advertising spokesman, appearing in spots for Purity milk in the southeast and Cerritos Auto Square in the Los Angeles area. Ernest proved popular enough to inspire the movie Ernest Goes to Camp (1987) and a Saturday morning children's show, Hey Vern, It's Ernest. Produced and directed by John Cherry, the creator of Ernest. The series only lasted one season on CBS. This would not be the end of Ernest P. Worrell. He would not only appear in national advertising campaigns for Sprite and Mello Yello, but in eight more movies.

Here I must digress from this discussion of TV shows based on commercials to address a bit of an urban legend that has existed for years. The Simpsons was not based on the characters' appearances on Butterfinger commercials. The Simpsons originated as segments on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987. The success of those segments led to The Simpsons, which debuted in 1989. The Simpsons would not appear in Butterfinger commercials until the show had been on for some time.

Indeed, after Hey Vern, It's Ernest there would not be another television series based on commercials until Baby Bob debuted in 2002 on CBS. Baby Bob had been created in 1997 by the Los Angeles advertising firm Siltanen and Partners for a national campaign for Federal Way's Freeinternet.com (a free internet service provider). Baby Bob was a talking baby played by a number of different infants and voiced by Ken Hudson Campbell. In 2000 Freeinterent.com ceased service, leaving Baby Bob an advertising mascot without a sponsor. The character was then developed into sitcom starring Adam Arkin, Joely Fisher, and Elliot Gould and retaining Ken Hudson Campbell as Bob's voice. Debuting in 2002, the series received largely hostile reviews. It lasted only its brief first season (six episodes) and a brief second season (five episodes, although three episodes were unaired). Despite the failure of his sitcom, Baby Bob would make a comeback as an advertising mascot when Quiznos started using him in a new advertising campaign.

The last show based on TV commercials is a recent one, airing during the 2008-2009 season. The Martin Agency, a Richmond based ad firm, created the GEICO cavemen for a campaign for the insurance company GEICO in 2004. The commercials proved popular enough that they were adapted into a television series, created by Joe Lawson (the same man who wrote the commercials). The show proved to have a difficult production. Jeff Daniel Phillips and Ben Weber, who played the cavemen of the commercials, were not to be part of the show. Its pilot episode had only a limited screening which provoked controversy in that some critics thought that it was racist, with the cavemen substituting for other minorities. When Cavemen debuted, it received largely atrocious reviews. Ultimately, Cavemen only lasted six episodes (with seven unaired). Despite this, the cavemen continue to appear in commercials for GEICO to this day.

Ultimately, there have been only a very few TV shows based on commercials. Much of this may well be due to concerns over confusing entertainment with advertising. This was certainly the reason that in 1969 the FCC made its ruling that stars of children's programmes could not appear in commercials during their own shows. Much of it may also be due to the fact that advertising mascots are valuable commodities to companies. A successful advertising mascot can increase a product's visibility and actually encourage people to buy the product. If a television show is based on an advertising mascot, that mascot's viability could be threatened if the show is badly received. It could then be companies do not want to risk their advertising mascots.

Of course, given the history of television shows based on commercials, it might seem foolhardy for any producer to even attempt a series based around adverts. After all, with the exception of Linus the Lionhearted, every show based on commercials has failed. That having been said, it seems possible that they did not fail simply because they were based on commercials. Both Baby Bob and Cavemen received horrible reviews--Baby Bob has even appeared on a few Worst TV Shows of All Time lists. This can be contrasted with Linus the Linushearted, which to this day is cited as one of the wittiest cartoons of the Sixties. The moral of the story would then seem to be that if one is going to base a TV show on commercials, then make sure that TV show is good.

Of course, there could be another reason for the failure of some shows based on commercials as well. Despite the fact that he starred in many commercials, one show, and several movies, Ernest P. Worrell was considered annoying by many. While Baby Bob created a good deal of traffic for Freeinternet.com, there were those who consider him creepy (I'm among that number myself). Before basing a show around an advertising mascot, then, one might want to make sure that the mascot is universally well liked. If Linus found success in a TV show, perhaps it was because he was truly popular.

Given the close relation between broadcast television and advertising, it is probably inevitable that there will be more TV shows based on commercials. History shows, however, that there will probably be very few. What is more, their survival may not be guaranteed, especially if the shows are not high in quality. It would seem it takes more than the popularity of an advertising mascot to create a successful show, but good writing and direction as well.

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