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A Classic Series, Retooled and Swingin’

 

Stuart Elliott

The New York Times
January 16, 2008

 

IN 1967, when the cartoon series “George of the Jungle” was introduced, cigarette commercials still ran on TV, DVD meant Dick Van Dyke and video was a word in the titles of series like “Captain Video” and “Video Village.”

Not only has television changed in four decades, so too has the audience that watches cartoons. Both those realities are being addressed by the Cartoon Network cable channel and its partners when they introduce on Friday a new version of “George of the Jungle.”

The 21st-century George and his show are being promoted on their own Web site (georgeofthejungle.tv), where visitors can watch clips, listen to the theme song and retrieve digital trinkets like wallpapers, buddy icons, screen savers and downloadable desktop mascots.

The George-centric Web site, created by Special Ops Media in New York, is in addition to material on the Web site of Cartoon Network (cartoonnetwork.com), where visitors can play a game called Swingin’ Kingdom.

To help build viewership for the new series, the original series is being released on DVD on Feb. 12. A video game, “George of the Jungle and the Search for the Secret,” will follow a month later. And employees at the Applebee’s restaurant chain will wear stickers advertising the show and give away free activity books to young customers.

The show, too, is being retooled. This time, George and his friends are teenagers instead of 20-somethings. There are additional characters, including another lead female. The animation is Flash rather than pen and ink. And the vintage theme song is reworked to sound more contemporary.

It still, however, ends with the admonition “Watch out for that tree!”

The changes are indicative of the significant shifts in the media and marketing landscapes in the 41 years since “George of the Jungle” made its debut on ABC. (Disney produced a live-action movie version of the series in 1997 and a sequel, made for video, six years later.)

“Kids are consuming media across all types of platforms,” said Dennis Adamovich, senior vice president for marketing at Cartoon Network in Atlanta, part of the Turner Broadcasting System division of Time Warner.



“The best way to reach out to every kid in America,” he added, is to consider television just one way to publicize the show, along with the Internet, the Applebee’s promotion, the DVDs, the online and video games, commercials in movie theaters, spots on radio and commercials on the screens in 43 cities that compose the CNN Airport Network.

And more is to come, including podcasts and episodes that could be watched on video-on-demand services on local cable systems.

“It’s all about playground currency,” said Nicole Blake, senior vice president for marketing at Classic Media in New York, a division of Entertainment Rights that teamed up with Jay Ward Productions, the creator of the original “George,” for the revival.

“Kids use entertainment as currency on the playground,” Ms. Blake said. “It’s their version of the water cooler.”

“Our goal, through our multitiered marketing program, is to generate excitement and buzz for the new show among kid ‘influencers,’ who will pass it on to their friends,” she added.

Classic Media and Ward are partners in a joint venture, Bullwinkle Studios, that is producing the new series for Cartoon Network along with Studio B Productions, a unit of DHX Media of Canada. A Canadian cable network, Teletoon, began running the new “George of the Jungle” last year.

Cartoon Network is giving the show what in retailing is known as a soft launch. First came “A George of the Jungle Christmas” on Dec. 21, offering a preview of the new look and characters. Then viewers got a sneak peek at the first episode of the new series last Friday, after a showing of the 1997 movie.

The regular time slot for the new series is 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. Fridays, with two 30-minute episodes back to back. Cartoon Network has placed an initial order of 26 episodes.

“This is the first new animated series of Ward characters in 40 years,” said Tiffany Ward, president at Ward Productions and Bullwinkle Studios in Costa Mesa, Calif., as well as an executive producer of the new series.

“To say we’re thrilled is understating it,” she added.

Ms. Ward is the daughter of Jay Ward, who produced cartoons with classic characters like Bullwinkle J. Moose, Rocket J. Squirrel (better known as Rocky) and Dudley Do-Right, a stalwart Mountie. He subsequently made commercials for products like Cap’n Crunch cereal.

George “is such a great character,” Ms. Ward said of the jungle gymnast, who was created by her father and Allan Burns as a spoof of Tarzan.

“My job, my legacy, is to keep these characters alive and out there,” Ms. Ward said. “Good cartoon characters are eternal, but you need to refresh them because kids are maturing faster.”

Ms. Ward has made “a couple of pitches” to networks and marketers, she said, about bringing back characters that accompanied George in the 1967 series: Tom Slick, a race car driver, and Super Chicken, a, well, superhero chicken.



There are plans with DreamWorks Animation, Ms. Ward said, for a film version of the adventures of two characters that appeared on “Rocky and His Friends” and “The Bullwinkle Show”: Mr. Peabody, a talking dog, and his naïve pet boy, Sherman. The film is scheduled for 2010, Ms. Ward said; in addition to the two “George of the Jungle” films, there have also been movie versions of Dudley Do-Right (1999) and Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000).

Sharp-eyed viewers of vintage episodes of “Rocky and His Friends” and “The Bullwinkle Show” from the 1950s and 1960s may notice in the closing credits references to an old advertising agency, Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, long since absorbed by the Saatchi & Saatchi unit of the Publicis Groupe.

In those days, TV networks scheduled programs if agencies could persuade marketers to sponsor them. In this instance, General Mills, a client of Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, agreed to buy the commercial time — and characters like Rocky and Bullwinkle would appear in the spots.
 

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