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Cartoon Network launched to finale of Tchaikovsky‘s 1812 Overture with a backdrop of cartoon explosions, followed by a special event called Droopy’s Guide to the Cartoon Network hosted by the MGM cartoon character Droopy, during which the first cartoon on the network, Rhapsody Rabbit, was shown.Initial programming on the channel consisted exclusively of reruns of Warner Bros. cartoons (the pre-1948 Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies), the 1933–1957 Popeye cartoons, MGM cartoons, and Hanna-Barbera cartoons.At first, cable providers in New York City; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; and Detroit carried the channel.By the time the network launched, Cartoon Network had an 8,500-hour cartoon library.From its launch until 1995, the network’s announcers said the network’s name with the word “The” added before “Cartoon Network”, thus calling the network “The Cartoon Network”. By the time that the network debuted, Cartoon Network also operated a programming block (containing its cartoons) that aired on TNT, entitled “Cartoon Network on TNT”.
Cartoon Network was not the first cable channel to have relied on cartoons to attract an audience; however, it was the first 24-hour single-genre channel with animation as its main theme. Turner Broadcasting System had defied conventional wisdom before by launching CNN, a channel providing 24-hour news coverage. The concept was previously thought unlikely to attract a sufficient audience to be particularly profitable, however the CNN experiment had been successful and Turner hoped that Cartoon Network would also find success.
Initially, the channel would broadcast cartoons 24 hours a day. Most of the short cartoons were aired in half-hour or hour-long packages, usually separated by character or studio – Down Wit’ Droopy D aired old Droopy Dog shorts, The Tom and Jerry Show presented the classic cat-and-mouse team, and Bugs and Daffy Tonight provided classic Looney Tunes shorts. Late Night Black and White showed early black-and-white cartoons (mostly from the Fleischer Studios and Walter Lantz cartoons from the 1930s, as well as black-and-white Merrie Melodies and MGM cartoons), and ToonHeads would show three shorts with a similar theme and provide trivia about the cartoons. There was also an afternoon cartoon block called High Noon Toons, which was hosted by cowboy hand puppets (an example of the simplicity and imagination the network had in its early years). The majority of the classic animation that was shown on Cartoon Network no longer airs on a regular basis, with the exception of Tom and Jerry and Looney Tunes, which lasted until 2017.
A challenge for Cartoon Network was to overcome its low penetration of existing cable systems. When launched on October 1, 1992, the channel was only carried by 233 cable systems. However, it benefited from package deals. New subscribers to sister channels TNT and TBS could also get access to Cartoon Network through such deals. The high ratings of Cartoon Network over the following couple of years led to more cable systems including it. By the end of 1994, Cartoon Network had become “the fifth most popular cable channel in the United States”.
For the first few years of Cartoon Network’s existence, programming meant for the channel would also be simulcast on TBS and/or TNT, both of which were still full-service cable networks that carried a variety of different programming genera, in order to increase the shows’ (and Cartoon Network’s) exposure; examples include The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, Cartoon Planet, SWAT Kats: The Radical Squadron, and 2 Stupid Dogs.
The network’s first exclusive original show was The Moxy Show, an animation anthology series first airing in 1993.The first series produced by Cartoon Network was Space Ghost Coast to Coast in 1994, but the show mostly consisted of “recycled animation cells” from the archives of Hanna-Barbera, being an ironic deconstruction of a talk show. It featured live-action guests, mostly consisting of celebrities which were past their prime or counterculture figures. A running gag was that the production cost was dubbed “minimal”. The series found its audience among young adults who appreciated its “hip” perspective.
Kevin Sandler considered Space Ghost Coast to Coast instrumental in establishing Cartoon Network’s appeal to older audiences. Space Ghost, a 1960s superhero by Hanna-Barbera, was recast as the star of a talk show parody. This was arguably the first time the network revived a “classic animated icon” in an entirely new context for comedic purposes. Grown-ups who had ceased enjoying the original takes on the characters could find amusement in the “new ironic and self-referential context” for them. Promotional shorts such as the “Scooby-Doo Project”, a parody of The Blair Witch Project, gave similar treatments to the Scooby gang.However, there were less successful efforts at such revivals. A Day in the Life of Ranger Smith and Boo Boo Runs Wild (1999) were short cartoons featuring new takes on Yogi Bear’s supporting cast by John Kricfalusi. Their style of humor, sexual content and break in tone from the source material was rather out of place among the rest of the Cartoon Network shows, and the network rarely found a place for them in its programming.
In 1994, Hanna-Barbera’s new division Cartoon Network Studios was founded and started production on What a Cartoon! (also known as World Premiere Toons and Cartoon Cartoons). This show debuted in 1995, offering original animated shorts commissioned from Hanna-Barbera and various independent animators. The network promoted the series as an attempt to return to the “classic days” of studio animation, offering full animator control, high budgets, and no limited animation. The project was spearheaded by Cartoon Network executives, plus John Kricfalusi and Fred Seibert. Kricfalusi was the creator of The Ren & Stimpy Show and served as an advisor to the network, while Seibert was formerly one of the driving forces behind Nickelodeon’s Nicktoons and would go on to produce the similar animation anthology series Oh Yeah! Cartoons and Random! Cartoons.
Cartoon Network was able to assess the potential of certain shorts to serve as pilots for spin-off series and signed contracts with their creators to create ongoing series.Dexter’s Laboratory was the most popular short series according to a vote held in 1995 and eventually became the first spin-off of What a Cartoon! in 1996. Three more series based on shorts debuted from 1997 to 1999: Johnny Bravo, Cow and Chicken, I Am Weasel (the latter two as segments of the same show; I Am Weasel was later spun off into a separate show), The Powerpuff Girls, Courage the Cowardly Dog, and Mike, Lu & Og.The unrelated series Ed, Edd n Eddy was also launched in 1999, creating a line-up of critically acclaimed shows.Many of these series premiered bearing the “Cartoon Cartoons” brand, airing throughout the network’s schedule and prominently on Cartoon Cartoon Fridays, which became the marquee night for premieres of new episodes and series beginning on June 11, 1999.
These original series were intended to appeal to a wider audience than the average Saturday-morning cartoon. Linda Simensky, vice president of original animation, reminded adults and teenage girls that cartoons could appeal to them as well. Kevin Sandler’s article of them claimed that these cartoons were both less “bawdy” than their counterparts at Comedy Central and less “socially responsible” than their counterparts at Nickelodeon. Sandler pointed to the whimsical rebelliousness, high rate of exaggeration and self-consciousness of the overall output, each individual series managed.
In 1995, Cartoon Network launched “Cartoon Network Online” as an America Online exclusive website. It would later merge with ghostplanet.com as simply “CartoonNetwork.com”, and featured games, videos, shopping, Cartoon Orbit, which launched in 2000, and even promotions to movies, video games, food items, toys, etc., such as Campbell’s Soup, Ice Age, the original Spy Kids trilogy, the Cat in the Hat, Juicy Drop Pop, Wonder Ball, Hot Wheels, and so many more. In addition, CartoonNetwork.com also ran Cartoon Network’s first online original series Web Premiere Toons, which mostly featured interactive web cartoons that ran from 1999 to 2002.
In 1996, Cartoon Network decided to air preschool programming and air them every Sunday morning, such as hiring Children’s Television Workshop, the makers of Sesame Street on PBS Kids, to make a show called Big Bag, a live-action/puppet television program targeted at pre-school viewers, as well as Small World, a children’s animated anthology show and variety show, in which showcased featured several segments from animated TV programs aimed at preschoolers from several countries around the world except for Japan, China, and Korea. Big Bag ran until 1998, and Small World ran until 2001.
In 1996, Turner Broadcasting System merged with Time Warner (ironically, Time Warner’s predecessor Warner Communications had created rival Nickelodeon, now owned by Viacom, in 1977). The merger consolidated ownership of all the Warner Bros. cartoons, allowing the post-July 1948 and the former Sunset-owned black-and-white cartoons (which Warner Bros. had reacquired in the 1960s) releases to be shown on the network. Although most of the post-July 1948 cartoons were still contracted to be shown on Nickelodeon and ABC, the network would not air them until September 1999 (from Nickelodeon) and October 2000 (from ABC), however, the majority of the post-July 1948 cartoons that were shown on its now-sibling broadcast network The WB’s Kids’ WB block began airing on Cartoon Network in January 1997. Newer animated productions by Warner Bros.’ animation subsidiary also started appearing on the network – mostly reruns of shows that had aired on Kids’ WB and some from Fox Kids, along with certain new programs such as Justice League.
Cartoon Network’s programming would not be available in Canada until 1997 when a Canadian specialty channel called Teletoon and its French-language counterpart launched.
In 1997, Cartoon Network launched a new action block entitled Toonami. Its lineup initially consisted of 1980s reruns of Robotech and Thundercats. However, new shows were introduced and they consisted of action cartoons and anime, such as Sailor Moon, Tenchi Muyo!, Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, and Dragon Ball Z. Toonami was hosted by Moltar from the Space Ghost franchise until 1999, where Toonami was later hosted by its own original character, a muscular teenage robot named TOM. During that same year, a series of bumpers featuring the instrumental Powerhouse were introduced. These bumpers lasted from 1997 to 2004.
One new original series premiered in 2000: Sheep in the Big City. On April 1, Cartoon Network launched a digital cable and satellite channel known as Boomerang, which was spun off from one of their programming blocks that featured retro animated series and shorts.
Three new original series premiered in 2001: Time Squad, Samurai Jack, and Grim & Evil. On June 18, Betty Cohen, who had served as Cartoon Network’s president since its founding, left due to creative disagreements with Jamie Kellner, then-head of Turner Broadcasting. On August 22, Jim Samples was appointed general manager and Executive Vice President of the network, replacing Cohen. Adult Swim debuted on September 2, with an episode of Home Movies; the block initially aired on Sunday nights, with a repeat telecast on Thursdays. The initial lineup consisted of Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, Sealab 2021, The Brak Show, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and Space Ghost Coast to Coast.
In 2002, Whatever Happened to… Robot Jones? and Codename: Kids Next Door premiered; the former was short-lived, but the latter became a juggernaut for the network in the mid-2000s. The first theatrical film based on a Cartoon Network series, The Powerpuff Girls Movie, was released on July 3, 2002. It received generally positive reviews from critics and grossed $16.4 million globally on a budget of $11 million. On October 1 of that year, Cartoon Network celebrated their tenth anniversary, with a montage showcasing the network’s various phases over the years.
2003 saw the debuts of The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy and Evil Con Carne, both spinoffs of Grim & Evil. On October 3, the Cartoon Cartoon Fridays block was rebooted in a live-action format as “Fridays”, hosted by Tommy Snider and Nzinga Blake (2003–2004), the latter of which was later replaced by Tara Sands (2005–2007). It aired several new Cartoon Network series, most of which did not bear the “Cartoon Cartoon” sub-brand. Acquired shows started picking up again with Totally Spies! the following year in the fall.