By Yvonne Villarreal
7:15 AM CDT, July 23, 2013
Veteran character actor Jack McGee, known for his stints on "NYPD Blue" and "Rescue Me," is in a shoe-box-sized room gobbling like a turkey — to the immense pleasure of four grown men.
"Sound a little more defeated," the writers and producers instruct him.
Playing an evil ruler of a planet has its challenges — more so when it's an animated character dubbed Turkey Turkey.
"What is this? Which network is this for?" McGee asks with a quizzical face once he's finished.
The show is called "Axe Cop," and it's one of Fox's animated commissions that will be vying for attention on Saturday nights. Yes, Saturday nights.
The network long ago established a firm grip in the animation genre with its Sunday-night block of cartoons, propped by stalwarts "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy." Now it's coloring a bit outside the lines, delving further into the circuit with a project it calls Animation Domination High-Def.
The outpost of programming aspires to serve as a destination for an audience of adolescents and young men who might rather spend their Saturday nights partying or playing "Metal Gear Rising."
Its slate of 10-to-12-minute off-kilter cartoons will air on TV's castaway night from 11 p.m. to midnight — a tricky slot ignored by most networks (and most viewers). Showing its hipness, the experience won't stop at the remote. The animated shows will be supplemented with digital frills on the Internet (GIFs, animated shorts, user-adapted content, etc.) — making the ADHD acronym all the more fitting.
It's the network's latest experiment in blurring the TV and online borders. Earlier this year Fox inked a partnership with YouTube's WIGS channel to serve as a broadcast incubator.
As the network attempts to fill a void once occupied by zany sketch show "Mad TV," it does so while attempting to reimagine the costly and lengthy animation process.
"I had this idea of creating a subsidiary that could really benefit from Fox's dominance in our brand of animation, which is a huge part of our identity," said Kevin Reilly, the network's chairman of entertainment. "But I really wanted a whole different culture — something a little more alternative, something more experimental."
Something more like Cartoon Network's Adult Swim?
It looks that way. The network hired former Adult Swim development head Nick Weidenfeld and producer Hend Baghdady as executives to run the enterprise.
And it's an ambitious one.
Fox is providing financing for three and a half years and is aiming to launch 13 quarter-hour series and three half-hours in that time.
Spearheading the venture are "Axe Cop," based on the popular web comic about a stoic, mustached crime fighter who eats only birthday cake, and "High School USA!" — imagine an Archie Comics for the "Eastbound & Down" crowd. January will see two more shows premiere.
It begins in its regular time slot this week after getting a special prime-time preview last Sunday alongside "Family Guy" — a place any one of the ADHD shows might one day occupy, if all goes well.
"More than breaking into late-night, I see this as a seeding ground for prime time," Reilly said. "I would like to grow the next 'Family Guy' out of that period. I want to try things out that can succeed on a more modest level and really percolate. I'm hoping a few rise to the surface that can graduate to Sundays."
It's a lofty task that's apparent in Weidenfeld's demeanor weeks ahead of the broadcast launch. The long days have left the 33-year-old, who began his career as a journalist before a freelance story on Adult Swim led to a gig there, with weary eyes and disorganized thoughts — he speaks with more dashes and ellipses than periods.
"We're building something new," he said. "It's not easy."
But it is cheaper and faster. That's what has Fox hooked.
Everything — even the animation, which on other shows is traditionally sent off to South Korea — is done under one roof at a trendy, 12,500-square-foot studio on Sunset Boulevard, allowing for more collaboration between writers and animators. The compact episodes also help in keeping costs down. So, too, does the controversial non-union status of the studio.
In the time it might take just to develop one animated half-hour prime-time show, ADHD is developing, producing and putting on four shows. One six-episode season of an ADHD series costs less to produce than a single half-hour episode of one of Fox's Sunday staples, Baghdady said. And unlike its other animated series, Fox has ownership of the content — allowing the network to distribute it however it pleases.
Whether the quality of the shows is compromised as a result of the process is up to genre enthusiasts to decide, but Baghdady insists they've "created a very efficient system."
Of course, it took some time.
"It was like building the bike while riding it," Weidenfeld said of the year-and-a-half-in-the-making process. "We were building the business while finding the shows."
Weidenfeld enlisted the assistance of animation veterans Matt Silverstein and Dave Jeser (Comedy Central's "Drawn Together," Fox's "The Cleveland Show") to serve as showrunners and veritable script whisperers, helping budding talent polish ideas. Another known name in the animation circuit is Dino Stamatopoulos, creator of ADHD's "High School USA!," who was behind Adult Swim's "Moral Orel."
New talent is key, though, to forming ADHD's brand of programming — which, unlike Adult Swim, lacks cynicism, Weidenfeld said. The rookie roster includes identical twin brothers Kenny and Keith Lucas (known as the Lucas Brothers) and Joshua Miller, the creator of the forthcoming "Golan the Insatiable," about a warlord transplanted to Minnesota.
The voice talent behind the characters features some very recognizable TV names, including Patton Oswalt ("The United States of Tara"), Nick Offerman ("Parks and Recreation"), singer Mandy Moore, Ken Marino ("Children's Hospital," "Party Down"), Megan Mullally ("Will & Grace") and Vincent Kartheiser ("Mad Men").
Everyone involved seems to be entering with realistic expectations, in terms of ratings and advertising revenue.
"I do not expect to turn the lights on and take over the world," Reilly said. "It takes a while to form a new habit and get animation fans aware of what's on."
Fox's less high-profile animated series "Bob's Burgers" generated $22.7 million in ad revenue last season — less than a quarter of what "Family Guy" brought in, but still hefty. With ADHD, aimed at hard-to-reach 18-34 males, traditional advertising is getting chucked. Advertising blocks will run at the top, middle and end of the half-hours, leaving each series to run uninterrupted. The goal is eventually to have ADHD-created cartoon-ads.
"This is either going to be a really awesome and successful risk," Weidenfeld said, "or a disaster — but an inexpensive one."
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