Christopher P. Lehman
April 8, 2017 posted by Christopher P. Lehman

Terrytoons – The Viacom Years

terrytoons-84In the summer of 1970, a US government agency–the Federal Communications Commission–was concerned about the television networks having too much influence in American media. The agency devised solutions to weaken network dominance, and one of them–the start of prime time at 8:00 p.m. EST instead of 7:30–still exists to this day. The ruling was meant to give local stations the time to provide original programming, but many of the stations elected to broadcast syndicated shows. In addition, the FCC prohibited television networks from owning cable television systems and syndicating television programs. This directive had fatal consequences for one of the most successful animation studios in New York.

To comply with the new law, the CBS television network created the company Viacom International to handle all of the network’s interests beyond television production and network broadcasting. At the time a network subsidiary called CBS Enterprises had facilitated the non-network activities, and since 1955 the animation studio Terrytoons had belonged to that subsidiary. However, on June 4, 1971, CBS officially divested itself completely of its non-network interests–including Terrytoons–and transferred them to Viacom. Incidentally, the studio’s founder Paul Terry, who sold his business to CBS in 1955, lived to see the network pass it on to Viacom; he died four months later.

new-terrytoons-comicsThe transfer to Viacom put the studio on unfamiliar ground. When Terrytoons was a part of CBS, the studio had a home in a network that produced programs either for the network or for syndication to independent television stations. Terrytoons had made both kinds of cartoons–Tom Terrific for CBS and Deputy Dawg for syndication. Viacom, on the other hand, was strictly an outfit for syndicating new programs and reruns from various producers; at the time, it did not produce its own product. Thus, Terrytoons stuck out at Viacom as an active production company still developing ideas for programs. Also, CBS had allowed 20th Century-Fox to distribute Terrytoons’ new cartoons to theaters, but Viacom dealt strictly with television syndication.

Upon acquiring Terrytoons, Viacom benefited from whatever revenue Terrytoons generated from its cartoons. The studio’s stars were on diverse licensed products. Gold Key published New Terrytoons comic books, and Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle appeared in coloring books, on lunch boxes, and as toys and board games. Old cartoons appeared in syndication. Even competing networks drew from the studio for their weekend lineups. In 1971 Heckle and Jeckle concluded a two-year run on ABC, and Deputy Dawg started a one-season rerun tenure on NBC. Meanwhile, 20th Century-Fox released old made-for-television cartoons starring Astronut, Hector Heathcoate, and the Mighty Heroes to theaters.

terrytoons-viacomUltimately, Viacom maintained the licensing agreements, but the other actions were suspended. The company stopped the broadcasting of the studio’s old cartoons to television networks, choosing to syndicate the films it now owned. Viacom also curtailed the domestic reissues of old cartoons to theaters through Twentieth Century-Fox, winding down a three-decade relationship with the distributor.

Most importantly, Terrytoons’ existence as an active animation studio came to an end. The deaths in recent years of directors Connie Rasinski, Bob Kuwahara, and Art Bartsch and the defection of director Ralph Bakshi to Paramount reduced Terrytoons to executive producer Bill Weiss, story supervisor Tom Morrison, and a skeleton staff by 1971. Nevertheless, Viacom kept the studio in operation until late 1972. That October the company announced that Terrytoons would vacate its old premises at New Rochelle and relocate to Viacom offices in New York City before the end of the month. Then, on December 29, Viacom sold the abandoned New Rochelle facility, and the company’s ties to animation production were forever severed.

viacom-logoWeiss continued Terrytoons business activities from his New York City office through the 1970s, but any new animation of the studio’s stars came from other facilities. Filmation produced new episodes of Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle in 1979, and Bakshi’s independent studio revived Mighty Mouse eight years later. Both programs found a network home on CBS. Years later the FCC rules were relaxed to the point where networks could hold non-network entities, and CBS now owns Terrytoons once again (through the CBS Corporation). However, the reunion does not change that the FCC’s original ruling set in motion the events that doomed a venerable and thriving animation studio to extinction.


As an addendum, I am attaching the ownership record of the Terrytoons studio building (38 Centre Avenue) in New Rochelle, New York. It shows that Terrytoons bought the building in 1949; CBS Films took over ownership after taking over Terrytoons in 1956. Viacom is recorded as owning the building after CBS, corresponding to Viacom’s inheritance of CBS Films’s properties in 1971. Finally, Viacom’s sale of the building to another company on December 29, 1972 is also recorded there.

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The rarely seen opening and closing titles to the last Terrytoon CBS Network series – Mighty Mouse and The Mighty Heroes. Quality here is poor – but it seemed an apt choice to include with this post.

11 Comments

  • Will these toons ever be released on DVD for public consumption?

  • Mighty Mouse & the Mighty Heroes aired opposite DFE’s The Super 6. Glad I never had to make that “Sophie’s choice”.

  • There were a few experiments from Viacom to produce new material with the characters, such as this pilot below, produced around 1997 – 98:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQZ-uu93p00&index=386&list=PLedflAfnnzWZYbds8pko9UA7qPAZW9eLT

    Apparently, I heard some interesting story somewhere that Jerry Beck’s Hornswiggle from 2008 was originally planned to star Sidney the Elephant, but plans fell through and Jerry created his own character: a lovable rhino (I hope Jerry can answer this one. It’s been bugging me for awhile)..

    • I’ve actively fought to keep ANYONE from seeing that awful CURBSIDE pilot (which I had nothing to with) for years. Why? Because I spent several years before its production working to revive the Terrytoon characters at Nickelodeon – and trying to clear the rights with Viacom to allow Nick to do so. A year after I left (in 1997), my efforts paid off – Viacom cleared the rights for Nick to proceed. However, in my absence no one there had any feel or POV on how to adapt the characters for Nickelodeon. (I moved on to Disney and Kidscreen). Mary Harrington brought Bob Taylor in (a potentially good idea), but you can see the results – CURBSIDE set back any appetite to revive Terrytoons every since.

      That didn’t stop me, and when Fred Seibert offered to take me seriously about all this, I first pitched a revival of Tom Teriffic (with Tom Kenny as a partner on it) and later came back with Sidney. The Sidney development lasted a year – assembling artists, directors, storyboarding a pilot… and finally, when all the ducks were in a row, they essentially said (I’m leaving out tons of detail here), they would do it if I changed the lead character to ANYTHING but Sidney the Elephant.

      After biting my tongue, and screaming at the walls, I had my artists re-do everything as Hornswiggle the Rhino. Fred and Nick green lit it… and the pilot was produced. Today, Hornswiggle belongs to me – so if anyone wants to license a comic book, make a tee-shirt or produce new cartoons – let’s talk!

  • When the Prime Time Access Rule went into effect, the FCC made a statement about how it would spark a new era of creativity by local stations as they strived to create original programming to fill that half-four. What actually happened, though, is that the 7:30-8:00 time slot was filled, by most stations in most markets, by cheaply-produced game shows or reruns of old sitcoms. What “original programming” was generated was rarely inspiring. The likes of OZZIE’S GIRLS (a retread of that wheezy chestnut OZZIE AND HARRIET, with two college girls subbed in for David and Ricky) and DUSTY’S TRAIL (a virtual remake of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, with Bob Denver and crew lost in the old west instead of being stranded on a desert island).

    • The only thing I recall was the old PM Magazine, which had different editions for different stations. A kind of mutual effort. Had a very freaky-deaky animated opening that screams 1970s.

  • So sad to read of the fate of Terrytoons. Say what you will about Paul Terry’s cartoons, but there is indeed some worth there, and now, I’ll bet that finding pristine copies of so many of those old cartoons is mighty tough! I do so hope I’m wrong and, by the way, I, too, would love to get a couple of sets of fully restored TERRYTOONS, similar to the WOODY WOODPECKER AND FRIENDS compilations around the cartoons of Walter Lantz. I’ve seen my share of independently produced compilations, some which contain splicey and edited versions of the cartoons, and I still hold out dimming hopes that we could see a restoration in my lifetime.

  • I remember one time that there was two pilot episodes that Terrytoons produced The Ruby Eye of The Monkey God and Sally Sargent I would of love to see these two pilot get their own series especially Sally Sargent as a daughter of a popular US Senator moonlighting as a operative for a super secret intelligence organization and have a update showing her as a US Senator like her Father and have two teenage children of her own and are also operatives for the same Super Secret intelligence organization like their mother.

  • Didn’t Heckle and Jeckle air on NBC from 1969-71?

  • Interesting to note that the billboard the Mighty Heroes crash into at the end of the titles is atop a building whose upper stories bear a close resemblance to the Pershing Building in New Rochelle where Terrytoons was headquartered.

  • I’ve seen both “Sally Sargent” and “Ruby Eye…” I liked Sally a lot, sort of a female Jonny Quest type character. Wasn’t as fond of “Ruby Eye,” but it was another interesting try at an adventure cartoon format. Obviously it had some proposed title as a series, wish I knew what it was. I am guessing it and Sally were intended to be segments in the same show.
    The Total Television partners (Watts Biggers, Chet Stover, Treadwell Covington, and the recently-departed Joe Harris) made a pilot film called “The Colossal Show” at Terrytoons around 1970; under a deal by which Terrytoons would replace the closed-down Mexican studio Gamma Productions as their “footage factory.” NBC bought the show then reneged on the deal; a comic book was published, but the pilot film is considered lost. The show’s premise was sort of a precursor to Hanna-Barbera’s “The Roman Hollidays,” the-Flintstones-in-togas; “Mr. Colossal,” the lead character, was a flustered show-biz type patterned on Phil Silvers.
    After that, the TTV crew apparently stayed on for a year or two at Terrytoons, functioning as their story department and developing presentations for series that were never made; one was a spoof of the Hatfield-McCoy feud, which I would imagine being a series of Road Runner-type “backfire” gags.

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