In 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.
The 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.
Ultimately, 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.
Weiss 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.
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.