Another important acquisition Time Warner made was of the multimedia company Turner Entertainment, which led to Warner owning the rights to the Popeye cartoons, Hanna-Barbera, Tom and Jerry, Droopy and the entire MGM cartoon library.
Turner began as a billboard company in Savannah, Georgia that Robert Edward Turner II purchased in the late 1940s, later becoming the Turner Advertising Company. After Robert died in 1963, his son Ted Turner inherited the company and expanded the business into radio and television with a name change in 1965 to the Turner Broadcasting System.
In the seventies, Turner purchased a UHF station which revolutionized cable with the concept of the “superstation,” which transmits TV signals to cable systems via satellite across a wide area. HBO had used satellite transmissions earlier but that was a single-network pay service. Turner pioneered the basic cable concept which would bring forth networks like MTV, USA, Syfy, Nickelodeon, etc.
Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) launched as a cable network in 1976. It originally aired movies from the 1930s and 1940s along with reruns of classic shows like Green Acres, The Andy Griffith Show, Leave It to Beaver, Star Trek and The Flintstones in addition to anime like Astro Boy, Speed Racer and Kimba the White Lion. It also aired sports like baseball, basketball, wrestling and NASCAR and later aired sitcoms from the ’80s and ’90s like Seinfeld and Full House. The network now airs its own original content (mostly comedies) including sitcoms (Miracle Workers, The Last O.G.), animated series (American Dad!, Final Space), late night talk shows (Conan, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee) and competition reality shows (The Joker’s Wild, Drop the Mic) as well as syndicated reruns of The Big Bang Theory, Family Guy and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Ted Turner’s biggest score came in 1980 when he founded Cable News Network (CNN) which was so successful that he began planning to build a television empire, starting with acquiring the television rights to various entertainment libraries. One major purchase Turner made in 1986 was the MGM film and television library, which meant Turner not only owned The Wizard of Oz, Tom and Jerry and the RKO film library but also the entire Associated Artists Productions (AAP) library since MGM acquired AAP in 1981 (the AAP library included the pre-1950 WB cartoons and the Paramount Popeye cartoons, which is why you sometimes saw the AAP logo before Merrie Melodies and Popeye cartoons when they aired on television).
The cable network Turner Network Television (TNT) launched in 1988 with the original purpose of airing Turner’s newly acquired library of MGM films (Ted Turner’s favorite film Gone with the Wind was among the first films to air on the network, with both halves of the film airing on two different nights) and animation as well. TNT is still around and it still airs films (not just MGM and RKO films) but it doesn’t air animation anymore. Now it airs original shows and feature films (mostly dramas) as well as sports like basketball and wrestling. A network dedicated exclusively to animation was still to come.
In 1991 when Turner outbid companies like Hallmark and Universal owner MCA over the rights to Hanna-Barbera and Ruby-Spears, Turner decided to launch a network that would serve as an outlet for his vast animation library. Cartoon Network was launched in 1992 with Turner hoping to replicate the equally unlikely success of CNN, a 24-hour news network, with a 24-hour animation network.
Although Cartoon Network aired shows in the nineties that were simulcast on TBS and/or TNT like The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, 2 Stupid Dogs and Cartoon Planet, Cartoon Network would also air its own original programming, beginning with the 1993 anthology series The Moxy Show.
Although Space Ghost Coast to Coast (1994) a talk show parody featuring recycled and newly dubbed Hanna-Barbera animation and live-action guests attracted adult audiences and served as the basis for what would eventually become the network’s programming block Adult Swim.
Cartoon Network mostly aired Looney Tunes, MGM cartoons and Hanna-Barbera shows in the beginning and programming blocks included Toonami which aired anime and action cartoons, Cartoon Theater which aired feature films and Super Chunk which aired marathons.
The Hanna-Barbera anthology series What a Cartoon! created by Fred Seibert served as a launchpad for potential pilots for original programming, the first one being Genndy Tartakovsky’s Dexter’s Laboratory which everyone liked the most.
Other original series launched by What a Cartoon! include Johnny Bravo, Cow and Chicken, The Powerpuff Girls, Courage the Cowardly Dog and Mike, Lu & Og. The network also had popular original programming like Ed, Edd n Eddy, Samurai Jack, The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy and Codename: Kids Next Door.
Cartoon Network’s shows are so popular that the network now mostly airs original programming and Turner’s classic animation library has been relegated to Boomerang.
Following Turner’s purchase of Castle Rock Entertainment and New Line Cinema in 1993 and the launch of Turner Classic Movies in 1994, Turner finally merged with Warner Bros. in 1996 when Time Warner bought Turner, which returned the television rights to the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies back to Warner and also gave Warner the rights to the MGM films and caused Hanna-Barbera to fold into Warner Bros. Animation, leading to a steady stream of Scooby-Doo and Tom and Jerry content on television and DVD from WB.
Before the Turner-Time Warner merger, Turner had gone into feature animation development with Turner Feature Animation, founded in 1991 by David Kirschner and Paul Gertz and spun off from Hanna-Barbera’s feature film division.
The two films produced under Turner’s animation unit were The Pagemaster released by 20th Century Fox in 1994 and Cats Don’t Dance released by WB in 1997, although both films were not financially successful and after the Time Warner merger, Turner Feature Animation folded into Warner Bros. Feature Animation which only produced Space Jam (1996), Quest for Camelot (1998), The Iron Giant (1999), Osmosis Jones (2001) and Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003).
Other than Space Jam, none of these films were successful at the box office due in part to WB’s frustrating tendency to hold back on promoting their films, which similarly sank the box office chances of other animated films released by WB like Hyperion’s Rover Dangerfield (1991) and Don Bluth’s Thumbelina (1994), A Troll in Central Park (1994) and The Pebble and the Penguin (1995).
After Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Warner Bros. Feature Animation died and WB stayed in the feature film animation game via the distribution of films like Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and Animal Logic’s Happy Feet and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole before making a comeback in 2013 when the head of WB’s motion picture division Jeff Robinov started a “think tank” for developing theatrical animated films dubbed the Warner Animation Group (WAG), which WB hoped would help them compete with studios like Disney, Pixar and Illumination.
The WAG think tank includes John Requa & Glenn Ficarra (writers on the Nickelodeon series The Angry Beavers and the films Bad Santa and Bad News Bears and directors of I Love You Phillip Morris and Crazy, Stupid, Love), Nicholas Stoller (director of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Neighbors and Storks and writer of The Muppets and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie), Jared Stern (writer on The Lego Batman Movie and creator of the Netflix series Green Eggs and Ham) and Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (Directors of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie).
This group hit instant gold with their first film The Lego Movie.
The idea for The Lego Movie was first conceived by Dan Lin (producer of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and Aladdin films) before he left WB to form his own production company, but WB Home Entertainment executive Kevin Tsujihara, who helped orchestrate WB’s purchase of Traveller’s Tales (the video game developer behind the Lego video games) saw value in the franchise as a film series based on its popularity as a video game.
Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were signed on to direct and Australian studio Animal Logic would animate it.
Lord, Miller and co-director Chris McKay surprised everyone by creating what could have been a cynical cash grab but instead turned out to be one of the most fun and creative animated films ever made and it was a critical and commercial success.
WAG followed The Lego Movie up with The Lego Batman Movie (2017) directed by Chris McKay, The Lego Ninjago Movie (2017) directed by Charlie Bean and The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (2019) directed by Mike Mitchell.
Other WAG films include Storks (2016) directed by Nicholas Stoller and Doug Sweetland, Smallfoot (2018) directed by Karey Kirkpatrick and Scoob! (2020) directed by Tony Cervone with Tom and Jerry and Space Jam 2 on the way.
WB recently lost the rights to the Lego franchise to Universal and now that WAG lost their only smash hit, they are going to have to prove themselves yet again as they dig into WB’s vast animation library for new feature film content. They certainly have a lot to choose from.
WarnerMedia now has the rights to Looney Tunes, the MGM films, Hanna-Barbera, the DC Universe and the networks TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and Boomerang, not to mention CNN, TruTV, HBO, Cinemax, 50% of The CW and the streaming service HBO Max.