Pokemon has been around for so many years that it’s difficult to remember a time when the franchise wasn’t around in some form or another. It seems like (until recently) every year kids watched the newest Pokemon episode wondering if this was going to be the day when Ash Ketchum FINALLY becomes a Pokemon Master! We’re even at a point when parents are bringing their own kids to Pokemon movies (something they made their own parents do when they were younger).

If there is a group who remembers a time before Pokemon it may be long-time employees of Warner Bros. Animation. Specifically, the division in the company that was tasked with making animated shows for networks like Fox Kids, Kids WB, and Cartoon Network. For they have their own Pokemon story that was life-changing, but to hear them tell it theirs isn’t quite as nice or nostalgic as the memories most kids have of the property.

Kids WB and Fox Kids Before Pokemon

Fox Kids

Warner Bros. Animation started aggressively producing animated series for Fox Kids in 1992. They produced a number of hit series for the network including Tiny Toon Adventures, Batman: The Animated Series, and Animaniacs (which, it should be noted, got a reboot by Hulu of which the third season has premiered). Many of these shows became huge hits, with critical praise coming from journalists who considered many of the shows to be ushering in a new golden age of TV animation. One of the reasons may have been because Steven Spielberg produced many of the shows, and he ensured that the series produced were of high quality.

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So successful were many of these shows, that Warner Bros. were essentially the creators of Fox Kids biggest hits. When The WB was formed many of these hit shows were carried over to the networks own children block Kids WB, with new additions like Freekazoid, Histeria, and The Adventures of Superman carrying on the winning streak (with the former two still having the almighty Spielberg as a producer). While there was a flop here and there (let's not dwell on Detention any longer than we have to), very few people would deny that Warner Bros. Animation was on fire when it came to their television output.

Kids WB Acquires the Rights to Pokemon

ash misty brock pikachu and togepi

In the middle of this incredible winning streak, a little anime from Japan called Pokemon was airing in syndication. The English dub was from a little known company called 4Kids Entertainment, and they achieved a rare success in syndication that most new shows rarely achieved. When it was announced that the rights to future seasons were up for grabs, Warner Bros. made a bid and acquired the rights to Pokemon.

When the show aired on Kids WB later that year the ratings were through the roof. PokeMania hit a second wave of popularity, and Kids WB became the number one show in all the kids programming blocks. Warner Bros. tripled down on Pokemon and even got into the movie side of things by releasing Pokemon: The First Movie, which is still highest grossing anime film in America. For Warner Bros, there was a lot to be happy about Though the parent company might have been happy, the trickle-down effect was pretty distasrous for Warner Bros. Animation.

Warner Bros. Decided Outsourcing Was the Way to Go

Astro Boy 2003 cover

While kids were enjoying the adventures of Pikachu and his cute friends, fans of other Kids WB shows were not as happy. Animaniacs was canceled one episode show of its 100th episode. Batman Beyond did not receive a third season that was originally promised to the creators. Static Shock was given the ax despite consistent, good ratings. As the next few years went by fans of Warner Bros. Animation couldn’t help but notice an awful lot of shows were getting canceled in favor of extra episodes of Pokemon, new anime like Astro Boy and Viewtiful Joe, and newest kid craze Yu-Gi-Oh!

Turns out, this wasn’t a coincidence. Tom Ruegger, one of the creators of Animaniacs, was asked why the show was canceled despite good ratings, and he gave an honest answer:

Kids’ WB was handed Pokemon for free and it pulled down big numbers — so then they wanted everything for free.

While this was a snarky (and possibly bitter) response, the implication was clear: Pokemon was cheap and brought in lots of money, and Kids WB wanted more of that. Other animators at Warner Bros. Animation expressed similar frustrations about how successful Pokemon was in contrast to how much it cost to produce. It was much cheaper to pay 4Kids Entertainment for dubbed anime that turned out to be big hits. Why spend tons of money on another season of The Zeta Project when that same money will buy you three times the amount of Pikachu (with money left over for two seasons of Yu-Gi-Oh!)?

To a certain extent, this even extended to the feature film department. When Pokemon: The First Movie did huge box office numbers compared to the costly flops of Quest for Camelot and The Iron Giant…well, as a publicly traded company, it made more sense to place your chips on Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! movies instead. This wasn’t the case forever. At one point Pokemon’s popularity leveled out, Kids WB ceased production, and more original animation was funneled into Cartoon Network. These days even the feature film division has picked up again with theatrical hits like The LEGO Movie and Smallfoot.

Warner Bros. even got back into bed with Pokemon once more with the release of Pokemon: Detective Pikachu. And while it’s great that Pokemon and Kids WB opened the doors to anime becoming more mainstream, its also worth noting the harm that the success of this show caused to the American animation industry. It's great that things leveled out, and we’re now getting the best of both worlds, but if you wonder why producers of Warner Bros. Animation don’t think too highly of Pokemon these days…well, this may explain a lot.

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