The Stone Age Of Prime Time Cartoons: A Look Back At ABC’s Failed Attempt To Capitalize On The Flintstones


Source: IMDb

1960-61: The Flintstones Premieres

In 1960, ABC premiered the first prime time animated series, The Flintstones. All previous attempts at animation in prime time had simply been showcases of animated shorts; The Flintstones was a half-hour comedy aimed at adults and airing in prime time. While it has a strong legacy now, initially the ratings were only undeniably strong for the first three seasons of the show’s six-season run. The Flintstones proved right away that an animated sitcom could work in prime time. 

Airing Fridays at 8:30 pm, The Flintstones was tasked with airing after an hour of programming that included Matty’s Funday Funniest and Harrigan and Son. Both series wound up canceled at the end of the season, whereas The Flintstones ranked 5th on ABC and 18th on television. It won its time slot with a 24.3 rating, beating competition that included Route 66, the lead-out to one of the highest-rated series on all of television. Despite initial poor critical reception, The Flintstones was clearly a popular show in its first season, and was even nominated for an Emmy in the category known today as Outstanding Comedy Series. 

1961-62: ABC Expands Animation

Top Cat as later shown in color. Source: IMDb

Fresh off the success of The Flintstones, ABC ordered three new animated series for the 1961-62 season: Top Cat, Calvin and the Colonel, and Beany and Cecil. Top Cat was created by the same duo who created The Flintstones, becoming the second Hanna-Barbera Production to air in prime time. Calvin and the Colonel was an animated version of the radio comedy Amos ‘n’ Andy, which played from 1928 through 1960. Beany and Cecil was targeted toward a younger audience and was essentially a full-length spinoff from the preexisting show Matty’s Funday Funnies, showcasing animated shorts. Despite promise on paper, all three shows were canceled after one season. This was arguably a result of scheduling, and, of course, the shows themselves. 

In the 1961-62 TV season, The Flintstones remained in the Fridays at 8:30 pm time slot, this time as part of a lineup made up almost entirely out of new series. All four of the new series were canceled at the end of the season, with only The Flintstones (#21) and lead-out 77 Sunset Strip (#30) registering in the season’s Top 30 highest-rated series. The Flintstones was down 6% in the ratings from its first season, but up to fourth place on the network.

ABC’s failure to pair up either of their two new animated sitcoms with The Flintstones is a baffling decision. There was plenty of room to launch a new sitcom on Fridays. In fact, ABC did launch a new sitcom at 8 pm in The Hathaways. It too was canceled after a single season, as were both occupants of the 7:30 pm time slot (sitcom Margie replaced half-hour drama Straightaway midseason).

Instead of pairing up one or both of Top Cat and Calvin and the Colonel in a block with The Flintstones, ABC opted to air them on other nights of the week. Top Cat aired Wednesdays at 8:30, first following ABC’s version of The Steve Allen Show. When that got canceled, aforementioned one-and-done half-hour drama Straightaway moved to Wednesdays to be Top Cat’s lead-in. Competition to Top Cat included NBC’s The Joey Bishop Show, which made the Top 30 highest-rated series by airing directly after the #1 show on television. 

Calvin and the Colonel aired Tuesdays at 8:30 after ABC’s edition of the sitcom Bachelor Father, and against CBS’s relatively high-rated series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Bachelor Father seperated Calvin and The Colonel from The Bugs Bunny Show, which aired briefly in prime time featuring a mixture of new segments and past theatrical releases. It’s not The Flintstones, but it’s certainly more compatible than Bachelor Father. By November, Calvin and the Colonel had been pulled from the schedule, later returning Saturdays at 7:30 pm after Beany and Cecil. For once, ABC paired together two of their animated shows, but the effort was futile given the time slot and the fact Calvin and the Colonel had already failed.

However, not everything that went wrong can be blamed on scheduling. It’s important to remember that while a cartoon that took place in the prehistoric ages, The Flintstones still featured people as its main characters. In this respect, it was much closer to the adult animated shows on the air today than the ones on at the time. Calvin and the Colonel did not have any humans. Top Cat was primarily comprised of cats, the one exception being an antagonist police officer who looks as if Fred Flintstone got the Simpsons treatment. Beany and Cecil featured a mixture of humans and animals for its short run in the Saturdays at 7 pm time slot. 

Additionally, it must be remembered that at this point in time, very few TV shows had been broadcast in color. In fact, ABC did not have the ability to broadcast any of their programming in color until fall 1962. At that point, The Flintstones was aired in color as originally intended. However, in the 1961-62 season, all of these shows were produced in color but broadcast in black and white. It’s quite possible that The Flintstones then succeeded in spite of being an animated series, as technological limitations hindered these shows from being aired in the way they were produced. 

1962-63: The Switch To Color & The Jetsons Premieres

Souce: IMDb

The true test for the future of animation on ABC would come in the 1962-63 season, where Hanna-Barbera offered the network The Jetsons. It was set in the future, aimed toward an adult audience, and seen as a companion to The Flintstones. The Jetsons would make history as the first animated prime time sitcom to air in color start-to-finish. The Flintstones would also switch over to color broadcasts that season. 

ABC passed up yet another opportunity to pair up The Flintstones with a fellow animated sitcom, this one the most puzzling decision of all. Instead, they aired The Jetsons Sundays at 7:30 in between reruns of Father Best and a two-hour ‘Hollywood Special,’ while the post-Flintstones time slot went to the new live-action sitcom I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster. Both The Jetsons and I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster were canceled after one season.

The Jetsons soon proved to be a popular series, with reruns of the first season gaining traction on Saturday mornings in the 1963-64 season. The Saturday morning airings even made their way to CBS and NBC before two revival seasons were produced in syndication in the mid-1980s. One can only imagine how The Jetsons would have done if it was given a proper chance in prime time. 

1963-64 and 1964-65: The Flintstones Declines, Jonny Quest Premieres As The Future Of Animation Looks Bleak

Source: IMDb

ABC’s prime time schedule in 1963-64 was light on animation. The Flintstones made the move from its lifelong Friday time slot to Thursdays at 7:30, and for the first time ever was not one of the top 30 highest-rated shows on television. ABC did try a new Hannah-Barbera animated series Fridays at 7:30 pm in the 1964-65 season in Jonny Quest. By December, Jonny Quest and The Flintstones had swapped time slots with each other. Like The Jetsons and Top Cat, as well as all of ABC’s other attempts at prime time animation, Jonny Quest wound up canceled by ABC after one season. 

The Saturday Morning Rerun Factor

After its cancelation, The Jetsons soon proved to be a popular series. Reruns of the first season began gaining traction on Saturday mornings in the 1963-64 season. The Saturday morning airings even made their way to CBS and NBC before two revival seasons were produced in syndication in the mid-1980s. One can only imagine how The Jetsons would have done if it was given a proper chance in prime time. The Flintstones and The Jetsons are seen as such natural companions today, but ABC’s schedule in the 1962-63 season wouldn’t allow it.  

While The Jetsons is arguably the most-remembered ABC cartoon outside of The Flintstones, Top Cat also ended up having a legacy. NBC reran Top Cat for several years on Saturday mornings in color following its cancelation on ABC. The show is still in syndication on Boomerang today, despite having only aired 30 episodes. Perhaps the show was a year ahead of its time, and unable to work in black-and-white. It’s also plausible it found an audience simply by being a cartoon on Saturday mornings. However, the poor scheduling on ABC’s part certainly did not help Top Cat’s case, and arguably was a major factor in its cancelation. 

Even Jonny Quest found success after its cancelation on ABC. It aired in syndication for two decades, making its way across ABC, CBS, and NBC. This led to a new batch of episodes being produced for syndication in the mid-1980s, followed by a (poorly-received) revival series in the mid-1990s on Cartoon Network. 

Final Thoughts 

Source: TV Insider

The Flintstones notably had ratings troubles in its final few seasons. Even if ABC had paired up Jonny Quest and The Flintstones, it may have been too little too late. The Flintstones was #60 in the ratings in its fifth season, and a paltry #21 on the network. It would fall again to #70 overall and #24 on ABC in 1965-66 before being canceled. 

With The Flintstones on the decline, it’s hard to gauge if subsequent seasons of the likes of Top Cat or The Jetsons would have held up in the ratings, even if they hypothetically had a breakout first season in a block with The Flintstones. Still, one has to wonder if even The Flintstones was damaged by ABC’s arguable mishandling of their animation department. The Flintstones is a show known practically universally today; that’s not what one would expect for a show that flamed out over a six season run in the early 1960s.

The Flintstones’ final season on ABC would be the last season any network would attempt adult animation in prime time until FOX experimented with The Simpsons in the late 1980s. Whereas FOX slowly but surely built an animated block full of recognizable series, ABC’s attempt at adult animation in the 1960s is known best through the subsequent Saturday morning rerun airings. Perhaps FOX learned from ABC’s failure to launch an animated brand, making sure The Simpsons didn’t go the way of The Flintstones. Either way, it’s arguable that ABC’s approach to animation in the early 1960s may just have delayed the genre’s success in prime time. Now it’s time to see how an upcoming Flintstones sequel series, Bedrock, fares at FOX.

The Flintstones Ratings

This ratings chart was compiled using our Ratings History Library. Data beyond the third season is limited due to The Flintstones’ declining ratings. 

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