After six years at the Cartoon Network, Mark McCray became a Senior Manger of Programming Operations at Adult Swim. McCray is not only one of the lucky few who turned something he loved into a career, but his love of animation also inspired him to write a book. Titled The Best Saturdays of Our Lives, McCray’s book is a compilation of newsletters that chronicle the rise and fall of Saturday morning programming. Wanting to learn more about his career and this book, I was able to interview McCray for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: When you were a kid, what cartoons and other programming for children impacted you the most? Of those shows, which do you feel have influenced you the most?
Mark McCray: There were several Saturday morning shows that made an impact on me growing up. The first one was the Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure (1967). When I was about 4 or 5-years-old, I thought I was watching a Superman cartoon and next thing you know The Justice League of America shows up. It was the first time that I saw Superman with Green Lantern, Hawkman, The Flash and The Atom and I was just blown away as a viewer. The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure was my first introduction to the expanded DC Universe. The next influence was Josie and the Pussycats. As a viewer, the first shock came when I heard Patrice Holloway, who is an African-American, sing the Josie show open. Up until the debut of Josie, African-Americans singers and musicians had minimal involvement in high-profile music animation projects. Another creative surprise about Josie and the Pussycats was the story content. Josie and her and her friends were battling legendary super villains like Captain Nemo, The Invisible Man (called Mr. X) and a few James Bond influenced villains. There was no unmasking on the Josie series, and you knew the plot points within the first 5 minutes of episode. In addition, the series was beautifully scored by Ted Nichols, Hanna-Barbera’s Musical Director who is also interviewed in my book. Josie and the Pussycats transformed me from a television viewer to a television researcher. Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Filmation Studios live-action Shazam! series from the 1974-75 season which I thought was just great! It was the first time that I sent a fan letter to a show unit. I received an autographed picture of the Shazam! cast and years later at San Diego comic con, I met actor Michael Gray, who played Billy Batson on the Shazam! series. We had a great conversation and I felt like my career came full circle since Shazam! was an early influence.
Yanes: You have an amazing career in the entertainment industry. When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in entertainment? Was there a moment in which this goal crystalized for you?
McCray: By middle school, I became totally obsessed with television programming strategy. I would call up the networks and ask which series were going to be renewed and canceled and the kids at school called me the “walking TV guide” because I could tell them if their favorite series was going to live or die. However, I had a wonderful teacher who encouraged and stressed to me that I have could have a real career in television. Over the course of the entire year, she would remind me that I should think seriously about studying television communications which give me a goal for college.
Yanes: What do you see as the biggest changes to have shaped the television industry in your lifetime? Additionally, what technology and other potential disrupters are you the most interested in currently?
McCray: When I started in the industry, I worked as a librarian in the Cartoon Network library where it was my job to provide tapes to the network so that promos could be created. Tapes would often break or go missing. One of the biggest changes and benefits that I believe shaped the television industry was the elimination of tape delivery and the creation of digital content delivery. The Streaming Wars are the probably the biggest industry disrupter currently. This past August, I was selling books at the Power Con convention and met a convention attendee who told me that his two-year-old son had never watched traditional television, but since his family was staying at the convention hotel, the father decided to ditch the laptop and let his son watch traditional television. However, every time a commercial aired, the toddler would cry and look at his parents wondering why his content was being interrupted. I though the story was funny but reflects the challenge of keeping viewers interested in your content as well as understanding the right balance between traditional television, (which still generates huge revenue), and streaming which represents the future of entertainment.
Yanes: In 2015 you published the book The Best Saturdays of Our Lives. What was the inspiration for creating this book?
McCray: I was inspired by celebrity/host Steve Harvey to write my book. After Steve Harvey wrote “Act Like A Lady, Think Like a Man,” I realized that his book totally transformed his personal brand which opened doors to wonderful opportunities. While I thought it was cool and funny that some of my colleagues at Cartoon Network and Adult Swim referred to me as the walking animation encyclopedia, I thought my personal brand could use a boost. The original Best Saturdays of our Lives newsletter was published from 1992 to 1996. I decided to take all those old newsletters and compile the newsletters into a chapter book and add up-to-date commentary. The commentary for the Hanna-Barbera series 2 Stupid Dogs (Chapter 18) features a personal note from creator Donovan Cook. The commentary also mentions how animators such as Genndy Tatakovsky and Craig McCracken who would later create Cartoon Network’s (Dexter’s Lab, Samurai Jack) and the Powerpuff Girls respectively, got their early starts working in the industry on Donovan Cook’s 2 Stupid Dogs.
Yanes: While conducting research for this book, what were some facts you came across that surprised you the most?
McCray: Writing the book reminded me how networks were willing to increase the animation budgets per episode in order to have 3D elements included in the traditional 2D animated production/series. Network leadership hoped that the emerging 3D animation mixture with 2D animation would give network programing an edge in the ratings race.
Yanes: Even when I factor in the power of nostalgia, it is clear that shows on the Saturday morning TV block have maintained a powerful influence over popular culture. For example, both X-Men: The Animated Series and Batman: The Animated Series have become quintessential mascots of their respective franchises. And the Power Rangers will soon be entering its 27th season. What was it about these shows that have allowed them to maintain such longevity? Was it just right place and right time, or were there strategic decisions made this happen?
McCray: The 1967-68 season was in my opinion, Saturday mornings greatest year because so many iconic superheroes made their first animated appearances (Aquaman, Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Birdman, The Justice League and the Teen Titans). However, parent and watchdog groups thought there was too much violence on Saturday morning. At the same time, violent images of the Vietnam War were being seen on the national news every night which resulted in the networks being pressured to cancel and cutback on superhero programming. By the fall of 1970, all the superhero series were gone. During the 1972-73 season, the superheroes retuned but there was one caveat, the heroes were no longer allowed to throw punches at villains. Television writers had to find ways to make the superhero stories interesting for viewers without relying on fisticuff scenes. By the time the 1990s rolled around, the Tim Burton directed Batman films and subsequent Batman theatrical franchise had set the standard for the Batman character. The movie franchise brought Batman back to his dark and brooding roots. Batman: The Animated Series traded on the promise that the animated Batman character wasn’t going back to the old days of high camp. The same can be said of the X-Men characters who made a guest appearances on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (1981 to 1986) but like the pre-1992 animated versions of Batman, The X-Men could not be a true representatives of their comic book counterparts until the characters were given their own series (X-Men: The Animated Series). The Power Rangers was the first action superhero series on Saturday morning that showcased unapologetic action and battle scenes. The Power Rangers is also the perfect wish fulfillment brand for kids since the series is live-action, audiences can relate to these characters who are popular and cool. Batman: The Animated Series, X-Men: The Animated Series and Power Rangers were all well written and executed and stand on their own merit in terms of popularity and evergreen status.
Yanes: As you documented in The Best Saturdays of Our Lives, that block of television shows was deeply impactful. Do you foresee another entertainment block ever having a similar impact on popular culture?
McCray: The Adult Swim Toonami Franchise which features awesome Anime programming has all the successful elements (programming, promotion, packaging, game reviews and music videos) to have a lasting impact on popular culture.
Yanes: Reflecting on what you learned while constructing this manuscript, what do you wish executives and other business leaders in the entertainment industry knew?
McCray: Lou Scheimer who created Filmation Productions with Norm Prescott and Hal Sutherland became a friend and mentor who I met in 1989. Anytime I was visiting Los Angeles I would make sure to visit Lou. During one our conversations, the topic of violence on kid’s television came up and Lou seemed a little surprised when I mentioned to him that some of his cartoons from the 1967 season pushed the boundaries. For the most part though, when I interviewed executives for my book, I felt like I went back to school. Joe King who worked for Sid and Marty Krofft Productions explained the economics of syndicated television and network politics which would sometimes get in the way of trying to sell a series to the broadcast networks. Robby London at DIC Enterprises educated me on the “economy of scale” which seemed like a complicated math equation, but I appreciated Robby taking the time to educate me about the television business. Ken Spears who ran Ruby-Spears Productions with Joe Ruby shared emails with me about how animation and live action series were developed. By the way, the Ruby-Spears Production of Thundarr, the Barbarian (1981) is one of the best Saturday morning shows ever!
Yanes: When people finish reading The Best Saturdays of Our Lives, what do you hope they take away from it?
McCray: I want people to understand that before cable television, VCRs, online videos and streaming, there was only one destination for kids to watch the best new cartoons and live action series on television and that destination was Saturday morning. I also want people to know that Saturday morning was the proving ground for what would become the 24-hour kid network.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
McCray: I’m currently working on new book that is based on real life events when my family and I lived in a haunted brownstone in Brooklyn, New York. I’m adding fictional elements to make the story more science fiction and fantasy based. When people ask me why I stayed in the brownstone after the hauntings started, I would tell them that I loved the neighborhood and the brownstone apartment. I never thought anything bad was going to happen. However, for the character in my book, many bad things happen to him which I think is fun to write. My passion for Saturday morning television, comic books and film noir will also be featured in the fringes of the book’s storyline. My goal is to have the book released by mid-April of 2020.