Syfy Ramps Up Animation Push With First Original Series & Pilot Orders For New TZGZ Block

Nellie Andreeva

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EXCLUSIVE: Expanding Syfy’s programming into original adult animation has been a priority for NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment President Chris McCumber, who oversees USA Network and Syfy.

The network made a big step in the animation space with the high-profile acquisition of Futurama. Syfy tipped its toe into the original late-night animation waters with series Alien News Desk, which was paired with Futurama.

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Then this past November, Syfy quietly launched TZGZ, a new 90-minute, weekly late night adult animation block of acquired series — many of them coming from little known platforms — anchored by Futurama repeats. It has aired on Saturdays to solid ratings, attracting new young male audience to the network, McCumber said.

Now Syfy has taken the next step, adding original animation to the mix by greenlighting the first original animated series, as well as two pilots, for TZGZ.

Syfy has ordered six 15-minute episodes of Magical Girl Friendship Squad to air in summer 2020. The project, a female-driven anime comedy about two young women who are destined to save the Universe…as soon as they figure out how to pay their rent, originated as an acquisition of six four-minute episodes, leading the pickup of six supersized new episodes.

Additionally, the network has ordered 15-minute pilots Wild Life, about animal friends just trying to stay alive after the apocalypse, and Devil May Care, about The Devil hiring a social media coordinator to improve his image. (You can see details about each pilot below). Both projects are based on original ideas. The pilots will be used as proof of concept and will also air in the TZGZ block so Syfy executives can see what kind of response the shorts get from viewers.

TZGZ is designed for “animated comedy, which has to have some tie to science-fiction, horror, fantasy, something in that world,” McCumber said. 

As the programming block’s tagline puts it, “Airing Saturdays at midnight-ish, TZGZ is a late-night block of comedic, animated genre-based programming, made for adults. TZGZ: It Comes After SYFY.”

That is literally how the name of the block came about, in is Syfy, where each letter is replaced by the next one in the alphabet. Here is a TZGZ promo:

The adult animation push comes as one of the genre’s biggest names, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane — a known sci-fi fan who created and stars in The Orville — is joining the NBCUniversal fold with a giant overall deal at Syfy sibling NBCU Content Studio, creating possibilities for collaborations with Syfy.

Syfy’s expansion into animation stems from the branding of the network as destination for fans — fans of science fiction, fans of genre, said McCumber, who earlier in his career was part of the team that launched Comedy Central. “As we are looking at the network, not only do we want to have people come in for our original programming like The Magicians and Wynonna Earp, we want them to come for a lot of the fan-focused, alternative stuff. The TZGZ animated pieces are part of that. because we know there is a very very loyal fan base when it comes to adult animation.”

McCumber and his team already had started experimenting with some of the day parts on Syfy, leading to the idea for a late-night adult animation block. It launched originally on Friday night before moving to Saturdays. In it, acquired short-form series of different lengths are linked together via 1-2-minute interstitials created by the Syfy on-air creative team.

The TZGZ series can be any length up to 30 minutes.

“It all depends on what’s best for the creator,” McCumber said. “In many cases, with some of this animation it is best as a 10- to 15-minute piece versus trying to expand it to a 30. If it warrants going to a 30, fine. We’re really length-agnostic because we can be. We don’t have to say the block starts at midnight and ends at 2 o’clock in the morning exactly. We can really play with the length of it.”

To source and identify new content — and talent –Jon Cotton, who heads the TZGZ team as VP, Short-Form Animation & Alternative Formats, and his group are looking everywhere.

“With the original development side of things, there is a lot of the  traditional reaching out to agents and managers  to identify clients that may have projects that are right for us, but it’s also a lot more legwork that falls outside of the traditional development model, because we are trying to identify emerging talent and unique voices in this space. The agencies no longer are the only place to go to identify really interesting and talented creators and voices,” Cotton said. “Whether it’s attending smaller comedy or animation festivals, going down YouTube and Vimeo rabbit holes and frankly, wading through a lot of not great content to find those diamonds in the rough.”

New TZGZ acquisitions include Purgatory, about a low-level bureaucrat in Purgatory – a claims adjustor for Death, launching this month, and Cyanide and Happiness, a collection of “aggressively stupid” stick figure cartoons, debuting in February. They join Alien’s Guide To Earth, Don’t Feed the Humans, Brogan: Master of Castles, Gary and His Demons, Hell Den, Science! and Magical Girl Friendship Squad: Origins (the short-form version).

Because of the nature of the content, the TZGZ original programming is lower-cost at the start.

“Because it’s alternative and experimental, we want to take more swings,” McCumer said.” The budgets are going to be a little on the lower side, at least in the beginning. If something hits, and it starts to turn into something that becomes bigger, certainly those budgets could follow suit.”

If a series pops in a big way on TZGZ, it can move to primetime, McCumber said.

“The north star here is to find a Rick & Morty. That’s one of my favorite shows, hands down,” he said. “You find a Rick & Morty, it’ll be everywhere.”

Here are credits for the TZGZ original series and pilots:

MAGICAL GIRL FRIENDSHIP SQUAD 
Straight-to-series order (6 x 15 min episodes)
Production Company: Cartuna
Created by Kelsey Stephanides
Executive Producers James Belfer, Adam Belfer and Max Benator
LOGLINE: A female-driven anime comedy about two young women who are destined to save the Universe…as soon as they figure out how to pay their rent.

WILD LIFE
Pilot order (15 min episodes)
Produced by Alex Plapinger, Valparaiso Pictures and Octopie
LOGLINE: A show about animal friends just trying to stay alive after the apocalypse. Together, they come up with elaborate schemes to entertain themselves and pretty much just keep from going insane.

DEVIL MAY CARE
Pilot order (15 min episodes)
Produced by PSYOP
Creator/EP: Doug Goldstein (Robot Chicken – two-time Emmy winner)
LOGLINE: The Devil hires a social media coordinator to rebrand Hell as the ultimate place to live, and the two form the most unlikely of friendships.

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