Mondo Media's "Happy Tree People" features an array of characters -- some goofy, some cute and cuddly -- in stories told with graphic violence. The level of violence is guaranteed to offend and repulse large numbers of people, but it is also so absurdly over-the-top that it has attracted an audience large enough to appeal to advertisers and sustain Mondo Media's ambitious plan to market licensed products around the world.
The content was created as a feature for a dot-com startup put together by a group that included Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer in 2000. John Evershed, Mondo Media founder and chief executive officer, told United Press International that the rights to "Happy Tree Friends" reverted back to his company after the "dot-com entertainment thing online fell apart" -- and Mondo Media began distributing the content itself, striking deals with about 25 Web sites.
"When people took a step back from (the dot-com bust) to try to figure out what they were going to do, we did as well," said Evershed.
He said the company considered either setting up its own subscription-based Web site to exhibit the animated shorts or distributing the product on DVD. Mondo Media decided to begin releasing the shorts on DVD in 2002 and has released three DVD packages.
At the same time, Evershed said that online advertising has recovered -- so his company is exploiting both DVD and Web-site distribution -- and has also been exhibiting the content on MTV International, originating in England.
"It's in most major markets outside the United States," he said. "Europe, Latin America, Asia -- everywhere except the United States, Japan and Australia."
Evershed said the MTV International deal allows "Happy Tree Friends" to reach more than 300 million households worldwide.
Not that he recommends it for everyone in the household. Evershed said his own children -- age 6, 3 and 1 1/2 -- are not permitted to see the cartoons, which are targeted at audiences between 12 and 24.
At a time when Americans are engaged in a heated debate about moral values -- and political leaders see opportunities to gain capital by fretting about the coarsening of the culture -- "Happy Tree Friends" takes cartoon violence to extremes that the folks who brought us Looney Tunes might have imagined, but certainly dared not deliver to the marketplace.
A typical episode, titled "Class Act," shows the characters in a Christmas pageant that is disrupted by a series of events in which one character is set on fire and another is more or less guillotined -- and those are the mildest examples of violence in the piece. All the cartoon characters manage to forget the mayhem by joining hands in a great circle around the burning community center and singing a Christmas carol.
Kenn Navarro, who created "Happy Tree Friends" with Rhode Montijo, told UPI the creative team felt the chill after a series of incidents -- including Janet Jackson's exhibition of a bare breast during the Super Bowl halftime show in February -- led to a crackdown by government regulators on indecent content on America's airwaves.
"We definitely felt the repercussions of it after talking with TV people here in the United States," he said.
However, Navarro said broadcasters overseas had a different attitude.
"They pretty much embrace it," he said.
Unfettered by Federal Communications Commission regulation of Web site content, the "Happy Tree Friends" Web site records an estimated 15 million "show views" per month, said Evershed, attracting a youthful demographic that has become increasingly elusive for network TV.
Each episode viewed at happytreefriends.com is preceded by an advertisement that Evershed said sells for a minimum of $20 per 1,000 viewers. The lineup of advertisers for the animated shorts includes video-game companies, TV networks promoting their shows, feature-film releases, cell-phone companies and automakers.
Regardless of whether it is immune from regulation, the content of "Happy Tree Friends" could be problematic, given the extreme nature of the admittedly cartoon violence, but Navarro defended it.
"I agree it's sadistic, but I think that's where the comedy comes from," he said, "Comedy in a society is a release."
Navarro said he had heard complaints about the series killing "these cute and cuddly" characters.
"My response was, 'Would it be better if they weren't cute and cuddly?' he said.
The characters utter sounds as if they are speaking, but there is no dialogue in any discernible language -- which Evershed pointed out helps market the product internationally.
"We've sold 250,000 DVDs to date in the United States and Europe -- and that's only in (England) and Germany so far," he said. "We're anticipating another 250 million next year."
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