Blast from the Past: A Nostalgic Look Back at Kid's TV from the 90's

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Interview with Margaret Loesch, President of Fox Kids (1990-1997)

To commemorate the 15th anniversary of the premiere of X-Men on the Fox Kids Network on Saturday, October 31, 1992, Blast From the Past recently had the opportunity to interview Margaret Loesch, the President of the Fox Kids Network from its creation in 1990 up until 1997, about her influence on the X-Men series.

BFTP: Back in the late 1980’s when you were worked at Marvel Productions, you were the executive producer of the X-Men pilot ‘Pryde of the X-Men’, which was the first attempt at bringing the X-Men to Saturday mornings.  What do you think it was that caused network executives to pass on giving it a series pickup?

ML: I got very clear responses from the networks.  Almost without exception, the responses were the same but always in different words.  I can actually specifically quote one of the network executives: “Margaret, you have to stop pitching us these comic properties.  Don’t you understand that comics are read by 18 year old nerdy boys and that they’ll be of no interest to anybody else?  It’s for a tiny, little population of nerdy, young men and it definitely won’t make good television.  Just because they’re good comics doesn’t mean they’ll translate to television.  The comics are so complicated and overwritten that talk, talk, talk, they’ll never make good television.  Don’t come back with another comic…you’ve pitched Spider-Man, the X-Men, and Silver Surfer…don’t come back anymore.” 

And that in a nutshell was the sentiment all through that era, so much so I’ll tell you a little story. When I got to Marvel from Hanna-Barbera, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends was already in production and had been sold to NBC. I was meeting with the head of kid’s programs at NBC and I said to her: “Listen, I just have a question. Why did you want to add his ‘amazing friends’ to Spider-Man? And she said: “How can we have a loner star in a TV show?” I told her that the whole point is that Peter Parker is a loner, that’s his plight in life. He’s got a lot of angst and that’s the whole point. She told me it wouldn’t work for TV. So that series was delivered and of course it did not succeed. Thus after X-Men when we did Spider-Man the Animated Series, once again, I said to Marvel that now we’re going to do it the way we always wanted to do it and we’re going to do it the right way, just like X-Men…we’re going to do the series by going back to the roots and we’re going to capture the essence of what has resonated with Spider-Man in the audience of readers over the years. Stan initially agreed to do Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends because he was just trying to sell a show. So that sums up the entire attitude in the 80’s that comics wouldn’t transition to television. However, it was very simple to me: good characters are good characters and good stories are good stories; it doesn’t matter where they come from.

BFTP: How do you compare ‘Pryde’ with Fox's version of the X-Men?

ML: I never found it necessary to reinvent good stuff.  I guess it’s necessary sometimes to update it in such a way that the stories are relevant to the current audience, but to change the essence of what makes it work, no, I don’t have to do that.  I didn’t do that with the Smurfs and I didn’t do it with many things that I’ve done…I’m certainly not going to do it with the Marvel characters.

BFTP: There’s an old story that states you called Stan Lee up on the phone as soon as you took on the Fox Kids Network and told him that now was the right time to give the X-Men a chance.  Is there any truth to this story, and if so, was this event the catalyst that got production started on the series?

ML: Essentially yes, though the timeline is a little bit different. When I started Fox Kids, the President of Fox had already made a commitment for Fox’s Peter Pan and the Pirates, which we had some difficulty with. I actually tried to delay doing that, but he said no. I focused on trying to get that done and as soon as our initial schedule launched, which was fairly mediocre at best, I called up Stan and said: “Ok, I couldn’t sell it, but now I want to buy it. I know it’ll be a hit, I believe it in my heart. Though I want to give it some time and if we can get it started sooner rather than later, I’ll give you some extra months to get it done since I want to give you the extra time to do it well”. This is why we premiered the show in mid-season. However, this strategy was unusual since nobody delayed new shows. It would have been considered a non-starter since you just don’t do that and risk upsetting the advertisers. But I said no, this is what we have got to do to give it time. I also wanted to showcase the show in a special way and I just knew it would work. We had very good writing and everyone was very excited about it: my team and everyone at Marvel.

So yes, that’s absolutely the truth. I did call Stan and he was delighted. I told him exactly what I was going to do and that I had a master plan. We were going to do X-Men and prove to the world that it’s going to work and work great. After that we would do Spider-Man and that’s exactly what happened.

BFTP: How involved were you with the production of X-Men? I know Sidney Iwanter was the executive from the network in charge of the show, but did you often have a say regarding the development of the show?

ML: Totally, I read everything when we started the series and I gave Sidney my comments until I was confident the series was on track. Sidney and I were pretty much on the same page. I really felt that this was my shot to prove that I was right, so I wanted to make sure that the show was everything that I thought it could be. I know you know this, but most people think it was Power Rangers that made Fox Kids number one, but it was really X-Men. People always forget that and I always tell them that no, it was X-Men.

Interestingly enough, I know that this is about Marvel and the X-Men cartoon, but I had a similar experience with Power Rangers. Stan and I had the rights to Power Rangers to try and sell it. I’ve told this many times, but it never gets picked up. Back in the mid to late 1980’s, Stan came to my office one day at Marvel with a ¾ ‘’ video cassette and he told me I had to take a look at this since he thought I’d like it. So he left me with this cassette and I put it on and watched it. Afterwards, I walked down to his office and said: “Stan, what’s up with this? It’s all in Japanese!” He told me: “Yeah I know, but what do you think? I think it’s fantastic!” And I told him that I thought it was fantastic too! What had happened was that because the live-action Spider-Man that had been made years before and had became a big hit in Japan, Stan had become a big celebrity there. This was not just because of the comics, but also because the show had worked so well in Japan. So Stan became friends with a Mr. Watanabe at the studio where other live action shows were being done. He had the rights to the Japanese version of Power Rangers, which had been on the air for many years, and he told Stan to take a look at it. If he liked it, he could have a free ride by taking it and trying to sell it. So that’s when Stan came to me and I got very excited. Then I authorized our team to spend $25,000 and we put together a little pilot by plugging in American voice-overs (we didn’t shoot any original material) and cutting together really funny, action takes. But when I went around pitching it to all the networks, none of them would buy it. I was literally thrown out of the room at NBC since we had gotten kudos from doing things like Muppet Babies and now they saw this and thought it was horrible. So we pitched it to all of the networks and nobody would buy it. Then we went back to Mr. Watanabe, told him we tried to sell it but couldn’t, and relinquished the rights to the show.

Years later in about 1992, I was meeting with Haim Saban and he was pitching me a bunch of cartoons from Europe. He had about 12 cartoons lined up in a stack of cassettes for me to look at. I got about ¾ of the way through and he came into the conference room to see how I was doing. I said: “Haim, these are all fine, but I’m looking for something really offbeat, zany, fun and exciting…I want a counter program for my morning lineup Monday through Friday. I don’t want to do light, fluffy stuff…I want to come in with something different.” And he says: “Hold it right there!” And he left the room and came back literally running down the hall with this cassette. He told me not to get mad at him and I asked him why I’d get mad at him. His response was: “Oh, a lot of people hate this. Let me show you this, take a look, and let me know what you think.” He put the cassette on and it was the same show, the same videotape that Stan and I had that had from Mr. Watanabe years before. I watched two minutes of it and I went next door to Haim’s office and said: “I love it…this is it. There’s changes that I want to make, there’s development we should do do, but this is the show…I’ll buy it and I’ll commit to it today.” And that’s the story, but it all started with Stan.

BFTP: When you were President of Fox Kids, you seemed to possess an uncanny ability to predict what shows could potentially become a hit.  Take the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers for instance…nobody believed you when you told them it could be the phenomenon that it actually turned out to be.  What did you see in the X-Men that told you this was a must for Saturday morning?

ML: I had been in children’s television since 1975. So by the time I got to Fox, and even at Marvel, I had seen a lot of kid’s shows and observed. I had been a part of some that worked and some that didn’t work. What I saw in X-Men was some of the same qualities that I saw in Spider-Man that nobody was dealing with and that is teenage angst: characters that were real yet worked in a fantasy situation, but their emotions were real. So with X-Men, I felt that the idea of a group of young people that were disenfranchised and had these real emotions and special powers that everybody would love to have except their powers were both a blessing and a curse. I felt that that human drama and tapping into the teenage 20-something angst was something I had never seen before in kids television…and I had seen a lot of stuff. That’s what excited me about X-Men. Interestingly enough, that’s also what excited me about Power Rangers, though slightly differently. With Power Rangers I felt what a hoot…what teenager wouldn’t want to have special powers and be able to transform themselves into superheroes to save the day and fight the enemy? Essentially with X-Men it was all about that angst and with Power Rangers it was about empowerment with teenagers. These are two themes I had never seen dealt with much in kid’s programming and I felt that the only way to make our network a hit was to try things that hadn’t been done before, or hadn’t been done in a long time. It wasn’t any great talent or any great gut that I had, it was my experience at seeing the same show done over and over again in so many different ways. I thought how I could excite kids with something they could identify with but was also fresh and different to them.

BFTP: One thing that X-Men was always criticized for was its often sloppy foreign animation, which even led to production delays with numerous episodes.  Was there any specific reason why X-Men was never given the same high quality animation that was shown in Batman the Animated Series, which also premiered around the same time?

ML: Yes, there are a couple of reasons. We paid the top licensing fee we could afford for X-Men, but remember when that started, the network was very young. We didn’t have a lot of revenue. On top of that, X-Men was more difficult to do than a lot of shows because it had so many characters. This of course was before computer animation had been perfected, so everything was hand drawn. So what you saw on the screen was every single penny that we could pay. However, what a lot of people don’t know is that we paid a licensing fee for Batman too, but Warner Brothers supplemented and put a lot more money into the production themselves. Warner Brothers supplemented our license fees in such a tremendous way that they stepped up to the plate and invested in it. Additionally, they realized that they were making so much money from licensing and merchandising from the Batman movies that they could literally pour money into the program. In those days, Marvel didn’t quite have the same deep pockets. Look, Warner Brothers is a studio that produces and Marvel is a comic book company. Thus, they didn’t put the same resources into the production that Warner Brothers was able to do and that’s the difference. I would say that each Batman episode had at least $150,000-$200,000 more per episode spent and that’s because Warner Brothers had made the investment.

BFTP: In terms of successful programs from Fox Kids, where do you rank X-Men?  Like you said earlier, many people often forget that it was your first number one show and ultimately helped you claim a stronghold in the ratings.

ML: I would say from a writing perspective that it’s number one.  That’s my personal opinion and some of my colleagues may not agree with me, but I felt that while it’s true we didn’t have the production values that say Batman  or some other shows had, the writing captured the essence of the comics and that was my dream.  I think we had a lot of great shows and Batman was right up there with X-Men, so I’ll tell you my top shows: Animaniacs (including Pinky and the Brain), Batman, Spider-Man, Life With Louie, and Bobby’s World.  We had a lot of interesting animated series, but those to me were the outstanding ones.  

BFTP: The beauty of the X-Men series is that there are a ton of different characters and thus, it's easy for someone to identify with at least one of the mutants.  Which mutant do you think is the most like you and why?

ML: It’s going to surprise you: Wolverine.  I don’t know that I necessarily identify with Wolverine, but all the emotions and the anger that he was carrying with him made him fascinating to me.  There are several Marvel characters that I find fascinating, but Wolverine I think is my favorite.

BFTP: Even after 15 years, X-Men is still one of the most successful cartoon adaptation of comic book superheroes.  What do you think separates the X-Men from a never-ending list of Saturday morning cartoons?

ML: Definitely the stories and the characters. I’m sorry to say that we’ve gotten a little bit away from dramatic story telling in much of today’s kids’ programming but I know that the audience loves good story-telling, not just gag-oriented animation. There’s such a huge opportunity to have a resurgence of it or reemergence of telling a story with a beginning middle and end, and possessing a real story arc. I think the stories and the dynamics between the characters, the fact that they don’t get along, which by the way, was also something you never saw in animation, is very compelling to kids. You know, here’s this fantastic world that’s highly incredible and yet here are these characters that behave like siblings. That combination is what’s fascinating.

BFTP: Do you think that it would be harder in today’s industry to try and do the same thing your group did back in 1990 to form the Fox Kids Network?

ML: Yes, I think it would be harder in broadcast television, though I think cable can do anything they want…they’re 800 lb. gorillas. If you have a 24 hour channel, you can do just about anything. But I do hope that dramatic storytelling comes back into fashion. In the vain of Spider-Man, X-Men, and Batman, I think that there’s room for that to reemerge. Though I think that would be too hard in broadcast television today; we had this little window of opportunity with Fox Kids. Back in 1990, Nickelodeon was still airing just reruns and there wasn’t even a Cartoon Network. So we were able to outmuscle the traditional networks because we were on Monday through Friday and Saturdays too, but the other networks just had their kids’ programming on Saturday morning …and with cable just doing reruns back then, we could create a brand. But today, competing with cable is very hard, so you’d have to put that kind of programming on a cable kid’s channel and get support in that area.

BFTP: How familiar were you with the X-Men comics before you started production on the series?

ML: I wasn’t very familiar with the X-Men until I became the head of Marvel Productions.  When that happened, I sat down with Stan and I asked him to tell me his favorite Marvel comics besides Spider-Man.  He said: “Well of course, Spider-Man is my favorite, but I have to say that I love X-Men.”  So he gave me a stack of comics to go away and read.  And I did.  The comics that I enjoyed the most besides Spider-Man were the X-Men…they were number one because of all these qualities that I’ve mentioned already.  I did really like the Silver Surfer too since I thought it was very provocative.  I liked the Avengers and the Fantastic Four as well, but never as much as the X-Men…they just didn’t touch me the way X-Men did.

BFTP: Is there anything about X-Men that the general public doesn’t know, but that you’d like to reveal?

ML: I think that one of the more interesting things is that I read into X-Men a lot more than Stan originally intended and he shared that with me once.  When I was first introducing the X-Men cartoon at an advertising upfront meeting, I talked about it representing the disenfranchised youth who always felt out of place and ill-of-ease.  Afterwards, Stan said to me: “Geez Maggie, I never thought of that.”  I’m not putting Stan down since he did think of that…he just never articulated it like that.  Now Stan grew up feeling like the odd ball too, and his stories had that perspective.  But he had never quite put his finger on what I as a fan had put my finger on and I thought that was interesting. 

Actually there is another story, but Sidney probably remembers it a little bit better than me.  One of my favorite episodes was the Nightcrawler episode when Wolverine had a crisis of belief.  We got a lot of internal resistance from that episode.  Our Broadcasts and Standards asked us what we were doing with God…you couldn’t do that with kid’s television.  Nevertheless, I was very proud of that episode and even my own staff thought Sidney and I had lost it….and that happened a lot!  Throughout its course, X-Men remained somewhat controversial because people thought there was too much conflict for just kid’s television.  They would say: “It’s too heavy Margaret…it’s too much dialogue burdened…you don’t know your audience.”  So it was never easy, but we tried to remain true to the vision and it worked.  The one thing that we always did besides thinking about our characters was thinking about the audience.  We never talked down to our audience since we knew they would get it.  But adults were worried with all these serious issues: it seemed too depressing, it was too complicated, too philosophical, too ‘talky’.  However I am happy to hear that the show did connect with those who watched it when they were younger.  It’s gratifying to know that we were correct.  Unfortunately it’s still common for kids to be underestimated with respect to shows that bring up real philosophical issues.

BFTP: Do you attribute the recent success in the Marvel movie franchise to what Fox Kids did in the 1990’s with its superhero cartoon series?

ML: Absolutely. I could actually be more specific: I was the one who said to the Fox Feature Group that they had to do an X-Men movie. I originally tried to get them to do a primetime cartoon series, but things didn’t work out. We tried airing a few episodes in primetime but it didn’t do great in the ratings. You can’t just stick a Saturday morning episode in primetime and expect it to do well without being able to raise the bar a little bit production-wise. More importantly, you can’t succeed without promoting it a lot. Nevertheless, I did take the product to the Feature Division and the rest, as they say, is history.

The same thing happened with Spider-Man. It was originally going to be at Fox because James Cameron had wanted to do it since he loved the story. I happened to sit on an airplane with him and he talked about how he was going to do the origin story. But when he got so involved with Titanic, the rights somehow went to Sony. Yes, I think Fox Kids definitely was the impetus for the whole comic book revolution since we dramatically raised the whole awareness of the Marvel characters.

BFTP: Is there anything you would like to say to long-time fans of the show?

ML: Yes, demand more. There’s a treasure trove of interesting stories that have yet to be told. Nevertheless, I’m very proud of the ones we did and to the fans, I would like to say thank you for living up to our expectations. I was so upset years before when the network executives said to me that the only people who read or like comics are 18 year old nerds. I was so offended on behalf of all the kids who I knew understood and read comics and got a lot out of them. I’ve always said in television to never underestimate your audience, which we still frequently do as an industry. The series was born out of a love for the project, but it was produced with respect to the audience. I did not want to disappoint the fans and that was my biggest fear, especially because at the time we did X-Men, the stories and the characters had evolved and yet, we chose to go back and start where it all began. To some extent, I wanted to capture the richness of what had come before but not make it irrelevant to the current readers. I was worried to death about disappointing the fans, so with every script that we read, Sidney would fight to get better and better scripts but stay true to the essence of the original comic books and Stan’s vision and philosophy. I supported Sidney 100%, but some writers would call me and complain. But I would say, look, X-Men has a huge fan base and we can’t disappoint the fans. And the fans made it a success because they got what we were trying to do. The most important thing to us was not to diminish the property.

Blast From the Past would like to thank Margaret for taking the time to answer our questions.