So why did Animaniacs fall from the height of its popularity to the depths of weekend programming on Nickelodeon? Ironically, it all started with a move that promised to make the show more, not less, important. Read any piece on Animaniacs from its years on Fox, and you’ll see it described as the second-most popular kids’ show on TV. The most popular was a very different type of kids’ show, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, that also happened to be on Fox. It was the success of Power Rangers that would indirectly lead to Animaniacs being taken off the Fox network. Warner Brothers, which was already planning to start its own network, didn't like the fact that Animaniacs was getting second-class treatment compared to Power Rangers. So they decided to remove it to the new WB network --but since the show had another year to run on Fox, it ran another year with no new episodes except four half-hours cobbled together from "leftover" material (i.e. material that mostly wasn't good enough to get into the first 65 episodes).
Margaret Loesch, president of Fox Kids, recalled that losing Animaniacs was the biggest disappointment in her years at the network, but it was even more disastrous for Animaniacs: at a time when it should have been solidifying and building its popularity, it went a year with almost nothing but reruns, and then moved to a new, little-watched network. And even though Animaniacs was supposed to be the flagship show of the WB's kids' lineup, it didn't work out that way.
The problem was that the WB needed Animaniacs to be more than a good show, or a popular show. Animaniacs was expected to be one of the anchors of a new network, the key to drawing in young viewers. And the WB sold its entire Saturday morning lineup to advertisers on that basis: that they would be sure to pull in the little kids who buy action figures and burping dolls. What happened instead was that Animaniacs pulled in good numbers (for a network that wasn't even seen in a lot of areas), but diffuse numbers: some little kids, some big kids, some college kids, some adults. That wasn't what the advertisers had paid for. In other words, what had been an advantage for Animaniacs on Fox on weekday afternoons -- its adult appeal -- was a huge disadvantage for it on the WB on Saturday mornings. This also applied to some of the WB's other cartoons, such as Superman and Batman; their failure to be exclusively for little kids eventually drove off the demographics-obsessed advertisers and caused them to give way to shows like Pokemon, which appealed almost exclusively to little kids (plus the occasional adult on a bad drug trip).
By the time the show moved to the WB, certain members of the original Animaniacs team were either gone or less involved than they had been. Stoner and Arons moved on after the initial run, and were replaced as producers by Peter Hastings and Rusty Mills. Some of the changes in the show’s focus might be traced to this change in management. Stoner’s work as a producer reflected her work as a writer: a balance of dialogue and rapid-fire visual gags. Hastings, one of the creators of Pinky and the Brain, had specialized in episodes that were heavy on dialogue and plot, and when he started producing Animaniacs, his episodes tended to be more talk-heavy than Stoner's, and much, much heavier on meta-humor and self-referentiality (there was even an entire segment, "The Please Please Please Get a Life Foundation," about the show's Internet fans -- a funny segment, but evidence of how much the show had become about itself, rather than anything else). Perhaps on the WB's orders, most of the supporting characters were retired or restricted to one or two more cartoons, depriving the show of the variety it had had in the Fox years. Animaniacs had finally started to become what its detractors had falsely said it was in the Fox years: A self-referential, self-indulgent cartoon about cartoons.
And most problematically of all, the visuals became very dull. This was sometimes blamed, unfairly, on the overseas studio -- it's true that the overseas animators can sometimes mess things up, but the lack of visual imagination started with the actual staging of the scenes, which became static and slow, without the quick visual flourishes and fast pacing of the first 65 episodes. Some of this may be due to over-scripting. In the early song sequences like the famous "Yakko's World," there's just a song and a basic setting, allowing the director and storyboard artist to work out what the character should be doing from moment to moment. In the song sequences from the WB years, every scene is heavily scripted, and the script is followed point-by-point, so that instead of an imaginative staging of the song, it's just cutting from one static scene to another. Again, if you say that Animaniacs was just "illustrated radio" in the Fox years, you'd be wrong. You wouldn't be far wrong in applying the term to some of these later episodes.
By the time Hastings left, Animaniacs had fallen into such a rut that it was doing almost nothing but movie parodies, and not terribly good ones either ("Cutie and the Beast," "Jokahontas"). There were a few good episodes from the WB years -- notably a longish cartoon written by Tom Minton, called "Back in Style," which returned to the show's original idea of using the Warners to parody various trends in animation history. But all in all, most of the later episodes come off as a big disappointent, for the writing and the visuals. The last-ditch attempt to save Animaniacs was the direct-to-video movie Wakko’s Wish, which was even more disappointingly written and tried to increase the show's little-kid appeal with a heavy dose of sentimentality.
Next time (probably not tomorrow, though): Pinky and the Brain, the spinoff, and the ill-fated Pinky, Elmyra and the Brain.