There's a discussion going on about Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, probably prompted by the release of Jerry Beck's book, The Hanna Barbera Treasury. (Mike Barrier talks about them here and here; Thad K talks about them here.) For baby boomers, there's a strong nostalgia for Hanna-Barbera's early work such as Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, The Flintstones, The Jetsons and Top Cat. Hanna and Barbera are undeniably important to TV animation from a historical standpoint as they were the first to crack prime time with an animated series and their studio was able to work with TV budgets and schedules while creating successful shows.
Furthermore, many boomers in the animation industry had direct contact with Hanna and Barbera and have pleasant memories of them as individuals. By all accounts, Joe Barbera was an expert salesman, so his ability to charm people should come as no surprise.
As theatrical animation collapsed in the 1950s and '60s, Hanna-Barbera was there to offer employment to animation artists who suddenly found themselves jobless. While no one claimed that TV work was the same quality as theatrical shorts, it did allow many animation veterans to close out their careers doing work that they were familiar with. They were spared the upset of re-inventing themselves in middle age or later.
Those are the good things that can be said for Hanna-Barbera. There are, however, many bad things that can be said about them. In some ways, it's amazing that animation managed to survive them.
There is no question that TV budgets and schedules were and are brutal for the creation of animation. Hanna-Barbera did nothing to fight this. That is their single biggest failing. Rather than attempt to reform or beat a system that was clearly stacked against the production of good work, Hanna-Barbera embraced that system and milked it for their own personal gain. They expanded the number of shows they produced and with each expansion, the quality of the product suffered. They opened studios overseas in order to take advantage of cheaper labour. The savings went into their pockets, not onto the screen. After their initial decade, when they had the opportunity to work in prime time or in features where budgets were better, the projects were only marginally better than the low-budget work they turned out for Saturday mornings. The thinking and procedures behind their Saturday morning shows infected the entire company. In their hands, the art of animation (and here I'm talking about the entire process from writing to post-production), was degraded and debased without apology.
Some might argue that Hanna-Barbera did not have the leverage to change the way the TV business dealt with animation. I disagree and my evidence is Walt Disney and the movie business. In the early 1930s, Disney was a small company that was not affiliated with a major studio. Theatrical shorts were not all that lucrative, which is why live action comedians in the 1920s like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon, worked hard to graduate to feature films. Walt Disney re-invested his profits, including those from merchandising, into improving the quality of his cartoons. By raising his standards, he forced other animation studios to raise theirs in order to compete.
Hanna and Barbera were no worse off than Disney at the time they entered TV. If anything, they were in a better position having won multiple Oscars for the Tom and Jerry series. They entered TV with a greater reputation and more experience than Walt Disney had in the early 1930s. As Disney expanded his company in that decade, the quality of the studio's work went up. As Hanna-Barbera expanded in the 1960s and beyond, their quality went down. Like Disney, they had merchandising revenue coming in from early on, but that money was never redirected to the cartoons. Where Disney increased his budgets with the hope that quality would lead to increased revenues, Hanna-Barbera never increased theirs. Walt Disney exceeded the expectations of his distributors and his audience. Hanna and Barbera were satisfied with meeting their minimum requirements, and often failed to do that.
Regardless of what you think of Disney's films, there is no question that Walt Disney enriched the animation industry by raising standards for the entire field. Hanna and Barbera impoverished animation by strip mining it, taking all the wealth for themselves and leaving behind an industrial disaster. There is no question that the animation industry suffered a major blow with the death of theatrical shorts and the rise of television. It took the industry more than 25 years to recover from that blow. Hanna and Barbera had no part in that recovery and if anything, they probably delayed it.