Anime and American Networks
By guest columnist Scott Green
I don't expect to see serious, mature anime on television network in the near future that doesn't receive a large portion of its advertising revenue from US quarter maps. Its proliferation seems to be in stasis, or even slightly shrinking. Serious anime is a point of variance in what is shown on American TV. Children's anime will ebb and flow depending on fads, and what companies think is merchandisable. Adult oriented comedic anime doesn't have much of a chance of be releasing in the US; there are too many home grown animated adult comedies that are in development for there to be any openings for anime to fill. Despite some setbacks, between Cartoon Network's Toonami, Fox's trial of Escaflowne, and premium channels, serious anime is finding inroads.
If ever there was a time when the stars were right for serious, mature animation to take a strong foothold it would be now. With the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and other Hong Kong imports, people have begun to realize that Americans will accept foreign media if its entertaining. With the looming actors' and writers' strikes, networks are scrambling for alternatives to the standard fair. Unfortunately no one seems to have recognized the potential of anime to buffer their lineup. Quiz shows and Reality TV have already proven that they can fill the upcoming void. But there are two other problems blocking mature anime from finding more places on the dial: there is still the perception that animation is for humorous subjects, and predominantly for children, and that its track record is too weak to overcome the reluctance to something new.
The recent review of The Big O in the Orlando Sentinel has demonstrated that people see animation as being marketing toward children by default. A serious themed animated show is criticized for being two harsh and available to children by airing at 5:30pm on Cartoon Network, but if the child waited to 6:00pm they can watch horrific crimes on Law and Order on A&E, and if they waited to 7:00pm they could watch crimes, and partial nudity on NYPD Blue on FX. It was clear that the reviewer saw merit in the show. They just did not think it was an appropriate show for children. A good measure of who a show is marketed to are commercials. You don't see car and stock market commercials on Cartoon Network, and there are more ads aimed at parents, but most of the food and products advertised are exactly the same as what's on Network TV at that time. The best example of who they think the audience is the new Gundam model commercials. There is a child in the commercial, but most of the people shown are in their late teens/twenties.
The idea that you can present a mature, thoughtful,(or tasteless) animated comedy on primetime TV has caught on in the US. Mature animated comedies run the gamut of quality. Few have succeeded, but then, few of any type of show succeed. However, the idea of watching mature, thoughtful, serious animated drama, science fiction, or action shows does not occur to most Americans. It's a logical leap that Americans seem unable to make.
Baby boomers have fond memories of Bullwinkle trying to pull a rabbit out of his hat, Fred and Barney peddling their car, and Bugs Bunny tunneling to Albuquerque. A few years later it was an array of Hanna Barbera series. Progress a few years and you get He-Man, GI Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Smurfs… etc. American animation followed Sturgeon's Law; 90% of it was forgettable, but there were some undeniable classics. Few are going to deny that "What's Opera, Doc?" is a work of art, or that Rocky and Bullwinkle was a source of mature whit, but even their fans can't argue that they weren't intended to amuse children first and foremost.
The leap to mature comedy was shorter, but still took considerable time. It took a while before people realized that The Simpsons was meant to entertain adults, not corrupt children. The leap from a medium that is humorous, and for children, to serious and for adults is larger. The idea that a medium that produces humorous children's fare can produce serious adult material is a leap most would acknowledge as possible, but would doubt the probability of seeing. To make an analogy, I acknowledge that a Jackson Pollack type splatter painting, or a work of modern sculpture can have meaning, but I doubt that I will see one that I find meaning in.
The other factor hold anime back is its performance track record. It appears that the recent forays into more mature themed animation have not succeeded. If Escaflowne had done as well on Fox has Bandai apparently believed it would, things would be different. The chances of anime appearing on a major network in Prime time or gracing the cover of Entertainment Weekly would still be small, but not nearly as small as it was after Escaflowne failed. The incremental steps were there. From low profile cable show, to high profile cable shows, to low profile network shows, to high profile network show. The chain was broken. I don't know if all children do this, but when I was young I would watch a show I hated on one station because I wanted to see the show after it. Apparently Escaflowne was so disliked that children, who were Fox's intended audience, again, just looked at the commercials for the show, and avoided it like it was CNN. The shows before and after it both had higher ratings. To add insult to injury it was one of the shows that would seem to have broad crossover appeal. It had humorous moments. It had lots of action. It had a good story with interesting ideas. Its animation was far above average.
It is difficult to make an accurate speculation about why Escaflowne failed. It may have been that the new background music clashed with the animation and story. It may have been that the episodes were not episodic enough, that the continuity between them was too tight. Unlike most shows if you missed an episode or part of one there was a very noticeable gap. The particulars don't matter too much. The show's failure will likely be taken as an indictment against similar shows. In television it's not "once burned, twice shy", its "if you feel heat the first time, stay away". Networks bank on proven track records. If you have a hole in your prime time programming and if "When Animals Attack", or "Banned Commercials" have performed in the past, then that's who the networks will go to in a tight situation. Look at Fox's Saturday morning lineup for this coming season, its all movie tie-ins and toy tie-ins without a single serious title to be seen.
I don't see any mature themed animation appearing on ABC, NBC, or CBS. Only ABC currently has Saturday morning cartoons, and they keep an education bend to that line-up. All of these networks are too tied to what has worked in the past. As for the second tier network, Fox, they have tried and succeeded with science fiction in the recent past, i.e. The X-Files, Dark Angel, but they have also tried and failed, i.e. Lone Gunmen, Harsh Realm. They have tried and succeeded (and failed) with matured themed comedic animation. It doesn't look they will try to combine the two. Fox is more likely to continue down the path of reality TV. With their standards, there are many more possibilities down that avenue. There is no good reason to expect much from the third tier networks (UPN and WB), but their proclivity for trying animated adult comedies means they can't be ruled out all together.
The wild card in the game is MTV. They have a history of trying out unusual, and different things, especially in animation. They've run Liquid Television, MTV Oddities (The Maxx, and The Head), and Aeon Flux to name some memorable mature themed animation. There have not been any firm indications that MTV is looking into anime other than that seem to try to follow what is hip in pop culture. That being said, it's difficult to envision them showing anime in the near future. Again, they are doing too well with their new reality TV shows to change their lineup radically at this juncture. Despite the related incidents, and lawsuits, Jackass is doing incredibly well for MTV. Its rating are excellent, and many are saying that it is revitalizing the network. The other problem with MTV is their propensity for canceling under performing shows. A few summers ago an animated show called Downtown aired. It was both hip and geeky, which made for a unique mix. It was canceled by fall, and by the time it got nominated for the Primetime Emmy for Animated Programming, it was gone and forgotten.
The position outside the networks seems fairly stable. Anime seems to be shown steadily on premium channels such as the Encore Action Channel. It also seems to have found its niche on Cartoon Network. Unfortunately the niche seems smaller than many fans had hoped for. Evidence suggests that Cartoon Network has been happy with Dragon Ball Z, and Gundam Wing, but less then pleased with the results of other anime. Going into May sweeps it looks like they will be focusing on Gundam Wing, and Dragon Ball Z. If Cartoon Network had more faith in their Toonami block they could focusing on it and promoting it for the sweeps period, but as it stands it looks like they will be promoting and expanding their Cartoon Cartoon programming instead.
On the bright side, only one noteworthy success would be enough to make major inroads. TV's propensity to follow trends cut two ways. If there was one noticeable success, others will attempt to duplicate it. As they say about television, everyone wants to be first to be second.
Scott Green is the editor of the anime, manga, and video game news site UMJAMS Anime News (http://umjams.animedream.org/an.html).