Thursday, October 30, 2008

:anime: The End of Toonami:: Are TV Blocks Needed Anymore?

I've wanted to write up another anime feature for quite a while, since it's been so long that I last did one. Like with the boxing one earlier, it's great to have a chance to get back at it again! --HD

Toonami, for much of its eleven year run, was one of Cartoon Network's brightest stars and perhaps the most influential programming block on television for anime fans, new and old, in the U.S. over that period. Though more modern fans may fail to notice its significance during its waning years, it provided a girth of landmark shows over much of its history that helped pave the way for the industry's growth and popularity, from Sailor Moon and Tenchi Muyo! to Dragonball Z and Gundam. In addition, it was the block's "Midnight Run" of uncut Gundam Wing that eventually lead to the creation of the very successful Adult Swim block and "network," which itself became a gateway for seminal titles like Cowboy Bebop (its first show), FLCL, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and Fullmetal Alchemist that would, too, usher in new fans. However, the recent climate at CN and AS has been one of change, as has been the way that people view their anime.

Toonami first started off as block of action programming featuring predominately Japanese animation, in conjunction with a few American-produced works, on weekday afternoons and Saturdays before spawning a morning block and a midnight showing. This remained the norm for much of its run, though scheduling fluctuations and ratings saw it go beyond its usual four hours into two (and for a period, dedicating itself solely to Dragonball Z) and at times only one. Nevertheless, it remained in its afternoon slot, with the morning version ("Rising Sun") having faded away and the midnight block ("Midnight Run") leading to the creation of Adult Swim. As the years drove on, the audience that grew up watching it had already found new venues to watch their shows--namely, without the censorship that came with any such program--and tastes among both the newer audience and at the network had changed.

CN and AS, while technically two separate networks controlled by their own dedicated staff, share one channel and one parent company. The philosophy on both sides had been one propelled by a push for self-produced content rather than ones from other sources, which not only demanded more time to showcase their works, but was also cheaper. As such, anime programming, and the Toonami block in general, had been reduced from its weekly showing to just Saturday nights, where original programming took its place. This shift was seen in AS' scheduling as well, and along with the loss of a stable timeslot for anime (constant reshuffling of the schedule had become commonplace in recent times), came also a loss of advertisement and promotion of it. With CN pushing harder to compete against the higher-rated Nickelodeon, it began to move away from its cartoon format and transform itself into a station that leaned more towards general children and "tweener" programming, meaning more live-action films and shows. This also meant that Toonami, whose viewership was floundering even before its Saturday move, and its existence was in jeopardy.

On September 20, 2008, at Anime Weekend Atlanta (located in the same city as the channel's headquarters), Toonami was announced by Cartoon Network that that day's broadcast would be its last. The sudden announcement threw many off-guard, though not nearly as many were completely shocked by it. With its final cancellation went with it a piece of anime fandom history and a spot, albeit a faded one, where distributors and licensors could display their offerings. Though other television spots exist, such on the Starz networks, ImaginAsianTV, and more notably, the Sci-Fi Channel's Ani-Monday block, none have had the kind of reach or impact that Toonami, or even Adult Swim, once had. Rather, other new ventures have taken its lofty reins. Many have lamented the growing loss of TV blocks and airings, but in this current time, perhaps one needs to question whether they are necessary anymore.

The Internet has been a very major area of growth and one that has provided anime companies the arena they need to get their shows out to the public without the hassle of television deals and additional costs pertaining to it. The rapid adoption of digital distribution (use of streaming and download-to-own video sites and services), often covered here on HardDoor, has led to a greater degree of freedom for them and the viewer of the content, as one now has the ability to watch whatever they want when they want to and for little to no cost. It also remedies a common complaint levied by those with subtitle preferences, as certain shows can now be viewed that way instead of listening to the English voice cast. In addition, with the lessened need for censoring over the Internet, the content offered are often, if not always, uncut and uncensored--a big positive for many fans.

Of greater impact, however, has been the proliferation of digital fansubs, which greatly expanded the viewing horizons of fans and introduced them to shows that would either not show up on Toonami or elsewhere for awhile or would never have a chance at all. As they were fan-subtitled show in video file formats, as opposed to the once-traditional use of VHS tapes and mailing lists/anime clubs, the movement and peer-to-peer "trading" of anime drastically changed, as did the amount of access to unlicensed shows still in Japan. This "legally-grey" practice of unauthorized distribution was also arguably the very thing that pushed the industry to adopt "legalized" digital distribution and stop the losses in cash flow often associated with people hoarding fansubs and not buying "official" copies when available. With such an array of options, lower costs, and a largely Internet-savvy fanbase, the need for a TV slot has waned over time--and it also shows in the ratings of certain shows that have both a slot and a webcast venue, with the latter pulling in higher numbers than the broadcast itself, as observed with AS' scheme (certainly possible due to some rewatching an episode multiple times, but the point remains).

Video-on-Demand (VOD) has also risen in popularity for similar reasons to digital distribution. Though the service is relegated to digital cable and fees and access to it has varied across cable providers, it has become a viable area for companies to set up their very own section to post their own shows on, usually for free. It has become a great alternative for those who lack the necessary funds or connections to establish their own television channel and get it picked up by a major provider. Like DD, the viewer has freedom over when and how they watch something, but in contrast, they also have the ability to watch it in full television resolution and size--like an actual broadcast--and can access it without going online. In some sense, it's akin to having the best of both worlds: video you can rewind and fast-forward and watch at anytime with just your TV and remote control. While not having as large an impact as DD, VOD has still become a good bet for anime companies to show their works without the constraints of broadcasting or the worry that a particular one will not garner good enough ratings to warrant more airtime or that it is "too much" to garner any.

With any good alternative, though, there are drawbacks. For digital distribution, costs for companies may come in the form of maintaining servers hosting videos and dealing with the enormous amount of bandwidth to be used by the many viewers of the content (most tend to use online video portals like YouTube and Hulu to avoid the trouble). In addition, video quality has been a consistent issue for some, as detractors have contended that the resolution of supposedly higher-quality download-to-own videos are too poor in comparison to those found on fansubs, and also that the view size is too small, or the size of the file itself is too large (especially in consideration of the video quality).

Streaming video, while normally free, is also criticized for having poor, muddy picture quality, taking away from the "experience", as some say, from watching anime. Also of note is the use of DRM, or digital rights management, software, whose ability is to ensure that illegal copying or tampering of downloaded videos is not exercised. Outside of privacy concerns, as usage data and "anonymous" information can be sent to databases elsewhere, such software has had known incidences of harming the downloader's computer or compromising it entirely (it is rare, but the issue resurfaces on occasion). On a similar note, some feel uncomfortable or unwilling to download more programs on their computer for just for the sake of downloading videos. DD is only available to those with Internet access and can be costly to those whose access is bandwidth-limited. It additionally lacks the convenience of just sitting down and watching a show like a television or VOD program.

VOD, as close as it is to an "ideal" viewer-controlled experience, is, too, not without its drawbacks. As previously mentioned, the service is available only via digital cable, and even then, fees and availability may be applicable. Programs are often available for a much shorter period of time than most DD offerings and one may have to wait weeks or months to catch a show they might have missed. Also, most of the titles available are usually dubbed in English, with no subtitled version available, and the selection may vary based on the amount allotted by the cable provider.

In spite of the dearth of and setbacks with television blocks, or just individual airings, and the growing use of digital distribution and video-on-demand, there is still a need for television broadcasting in some fashion. It is the easiest and most accessible option of the three, especially for the average, casual viewer, and it gives companies the chance to catch the attention of a prospective viewer (and potential customer) would usually not have any business to venture into whatever sections or sites anime would be found online or on-demand. One of the key ways of getting that attention, and one whose absence has helped lead to the fall of TV airings in general, is advertisement and promotion. Many of those who air anime don't bother to advertise or show a promo or trailer about what's on. Though anime, on average, doesn't get nearly the amount of ratings that domestic programming does, some of it is due to the lack of awareness outside of the fandom circle--those who would already know about its airtime regardless of promo work. Anime showings would also need to benefit from better timeslots than some of the late, late night ones that some receive, as observed with Adult Swim and Starz Edge (ranging from 3:00am to 5:30am), if they want to see some better ratings. Digtal video recorders (DVRs) may be the answer, but they are less available than all three of the methods outlined and not extensively counted by rating systems, yet (lack of a gauge to see how many viewers there are).

While it would certainly be great to see another Toonami-, or even an old Adult Swim-, like block on television again, it's not the right climate for one to reappear and become a force just yet. The closest one, Ani-Monday, is good, but their selection is limited, with a few solid titles and a fair amount of dreck, and even so, promotion for the block is nowhere near that of Sci-Fi's other programming. DD and VOD will not be going anywhere and are natural progressions from simple TV viewing. They are also very good alternatives and should definitely be embraced like they are right now. However, there is still a place and a need for regular television broadcasting, be it a block or an individual showing. Another Toonami may be unlikely, but one can at least follow its lead from its better times and back it up with good, carefully chosen programming, a good timeslot, and proper advertisement and promotion to generate awareness and interest--as well as complementing it with those alternatives methods.

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