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Adult Swim: Traitor To the Revolution?

Posted 6 February 2008 / By Nick Gibson / Opinion

The big news recently is that Adult Swim has cut its Action Saturday lineup in half, replacing high-octane programming with more of the Williams Street comedy stuff that is increasingly dominating the block. It’s just another sign that the Swim’s anime-fueled action lineup is not doing much for Swim’s ratings, and that in response AS is preparing to sever its ties with anime altogether. This may not happen any time soon, but it’s beginning to look inevitable.

What happened? Why can’t Swim hold it together? After all, Toonami was massively successful when it was playing the same game – distributing Japanese animation and quality American cartoons to the general public. In fact, Adult Swim has something going for it that Toonami didn’t, and that’s its late night, mostly unrestricted airing time. It can show TV-14 and TV-MA content with no questions asked, delivering a 100% authentic experience. Swim doesn’t have to pull a single punch it doesn’t want to, while Toonami was forced to bring out the digital bikinis and frothy mugs of water.

The comparison is appropriate because Adult Swim – while maybe not a direct descendant of Toonami – is the spiritual successor to Toonami’s Midnight Run, the late night mini-block that showed uncut Gundam Wing and lightly-edited versions of Outlaw Star, Dragonball Z, and G Gundam. You guys remember the Run, I’m sure. it was the reason to stay up late. It was a more mature enclave in Cartoon Network’s broadcast landscape. It was, in short, a place where Gene groped, Goku bled, Heero killed, and Duo was a god – a solution to the content restriction problems of the mainstream, weekday-afternoon Toonami block.

When the Run bit the dust in 2003, Adult Swim was already firmly established and running great action cartoons as well. It essentially assumed control of late nights in Midnight Run’s stead, taking up the banner of Revolution – the effort to build a better cartoon show, one that pushed boundaries and redefined norms. Toonami had started the rogue signal, but even as it was toppled from its throne it had the Swim to take up the standard…or so it seemed. Now, a few years later, the very thing that Toonami built much of its revolution on – anime – is threatened with virtual exile from Adult Swim, action’s last bastion on the network.

On the surface, it doesn’t make sense. Adult Swim had everything going for it. It had the shows, it had the freedom, it had the support of a culture that is increasingly accepting of non-comedic animation. And it’s not like anime itself has become more niche over the years or less mature. On the contrary – the modern assortment of animes avaliable are even more polished, more refined, and of higher quality than ever before. No, the blame rests entirely on Adult Swim, and for two reasons. First, its lack of a cohesive wrapper for presentation. Secondly, its inability to advertise its action properties.

Let me say that again: Adult Swim does not advertise its action properties. Sure, there were a few ads here and there, but nowhere near what was done for Swim comedy. In short, there was far too much of this, and not enough of this. (Which was still a far cry from this.) Worse still, in the Swim’s early days the advertising campaigns often didn’t start until long into the show’s schedule! Even more recently, Death Note, a critically acclaimed series, received no advertising until its fifth or sixth episode. Where Swim tries, it succeeds – they’ve turned Williams Street’s comedy programming into anationwide sensation. If they would just do the same thing for their action block, then we might see a turnaround. But it has failed to make an effort to popularize its (largely top-notch) animes.

The other thing is that Adult Swim has never had a consistent vibe. Toonami had a theme that united the entire block and filled in the gaps between shows – it had the ministory of the Absolution, TOM, Sara, the Clydes, and Moltar. Toonami painstakingly created an alternate world, just a few seconds at a time. But in return for its effort, Toonami possessed a sense of organization. There was a standard to the way shows were advertised and presented. Adult Swim has never been gifted with such a stylistic cohesion, aside from a faceless retro-grunge theme whose highlight is a bear chasing a hunter with a chainsaw. There’s certainly no character, or even a face to associate with the block.

Like I said, now Adult Swim seems to be giving up on action ‘toons. Through its own incompetence in advertising, and its failure to give viewers a sense of familiarity through a programming theme, Adult Swim Action has shot itself in the foot. After some irrational finger-pointing and blame-shifting, it’s been decided that the shows, not the block itself, is at fault.

Goodbye, Action Saturdays.

So we’ve come full circle, to a situation in which AS has proven a poor successor to Toonami and is ditching the action programming we love so much. The seed of revolution that Toonami planted and Midnight Run cultivated has indeed been malnourished by Adult Swim. But where the Swim fell short, new faces are beginning to succeed – SciFi, Starz, Encore, and so on. I think that it’s in these new blocks and these new networks that the Revolution will continue. Toonami built a better cartoon show, and the repurcussions aren’t going to fade away in the near future. In fact, I haven’t yet given up on Swim entirely. There’s still time to change things, and Toonami veterans know better than anyone that patience is key.

But something’s got to give, and unless it happens soon then I am left with no other conclusion: Adult Swim has turned traitor.

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