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Attack on Titan: Colossal Expectations

Posted 25 April 2014 / By Andrew "Sketch" Hingson / Headline/ Opinion

I have to applaud Toonami for how they broke the news that they would be airing the (currently red-hot) Attack on Titan. Until the first teaser aired, they patched all the leaks, kept FUNimation from announcing it at a convention, and never spoke a word about the series joining the block. So despite many Toonami viewers expecting the show to air this year, seeing the teaser for the first time still gave me chills. The 30 second spot offered just enough narration and visuals to give viewers a taste of things to come without spoiling the initial episodes. The two things on my mind were “they actually did it” and “this is going to be amazing”.

I suppose I should have had more faith, but I was starting to think Titan wasn’t going to air until later in the year – or that Toonami had let it slip through the cracks due to other priorities. I am so glad I was wrong on both accounts. That said, I was right on the money when I guessed that Toonami wouldn’t have a free slot for Attack on Titan until May. It also came as no surprise that the hype train was full steam ahead as soon as the teaser started airing.

There is no denying that Attack on Titan could be huge. At a minimum, it has everything needed to be the next Fullmetal Alchemist. In 2013, the Attack on Titan graphic novels sold well enough to shoulder aside the competition and grab the title of #1 Japanese comic in America. In addition, the television adaptation is the only FUNimation license to stream on Netflix before seeing a television broadcast or home video release. In other words, Netflix wanted Attack on Titan badly enough to overlook the lack of a a dub. I have recommended Attack on Titan to numerous animation enthusiasts, and many fans of the show aren’t “anime fans” or even animation fans. The broad appeal cannot be denied – some people even call it “The Walking Dead of Anime”. But while you can draw some comparisons, The Walking Dead‘s success will be very difficult to imitate. Toonami knows Attack on Titan has enormous potential. They’re even giving it the opening slot in hopes of hooking the cross-over audience from the rest of Adult Swim.

But it’s time for a reality check.

Break-out hits are hard to come by, and even genuinely interesting and well-constructed shows are not guaranteed to escape their niche. Anyone hoping for Attack on Titan to be the next Dragon Ball Z just isn’t paying attention to how much the world has changed since the glory days of DBZ. First, in the past decade we’ve radically changed how we view television. Second, DBZ‘s heyday was part of the “anime boom” that got Americans to notice Japan’s sizable backlog of animated series – even though Americans had dismissed similar series before. Many other franchises tried to duplicate the success of a few breakout hits – Pokémon imitators flooded the kids’ market in particular – but most failed miserably.

During this time, Toonami added some of the best Japanese offerings of that era to their impressive selection of American action series. The block even gained influence over the rest of Cartoon Network and cable television. Eventually, however, that spark guttered and Japanese animation became so commonplace that it no longer stood out. Japanese animation became like any other fad, and very few television blocks carried the torch after the boom subsided. The fact that only Toonami is standing strong today points to a very different television landscape than that of a decade ago.

A decade ago, when Fullmetal Alchemist was new to America, the first season got impressive ratings. On at least one occasion, it broke 700,000 viewers between the ages of 18 and 34. At the time, only InuYasha could do anywhere near as well. While it did not reach Dragon Ball Z heights  – which were probably only achievable during the boom – Fullmetal did breakout on its own level. It was a resounding success and is still beloved and relevant ten years later.  But even though InuYasha, Naruto and Bleach were arguably bigger successes than Fullmetal, none came close to DBZ, either. Dragon Ball and Pokémon will always be in their own league, especially as long as the companies that own them see fit to continue shoving them down our throats generation after generation.

However, I fully believe that part of why Fullmetal became a breakout success was because it was introduced to American viewers through broadcast on Adult Swim. Yes, there were illegal subs, but most viewers’ first taste was through Adult Swim. The series saw weaker ratings after returning from a hiatus, and this was likely because word of mouth was so good and patience was so thin that fans turned to illegal subs to get their fix. (Subs existed back in the boom era as well, but they were not as easy to obtain.) Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood had episodes out on DVD and even simulcast before it aired on Adult Swim. It was still a success, but not on the level of the original series.

In 2007, Death Note was selling graphic novels like hotcakes and it looked like Adult Swim would have another hit, but the ratings were surprisingly average (or even on the low side, considering expectations). Illegal subs and even Viz Media’s “download to own” subs gave viewers ways to enjoy the series other than watching television late on Saturday nights. While Death Note was probably a bit cerebral for the same audience that enjoyed Family Guy and Aqua Teen Hunger Force, I do wonder how much better the show may have done without those other viewing methods readily available. In comparison, Ghost in the Shell:  Stand Alone Complex did quite a bit better. Death Note was and is a very successful franchise and I do not mean to imply otherwise- however, I’m using this example to illustrate the point that not every top-selling manga will be a top-rated TV series for Adult Swim.

In the current era, we are lucky to get simulcasts of many of the Japanese shows, this is great it has put Toonami at a disadvantage. The exception is a Space Dandy situation, where Toonami airs the episode even before it airs in Japan. It’s a sizable wall for any show to climb, but that’s the tide Toonami continues to fight in a battle for relevancy in the current entertainment industry. Make no mistake, the television is still the primary medium for watching series, but American animation enthusiasts have largely turned to various streaming services due to the greater variety – including brand new series from Japan. With entertainment and fandom being a much more global enterprise, these animation lovers hate to feel left behind. They want to be up to date to avoid spoilers.

Attack on Titan is an example of a series that garnered enormous hype as it was airing in Japan and the world took notice. But Toonami’s not concerned about how many people already saw Attack on Titan. They’re aiming to bring the series to an even wider audience. They are sure to succeed on a respectable level, but the expectations for this show have become perhaps a little too colossal. Yes, Attack on Titan could be Toonami’s biggest win since returning to the airwaves – as well as Adult Swim’s most successful import since Bleach – but achieving that is going to take a lot of good fortune. The television landscape today has made it nearly impossible to attain the ratings Japanese animation did during the boom. Attack on Titan shouldn’t be considered a failure if doesn’t break records. Toonami has proven that a series can still do well for them even if it’s old or has been seen before. However, anyone with common sense knows that Naruto: Shippuden or Soul Eater were capable of higher ratings had they aired on Toonami first.

Some have suggested Attack on Titan should be able to match the Family Guy rerun ratings, but that’s unprecedented for most of Adult Swim’s programming – as well as numerous other shows airing on basic cable. New episodes of FX’s Archer can sink as low as 500,000 viewers in the 18-49 demographic at 10:00 PM on a Monday and keep on trucking. I am pretty sure Attack on Titan can do better, even on Adult Swim’s least-watched night. However, it will not be without competition. If SNL can take the wind out of Bleach and Space Dandy’s sails, then Attack on Titan is unlikely to escape unscathed. Occasional sports events are likely to cause a few less desirable turn-outs as well.

Any Adult Swim show that airs between 11:30 PM and 1:30 AM is going to inherit many of its viewers from the shows earlier in the night. On no day is this truer than Saturday, when Adult Swim is fighting to keep the casual audience interested from the moment they show up for Family Guy and/or The Boondocks. Due to that trend in viewer habits, expecting Attack on Titan to break 2 million viewers (more importantly, 1 million viewers ages 18 to 49) is unreasonable. This is, of course, barring the possibility that The Boondocks airing before it delivers around that many viewers itself. Attack on Titan will reap the benefit of airing one hour after new Boondocks encores, and that should help it achieve some impressive numbers. But if those Boondocks ratings are not Family Guy good, then Attack on Titan would need a whole lot of viewers coming in after Boondocks ends to reach 1 million viewers ages 18 to 49.

I feel a more reasonable expectation would be that Attack on Titan does not lose more than ten to twenty percent of the Boondocks viewership on a week when Boondocks does well, and manages to out-rate Boondocks on the weeks Boondocks does not do well. Therefore, a reasonable expectation is a high of 800,000 viewers ages 18-49 and a low of 600,000 viewers ages 18-49, unless Boondocks does not draw at least 600,000 viewers 18-49 in the time slot leading into Attack on Titan. I am pretty sure they’d break all previous Adult Swim action programming records if Attack on Titan could pull off 800,000 viewers in the 18-34 demographic, and it would be a legendary success if it could break 1 million viewers in the same demographic and not slip below 500,000 at any point in the premiere run. Conquering Adult Swim’s all-time best for any program would take an additional 600,000. Some shows can break 3 million in total viewers on occasion, and the premiere of the fourth Boondocks season came close. But that was on a Monday, not a Saturday. Saturday is a tough nut to crack.

Maybe – just maybe – Attack on Titan will break the action premiere records for Adult Swim in spite of the current television climate. I am confident that getting comparable ratings to Space Dandy and Bleach is enough for Attack on Titan to be a success for Toonami. Regardless, airing Attack on Titan on a basic cable block that will treat it with care ensures the series will reach a wider audience than it would have through just streaming and home video. It may prove to be Toonami’s biggest success story in the current era, but try not to let expectations overshadow your enjoyment of the show itself.

Comments (8)

  • Sharky

    Arent these comparisons unreasonable.
    Attack on Titan is “the Walking dead of anime”
    Attack on Titan is the “next Full metal Alchemist”
    Death Note is too cerebral for Family Guy viewers

    Death Note comparison firstly seems rude and demoralizing to fans of the both shows. Not to mention death note ran in the japanese magazine whose major audience composition are 20% or so in the 13-15 range and 20% or so in 19-24 range, and a large set of people over 25. So to suggest it being too cerebral is simply poppycock and untrue, not to mention all the grade schoolers knowing what a death note is in Japan it was a cultural phenomenal. Your statement also seems to suggest that Death Note isnt or wasnt popular when even every year it is still on the top list of best selling english translated japanese comic in america each year.

    Comparing to pokemon is also a bit wacky and odd considering its firstly a game first that sells 20+ mln worldwide with an cartoon that, well does it really have ratings to write home about?

    How are we even gauging it as the walking dead of japanese animation or the next fma, whats that even mean, just viewer numbers? Not merchandise and content products, marketing, popular culture phenomenon?

    I think these vague and odd comparisons kind of make it a bit difficult to really and confidently suggest this show would be a show to break records. It reeks of when people suggested Space Dandy as the next Cowboy Bebop and look how that turned out, limited scope beyond the traditional Japanese animation viewing audience with no real lasting impression or cultural phenomenon taking off.

    Since Attack on Titan didnt really explode at week one in the Japanese airing, I think one is better off guessing its potential ratings once episode one airs and you can see how non traditional japanese animation viewers see and respond to it and how word of mouth goes. Ultimately will be interesting to see how it does the night one of the most key episodes (around 5 or so) airs…

    • Andrew "Sketch" Hingson
      Andrew "Sketch" Hingson

      I appreciated the response. Allow me to elaborate on some of those points.

      The “being too cerebral” comment was mostly a joke. I’m the kind of viewer that enjoys both Family Guy and Death Note and I know I’m not the only one but I’d be lying if I said I felt I was a typical Adult Swim viewer.

      I was only referring to success for Adult Swim in regards to Death Note’s performance. I suppose I could have mentioned it was break-out success as a brand despite low ratings on Adult Swim but I figured readers such as yourself were already aware of that. Death Note was brought up as a cautionary tale to illustrate to the readers that a top selling manga does not always make for a top rated series for Adult Swim.

      Pokemon is actually about the highest rated Japanese cartoon in America that is still on the air but I was speaking about the phenomenal success the animated series had during the anime boom. As you mentioned, the games are a much more significant part of the franchises success.

      “The Walking Dead of anime” is something I personally do not buy into but I have seen various reporters call it that. “The Next Fullmetal Alchemist” is one of the more common measuring sticks I’ve seen for how successful Attack on Titan might become. It is the measuring stick I most agree with currently so I used it as a spring board. The other measuring stick I’ve seen from time to time is “the Evangelion of this generation” but I prefer the Fullmetal comparison.

      The main point of this piece was to curb expectations because I’ve seen so many fans place Attack on Titan on a pedestal and expect it to be “the savior of Japanese animation” which is incredibly unreasonable. I wanted to give an idea of what would be considered a tremendous level of success for Adult Swim as well as speak on my own expectations. Those expectations being, it has the potential to do very well but a break-out success remains to be seen.

      I made some adjustments to the article due to your input.

  • Branko Burcksen

    Very well done. Thank you so much for keeping expectations in perspective. I often think people give way too much credit to ratings especially when they treat it like a scoreboard. The one thing I am most interested in is the zeitgeist. A series does not need primetime ratings to enter the public consciousness. It just needs to get the right amount of people talking about something fresh, unexpected and interesting.

    Full Metal Alchemist is a good benchmark. When it first aired, I was not into anime as I am now. I watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I kept hearing FMA getting brought up in discussions and lists online. Much later, when I saw the series for myself, I recognized the obvious comparisons of adventure, questing, and young leads, but with a darker, maturer and more complex take on war, power and coming of age. At their starts, they were also both episodic before diving into the main narrative. I think, because of these similarities and its wider exposure, The Last Airbender could draw more attention as an example of action animation that had not been seen in quite a while. They both also kept up a steady stream of humor.

    Attack on Titan has almost no humor and has a lot more narrative propulsion from its outset. What amount of difference this makes, we will just have to wait and see.

    It is pretty astounding how well Attack on Titan has done on Netflix. It makes me wonder whether it will give it the kind of ratings boost it has done for other series. Milage will vary depending on the show, and it is the exact same material, only the language has changed. Of course, this arrangement most benefits very serialized programs, and Attack on Titan is more that than a lot of Toonami’s offerings without being too tedious in its pacing. Many people comment how it is impossible to stop watching it until they have consumed all the episodes. That is a big reason for its fast rise over a year.

    Another being that first opening song, which many hope will be played in full. The obvious reason is its an important advantage to exposing the series as numerous youtube videos have proven. The fans feel very passionate about the show and they express it in droves on social media. Now though, with Toonami, there is a widely accessible means of viewing it to find out what the fuss is about.

    I have no idea whether any of this affects ratings, but for me, that is not the point. What matters is the series becoming more available allows for wider reaching public conversations about it. After a certain point, it switches from discussing the show itself to its place and impact on popular culture. This unknown that suddenly millions who have not even seen it, but heard about it, are curious to why so many cannot stop the chatter.

    Movies, TV shows and books do this all the time. If Attack on Titan is lucky enough to hit that level, how will it be defined? The critical moment might be episode 5. (Funimation sent screeners to ANN and The Fandom Post for the first five episodes dubbed. Lets hope that also included larger publications interested enough to print something about it.) Killing off important characters seems pretty common place now in most dramas, but the reaction to seeing a cartoon do something similar has a lot of potential. I also think the Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead comparisons are inaccurate, but what else is there to go by?

    I believe the majority of people understand cartoons are not just for kids and can be pretty serious and mature when it wants to be. However, unlike the comedic or child friendly side of animation, there are not a wide swath of titles that the majority can point to as a mainstream, benchmark example, even if they have not seen it themselves. That last detail is key because it indicates someone understands the specific merits of a series without having seen it themselves.

    At this point, Attack on Titan is a curiosity. A curiosity that a substantial amount of people heard about through the grapevine. Toonami has the potential to turn that into a conversation starter where you do not need to have seen it in order to know what it is and why it is popular.

    • Andrew "Sketch" Hingson
      Andrew "Sketch" Hingson

      I could not have said it better myself Branko. You pointed out exactly what matters and why ratings are superficial measuring sticks.

  • MetaMoss

    Wow, two new articles on Toonami Fan on the same day (and on my birthday, of all days)? Awesome.

    Anyway, great insight on why we shouldn’t get our hopes too high about Attack on Titan, but I still do have pretty high hopes for what it can do. The sheer momentum it has with both the manga sales and Netflix means that it has the best set-up any anime has had in the US since the anime boom. I think it’ll be a defining show for the revived Toonami, even if it doesn’t become “the next DBZ”.

  • Andrew "Sketch" Hingson
    Andrew "Sketch" Hingson

    Happy Birthday! Glad I could offer you some gifts even though I didn’t know I was. XD

    Titan could be a big win for Toonami, we’ll have to wait and see.

  • dragonzord1993

    I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Attack on Titan doing good enough to warrant an expansion to 11:00 AM (especially since Toonami is starting to run a little low on room for premieres, as evidenced by Beware the Batman airing at 3:00 AM), but other than that, I just hope that Attack on Titan does well.

  • iknowz

    Yo, tnt is broadcasting 3 finals game 7 on saturday. 1st time in history for them, Attack on Titan has some bad luck, fuhhhhhh The games dont end till around midnight, around the time naruto shippuden ends

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