Attack on Titan: Colossal Expectations
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.