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Saturday, 23 of January of 2021

The Perils and Problems of Toonami’s Return

Toonami was a programming block on Cartoon Network the started in 1997. Airing in the afternoons, no doubt modeled after (and to compete with) The Disney Afternoon block, the block was retooled in July of 1999 and began airing as the Toonami Midnight Run on Saturday nights starting at midnight. From there on, it was 6 hours of anime and the block’s host T.O.M., a 3D CGI robot voiced by Steve Blum (known for his work as Spike in the dub for Cowboy Bebop).

Toonami Website

Really? "Bitches"? Sigh.

The Midnight Run programming block was dropped after a little less than a year (around March 2000 or so) and was retool with multiple shows airing during its block during the afternoons and then Saturday evenings, mostly anime but some American animation as well before finally being shut down in 2008.

The Midnight Run block was arguably the most popular iteration of Toonami. It laid the groundwork for its ancestor, the wildly successful Adult Swim, with its use of bumps and interstitials between commercials and the shows, and speaking to the audience though those (Adult Swim would, of course, engage in a more minimalist approach). A case could be made for Toonami popularizing anime in the United States (I wouldn’t argue it was the only thing, but probably a contributing factor), which in turn was assisted by Adult Swim’s early emphasis on anime, before they started producing their own program.

On April 1 of this year, Adult Swim was suddenly reprogrammed and it was Toonami Midnight Run again. (You can see all the bumps and interstitials here). And then on May 16, the return of Toonami was announced for May 26.

But why in the world is it even coming back?

Toonami, I will not lie, was the highlight of my week during its Midnight Run block. I’d stay awake through the first couple of hours before eventually falling asleep on the couch. When it shifted time slots from the midnight block, I did not shift with it, and became a less dedicated viewer. I did tune in for the programming block’s final broadcast in 2008 since it had been a major television fixture for me.

But I don’t have the nostalgia-tinted glasses that I imagine many folks who also watched the Midnight Run block, and have greeted this news with considerable excitement. I’m not all doom and gloom in its return (some in my Twitter feed were giving it only 3 months before being shuttered again; I say it’ll last at least a year), but I’m really curious as to the reason why the Cartoon Network brass decided to do this.

My skepticism about this is that the landscape of anime has shifted a great deal since even 2008, let alone 2000, and I’m not sure what purpose Toonami’s return serves exactly, or why Cartoon Network is willing to invest the money in this venture. Here’s a few things to consider:

1. Anime on TV and DVD. Anime in the 00s was expensive on DVD. Yes, DVD was a new format only just gaining traction in the market, but 2 to 3 episodes for anywhere between $25 to $30? It was kind of insane, so watching anime on TV was a lot cheaper (and pirating didn’t really exist as it does now (remember, most folks were still on dial-up)). And anime on TV, while not widespread, at least had a home on Cartoon Network and the occasional syndicated afternoon block or Saturday morning.

But both of those things are no longer true. Anime on DVD is more affordable, and complete sets are increasingly more common than buying individual discs of a series. Likewise, new anime isn’t exactly a common sight on American television these days. Series that are geared to younger audiences, and are connected to toys and card games, are still more common, but new series just don’t get licensed for American TV now. This leads us to…

2. Licensing. One of the reasons why Adult Swim has steadily moved away from picking up new anime shows, as well as older American animation programs (like Family Guy, Futurama, etc.), and to producing its own programming, was the lack of money that could be generated off those other programs. Sure, they could generate ad dollars by selling an audience for this show but they likely didn’t see a cut of the more lucrative ancillary sales, namely DVD sales and other merchandising.

So, basically, Cartoon Network/Toonami/Adult Swim was paying for programs that wasn’t theirs, and were unlikely to see much return on. By airing the program, they were paying for the privilege of being a 30-minute commercial for the DVD that they wouldn’t make any money off of. And while this is a good way to build a brand identity (every cable channel does this sort of thing), it’s not a great way to make money over the long term (even TV Land has original programming now!).

Couple this with implosion of the American licensing industry over the course of the 2000s (the two are probably related, though other factors were in the mix as well), and you have to wonder about the financial incentive involved in bringing back Toonami. Certainly you can sell not only people my age, but also, hopefully, younger audiences, but that seems to be about it. And while the press release mentions that Toonami is developing new original anime programming (I assume a co-production with a studio in Japan WHICH GIVES THEM A CUT OF DVD SALES AND MERCHANDISING), no other specifics are given.

3. Piracy and Simulcasting. But all of that is pretty much moot, really, because anime fans (the more invested ones) have accepted the lack of anime on TV and the expensive DVDs, and developed other methods of watching anime. First there was pirating and fansubs that, while not new (bootleg VHS were incredibly common in anime fan circles), used the rise of broadband, file sharing, and torrents to illegally distribute episodes of anime as they aired in Japan.

In response to this, a rather slow response (connected to, I imagine, again, the collapse of the licensing industry here in the U.S.), was the development of simulcasting of anime (and other Japanese programming). I’ll go out on a limb and say that simulcasting, which is the legal online distribution of an episode on the same day that episode airs in Japan, is the predominant way anime fans watch new series. The way American TV fans welcome upfronts (a once a year occurrence) is the way anime fans treat the announcement of not only new seasons, but who is picking up the streaming license (an event that happens four times a year due to the structure of Japanese television seasons).

(Indeed, American upfronts for the 2012-13 TV season and the announcements/anxieties about simulcasting licensing  for the summer season coincided this year, making my Twitter feed kind of insane.)

There’s not a great deal of money in simulcasting, because it still involves licensing and you’re only earning digital pennies and not more sizable ad dollars that a TV channel can demand, but it can help what licensers still exist in the U.S. to gauge fan demand and response for licensing a show for DVD sales (and, potentially, American broadcasting with Toonami’s return). And it does/may help staunch the flow of illegal fansubs and illegal streaming sites, so there is some money to be saved (though not necessarily earned).

So Toonami enters into this fractured marketplace for no discernable reason other than cashing in on late 90s, early 00s nostalgia. Their promise of airing older Toonami program seems nice enough, but since many of those shows have been off the air so long, I imagine most people picked up the DVDs once they became cheap enough and they weren’t on TV any longer. Why would people watch a six-hour block of programming that they may already own?

The other factor is related to the simulcasting and fansubbing practices. The most engaged anime fans (read: the ones most likely to spend money) are online now. Why would they watch a late night programming block of (most likely) dubbed shows they’ve already seen online, legally or otherwise?  On top of this, consider the other big change in technology since Midnight Run existed: the DVR. Yes, I taped some of Midnight Run on a VCR with a tape set to SLP (that’s “super long play”), but now you could just your DVR to record it (and it’s way easier than programming a VCR).

Where does this leave Toonami? Well, it’s only real option is to stream all of its programming, and I mean all of it. Part of the excitement for its return isn’t necessarily grounded in the programming but in the return of T.O.M. and the bumps. They were as much of a part of the programming block as the shows were, and the nostalgia of that experience is perhaps exciting people more than anything, and those aspects, as much as the shows, need to be online with the shows.

In regards to the shows themselves, I imagine that they will all be dubbed when they air on TV, but perhaps showing the original voice work with subtitles wouldn’t be a bad idea, or, at the very least, having a subbed version available online as well. I imagine that dubs and subs will be less of an issue than online access, but it could still factor into the equation.

The last point I’ll make is also about content, and this point, more than anything, I think could undermine Toonami’s return. Not only has the anime landscape changed due to technology and economics, but the shows themselves have changed as well. The rise of moe shows within the anime seasons, and the extreme catering to Japanese otaku may not necessarily fit Toonami’s idea of what it wants to do. While Tooanmi showed anime, it showed broad (male) appeal anime, centered on action and fighting (and Sailor Moon (Which is better than you remember, by the way)). And while that stuff is still available, it’s changed a lot, and may not be as broad (male) appeal as it once was to American audiences.

On top of this, and I cannot speak to this personally as I’ve departed from the fan circles, but my sense from other conversations is that older anime doesn’t  play well to younger American anime fans, be it in terms of story, character design or even animation techniques (hand-drawn cells versus use of computer animation), which may limit the nostalgia appeal of the older shows to a very select set of people, and not newer fans who have only heard the “old fogies” on message boards talk about “the good old days.”

All in all, I’m not sure who decided it would be a good idea to bring Toonami back. The landscape has changed so much since it launched and left that I just don’t know if it was thought through well enough. I admit that all of this is armchair program development, especially since we know next to nothing about what’s planned for Toonami’s return, but I genuinely think this was an ill-conceived, regardless of what they do have planned.

I’ll likely be tuning in for the first bit of Toonami’s return on May 26 (because I have no life, clearly), but it’ll be more to see how well it works. I don’t want it to fail because I do think the lack of anime on American television has been a negative for audiences, but I’m not sure it can succeed in today’s market.

If anything, the programming block’s return circles back to its original concerns expressed by its first host, the Space Ghost (And Space Ghost Coast to Coast) character Moltar: “Is Toonami a failed experiment doomed to destruction?” Probably.

Addendum: There’s been some reaction to this post on Twitter about Toonami’s timeslot, and if it should start earlier (like 9:00 or 10:00) as opposed to midnight. The idea behind the earlier timeslot is notion of bringing in new fans to anime. While Toonami is widely credited with popularizing anime in the late 90s, I don’t think that the relaunch of Toonami is aiming for new audiences, but is seeking to re-engage its old audience (hence my emphasis on nostalgia), and I think the timeslot only reinforces this idea.

Of course not appealing to new audiences places them in the binds I’ve outlined above, but the older audience is, at the very least, a little more predictable (and likelier in possession of a disposable income, given the demographics). I’d also add that the later timeslot frees them up to air content that they couldn’t otherwise air at 9 or 10, including older shows and any new shows that they may license and/or co-produce.

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