Does Cartoon Network Hold the Key to the Distribution Paradigm of the Future?

Since Netflix started putting out its original series by releasing every episode of each season of each show all at once, a move inspired by the phenomenon of people “binge-watching” numerous non-original series on the service they hadn’t originally watched as they came out, there has been debate over what the best strategy is for releasing serialized scripted content in the Internet age. Certainly it would seem that, freed from having to meet the needs of a linear television schedule, there’s no reason not to release content on any schedule you want; most online video series on places like YouTube, both before and after Netflix came along, have been released on a TV-like weekly schedule (or less), but they tend to be made by individuals with low budgets and without the backing of a large company like Netflix, and so need to release episodes pretty much as they’re made in order to maintain revenue to make the next episode. Whether or not Netflix’s strategy is the best strategy, with or without the constraints of a linear network, is another matter entirely.

Certainly, if the series themselves aren’t that important to your business model other than as content to fill out the service, and the main goal is simply to maintain engagement with your product, the binge-release method makes sense; it ensures that you have a large batch of content, presented as a single unit, that people can then consume over an extended period and eventually finish the season without needing to be reminded to come back. On the other hand, Netflix’s main source of revenue comes from its subscription fees, and so what would seem to be best for Netflix’s bottom line would be to keep people subscribed to its service for as long as possible, especially since, like most streaming services, Netflix offers a one-month free trial, thus opening the possibility of people binging an entire season of a given show in a single month and then quitting without paying one cent. (And that’s a very viable proposition; Stranger Things has only eight or nine hour-long episodes in a season, meaning you only need to watch two episodes a week to catch up within a month. It’s entirely viable to catch up in just two nights, or even one day if you can spare the time.) And while Netflix shows are often subject to a burst of intense buzz right around when each season comes out, it quickly dies down as people finish the season and move on to other things, meaning Netflix shows don’t get the same sort of sustained buzz over a period of months as week-by-week shows like Game of Thrones do.

From a creative standpoint, the Netflix model probably does better justice to intricately-plotted shows that in the past might have been deemed better on DVD, where individual episodes don’t necessarily hold up all that well on their own, except in terms of their contribution to the larger narrative of the show, and so their momentum and the immersion in their world is better maintained by watching them in larger chunks. Indeed, since the length of each episode isn’t fixed by the needs of a linear television schedule either, the only criterion for where to place episode breaks at all is to identify good stopping places for people to break at in the likely scenario that they can’t consume the whole season as one really long movie. But this can be a double-edged sword: for truly compelling shows, especially those with lots of plot twists and mysteries inviting speculation as long as they remain unsolved, the week-by-week wait for each episode only strengthens the anticipation. There’s a reason the cliffhanger and other devices borne of the serialized format have such a long and time-honored history. For particularly complex, multilayered shows, the lack of answers drives fans into endless speculation, poring over scenes for clues, rewatching the series in lieu of any new episodes, and generally gaining a deeper appreciation of the series than would be apparent in a one-time surface-level viewing. With a binge-release model where everyone is watching at their own pace, discussion of the show on online forums becomes nearly impossible, with the need to accommodate people at every level of progress through the season. As good as Netflix’s shows may be, they can never truly amount to “water-cooler talk” if not everyone is at the same point.

Of course, the sort of show that creates this sort of constant, edge-of-your-seat anticipation for each episode is also the exact same sort of show that is best suited to a slot on linear television in the Internet age. A show that doesn’t have people feeling they have to watch it the instant it comes out, lest they be left behind in or spoiled by the discussion, is probably also a show that doesn’t lose much by being released all at once and may be better consumed that way, so it’s not clear that there’s a situation where Netflix gets a show that’s better consumed in a serialized format. Still, what this suggests is that the best strategy will ultimately depend on the show. Some shows may work better with a week-to-week release schedule to heighten the anticipation for each episode, others may work better released all at once so they can be consumed as a unit right away, and that’s not even getting into purely episodic shows that would be fine in either format. (I talked about some of the factors going into either strategy, in another context, nearly a decade ago.) It’s not even like you’re bound to one release strategy or the other. You could release episodes in batches, breaking at a point you feel is a good place to leave off and leave the fans wondering, or at any frequency you like that best balances anticipation, attention, and the momentum of regular releases.

Which brings me to, of all entities, Cartoon Network.

With today’s youth increasingly growing up in “cord-never” households and increasingly consuming their preferred content on a variety of devices at their own preferred times, Cartoon Network has increasingly openly declared its linear network secondary to their streaming and on-demand services (admittedly, both of which require authenticating with a cable provider, but the app still has a decent selection of “unlocked” episodes available without authentication, and the recent expansion of Boomerang to a separate app is a true over-the-top subscription service). This is arguably reflected in the bumper that airs when it signs on each day at 6 AM after Adult Swim ends, which calls itself “your favorite place for your favorite shows“, effectively presenting itself as basically a showcase for its slate of original series, the most convenient place to watch them but far from the only one. “We’ve made major changes to shift from thinking of ourselves as a TV-consumption company to a total-consumption company and creating content with that in mind,” says chief content officer Rob Sorcher. “Traditional TV-viewing across the board, both for kids and adults, is under pressure at the moment. But our shift to a total consumption model has definitely protected and prepared us. And we shifted our mindset of what success is, so we’re not as focused on [linear TV ratings].”

Cartoon Network’s linear ratings, though they have rallied in recent years, still trailed rivals Disney Channel and Nickelodeon in 2017, but by the time of March’s upfront the network touted its video-on-demand service as the most-watched of any such service tied to a linear network. “We have not treated VOD as a place to just list stuff, but to actively look at how that space is being programmed: to do stunts and make sure that people can keep bingeing if that’s the behavior that they want. I think that has been very different than everyone else, and definitely at the forefront of a willingness to put more content there without worry about our linear ratings eroding,” said network president Christina Miller at the time. A year later, the network further emphasized the value of looking beyond the linear network: “We are seeing consumption grow exponentially in totality, but it’s really coming from other platforms,” said Miller. “On any given night, there’s millions and millions more minutes consumed crossplatform, in addition to what we’re seeing on TV.” This approach has recently resulted in an unconventional path to introducing new properties, which Cartoon Network has tried to introduce as “immersive worlds” spanning numerous media – as with last year’s OK K.O! Let’s Be Heroes, which (beyond the initial pilot short, which originally premiered in 2013, before Miller’s tenure even started) was initially launched as a mobile game before an actual series was even announced.

This approach hasn’t necessarily sat well with adult fans of some of Cartoon Network’s shows, namely Adventure Time, Regular Show, and Steven Universe. Cartoon Network’s ill-fated experiment with live-action shows ended shortly before Miller took over, but nonetheless Miller and head of programming Vishnu Athreya have become the focus of nearly as much vitriol as Miller’s live-action-embracing predecessor Stuart Snyder, as reruns of those three shows and most other originals all but disappeared from the linear network’s schedule in 2015-17 in favor of saturating it with seemingly endless reruns of the network’s most popular (or at least favorite) show, Teen Titans Go!, a phenomenon so notorious and widely hated it has its own TV Tropes page solely to describe the numerous ways Cartoon Network has given over its schedule to the show (tempered mostly with The Amazing World of Gumball joining it in overexposure in recent years). With Adventure Time and Regular Show ending (on their creators’ decisions) and new episodes of Steven Universe lucky to be rerun more than once (certainly at sane time slots) after their initial premieres, fans of SU fear Cartoon Network is trying to kill the show to make room for more Teen Titans Go! (It doesn’t help that Cartoon Network hasn’t officially announced any seasons beyond the ongoing fifth season that has only six episodes left in it, despite the seeming impossibility of wrapping up the story in that time and numerous indications of ongoing production of a sixth season.)

Such fears, though, seem implausible at best. For one thing, new episodes of SU have consistently continued to air in the 7 PM hour, the last hour before Cartoon Network hands off the channel to Adult Swim and thus the closest thing to primetime it has, and at least some of those episodes are usually fairly heavily promoted, as are the show’s games and merchandise. Kids’ demo ratings aren’t that widely available, but new episodes of SU seem to be the most popular programming the network has based on what ratings are available, so fans seem to want to attribute an implausible and irrational level of bitterness of the show’s adult fanbase to the network’s higher-ups.

It seems more likely that Cartoon Network considers Steven Universe a show that’s impractical to air reruns for, as its increasingly serialized nature since catching Cerebus Syndrome makes it difficult to simply jump in with episodes beyond that point (and that still hasn’t stopped them from airing reruns in the recent past, or even currently). Which is more likely to get a new fan interested in Steven Universe, or at least in the way existing fans would prefer: happening to catch a rerun out of context and likely in the middle of the story, potentially even out of order, without the knowledge or impact of previous episodes, or alternately an earlier episode before catching Cerebus Syndrome and potentially not being impressed in the way existing fans are, and in either case needing to be able to tune in at a specific time to catch any given rerun? Or being exposed to the show’s massive fanbase on sites like Tumblr and deciding to binge the show on Hulu and/or the Cartoon Network app? (As Sorcher puts it, “it is those fan communities that are the ones marketing those shows and we see the results of this right away. If we were just restricted to a single silo, that can’t happen.” Adds Miller, “If you give [our target audience] your content and let them experience your brand and participate, they will evangelize for you. They are your greatest asset in building fans.”)

More to the point, the emphasis on the app means that reruns of any show are little more than filler, something to pass time and entertain kids outside of the times actual new episodes are airing. Over the same period that TTG and Gumball have taken over the schedule, the schedule itself has been wildly inconsistent, rarely remaining even moderately unchanged from week to week (certainly outside new-episode blocks on Mondays and Fridays), and Cartoon Network’s own site doesn’t even post schedules (at least not easy-to-find ones) more than an hour or two in advance; as with sports networks, any time you’re not airing something people have to watch at the appointed time is filler between the times you are. Even with only 14 hours a day outside Adult Swim, Cartoon Network has less motivation to do anything but fill the schedule with whatever shows will attract whatever audience they can get to watch the ads and justify keeping the lights on at all, meaning mostly entertaining those kids that just leave the TV on and veg out after school. If Cartoon Network were just a three- or four-hour Saturday morning block on a more general-entertainment or broadcast network, airing all the new shows they already are, the obsession with TTG and Gumball wouldn’t be nearly as prominent, let alone reviled, with little or no time they’d need to fill with reruns. (The emphasis on the app as a place to catch reruns doesn’t seem to have worked for Adventure Time, which after a spell as being as much of a network darling as anything else is now ending with such a whimper many former fans could be forgiven for not knowing it hasn’t already ended, in the face of steadily declining ratings from season 6 on, but it’s hard to tell how much of that is the lack of reruns compared to general discontent with the quality of the show.)

Perhaps even more to the point, and going back to what was discussed earlier, even new episodes are treated as something closer to how streaming services treat them than what you’d expect from a linear network in the past. Cable networks have never been as bound to the traditional September-to-May television “season” as broadcast networks, but Cartoon Network has long stood out for their resistance to breaking up their original shows into easily divisible “seasons” at all, going back to their very first original show that wasn’t just a package for classic cartoons, Space Ghost Coast to Coast; pull up the episode list for any Cartoon Network original series on Wikipedia and chances are you’ll find some combination of wildly varying season lengths and season breaks placed at seemingly arbitrary places with little to no break in air times (and thus no perceptible “season” break for those watching in real time) to create more rational season lengths, sometimes not even lining up with how official releases break down the “seasons”, but the Miller era has taken it to another level. Cartoon Network has resorted to routinely releasing new episodes of shows, especially premiering shows, as weeklong “bombs” of four or five episodes (which for new shows, allows them to enter the rerun rotation quickly and allows people to get a sense of the show quicker than a once-a-week schedule would) with long hiatuses in between and stretches of once-a-week releases more the exception than the norm, splitting the difference between the all-at-once and weekly strategies. For Steven Universe, the resulting “feast or famine” erratic schedule for new episodes (which at one point included a “Summer of Steven” that saw the premiere of nearly the entire third season plus some of the fourth, meaning the fourth season began barely seven months after the end of the second) has long irritated fans but, as the AV Club has argued, has become as much a contributor to the show’s success as anything (with Stevenbombs correlating to huge, intense spikes in online interest).

More recently, Cartoon Network has even more explicitly embraced the app as the primary means of consuming its shows; only seven of the eighteen episodes released thus far in Steven Universe‘s current fifth season were not released on the app in bunches of four or five prior to airing on television, the latter three parts of a season-opening one-hour special (which were still briefly posted on the app when only the first part was intended to be), and two two-parters with major plot points or twists in the respective second parts. The result is that Steven Universe‘s release schedule has come to even more resemble that of a show on a streaming service with the benefit of a linear network: bog-standard episodes released in bunches, but major events premiering on the linear network to encourage everyone to watch at once. Whether or not it’s successful is questionable – ratings for the most recent two-parter were the lowest for any premiere not to have appeared on the app first (three quarters of a million viewers for a show that had never had any non-app-preempted premiere fall below 900,000) – and may point to the long hiatuses possibly catching up to the show, but it still potentially points to a new paradigm for moderately serialized shows, regardless of medium or audience, going forward. For less serialized shows, besides routinely premiering episodes on the app before airing them on the linear network, Cartoon Network has recently embraced a strategy of taking a bunch of episodes and “premiering” them repeatedly once an hour for a day, several days, or even a week. The “premiere” whose ratings are most widely reported thus falls in the early morning, less than ideal for high reported numbers, but the actual exposure to the new episodes is maximized since people can watch them over any given four-to-six hour period, and be enticed to watch whatever else is on the linear network as well.

All this is an attempt to appeal to a wired generation so enmeshed in the Internet and video on it that the notion of watching video on demand online is simply a fact of life and linear television a quirky artifact of a distant pre-Internet past. “Kids generally want their content when they want it, where they want it…it’s not about changing habits, they’re born into it, this is the only world they know, is that, you know, any piece of glass they touch and they can get an instant on, so how do we make sure we’re meeting their expectations, that we’re creating immersive worlds? It really informs the way we connect our content from platform to platform and make sure that the content’s anywhere and everywhere they want it,” says Miller. “I don’t know if everybody always realizes, it is like having a crystal ball. Everyone talks about ‘millennials, millennials’, well, we were serving millennials 25 years ago…the generation that’s coming up behind it has great command of all the choices and they want to mix and match on their own…when you start to look at the statistics and they start to tell you how much of the consumption on devices will be video as we go out to 2020, it’s because everything is highly visual [for that generation]”.

I’ve never liked the notion, often seized upon to explain cord-cutting, that my generation that grew up with kids’ shows on linear television, the only difference from past generations being their presence on cable networks, somehow doesn’t understand why linear cable television exists and why so much content is tied up in the cable bundle, and perhaps nothing demonstrates that more than the linear-focused perspective of so many in my cohort that leads them to vilify Miller so much. Far from “destroying Cartoon Network for an app“, Miller is one of the few in the industry seriously trying to strike the right balance between the two, and while they probably haven’t found it yet, they’re far further down the pike than most in the industry. Certainly if you want a look at the distribution paradigm of the future for serial video content, it’s hard not to look at Cartoon Network as forming a key piece of the puzzle.

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