The Boss, The Legend of Korra and I

As far as animation has come in the last 10-15 years, you still get the odd reminder that it remains on the fringes of the entertainment landscape, especially its view among adults. If got one of these reminders the other day, when the boss happened to spot the wallpaper on my computer. Said wallpaper was, of course, The Legend of Korra.

This initiated a discussion that went as follows:

The Boss: The Legend of Korra?
Me: Yeah. It’s on Nickelodeon. It’s a great show.
The Boss: Oh yeah, it’s that Avatar thing. My 12 year old watches that.
Me: Have you ever watched it?
The Boss: Well, no….
Me: (-.-)

So I basically called his bluff on this one. I said it was a good show, he insinuated that I watched a kids show, I countered that if he hadn’t watched it, how could he know why I was watching it.

This encounter was a reminder that a prejudice continues to exist among adults with regard to animation. The notion is that anything on the three kid’s networks is automatically only for kids. It’s sometimes tough to put thing into perspective for those who believe this and it’s an uphill struggle to make them understand that just because something is aimed at kids, doesn’t mean that it can’t be enjoyed by those who are not.

That was the conclusion I came to a number of years ago. If it’s an adult making something, surely an adult can enjoy it, right?

How To Petition for An Avatar and Legend of Korra Soundtrack

In what seems to be a regular occurrence over on The Last Airbender subreddit (yes, I am a subscriber), someone has released yet another internet petition for an official soundtrack release for Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. Now this one has gained a bit more traction that previous ones in that the actual production house, The Track Team, has linked to it. So it has a bit more pedigree than previous attempts, so why does it still fail to stack up? Well, it once again makes the familiar mistakes of such campaigns.

Keep reading this post

Criminal Enterprise or Under-served DVD Market?

Often the scourge of the entertainment industry, so-called “pirates” are often singled out as the single greatest threat to its very survival. The usual brush used to tar them paints them as high-level criminal enterprises with highly sophisticated money-laundering operations and connections to real criminal activities such as drug running and prostitution. Back in the day, they mainly produced counterfeit DVDs and video tapes but have since moved into cyberspace and make use of zombie computers to support their networks.

All this ties into today’s post insofar that the decline of DVDs as a medium for content distribution has also meant a decline for these enterprises. Much can be said for the move into cyberspace but many a fan knows the difference between, say, The Pirate Bay and a dodgy website crammed with ads and a suspect video player requesting you download “special” codecs in order for it to run. This is a lesson I saw my brother learn the hard way with approximately 8 hours of his life that he’ll never get back spent cleaning up the resulting mess.

Yet people continue to buy DVDs. My theory is that streaming works fine for people who simply want to see something, but when it comes down to the stuff they really like, the concept of ownership is very hard to substitute. With that in mind, TV shows and films continue to come out on shiny plastic discs for people to watch at their leisure. Which leads us to the impetus for today’s post:

Yes, this is the entire series of Avatar: The Last Airbender available in a complete boxset. Now most American fans will have their suspicions immediately aroused because they know that the series never came out as a single boxset; only as three separate “books”. This is all before you notice the non-latin text adorning the back cover or the notable lack of a Nickelodeon logo.

This boxset retails for $30 on eBay (no, I won’t link) whereas the official season sets retail for about $30 each. That’s a huge difference in price. Where does that difference come from and why does that matter?

The first thing the studio will say is that these DVDs don’t include the cost of the show. That is true, but the way networks and media companies are structured, that’s only the half truth. The cost of the show is borne by the network itself, who then license it to their home video arms for DVD distribution. Those licensing costs aren’t cheap and make up a decent proportion of the official sale price. Second is the fact that this boxset is being sold direct from the far east, also the point of manufacture. There is no middlemen a la distributors or the distribution arm of Viacom, another source of expense as they take their cut. Lastly is the retailer themselves. Amazon knocks about $9 off the list price which in essence represents the extra efficiency they’ve managed to squeeze out through their distribution and sales systems. Anyone else (traditional retail outlets included) will absolutely stick to the $39.95 retail price because anything lower will eat into their profit margin.

Now you could argue that these knock-offs are missing the special features like making-of videos, commentaries etc etc. but they are simply the icing on the cake for most fans and die-hards. Would the average consumer be willing to trade off the loss of the extra features for a 66% discount? I’d hazard a guess that most would.

So in reality, these knock-off DVDs are less of a representation of criminal enterprise as they are an under-served market at the hands of inefficient interests. Nickelodeon could no doubt sell a series boxset for $30, if it wanted to. However with so many fingers in the pie from manufacturers to distributors to retailers, there are an awful lot of vested interests who would rather see high-priced individual boxsets that prop them up rather than a product in the consumers best interests. Much the same in how Maryland vineyards can’t sell their products online because distributors put up a political fight to keep their 35% take.

So where does that leave the above boxsets on sale today? In a gray area unfortunately. Yes they are for sale and do represent good value, but they are unofficial. Money generated from their sale (and you can guarantee that there are profits being made) are not flowing back to the rightful people or corporations, regardless of the political stance you take on content and copyright. That is clearly not right or fair, but then neither is the rigid, inflexible nature the DVD market and requisite distribution operations.

Animation could benefit greatly if superb series such as Avatar were allowed to be sold at the level that the market demands. A lot of free-wheeling economics I know, but if you thought the series was popular now, how much more popular would it be if a lot more people could own and experience the show that they love.

While it’s easy to dismiss all fans as freeloaders, you’ll be glad to know that on the reddit thread discussing the set, the original poster was actually admonished for buying the set, and fans went even further to severely downvote the post with a link to where they bought it. So it’s not simply a case of fans willing to break the rules for a cheap deal, they really do care about the show and do prefer to go through official channels. One post even pointed out that simply downloading bittorrent files caused less damage to the creators than buying actual, physical discs from shady overseas operations.

All in all, a tough case to analyse and an even tougher one to rationalise. Fans should be catered to, and clearly barring the unnecessary costs imposed by the network and distribution channels, someone has found a way to profitably sell DVDs for far less. Fans would benefit and clearly Nickelodeon would benefit too, however in this case, they receive not even a penny. Sure it’s breaking the rules, but it’s a lost sale in the real sense, and any businessman worth his salt hates to see money pass him by because of his own actions.

When Nickelodeon Made A Netbook

I’m in the market for a netbook at the moment and while perusing the local eBay, I stumbled across something quite peculiar, this:

Via: Dell.com

Yup, that’s a Nickelodeon-branded Dell netbook, which you could only tell if you were familiar with the green slime that the network does its best to remind you of at every opportunity.

What I thought was interesting though, besides the slime, was that it’s just an ordinary netbook!

So what did consumers get for their extra $50? They got a customized GUI and a year’s subscription to McAfee parental controls. A good deal? Hardly.

Never mind that such netbooks are now being sold as ‘rare’ and so forth. Did they sell well for Dell and Nickelodeon? It’s hard to say. Branding computers to kids has always been a risky business. Disney have been at it for years and have been known for products like this:

Via: PCMag

Yuck!

Amusingly enough, Apple managed to inadvertently appeal to kids with their iPad, and that’s when everyone realised that it all came down to software not hardware. All of which makes sense as computer games and the like have been a marketing tool for decades.

So why do studios and networks continue to push hardware? Higher profit margins perhaps? Or is it just the lure of having a perpetual impact on the consumer, one that remains no matter what software is running on the machine.

It’s a tough call, but I know that games tend to foster nostalgia whereas hardware is often relegated to the rubbish pile.

UPDATED: The Wall Street Journal On Gender And The Legend Of Korra

Updated at the bottom.

Via: The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal is the straight man of American journalism. It’s supposedly “above the fray” of other news organizations that would rather concern themselves with celebrity gossip than real news. Of course all that is less true now that the Journal is owned by the same person whose made a killing muckracking others, but that’s beside the point.

What IS the point is that they currently have a very nice write-up of the new Nickelodeon series Legend of Korra. (The direct link to the WSJ is here, but for the proles among us, I recommend going to Google News and searching for “The Next ‘Airbender’ Gets Older, Wiser and Adds a Feminine Touch” in order to get the full text).

While the article provides a good overview of the new series and its origins in Avatar: The Last Airbender, what makes it stand out is the deceleration that while this series is more girl-friendly than the original, male viewer numbers won’t be affected:

According to Nickelodeon, the median age of “Avatar” viewers is 12.8 years old, and the audience is roughly 65% male and 35% female. Mr. Konietzko said Nickelodeon tested the new series and young boys readily accepted the show’s female hero. “You can’t say it’s gonna fail when there aren’t that many things to point to in animation like this,” Mr. Konietzko said. “Luckily, Nick was brave enough to let us do it.”

Now in fairness to Nickelodeon, they’ve been a bit more progressive than others when it comes to the whole matter of female-led shows with the likes of My Life as a Teenage Robot being a great example. The paragraph above flies in the face of conventional traditional “wisdom” which states that boys won’t watch a show with a female lead. While I think  that is pure bunk, it nonetheless was on Disney’s mind when they altered their film from Rapunzel to Tangled.

Perhaps the best indicator of things to come though, is in this quote, which sums up very nicely the current trend in movies:

“Korra” has been in the works for years, but Mr. DiMartino said that with the success of “The Hunger Games” movie and the coming Pixar film “Brave,” which both feature strong female leads, “The time is right in the cultural zeitgeist for all these female heroes to come out.”

I can’t wait to see them when they do  🙂

Update: Megan over at Forever Young Adult has written a very enthusiastic post about the series that did a good job of confirming that I should catch this show. On top of that, she had this to say about Korra herself.

Guys, Korra is a kick-ass heroine to be reckoned with. She’s strong, brash, and stubborn. But she’s also kind-hearted, fun and brave. You will love her almost instantly. Plus, when was the last time you saw a show that had a non-white 17 year old girl (albeit, animated girl) as its lead? And when was the last time you had a YA girl as a lead in something that wasn’t (at least originally) exclusively marketed toward YA girls?? It sounds so pathetic, but THIS IS THE SHOW I’VE BEEN DREAMING OF. This is the kind of show you should watch with your daughters AND sons because it’s important for them to have an awesome young woman to look up to and emulate and/or admire. And it’s great for us olds, because I know I always want to read about/watch cool ladies, 24/7/365! Also, look at those guns! You should watch the show for her guns alone.

While it comes close to going over the top, it is nonetheless a great description of the main protagonist and why there is so much to like about her. I certainly hope we see more series like this one promises to be.

The Modifyers

Chis Reccardi and Lynne Naylor are two of my very favourite artists, so you can imagine how excited I was when I learned that they created a pilot for Nickelodeon that sadly, so very sadly, went un-aired and un-picked up

Thankfully, said pilot can be seen online, and if you haven’t seen it already, be prepared to utter some words about Nickelodeon that probably aren’t not suitable for public broadcast.

http://vimeo.com/9383918

A Look At Nickelodeon

Sorry Viacom, as someone whose getting ever closer to becoming an old fart, I have a tough time accepting change for the sake of change.

As a joke, I thought about titling the post, “The SpongeBob Channel” but that wouldn’t be completely accurate even if it is uncomfortably close to the truth.

The yellow one has done well for the channel and it is still quite hard to believe that he’s been around for a full 10 years. He seems to remain fairly popular but it must be said, he’s drifted dangerously close to the cabre of shows that use “DVD specials” to stick around past their best by date.

Of course Nickelodeon does have a lot more programming than SpongeBob, and like Disney, it utilises multiple channels to broadcast them. Besides the main channel, Nickelodeon also has ones for the pre-schoolers (Nick Jr.), the teenagers (Teennick) and it’s library of old cartoon shows (Nicktoons).

Focusing on the main channel, Nickelodeon shares an idea with Cartoon Network in that its programming changes in the evening. The difference is that Nick at Night is aimed at a far broader audience than [adult swim].

Like Disney, Nickelodeon airs a mixture of animation and live-action. Current shows include T.U.F.F Puppy, The Adventures of Fanboy and Chum Chum, Winx [check] and more than one offshoot from a DreamWorks film (think Penguins of Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda).

Nickelodeon was (until very recently when it lost to the Disney Channel) the clear winner when it comes to audience numbers and it managed to do so by not chasing any particular segment. It didn’t go exlusively for boys or girls but it has played safe with programming that appeals to both genders and laughed all the way to the bank.

Nickelodeon also has huge brand recognition that even Disney can’t match and they have been very good at having their well-oiled marketing and merchandising machines continually backing up hit shows.

The only area where Nickelodeon has been a bit weak is getting their older content out on DVD or even streaming. That is changing as I see more and more old shows work their way onto services like Netflix. They’ve also improved access to more recent stuff too, T.U.F.F. Puppy is now available to stream or buy via Netflix and Amazon.

Overall, Nickelodeon may have lost the crown, but it is still the best overall network. They may not have as much animation as Cartoon Network or the vast libarary of Disney to draw on, but they more than make that up with the quality of their shows. Something they are surely aware of, and work hard at as a result.

My Life as a Teenage Robot Now on DVD!

All three seasons of one of the most underrated cartoons of the last decade are now on DVD through Amazon. At $19.99, they aren’t the cheapest, but seeing as this show is well overdue for a release and that DVD is in the twilight years of its existence, you should consider it a worthwhile investment.

Season 1

Season 2

Season 3

Martin Goodman on The Lightening Rod that is Spongebob Squarepants

Via: Dr. Toon on AWN

Martin Goodman has an interesting post over on AWN entitled “Society and its Discontents”. In it, he discusses the fact the animation is merely a product of the culture from whence it came and as a result, interacts with it on many differing levels. Below is an excerpt from the post:

Once produced and seen, it [animation] takes its place in the enormous mosaic of our media and is consigned a definitive niche by the consensus of both the public and we, the critics.

For example, animation undergoes a process of “branding” in which it becomes a definable commodity. A simple example: there is today a subset of animation called “Classic Looney Tunes”. I have no idea what this really means, since many of the most beloved Warner shorts were actually “Merrie Melodies”, and shorts bearing this title continued to be produced by the studio until its final days. “Looney Tunes” today means both the characters that originated at the Warner studio and the cartoons both past and present, featuring them. Another example is Nickelodeon: It is both a network and a brand, with economic endeavors separate from its televised fare.

Thus, we have a confluence of culture, economics, politics, and demographics to consider whenever we analyze a particular piece of animation. The way in which these factors interact is an important consideration for you future critics (Of course, you can forego all of this and simply watch cartoon films and shorts for the enjoyment of it, and that’s fine. Consider this a “think piece”)

I agree with pretty much everything Martin has to say. Animation is indeed a product of the culture that created it. Pretty much any cartoon ever made is an example of that! It’s also forms part of out very complex and intricate cultural landscape, that is almost a given at this stage.

Where the post gets interesting is when it starts discussing the various allegations made against Spongebob Squarepants. Mark promises to go deeper into some of the controversies in his next post, but there’s an important aspect to the whole scenario that I think is a simpler explenation for everything:

Spongebob is a winner.

Yes, Spongebob Squarepants the loveable man-child of a sponge is a winner. He’s been on the air for a decade and continues to rake in the cash for Nickelodeon.

SB (as we’ll call him for the duration of this column) rivals The Simpsons in popularity and longevity, and like them, has a generational crossover audience that seems to span every demographic.

“So what?” I hear you say. “Fair play to him” is what Irish people would say. However, plenty of people look at that success and are either reviled or jealous because of it. Such feelings can inherently obfuscate (fancy word for obscure/contort) otherwise rational views towards a show.

In a way, it’s very similar to the various patent battles surrounding smart phones. Android is racing past Windows and Apple in terms of market share and features so both parties are going after it with the patent guns blazing. It’s not because Android necessarily infringed, it’s because it’s easy to go after the clear leader.

Just think of the guy who tried to sue (how he’s eligible for a Wikipedia page, I do not know) because he though Stephen Hillenburg stole his idea for a talking sponge. The evidence to the contrary is on my bookshelf in the Nicktoons book, where there’s a comic Hillenburg created in 1989 featuring a character called “Bob the Sponge”. Any lawyer worth their salt could have seen that your man didn’t have a leg to stand on, but he decided to sue anyway, and lost, big time.

He’s been the most popular cartoon for kids for the last decade. He’s wildly popular in all respects so just that simple fact will make him a target. You can bet that if our favourite yellow sponge had stuttered to three or seasons we wouldn’t have heard any of the controversies, past, present or future.

Having lived in the States for just about 4 years now, I can safely say that although there is very real cultural and societal recognition for those who get ahead or are successful, there is also a sector that sees that success and attempts to undermine it or take it for themselves by using the legal system for their own ends. Back home people would just begrudge you, that’s just the Irish way,

All this goes back to my series of posts on why animators need to be aware of the legal implications of their work. It’s a minefield out there and you have to have your wits about you if you are going to successfully navigate it.