Pass the Remote: Adult Swim
by: Shana Heinricy, Matt Payne, and Angela McManaman
Welcome to Flow’s latest experiment in academic discourse, Pass the Remote. Over the course of each bi-weekly issue of Flow, three or more scholars will exchange open letters on a topic of shared interest. Check back to see the discussion’s progress and feel free to comment below. If you are interested in contributing to Pass the Remote contact Christopher Lucas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Matt and Angela,
I turned on the television for a nightly dose of Family Guy and Futurama, to find the television addressing me directly with white letters on a black screen. Adult Swim, the daily, “adult-oriented” viewing-block of cartoons on late-night on Cartoon Network, was using its signature promo format to directly welcome me to Adult Swim and thank me for my continued viewing. The black television screen self-effacingly stated, “We know you don’t like everything we do. We don’t either.”
Adult Swim is arguably the most successful viewing-block on television. The phrase “Adult Swim” instantly conjures up a wide variety of programming to many viewers, in a way that “Must See TV” cannot. These odd, seemingly random promos where a mysterious “we” addresses the viewing “you” appear to create a cohesive viewing-block out of the flow of programming, since it is the only thing connects the programming. The promos address supposed viewer concerns. One stated, “To all the Popeye haters, it’s getting the same ratings as Trigun. Probably cuz they both feature excellent beatings.” Some of the promos are completely unrelated to Adult Swim, such as one sarcastically congratulating NBC for “not f***ing up The Office.” While it’s unclear who the “we” is in the promos, they constitute television production as actual people with ideas and opinions supposedly reading viewers’ e-mails and making changes, creating a dialogue between television producers and consumers. Of course, the e-mails and concerns presented during the promos may be entirely fictitious. But the important question is: In what ways do they help to shape viewers’ ideas about the viewing block?
Dear Shana and Angela:
Shana’s post is right on target. Adult Swim’s distinctive promos ARE the authorial glue that holds the late-night animated lineup together. Again, these promos are the brief, (usually) text-only bumps that separate the shows from the commercials. The promos are used to: announce scheduling changes, market their merchandise, direct viewers to their website, display fan art, support their college representatives (by showing them dressed as characters from Aqua Teen Hunger Force), and to wish us Happy Holidays well out of season.
The title cards’ familiar tone hails the individual viewer, while constructing its own identity as a collective author. The Adult Swim voice positions itself as a friendly curator who’s invested in the audience’s experience. As Shana notes, the use of viewer emails, fan art, and other communiqué (whether real or manufactured) produces the appearance of a responsive and highly interactive viewer-producer relationship.
Yet, “[adult swim]” is also a company and a brand. The viewing block is produced by Williams Street Studios in Atlanta. They are a subdivision of Cartoon Network and a part of Turner Broadcasting, which is owned by Time Warner. The signature font is also a brand and can be found on all-things “Adult Swim” (e.g., my bottle opener, my key chain, my Brak toy, my ATHF box set, my…yes, I’m a fan).
Shana’s last question gets to the heart of the Adult Swim experience. However, before answering it, it might be useful to ask, “Who or what is [Adult Swim], and who does it think we are?”
University of Texas at Austin
Dear Matt and Shana,
Well I checked into this Adult Swim thing and it’s definitely…bizarre.
Last night I tuned in to Aqua Teen Hunger Force – that show with the squeaky-voiced Meatwad, a goatee-sporting box of French Fries, and a walking-talking milkshake who appears to be in the throes of a testosterone overdose.
I would have captured their proper names, but these food folk talk so fast and sprinkle their dialogue with so many one-liners that I wonder, is Aaron Sorkin moonlighting on Aqua Teen Hunger Force?
Of course there’s much more to Adult Swim. There’s anime and the aforementioned Family Guy. Even a show about an attorney-like gentleman, Harvey Birdman.
Maybe there’s not quite something for everyone, but the promos let me know that the folks behind Adult Swim don’t really care. They know that somebody – actually a lot of bodies – likes what they’re doing and that viewers don’t mind some blatant Swim-promotion.
The promos also present a welcome diversion from more pedestrian promotional fare – give me a Swim promo over Hilary Duff hawking chewing gum any day. And, they inject an element of continuity into what might otherwise feel like a fragmented, confused programming block.
Ultimately, the promos unite some uncommon creative forces and challenge viewers to come along for the ride and sit through all the commercials and PSAs. There’s a fresh dose of Adult humor just beyond that Big Red commercial.
As to the question of “who” Adult Swim is, I’m leaving that one to a seasoned swimmer. Shana?
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
Dear Matt and Angela,
I have often pondered Matt’s question regarding who the Adult Swim “we” is, both in a literal, production-oriented sense and in a more figurative sense. The coherent “we” in the Adult Swim promos throws off my understanding of the animation production process as relatively dispersed, occurring in many different locations with many different people, departments, and companies working on it at any given stage. Clearly, this “we” of Adult Swim is not the animators. Nor is it likely the people influencing the programs in Standards and Practices. Interestingly, this takes the authorial voice away from the animators or creators of the shows (such as Seth McFarlane from Family Guy) and places it onto those planning the scheduling and programming, which is often a completely ignored and voiceless component of production.
With regards to Matt’s question of who Adult Swim thinks “we” (the viewers) are, I rarely feel included in this “we,” despite being a regular viewer. The promos often tout the violence of the viewing block as one of its key aspects. The promos have also been known to feature a gyrating, barely-dressed female torso for the viewer’s pleasure, which does not amuse me. Later promos posted angry viewer e-mails about the sexism of the aforementioned promo, asking Adult Swim to at least show the woman’s face. Adult Swim responded with a snide remark discrediting the viewers’ complaints. Clearly, the actual programming of the block is quite diverse. So, Angela and Matt, who exactly is Adult Swim trying to attract with these promos and how is it constituting that group?
Dear Shana & Angela:
Again, Shana’s last question is salient and provocative: “…who exactly is Adult Swim trying to attract with these promos and how is it constituting that group?”
[adult swim] works to attract a certain kind of viewer (e.g., animation fan, late-night cable subscribers) as much as its programming constructs a specific audience member. Since I know nothing of the show’s literal viewership, I will comment on its manufactured viewer.
The [adult swim] promos are sometimes self-congratulatory, are occasionally self-effacing, but are always, always self-referential. Whoever or whatever they “are,” they are most definitely, and unapologetically, “[adult swim].”
So, the bumps identify as a single voice, while simultaneously constituting the viewer as a singular viewer by way of direct address. The promos explicitly call to us (“you”), joyfully conflating the many senders and receivers (and producers, financiers, and distributors) of our “hallowed” S-M-C-R communication model. The [adult swim] voice posits that there is only one of us, and one of them. The text-based voice issues presumptive statements which frame the viewer as an internet savvy user who buys fan merchandise, appreciates kitsch, is pop culture literate, and, as Shana noted, is gendered as a heterosexual male. Moreover, the promos work to forge an imagined community that readily aligns with its culturally sophisticated and sophomoric televised mélange and purchases its online, proprietary swag. [adult swim]’s curatorial attitude fixes its a singular identity, while always underscoring what its viewers’ consumptive practices must be in order to qualify as its authentic addressee.
Matt and Shana,
From the outside of this “imagined community” looking in (don’t own any swag, don’t watch very often, am not gendered as a heterosexual male) these promos do engender a feeling of intimacy between those who watch Adult Swim and those who create it.
Of course, as Shana’s example pointed out, sometimes that intimacy may be reserved for Adult Swim’s core viewing demographic. Which, I think we’ve unofficially agreed, is significantly represented by those heterosexually gendered men. I almost think that’s the point.
In building bonds of “imagined community” that transcend the confines of a 30-minute viewing block and propel viewers on-line and onward to other Swim programming, it seems necessary that the promos cast someone in the viewing audience into the role of “other.” The creators of Adult Swim accurately perceive that their audience isn’t interested in a major network viewing experience, but in something a little smarter, a little savvier and, most certainly, edgier. To that end, the producers aren’t afraid to appeal to some viewers (hence the scantily-clad, headless torso), while alienating others (those who disagree with this representation of sexualized, objectified femininity).
Without this dichotomy, there is no community. Like any fan-based, audience-driven culture, Adult Swim defines itself through both what its audience and its critics have to say. The producers’ ability to probe this relationship on-air, and to draw and reinforce the lines of their viewing community, distinguishes these promos from more standard commercial fare.
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
The Remote Passed:
Carnivale, April 1-15, 2005
Please feel free to comment.
Adult Swim…Teen Degrassi
Great “remote patrol” topic…I love the bumps on Adult Swim and indeed find them to be their own form of entertainment. TOne thing that strikes me about them is their similarity (in tone and “purpose”?) to the bumps you see on the N Ntework, especially during Degrassi. I’m working on a project about what I see as a shift in TV to more activle assuming the viewer is participating in the show beyond the episode proper, and I wonder if “generation” (both of viewers and of writers/producers/promoters) might have anything to do with that. Any thoughts?
Adult Swim emerged out of the surprise success of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which was made as a lark by a few Cartoon Network executives. That show, like many Swim shows, is built on an aesthetic of participation, taking previous cultural icons (or detritus) and repurposing, undercutting, or recontextualizing them. So much of Adult Swim is based on a DIY aesthetic, featuring the work of amateur animators rather than the polished aesthetic of other TV cartoons – arguably this invites the audience to see themselves playing the the sandbox of Hanna-Barbara’s library of cels!
As a regular viewer of [adult swim] and visitor of their website, I can say without doubt that viewer comments(via message boards, not e-mail), fan art, are quite real. There is a dedicated following of 16 and older males like myself who live much of their life according to the premiere of new shows on [adult swim]. We make the block what is is with our feedback, both love and hate, for every show. The bumps hold everything together. They unify the block by giving it a saracastic, male personality which we closely relate to. Occasionally, some viewers are unhappy with various bumps, but they get over their anger because it is in jest and the humor and action is unique and cannot be found elsewhere.
girls love cartoons & the ppl behind them. it’s a fact. & Adult Swim should be it’s own channel. i’m a tv nazi & i make ppl watch adult swim & everyone loves it. ….everyone cept my one fren who can’t sit stil thru a single ep of tom goes 2the mayor.
come on in, waters warm
hey u guys: come on in & see how much hate u can produce in ppl. http://www.adultswim.com & get a screenname & come 2the message boards. & then ck out what ppl are say’n bout yer article here!! do it now.
I did enjoy reading this, but one thing I noticed is that you constantly refer to the “imagined community” that Adult Swim has with its viewers, and this community is not imagined, it’s called a message board. I’d suggest you visit there every once in a while. That is where they get the “Viewer Bumps” from, and where you can get questions answered about your favorite shows by the guys that work at Williams Street. This community is not imagined, it is very real, and it is called the “Adult Swim Message Boards”. Enjoy.
AS as Fan Idol
Adult Swim, through its bumps, has led many of its viewers to become fans of the network enterprise itself as well as a fan of the programs it shows. I’m a regular viewer of AS and a regular poster in its online forum. I don’t just watch Adult Swim; I participate in it. I’ve become as much interested in how they fare as an enterprise as I am in the shows they air. I like to know how they are doing in the ratings, info about the people behind Adult Swim, etc. They aren’t just a faceless TV network like NBC or FOX. Adult Swim has a personality I can interact with. Adult Swim the TV enterprise has become a part of my life, along with certain of its shows such as Inuyasha, AquaTeen Hunger Force and Fullmetal Alchemist. The viewer comments in the bumps are definitely real, by the way. I’ve twice seen one of my comments featured on a TV bump. (^_*)
Adult Swim forums
A previous commenter noted the Adult Swim messageboards are instrumental in creating a real community of viewer participants. Right on the money,Kevin! Fact is that the Adult Swim messageboard has become a primary means for us viewers to participate in the Adult Swim enterprise. We post there because we know without a doubt that the powers-that-be in Adult Swim read and respond to what we say there. In its 2 years of existence, the AS forum has collected over 450,000 registered members, and has logged around 12 million posts. The Adult Swim community isn’t imaginary. It is real, and I am one of its members. (^_*)
Dear Matt, Shana and Andrea:If you really want to understand the phenomenon of participatory TV as exemplified by Adult Swim, you need to spend some time reading their messageboard. Go to http://www.adultswim.com, sign up and start reading. Read what we say. Read what they say. There is a process of 2-way communication between AS and us through the messageboard that has created the AS community of interest. (^_*)
Connection “Them” and “Us”
As an avid Adult Swim Viewer and contributor on their message boards I must say…do your reasearch. Go to the website. Look around. Play ‘Attack of the Feverheads’. Look at the webcam. Join the boards. Adult Swim has become a way of life for many of the viewers, who eat, sleep, and breathe,
Angela McManaman said, “From the outside of this “imagined community” looking in (don’t own any swag, don’t watch very often, am not gendered as a heterosexual male) these promos do engender a feeling of intimacy between those who watch Adult Swim and those who create it.”
The promos aren’t a feigned establishment of intimacy between the viewers and Adult Swim. There is an actual sense of community between the viewers and the block that is carefully fostered on the message boards. The Thursday night promos are “Viewer Cards” or “bumps” are actual responses to comments, thoughts, and questions retreived by the entity known to us as BumpMaster3000 and then posted on air.
Adult Swim created a community around their programming block of rabid anime fans, insomniac college students, and folks of all color, gender, and creed. We watch the shows, discuss them on the boards, and anxiously await new shows. The block has created a community surrounding their programming that I have never seen before. No other network allows this much input from it’s loyal viewers.
Adult Swim Viewer Bumps
I can tell you will all certainty that the Viewer Bumps on Thursday nights are truly posts from viewers on the [adultswim] forums. I know, because I am a lucky enough to have one of my posts aired. I also provide a service for all of the other board members and post a small portion of the Viewer Cards every week. I know people who have been bumped; have seen the actual posts; and converse with the man behind the scenes making said bumps.
The interaction between [adultswim] and viewers is revolutionary. I am surprised something like this hasn’t been in place until now.
If the shows are not to your liking, then you are among a very small percentile. Maybe you should discuss it with the very happy people that watch these shows every single day.
When the Black and Whites are addressing: we, they are of course referring to the people who make [adultswim] happen. Granted, there are times when the bumps are a little off, but, the viewers as a whole generally enjoy them (considering most of the viewers are males 17 years of age and up). If someone doesn’t approve, then they have a medium in which to express those concerns. Since you are not a regular viewer, or even a board member I would not expect you to understand.
Please next time, before you lay judgement, have a perspective of the whole picture.
Community, Imagined or Not, and Why it Doesn’t Matter.
A recurring subject I have seen throughout these posts involves the debate over the adult swim community. Is it real or is it imagined? As a more recent fan of Adult Swim, I must say this. I frankly don’t care about the reality of this community. As a 20 year old college male, I fit perfectly into the segments’ targeted demographic. Whatever the folks at adult swim are doing, it’s working. I came to Adult Swim with skepticism. I had been introduced to shows such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Sea Lab on my friend’s computer. These shows were like nothing I had ever seen before, and at the time were not very appealing to me. My friend told me about Adult Swim, and I shrugged it off. A few months later I found myself watching the segment still trying to figure out what all the hype was about. I had always enjoyed family guy; therefore, when I realized it was being aired during the segment, I began watching the show avidly every night. Slowly but surely, I began watching the other shows surrounding Family Guy. Over time I became hooked on all of them. I found the bumpers very odd at first, but like the shows, I slowly became drawn to them as well. I found the idea of this community to be very amusing. The very thought that people were complaining about actions of staff at Adult Swim, and then the staff blatantly defying and making fun of those complaints was very entertaining to me. Whether it was real or not did not so much matter to me. I didn’t believe this community to be any more real than a Stephen Colbert interview on the Daily Show, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s funny. To me both the bumpers and the television shows on adult swim rely heavily on the appeal of shock value. It is simultaneously shocking and hilarious to think that a network simply doesn’t care and is willing to fork out insults at its audience. It’s also hilarious to think about the possibility of a bunch of people getting their feathers all ruffled over the shocking things adult swim provides us with. This simple fact has kept me watching for a solid 6 months now, and its appeal is only increasing. Until I read some of the recent posts here, I had no idea that there was a message board that the adult swim staff really interacted with. That just makes it all the more funny.
Adult Swim bonding
The relationship between the TV audience and the adult swim “we” is a way for adult swim to make fun of our relationship with television. Let’s face it, most Americans will probably spend seven years of their lives watching television. We watch a lot of television as a society and television is much like a necessity or an inseparable companion; we watch it, we listen to it, we trust it, we love it, we are entertained by it, and we learn from it. Adult Swim pokes fun of the relationship by speaking to the audience with an honest personality all its own; Adult Swim will shamelessly promote merchandise, brag about its success, and make fun of the audience itself. What is humorous is that other TV blocks, such as “Late Night with the WB,” are no different from the promotions and audience-broadcast communication to that of Adult Swim; Nick-at-Nite will often talk to the audience in a friendly fashion and promote Nick-at-Nite shows and promos. The question is whether or not we are supposed to take Adult Swim’s needless promotions seriously. Indeed, Adult Swim is making an effort to get audiences to buy their merchandise and complying with its requests would certainly benefit the company, but is self-promoting necessary? The shows that Adult Swim air are either imported anime or are created from cheap labor; producing these shows are inexpensive in comparison to average TV production costs. In relation to the cost of making shows and the income Adult swim is receiving, Adult Swim is “raking in the dough!” Adult Swim/Cartoon Network is one of the most successful and most recognizable TV/merchandise companies, as is Comedy Central with the success of its South Park merchandise. Why would such a successful network, such as Cartoon Network, need to advertise its products if it already makes a lot of money? If you watch Adult Swim you will see that most of the advertisements on the block are based on the TV shows aired on Cartoon Network. Based on this information, one would assume that Adult Swim does not have many sponsors and relies mostly on the sponsoring of Cartoon Network and the merchandising of show products. I would assume that Adult Swim airs its “less than serious” promotions because it needs filler, and without the big time toy sponsors that support Cartoon Network, why would it not shamelessly promote itself most of the time? This would also explain why Adult Swim spends a lot of time “communicating” with the audience; the audience is constantly exposed to Adult Swim banter throughout the block so the broadcast might as well entertain the audience. Although Adult Swim insults television and the audience, it is in fact honoring the audience by letting them know that they consider them as free thinkers of TV persuasion. Besides informing the audience of its schedules and merchandise, Adult Swim is basically telling the audience, “Yeah, we want you to buy our merchandise, and we know that you know that we only care about financial gain, but it’s all in good fun. We don’t take it seriously because we already know that you are dedicated to our merchandising and our programming.”
Reading posts from people who are avid fans of adult swim, there’s your answer to who the “us” is – these people. Some of the people who posted are very defensive about their adult swim and very much sure of the community they find themselves in. The goal of the narrative voice of the creators in between the shows is to create a feeling of us vs. those people who don’t get it. Adult Swim is extremely elitist, and to be honest, I’m extremely elitist about my Adult Swim. Aqua Teen Hunger Force is very weird and off the wall. If you like it, (and I do) then you LOVE it. The programming is directed at a very pop culture savvy, yet edgy crowd. You have to get the joke in order to be on the edge. The example of the gyrating female torso does not offend me at all even though I consider myself a feminist. It’s all in good fun, and I think most fans of Adult Swim know that. The promos bring us into the show and make us feel like we’re in on the production. If you try to criticize Adult Swim, swarms message-boarding fans will attack you brutally.
I was in my room the other day when some very familiar music drew me into the next room to see what was on TV. It was the Adult Swim bumps announcing the beginning of the programming block. I had become so used to them that upon hearing the music my mind prepared to enter the adult swim flow of programming. When I think about adult swim I always think about as one continuous block of programming. I believe this is for several reasons. Many Adult Swim shows are fifteen minutes long not the television standard of at least thirty minutes. This allows adult swim to easily mix and match the order of its programming schedule. Adult Swim has also created its own signature look. A lot of the shows are aesthetically similar (characters appearing and moving as if they were cut from another cartoon) to ensure that when fans will always know what type of programming to expect when they tune in. The only element of adult swim that really remains constant is the bumps. They inform they viewer of the frequent scheduling changes, keep the target audience in their seat for commercials, and are the glue that holds the continuity among the content. Thus, the bumps make adult swim into one long programming block rather than a scrambled mix of several short programs. As a result viewers often are more inclined to watch the whole programming block rather than one of its individual parts. I believe this is a strategy to market the Adult Swim brand.
I Wish I Was “You”
It is amazing how much debate a ten second black screen with white writing on it can cause. These Black and Whites are an extremely simple marketing strategy that seems to work very well for [adult swim]. What is the attraction to these ‘bumps’ and what is the implied “you” they speak of when they address the audience? Well, we have established that the emails shown are real posts from real viewers and we assume that the “we” refers to those in charge of programming and scheduling at [adult swim]. But the question still remains, why do they use these Black and Whites and what affect do they have on their audience? I agree with the assertion that showing the viewer’s emails and answering them creates a community and shows a responsiveness to the desires of the viewers. However, the community that it creates excludes far more than it incorporates. All of my friends, myself included, agree that we never feel like the Black and Whites are addressing us when they say “you” referring to the audience in general. When I first began watching [adult swim], I would watch only very occasionally. The Black and Whites would make references to conversations that I could only assume that I missed, and I would think they must have been from yesterday’s conversation. In order to include myself in these conversations and this community, I began to watch more frequently hoping that I would be in the know about what they are talking about. However, no matter how much I watched, I still always felt like they were talking to somebody else and that I was just listening in on this community’s conversations. The fact that the Black and Whites are usually very funny and sarcastic makes them appear cool and hip, something that most people want to be a part of, especially their target audience which we have established as white college-aged males. I contend that [adult swim] intentionally makes people feel left out of their community with goal that people will watch more often to feel like they are a part of this hip, self aware community.
An Attempt to be Cool
I was never really a fan of Adult Swim. But, all of my friends kept talking about it non-stop. So, in an effort to feel “in the loop,” I started watching a few shows here and there. Yes, as pathetic as it seems, I jumped into Adult Swim as an effort to be “cool.” Well, eventually, the channel grew on me.
The bumps are interesting and entertaining even though sometimes they can create a “what the heck?” reaction. I would assume that the “we” in the bumps are the creators of the Adult Swim channel. Although, they may not be the creators of the individual shows, they help create a serial nature to the channel by leading into each show. It creates a continuum over all of their shows and keeps the audience coming back for more. The whole entire Adult Swim channel seems to have its own personality that is revealed through the bumps. It truly creates cohesiveness between the different shows.
In some ways, it is like Adult Swim has created its own genre of cartoons accented with little blurbs from the creators and fans of the channel. The channel has successfully created its own following of fans that obsess with the show almost more than the creators to some extent. Because of Adult Swim’s exacting use of intertextuality, whether towards snail mail, the internet, or television, it is able to create a broader base for itself. In a marketing sense, the show successfully utilized all venues to maximize its revenues. Adult Swim knows exactly who its audience is and markets directly towards them by listening and relaying viewer feedback while making the regular fans feel important and keeping them coming back for more.
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I have been watching Adult Swim since I started college…how appropriate I know. Even though I only watch 2 maybe 3 of the programs regularly, I find myself tuning in for the bumps more often than the shows. I will be studying in my living room with my friends watching Adult Swim religiously. I find myself gazing at the screen after every commercial to see the quick quips. Maybe that is because I am the heterosexual male audience that they are targeting but I don’t feel they are exclusively appealing to only me, or the program block wouldn’t be so popular.Although, alot of shows I could see as only appealing to males: ie violent anime and robotic combat cartoons. But shows like Futurama and Family Guy, though plot-centered around men I feel are appealing to all genders.
One of the questions brought up is: Who is Adult Swim’s audience; the “you’. I don’t think that Adult Swims audience is a specific audience. I think Adult Swim broadcasts for anyone that is tired of the same old television. Television is full of reality, hospitals, crime scene investigators, makeovers, teenage melodramas, and alternative news. People are getting tired of the same thing being broadcasted. For instance, Family Guy, although not originally from Adult Swim, it still represents what most of Adult Swim is: Dumb plots mixed with witty, over-the-head humor. I think this explains why when one of Adult Swim’s bumps states that it doesn’t care if “you” like the network. They are simply putting shows that appeal for an alternative audience, which is why I think they are so successful.