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
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