Reaching Beyond the Moon
Late last night, Cartoon Network's “Adult Swim” programming block premiered its latest animated series: an urban crime dramedy that features as its lead a no-nonsense, gun-toting, take-no-prisoners police officer … who just happens to resemble a man's outsized derriere.
On Anime Network's premium video-on-demand channel, a scene from the martial arts series Gantz shows two young teenage boys getting graphically sliced to pieces by an oncoming train, after trying to save an old man who had fallen on the tracks. The scene and the series were deemed too graphic to air on even liberal TV stations in Japan, where this computerized, stylized form of animation has thrived.
And on Comedy Central's Web site, a new animated series follows the lives of two testicles as they go about life while paying homage to “the boss.”
Nearly a decade after Comedy Central's South Park ushered in the era of raunchy, primetime, adult-targeted animated content, a new generation of salacious, often-vulgar and explicitly violent cartoons is making the rounds on cable networks — each one pushing television's content envelope beyond anything seen on basic cable.
Now foisting content on cable TV — albeit in animated form and late at night — past any prior bounds: the World Wide Web, where imaginations themselves know no bounds and anyone, anywhere can be a producer of short-form animation or video.
Also pushing the boundaries is the multibillion-dollar video-game business — with its violent and adult images from popular video games such as Halo 2, an online, multi-player shoot-'em-up game — and it's influencing the edgier animated images now seen on cable networks, said Animation World Network editor in chief Sarah Baisley.
In Halo 2, blood spurts out from gunshot wounds; and limbs are severed during battles with aliens.
The combination of animation on the Net and the Xbox has opened a new frontier of uninhibited programming, pushing “conventional” networks such as Comedy Central to push standards as close to the edge as possible both on its cable channel and its broadband-video sites, contends Syracuse University professor of popular culture Robert Thompson.
The goal: to reach elusive, high testosterone-driven and advertiser-coveted young males.
Programming executives such as Turner Entertainment Group president Mark Lazarus say animation — once considered to be a safe haven for children's programming — is fast becoming the platform of choice for producers to stretch the boundaries of what's acceptable on TV.
“Animation at its core allows you the ability to present more mature subject matters and characters in a way that you couldn't do through live action [programming],” he said.
ONTO THE RADAR
For the most part, such raunchy animated programming as Comedy Central's Drawn Together, where “cartoon characters stop being polite and start making out in hot tubs,” has flown under the radar of conservative TV watchdog groups like the Parents Television Council.
So far, the critics of salacious TV have concentrated on objectionable content found in such live-action cable shows as FX's Nip/Tuck.
But controversial animated shows will no longer get a pass. The PTC has said it is attempting to build a coalition of minority groups to protest what it calls very racist images from Drawn Together, which pokes fun at the reality genre by following the outrageous exploits of washed-up cartoon characters living under one roof. In one episode, the PTC alleges that one of the main character on the show jokes, “Why do Jews have big noses? Is it because air is free?”
Another scene in the episode refers to black women lactating chocolate milk.
“You have producers and network executives whose agenda is to eliminate all content lines without any regard to the consequences, particularly with animation,” said PTC executive director Tim Winter. “It may seem less offensive to do it with animation because it's comical, but the problem is when you look at the underlying messages, those messages are still being displayed and communicated.”
But producers of such fare, like Matt Harrigan, executive producer of Adult Swim's Assy McGee, have said that today's animated content is no worse than anything on live-action television. Further, he says the sometimes outrageous imagery and potty humor is just simply funny.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, Harrigan welcomes the debate over what's acceptable on-screen.
“I think it would be incredible that there would be any kind of outrage,” he said. “It would be my dream to have people get into a moronic argument like that.”
BLOWING DOORS OUT
Cable has been pushing the boundaries with animation since the early 1990s, when MTV launched its notorious cartoon The Beavis and Butt-Head Show. The show featured two moronic teens that did little but sit around watching music videos, sniff crazy glue and indulge in other forms of anti-social behavior.
That was tame, though, compared to Comedy Central's irreverent animated comedy South Park, which debuted in 1997.
The exploits of four foul-mouthed elementary school students blew the doors off of what was generally thought of as acceptable for animated programming. The introduction of curse words, gratuitous gore (almost every early episode included a scene in which Kenny, one of the four main characters, dies a gruesome, bloody death) and over the top social and political satire (to wit, an infamous episode where Tom Cruise mistakes Stan, another character, as the second coming of the founder of Scientology) turned the show into an immediate hit among young viewers.
The show, now in its 10th season, is as popular as ever, garnering a 2.0 rating among the network's target male 18-34 year olds. That amounts to its best numbers in four years, according to Comedy Central.
The ratings success and positive critical acclaim the show received helped make the more vulgar elements of the show more acceptable, Syracuse's Thompson believes.
“South Park does outrageous things, but at the same time it is so intelligent — that program is so smart, even though it's so incredibly vulgar,” he said. “That's why it makes it harder to claim that it has no redeeming value because it does.”
In a fashion, South Park's social satire led the way for animated shows with even harsher content — such as Drawn Together — to become more palatable.
The Drawn series, which even Thompson describes as “vulgar,” pokes fun at just about every race, creed, sexual orientation and religion through the crude exploits of its flawed, stereotypical characters.
“If you're going to let your South Parks slip in, it's pretty hard not to let your Drawn Togethers slip in, as well,” Thompson said.
Animated content from Comedy Central and Adult Swim images may not be suitable for everyone, but it certainly seems to appeal to its intended audience of advertiser-coveted young males 18-34. After seven episodes of the third season, Drawn Together is averaging a 2.0 household rating in males 18-24 and a 1.9 among males 25-34 — both tops for any basic cable show in the 10:30 p.m. Wednesday time slot. Overall, the show is averaging a healthy 1.6 household rating.
Since 2005, Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming block has been picking up young male viewers, at a rapid pace despite — or maybe because of — it's late-night viewing time.
Airing Mondays to Thursdays from 10:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. and Saturdays from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. and Sundays 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., 32% more males (a total of 197,000) between the ages of 18 and 24; and 24% more males (or 289,000, all told) between 18 and 34 now are Swim-ming at any given point, more than a year ago.
So far, sponsors haven't jumped off the Comedy Central and Adult Swim bandwagons. Unlike controversial, live-action shows such as FX's Nip/Tuck, Comedy Central's Fox says no advertiser has walked away from any of the networks' most controversial animated shows because of content issues.
Advertisers trying to reach young men will gladly take their chances with controversial programming if those shows deliver a desired audience, said Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming for Katz Television Media Group, a seller of time on broadcast media.
“Based on the success of South Park, and its ability to deliver a hard-to-reach audience, those advertisers trying to reach that audience are less concerned about the show's controversial nature and more concerned with reaching those consumers they can't reach any other way,” Carroll said. “They know those programs wouldn't have the same appeal if they were not controversial.”
Adult Swim is further pushing content boundaries with Assy McGee, which takes a bottoms-up approach to crime fighting by creating a detective that resembles a large, male rear end.
Turner's Lazarus says that Assy McGee, while provocative, isn't any more sensational than any other character on Adult Swim. Indeed, with characters that include a demented wad of meat on its hit series Aqua Teen Hunger Force, or politically incorrect characters such as Jewcano and the White Shadow that appear on the racially tinged super-hero parody Minoriteam, Lazarus' point is clear: This is what animation these days is about.
“Its very consistent with the type of programming we have,” Lazarus said. “It's humor-based and a parody of other shows that we have on the air.”
Still, no protagonist on the Adult Swim block or any other network has until this point taken the anatomical shape of a part of the human body as its character. That has been, in practice, off-limits for television shows.
Then again, Assy McGee executive producer Harrigan says people shouldn't be shocked to see animated buttocks on television. In fact, he says live-action shots of human derrieres are almost commonplace on such shows as Nip/Tuck.
NOT FOR SHOCK VALUE
Assy McGee wasn't created to gratuitously shock viewers, but rather entertain them in a comedic, satirical manner, Harrigan said.
“There's no mandate to go out there and essentially moon the audience for a big comedy payoff that we don't actually see,” he said. “The bottom line is it has to be funny.”
Even on the Web, network executives say there are standards that network branded sites must adhere to. “We're very careful not to just do the on-the-nose expected R-rated jokes in this R-rated environment, because we all felt it would become kind of redundant and expected,” said Lou Wallach, senior vice president of original programming for Comedy Central in discussing the site's short-form offerings.
Baxter & McGuire — which depict the adventures of two “really close” friends — is more than just an excuse to show testicles on television, Wallach said. Launched on comedycentral.com Nov. 6th and produced by Michael J. Weithorn (The King of Queens), the animated shorts have buddy-buddy comedy feel in the vein of The Odd Couple, according to Wallach.
“They have issues with the boss, with dating, things that guys sit around having a beer talk about. The context happens to be that these two guys happen to be testicles … and in this case, their boss is the penis,” Wallach said.
“I think people will enjoy it on its merits because it was funny and interesting and relatable; not because it was just filthy,” he added.
Ryan Ball, staff writer for Animation Magazine, believes the animation platform allows producers to flex their creative muscles and show images and situations that couldn't be done with live action television.
In VH1's mega hit The Flavor Of Love 2, one of series star Flavor Flav's potential paramours moves her bowels on the stairs of Flavor's house. But the act is only referenced, not shown, for fear of turning off viewers.
In a recent episode of Drawn Together, however, nothing is left to the imagination as a female animated character is literally shown squatting down in public and relieving herself … droppings and all.
But because the Drawn Together character is an imaginary character and not a real human, viewers are less inclined to be as shocked or perturbed over what would ordinarily be disgusting behavior in real life, according to Ball.
“[Such behavior] is coming out of characters that aren't real people, so I think people are more forgiving that way and South Park is one of the best examples,” said Ball, whose monthly magazine covers the print, online and onscreen animation business.
But the PTC's Winter says the fantasy-like imagery of cartoons shouldn't be a cover for pushing morally offensive images and messages. “It's unfortunate that some folks in the programming offices don't know the difference between entertaining an audience and just shocking and offending an audience,” he said.
In particular, Winter pointed to Drawn Together, which he says crosses every known boundary in terms of its “shocking” racist and anti-Semitic comments.
“It is the first time we've seen such bold, brash and brazen bigotry,” Winter said. “This is content that is anti-African American, anti-Semitic and anti-Mexican-American, and we find this very troubling.”
Winter says the PTC has already reached out to unspecified minority groups in an effort to build a multiracial coalition against the show. “The best thing we can do is to bring this programming to the attention of people in those communities and join our voice with theirs to condemn this, and that's what we plan to do.”
Comedy Central executive vice president of corporate communications Tony Fox doesn't apologize for Drawn Together's irreverent humor.
“The Parents Television Council is about family viewing and Comedy Central has never been a network that pretended to appeal to families,” he said. “It really is about adults. Those shows that are on Comedy Central that have content that might be questionable for younger people are scheduled for 10 p.m or later.”
Animated programming, and Japanese-based anime in particular, will continue to push content boundaries as networks look to find ways to keep viewers away from the Internet, where even more salacious and pornographic material — both animated and live action — can be found, according to Animation World Network's Baisley.
The online service, www.awn.com, is the largest animation-related publishing outlet on the Internet, offering Web publications, databases and information on careers in animation.
“The anime is much more out there in terms of content than what we've seen on the Internet,” she said. “I think the growing acceptance and desire for anime — and the more graphic and violent the better — is a much bigger influence on what's seen on cable today.”
It's not uncommon to see full frontal nudity, beheadings and lots of sex and violence on Anime Network's premium video-on-demand service. The network reaches 40 million subscribers in the U.S, according to Stacy Slanina, director of operations and programming for the fledgling company.
The service includes such Japanese-created series as Gantz, Elfen Lied and Nerima Daikon Brothers. In Gantz, recently deceased humans awaken to find themselves in an extremely violent purgatory world. Its images were so graphic — one scene has a female hitting the floor violently after being shot several times, only to discover another person's bloody, sliced legs lying beside her — that the show had to be edited for Japanese television, according to Slanina.
But Anime Network aired the series uncut on the network's $6-per-month video on demand service. While Slanina would not reveal specific user rates for individual shows, she said the network overall draws some 2 million viewers a month on the systems of such cable operators as Cablevision Systems.
On the network's 2 million-subscriber TV channel, Slanina said, its “Super Happy Funtime” late-night programming block, which offers more edited risqué, racy and violent content, is its most popular draw.
“People are starting to seek out the content they want to see on the Internet, so content is going to get more niche oriented,” she said. “Networks are trying to get the eyeballs back so they're going to have to push the envelope to keep up with the marketplace.”
Baisley also said the popularity of the video game industry and its visually stunning animated games has influenced what is seen on animation-based cable networks.
One only has to look at the thousands of people — mostly young males — who waited on lines at retail stores overnight over the past three weeks to get first crack at Sony's PlayStation 3 or Nintendo's Wii consoles to see the video game industry's power and influence over today's culture. Consequently, some of the most violent games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, in which players can graphically kill and maim cops, prostitutes and rival gang members, are also the most popular. Its Hot Coffee Mod allows participants to date as many as six girlfriends; and, potentially, end the date with acts of sex.
A little tamer are downloadable “skins” that actually unclothe characters in Electronic Arts' best-selling Sims games, which creator Will Wright originally conceived as the digital equivalent of doll houses.
“The broadcasters are responding to the greater thirst for gaming,” she said. “Given the acceptance of what goes on in those games in terms of the images, they have to satisfy that audience with their [television] shows.”
Or, as Comedy Central and Turner are looking to do, try to turn those eyeballs to their respective Web sites.
Turner early next year will launch a new broadband video site dubbed “Super Deluxe,” which will offer short form, R-rated, adult-oriented content that can't be shown on Adult Swim or its general-entertainment networks, like TBS and TNT.
“There is a creative freedom that we are going to utilize that exists in the broadband environment,” said Lazarus. He added that the site will follow the same standards and practices principles that govern the Turner networks and will not offer pornographic images, libelous material or hate speech.
It will however, push the envelope with regard to off-color humor and language.
“What we're responding to is consumer behavior and consumer tastes,” he said “None of our stuff will be sensationalist or gratuitous just to get an audience. We believe that our goal is to create intelligent humor that will be at times off color and very mature.”
Comedy Central's Wallach says the network has to walk the fine line of satisfying broadband users who want and expect a different and more unfiltered experience on comedycentral.com and staying within the network's overall brand sensibilities.
“Things are about context, and I think we all share an understanding of what's expected and what kind of boundaries we have to put on ourselves to keep the machine moving forward,” he said. “The brand and sensibility between the two platforms have to be consistent.”
But how far is too far? Syracuse University's Thompson says there is a point where you don't want to say let the marketplace have its way with everything, although he's not sure if we've reached the breaking point yet. Sites such as naughty.com and bestiality.com for instance, aggregate every kind of sex act imaginable, from bondage to bestiality, for free viewing by Web surfers.
“We don't want television — either broadcast television or cable — to look like some of the sites on the Internet,” he said. “I think everybody knows that there's a point where we don't cross.”
At the same time, he doesn't want the government to set guidelines for what can and can't be seen through cable and Internet pipelines. So where do you draw the line? No one knows for sure, according to Carroll.
“I think we'll know when we've gone too far when we've done it,” he said. “I don't know if you can prejudge what's acceptable and unacceptable in advance.”
But given what is available on cable and cable-branded Web sites today — as well as the Web and video games — animated buttocks and testicles won't be the outer limits.
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.