The Tunnelvision of Long Tails

Kirino vs. Sacs of Fat

It takes a lot of effort to know what is not popular–what is big and exciting for a niche is often invisible from anyone outside of it. In the rare case, a passer-by can walk around a sprawling and diverse neighborhood and spot a poster at a local theater saying something like this. But I struggle to think of some other means in which someone who is not actively seeking to know a very niche subculture can come to know about it.

On the other hand, everyone knows about the big, mainstream, truly popular stuff. It’s what is on TV when we turn it on, or big video or banner ads at major sites that we read online. It’s what my coworkers talk about during lunch. That stuff is, again, truly popular. Even if what is truly popular often comes across not so different than the very niche when examined purely on content. I mean, what’s special about K-drama or anime versus American soaps and TV serials? I’m not entirely convinced, but some people do consume one or another interchangeably. Maybe for someone who watches a lot of TV shows and is familiar with anime, s/he might miss watching anime after a long  sabbatical. You know, the people who watch anime very occasionally (5 IP or less a year) who occasionally asks another friend about what’s good or popular these days.

Even in this case, there’s a wide gulf between anime and even the trashiest trash Hollywood mass markets to the world. It’s not to say a 20%-scoring film on Rotten Tomatoes is any good, but a work like that is infinitely more “mainstream” entertainment than all but the most remarkable anime. By the same metric we could say that sort of crap is popular. Did it gross $10M in the box office after a month? Yes? Well that’s like, 4 1-cour TV anime series worth of money. It’s just a matter of time Happy Science gets a TV show.

Joking aside, I think I’m just trying to build the case to explain why asking anime to be more “mainstream” is basically asking it to do the impossible. It’s just nostalgia talking. I think if Pretty Cure can last another 10 years it would’ve truly achieve “mainstream” even if it is already mainstream by most definitions. Isn’t this what these people are asking for (admittedly now more strawman than ever)?

Or is it a fanservice-oriented, late-night, adult-only sort of fair like OreImo I mean Game of Thrones? Oh they’re different? Yeah, 50-60 million dollars different. Okay, it was a joke, but I think the core point stands. Call me jaded but what makes mainstream is merely either a delusion in terms of some rosy old-lens of a time when you didn’t know any better, and a lot of money. The most expensive anime TV series ever made only goes up to 10M or so, and I’m not sure if it was considered mainstream by any empirical means.

If we just simply delete the notion that things could be mainstream and boil it down to simply an exercise of finding out how big of a demographic you can get to watch your show, anime in the 21st century comes across as something not so much regressive, but forward-thinking. Let’s set aside the fundamental problems with anime and the way it’s funded–isn’t the current model of anime basically the shotgun vertical approach? You have a bijillion IP going live every year (there were over 200 anime TV and movie titles last year), each title is comparably inexpensive to produce, and sold to niches. It’s like cable and satellite TV in the US–given its capability for great number of channels simultaneously, it encourages programming diversity.* (Here is a list of all TV shows/movies/miniseries that returned and debuted in the US in 2012.) It makes you wonder: a similar list in Japanese would mean ~half of new/returning/ending/reruns of 2012 are anime, wouldn’t it?

Of course, I’ve also ignored all the problems with this model and its limitations. But from a commercial speech diversity/proliferation perspective, anime is really good as a platform. I mean, again, Happy Science? OreImo and the proliferation of the light novel drivel adaptation? Is this what “anime is a medium not a genre” really means? It spans from the highest high-brow creators (see: Yuasa’s Kickstarter) to the most base stuff you can find in a porn shop (joke: maybe see: Yuasa’s Kickstarter). It stretches from high budget, multi-million Ghibli stuff to independently made stuff on Youtube (as thin as commercial speech gets). Because it is made so cheaply on average, it employs cheap looks to tell its stories, and thus enable more people to use these cheap techniques, and enables more people to be able to churn it for profit. It’s a separate question if people actually do make a profit or not, I guess.

In a sense, anime’s distribution problem overseas in the last 10+ years also has to do with that until the west copes with New Media (caps), there wasn’t a stable distribution channel for anime, at least a truly sustainable one. This is why when Suncoast and Borders blew up, or when Best Buy scaled it back, things went to hell. Today retail is heavily online focused, and the rest is being picked up by streaming and digital services–not all that different than other niche programming. And maybe that’s how it is suppose to be. Things like Toonami coming back only signifies that diversity (and to its credit, the anime niche as well) has only increased in the net aggregate on cable television, enabling Cartoon Network to expand back to the future of first-world-focused, for-profit media.


* I think in an earlier post (now in the ether) I’ve written about why increasing number in channels increases diversity, but if you want to know about how it works please ask in the comments. Or any other questions really.

5 Responses to “The Tunnelvision of Long Tails”

  • jpmeyer

    Even in this case, there’s a wide gulf between anime and even the trashiest trash Hollywood mass markets to the world. It’s not to say a 20%-scoring film on Rotten Tomatoes is any good, but a work like that is infinitely more “mainstream” entertainment than all but the most remarkable anime.

    Think about it kind of like this: every season a fairly sizable portion of anime get a complete eyerolling based on their premise (for example, any show that revolves around the 17ish male lead wanting to fuck his 13ish sister), while in American TV something with a completely facepalming premise like say, Cavemen/Cop Rock/The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeifer comes around more like a few times per decade.

    EDIT: I mean in terms of scripted programming, not reality shows where the whole point is just to laugh at people that you feel superior to.

    • relentlessflame

      This is precisely because anime is so much cheaper to produce. It’s much easier to produce a show that will appeal to a hyper-niche audience when you don’t have to spend $50 million+ to do so. American TV shows and movies still require a much higher amount of vetting (even if some questionable premises still result).

      I would also say there’s a cultural issue here too (both globally, and also within your community of interests). There are actually a lot of shows on American TV (even if you limit it to scripted programming) that have premises that get a “complete eyerolling” from me, not to mention concepts that are completely cookie-cutter, unoriginal, and overdone. But they’re still that much more mainstream because they tap into a larger interest group (that doesn’t necessarily include me). We’ve come to accept certain premises as “not eyerolling” simply because they’re featured on mainstream TV, so that makes it okay. (TV is, after all, one of the primary arbiters of popular culture.) Anime doesn’t have the responsibility to fill the airwaves with content that will appeal to a sizeable market and bring in viewers and advertising revenue. Instead, it can seek (and sneak?) small opportunities to deliver targeted hits to a much smaller group (and make it up through collector’s merchandise). As a result, it can tap into unique niche audiences who interests may not otherwise coincide.

      I’ve often argued that “anime is medium not a genre”, and it’s in the sense that people should accept that they’re not meant to enjoy everything just because “it’s anime”. If you find romantic comedies about quasi-incest eye-rolling, just ignore it; there’s another audience who finds it funny and cute, and it’s an experience that they won’t find on “mainstream” media. Anime is uniquely positioned to address these sorts of disparate interests. There are some people who have an interest in anime itself as an art form, but for most people it’s just a source of entertainment.

      The problem, at least in my view, is that you have people who try to get into the “anime scene” (in the broad sense), have a rather narrow view of what anime should be, and then treat it like an infliction that anime isn’t fulfilling its “obligation” to be more appealing to more people (by presumably producing more of the sorts of shows the proponent likes). This basically ignores that a) the whole point of the late-night anime block is to produce anime that wouldn’t otherwise be able to air on TV (too niche to compete for mainstream attention or attract regular ad dollars), and b) a lot of the anime that are “mainstream” right now don’t appeal to their particular tastes in the first place (i.e. the Pretty Cures of the world). I do consider it a sort of misalignment between what we could say the anime industry is trying to do, and what they believe it *should* be trying to do, if the latter is even actually believable or achievable.

      I’m fairly convinced that the anime industry as it is right now is well-poised to reach any niche market that is willing to throw money their way. So, I think the problem — ironically enough — is that people who want anime to be more “mainstream” are actually the ones with the more “niche” tastes in today’s market. It presents a bit of a paradox of the “if you build it, they will come” variety, and much of this is indeed tainted by the rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia.

    • omo

      Re: eyerolling: normal Japanese TV is infinitely more eye-rolling in my opinion, for western sensibilities, than anime. Anime on average does a better job in that department. I mean, I roll my eye probably just as much with Precure or Gurren Lagann or Evangelion as I do OreImo or Love-Hina. Wait, I probably roll a little bit more with the very late night stuff, but see below.

      I think JP’s point is on to something. But I’m not sure it has to do with vetting or cultural arbitrage of TV and mainstream movies or what; the % of eye-rollers are less with western crap regardless of your sensibilities east or west. I just don’t quite buy the fact that it’s because anime target very niches. I mean, speaking as someone who is probably being targeted in this exact way, I think I roll my eyes at anime plenty (Kara no Kyoukai is probably my favorite example) but I still buy. Often because/despite of said rolling.

      The point about anime “scene” is kind of what I want to get at, except I think your approach is the dead horse beaten path I didn’t want to take. Fact is you cannot make a nich product with $50M. Of course you vet it hardcore when the budget is 20-25 times of an average 1-cour. The “uncertainty” gap for King of Thrones production cost is multiple times greater than the budget of some anime committees. Such a thing just cannot exist.

      As for the “why” anime in late night block, I think you oversimplify the reasons why, but I don’t think I’ll go into it here. It’s a reasonable approximate but the truth is much more complicated. Let’s just say without the late night blocks there are not enough time in the day to air this many anime.

    • relentlessflame

      I’m not so sure that we disagree so fundamentally, except that we’re coming at it from a different angle. If you don’t want to see it as “targeting niches”, you can look at it as producing different sorts of entertainment that would not get funded if it had to have the amount of vetting it would need for the “mainstream”. There will be more “eye-rolling” shows in anime, because those sorts of shows would never be able to get the additional vetting that is necessary for primetime TV with those sorts of budgets. And I don’t necessarily disagree with your point that anime fans often enjoy shows that have premises that are decisively “eye-roll-worthy” on the surface. But that doesn’t mean it’s not valid as a form of entertainment; this is why I say it fills a niche that other forms of media don’t fill (and arguably can’t).

      And of course the reasons behind late-night anime are much more complex, but I think it’s a bit of a self-reinforcing pattern. If the only time available is late-night, you can also take advantage of that timeslot to air things you couldn’t air during the day. So perhaps it’s a bit of “life handing you lemons” here, in addition to everything else. Of course there are some shows that might ostensibly have “mainstream” appeal for their content, but still air in those late night slots because that’s what they can get. And some of those receive a smattering of success in their own right. But, all things considered, I don’t think anime would often be the medium of choice for most of the sorts of stories that could reach the primetime audience. If there were even more mainstream-targeted anime in Japan, I’m not convinced it’d be the sort people are clamouring for (particular if, as you say, mainstream TV is no less eye-rolling from a Western point of view). This may not be the path you were hoping to take with this topic… but I can’t see that this isn’t where it leads in the end.

    • omo

      Well, the main thing is just to try to expand on different points of views. Anime in of itself can be a tool for vetting. Would there be a Kenshin live action movie without the anime? I mean, usually the live action adaptation comes after the anime adaption too, so there’s that to think about.

      So while you’re right, we don’t fundamentally disagree, I don’t think this is so simple. It’s definitely not a simple replacement sort of deal. Just like a movie or a tv show doesn’t replace McD happy meal toys, but rather everything all work together.

      Which is also why I don’t think I buy your statements about eye rolling. It has less to do with vetting and more to do with sensibilities and the way the industry works.

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