Counterpoint: Steven Universe is Successful In Spite of its Nontraditional Airing Schedule
By: Dylan Hysen
Zach Blumenfeld wrote an interesting article for the A.V. Club today (make sure to check it out before reading this) about Steven Universe’s nontraditional airing schedule, a frequent topic of discussion on this website. In short, I disagree with most of what he says in the article, but definitely respect the piece and support more Steven Universe and other animation writing at a prominent level.
He argues two pain points: that this scheduling is not atypical for Cartoon Network and should be expected from fans, and that although frustrating to many fans, this scheduling has driven Steven Universe’s growth. I find the first point irrelevant and heavily disagree with his second point, especially taking issue with the evidence he presented in support of it.
I agree that based on Cartoon Network’s scheduling history and scheduling of its other current shows, we should expect Steven Universe to air in some form of weekly chunks like it currently is. I think it’s an under reported point among Steven Universe fans, who sometimes seem to think that Cartoon Network is specifically targeting the show unfairly with this scheduling. It’s not: it does this for its other shows (except for a few like Adventure TIme), and always has. I just don’t think this matters that much. My complaints about the show’s scheduling are that it hurts fans and doesn’t help the show’s growth. This applies to all of Cartoon Network’s shows, it just matters much more for Steven Universe, with its large older following.
A related point is made that this type of scheduling makes more sense for animated fare because it takes longer to produce. I think this is generally true, but it depends what live-action show we’re comparing to. A typical sitcom? Yes, animation definitely takes longer, but for a show like Game of Thrones? Probably not. Both a high quality animated series and Game of Thrones take well over a year to produce a season, but by working ahead of the airing schedule, Game of Thrones can air yearly. This applies to shows like The Legend of Korra, whose third and fourth seasons were ready to air a year or less after their previous seasons and those were the two highest quality animated seasons in the US of all time (Korra was hampered by atypical production difficulties during Season 2 which make the first half of the show not apply to this). So yes, Steven Universe could very easily air 15 or more episodes weekly every year. Cartoon Network’s bomb scheduling just positions those episodes over a different time frame. A separate question is posed in the article about reruns and how for a plot-continuous show like Steven Universe, they might be less effective if run for 32 weeks of the year, with new episodes weekly for the other 20. I think this is a potentially valid point for a network like Cartoon Network which relies on reruns.
I heavily contend with the evidence presented in the article to prove that nontraditional schedules have helped Steven Universe and Cartoon Network. The article states that schedules like these have increased in the past year, and Cartoon Network’s overall ratings have gone up accordingly, so they must help. This is terrible, terrible logic, ignoring many other factors that come into play with ratings. Who knows why ratings increased overall, you certainly can’t isolate it down to a single factor like this and the article makes no attempt to do so. Also a terrible logical flaw: the article very interestingly presents Google Trend data (I love the idea of using this type of data for this topic) that show increased search traffic for Steven Universe when the scheduling moved away from a one-episode-per-week format. This is likewise a logically inconsistent conclusion because it ignores every other factor that might come into play for this increase. I also think it ignores the obvious true cause of the traffic increase: the show increasing in popularity as more viewers have found the show and the show’s visibility is increased.
Zach concludes towards the end, “So the StevenBombs are working.” No, this hasn’t been remotely proven and might not be true at all. There’s no way of knowing if they’re working when they’re the only strategy being deployed. There is 0 logically-consistent evidence in this article to prove that claim. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t.
“With StevenBombs, Cartoon Network is able to approximate the gravity of a binge-watching event with a cohesive storyline while staying true to its cable nature, driving up overall interest in Steven Universe and the channel itself in the process. “
The end of the article gets into a more philosophical take on these different airing formats, and it’s a very interesting topic. The above quote argues that Steven Bombs allow Cartoon Network to drive hype-building viewing while not dumping all the episodes at once. I think this could be true, and is a perfectly valid take. But to act like it’s a forgone conclusion is misleading. I disagree with it: I think that by airing their shows somewhere in the middle between a Netflix episode-dump and a traditional weekly airing schedule, Cartoon Network misses the best of both worlds. They don’t truly gain the big-moment hype that Netflix’s shows do when they’re released, because airing five episodes in a week is much less of a big deal. And they don’t gain the steady audience-building consistency that a traditional scheduling would give. Steven Universe’s airing schedule is certainly anything but consistent. I also think an obvious point being ignored is that weekly programs can gain event television status, which can build as much excitement as an episode-dump. Just look to Game of Thrones, it sustains its excitement level over the course of multiple months when it’s airing new episodes, despite it being only one episode a week. Only special shows can do this, but Steven Universe has all the markings of being one of those shows with its large online following.
Moreover, all of this ignores the fans. I believe a network should be obligated to consider fans of its content and cater to them accordingly. This of course will vary from person to person, but the Steven Bomb format is the worst possible airing format for me as a fan of the show. It doesn’t sustain my excitement during the many breaks, it doesn’t leave room to breathe between the episodes we get in one week, and it doesn’t give enough payoff for waiting multiple months for new episodes. If people are frustrated by the airing schedule (and I’m not saying I’m correct with how I feel about this, but I think this is a viewpoint you’ll see echoed frequently), then that’s legitimate in its own right. But so of course is the question of whether this at all helps the show and the network, which is anything but a closed question.