Steven Universe’s frustrating schedule is crucial to its success
April 20, 2016 11:40 AM   Subscribe

Steven Universe is a pretty popular Cartoon Network show with pretty odd scheduling -- its second season mostly aired in week-long "StevenBombs", with one new episode airing each weeknight, with sometimes months between Bomb weeks. This isn't because the animators are backlogged or the censors are combing through it for naughty bits. Instead, it's a conscious strategy of combining binge-watching and appointment-television scheduling to maximize fan reaction. And it seems to be working.
posted by Etrigan (30 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
Emphasis on the "seems to be". It's entirely possible that Steven Universe could have even higher ratings if it were scheduled regularly and rationally. But we have no way of finding out, do we?
posted by 1970s Antihero at 11:53 AM on April 20, 2016 [6 favorites]


As someone who has worked in entertainment for close to twenty years, let me tell you that whenever anything is a success, it's like Pee Wee Herman riding his bike handlebars, hitting the curb, flying across the yard, and then standing up and announcing he meant to do that.
posted by roger ackroyd at 12:01 PM on April 20, 2016 [38 favorites]


Yreah, well, DVRs exist, so whatever. You'll be lucky if I even manage to watch it in the C3 window CN.
posted by GuyZero at 12:04 PM on April 20, 2016


See, I would posit that SU's success is due not to fucked-up scheduling but to excellent writing and animation, but hey, maybe that's just crazy talk!

If SU were a slightly less interesting/well-done/groundbreaking show, I would have given up on it already. Because the scheduling is fucking insane. And I have occasionally considered it even so.

And I'll tell you also, all the excuses about production don't fly with me either. If Cartoon Network does not, by now, have any idea of how to schedule a cartoon series to account for the kind of issues all cartoon series have, without crazy, car-wreck scheduling, then it is run by complete incompetents.

Also also, fans don't just watch these shows once and done. They rewatch obsessively, and the shows are written to reward this, so drawing out the plot suspense/being assholes about scheduling is not the only way to keep people watching.

In conclusion, fuck CN for trying to take credit for this show's success like they know what they are doing. That's all Rebecca Sugar and her team.

Relevant Reddit thread (not a trainwreck Reddit, generally speaking).
posted by emjaybee at 12:07 PM on April 20, 2016 [17 favorites]


I must confess that I like how the Bomb scheduling really lets the serialized story elements come to the fore, especially since episodes are only 12 minutes long. Steven Universe makes its mark as a showcase for character work, more than for its episodic plots.
posted by GameDesignerBen at 12:07 PM on April 20, 2016


While we're asking for SU scheduling ponies, I wouldn't mind if they put out a decent Season One DVD set with some behind the scenes material and commentaries. I watched all the episodes that are up on Hulu, and now I want to own them. I know I can just buy them digitally on Google Play or some such, but what I really want is a complete package, and something that I can physically lend out or give to people. It's that special!
posted by Strange Interlude at 12:11 PM on April 20, 2016 [11 favorites]


I actually don't mind the Bombs, either, GDB, it's just that you never know if the bomb is the last thing you'll see for six months. Or more. If they were regularly scheduled, even if it was a month apart, I'd just sigh and mark it on my calendar and deal.
posted by emjaybee at 12:11 PM on April 20, 2016 [4 favorites]


Gravity Falls had weirdo scheduling too, and while I had the immense good fortune of watching Avatar the Last Airbender all in one go, I think it too had weird scheduling with huge gaps when it originally aired. I'm not a fan of the impenetrable scheduling decisions of animated shows. Though I do like the Steven Bombs.
posted by yasaman at 12:15 PM on April 20, 2016


Angie Tribeca (TBS; modern take on Police Squad! by the Carells starring Rashida Jones and Hayes MacArthur) did something similar - they spent an whole night broadcasting the first season, and since is broadcasting in sequence every Monday (I think).

I think it could be a good way to kickstart a new tv show of the 30 minute variety - shotgun the first third or quarter of the season in less than a week, and then return to regular broadcasting. People will get familiarized with the characters and setting quicker, and the network could quickly check if it will do fine and order a second season.
I'd even say for genres that require a certain level of exposition, like SF, a series premiere binge could help establish the universe it is set in far quicker, allowing it to be spread around 3 to 5 episodes instead of desperately trying to cram most of it on the premiere.
Of course, Fox would run the intended finale in those first episodes.
posted by lmfsilva at 12:15 PM on April 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


So is the Venture Brothers' multi-year hiatus part of its strategy?
posted by Ashwagandha at 12:18 PM on April 20, 2016


CN is playing all kinds of scheduling games. When they announced the latest renewal of Steven Universe, they also declared a renewal for Uncle Grandpa, which turned out to be in reality "we're wrapping up UncleG after the current production run but stretching out the unaired shows to look like 5 Whole Seasons".

Don't trust the Cartoon Network. (Jury's still out on channel-sharing Adult Swim, but if something were really wrong, Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer would certainly let us know...)
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:23 PM on April 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


I find CN's scheduling to be pretty frustrating across the board.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:23 PM on April 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


Hello, daddy. Hello, mom.
I'm your St-St-St-StevenBomb!
Hello world! I'm a malfunctioning Pearl
I'm your St-St-St-StevenBomb!
posted by Parasite Unseen at 12:30 PM on April 20, 2016 [15 favorites]


The Steven Universe renewal was also a ruse. Prior to the announcement Steven Universe had three 52 episode seasons ordered. After the announcement, they had five seasons ordered, one 52 episodes long and four 26 episodes long.

Steven Universe's scheduling reminds me more of Firefly than anything else. A show with lots of cult appeal and they have no idea what to do with it. If CN were really interested in capitalizing on SU they'd run it non-stop like their current favorite moneymaker, Teen Titans Go.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 12:43 PM on April 20, 2016 [3 favorites]


Having rewatched the Venture Bros. last month, I have to assume the time between the seasons gives them the time to write the scripts. As they manage to get some very impressive characterization and densely populated by a lot of pop culture references. I wonder if it is the same for Steven Universe.
posted by Ashwagandha at 12:45 PM on April 20, 2016


Ashwagandha: "So is the Venture Brothers' multi-year hiatus part of its strategy?"

It worked so well they started doing half seasons like mad men.
posted by boo_radley at 12:47 PM on April 20, 2016


Wait... are you saying this last season of Venture Bros. was only a half season?
posted by Ashwagandha at 12:48 PM on April 20, 2016


I believe the crew seem to have indicated that they are already out ahead on episodes. I don't think they really need the hiatuses to be this long for any practical reason. I think it's pure CN management nonsense.
posted by delicious-luncheon at 12:49 PM on April 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


Wait... are you saying this last season of Venture Bros. was only a half season?

Compared to the previous ones, yes. S01-04 were 13-16 episodes each, while S05 and S06 were only 8 apiece.
posted by Strange Interlude at 1:02 PM on April 20, 2016


So they're using a variable ratio schedule to reinforce operant conditioning in their fanbase? That's kinda creepy.
posted by lekvar at 1:03 PM on April 20, 2016 [4 favorites]


I seem to recall someone on the SU crew saying they actually hated CN's scheduling madness?

Personally, a little bit before season 1 ended I watched the available 5 episodes on Hulu, then went to a site of a possibly illegitimate nature to binge-watch the rest of what was available. That was where I watched the last StevenBomb and it's probably where I'll watch future episodes.

It's the writing first, the art style and music second, that make me a fan.
posted by Foosnark at 1:06 PM on April 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


Cartoon Network scheduling -- and kids' programming scheduling in general -- has been crazy and frustrating for a long time. We had multiple giant hiatuses when I was working on Codename: Kids Next Door ten years ago; Avatar: The Last Airbender had notoriously terrible hiatuses toward the end of its run.

Networks schedule things this way for all kinds of reasons -- because they want to take advantage of school holidays, because they want to get high ratings during sweeps, because they're doing some kind of special event programming and want to save new episodes for a Memorial Day Marathon or what not.

Like, CN is almost definitely airing SU in this odd way for a reason, but that's not exactly a new thing.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 1:39 PM on April 20, 2016 [4 favorites]


Having rewatched the Venture Bros. last month, I have to assume the time between the seasons gives them the time to write the scripts. As they manage to get some very impressive characterization and densely populated by a lot of pop culture references. I wonder if it is the same for Steven Universe.

On the production side of a studio show like SU, delays are never a good thing. Animation production is like a machine with a ton of moving parts, some of which are extremely difficult to replace. You want for your show to have a nice, smooth, regular and predictable production schedule with as few breaks as possible. The WORST thing for an animated show is a delay in getting renewed, or any other kind of production hiatus that lasts for more than a couple of weeks.

We were extremely lucky when I worked on C:KND, in that despite having the network's renewal decisions take (what felt like) forever, over and over again, I don't think we had production hiatus that lasted more than a month or so. And because we were in NYC, with lots of short-term ad work available and not a ton of other shows hiring at any given time, we were able to retain most of our production staff during those hiatuses - -people would go on vacation, or work on personal projects, or spend time with their families, or take on short-term freelance, and it wasn't too big of a burden.

In LA, where there are big studios with tons of shows in production at the same time, a long production hiatus can mean that you lose big chunks of your staff. It sucks! Particularly for a show like SU -- or ATLA, which had this problem years ago -- where there's a very specific Thing that you're doing and a very specific culture that you've developed with the staff. The absolute worst is when you end up losing lead storyboard artists/directors -- particularly on shows like SU where most of the writing is done by those storyboard artists.

Also -- and these are just my personal observations, grain of salt, etc -- I've noticed that LA animation folks are much more likely to have families when they're young, and therefore are more conservative in terms of "Okay but seriously where is my next paycheck coming from." They get paid better than NYC artists, they have union protections, they're more likely to have very short gaps between jobs, so they can set up their lives in a way that's less precarious. Which is great for quality of life! But it also means that people aren't going to want to sit on their hands for three months without a paycheck while CN figures out what it's doing with their show.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 1:52 PM on April 20, 2016 [15 favorites]


So what part of the audience watches these series when broadcast, rather than on the web or via streaming services? (actual target audience, not MeFites :-)
posted by effbot at 2:47 PM on April 20, 2016


Steven Universe's scheduling reminds me more of Firefly than anything else. A show with lots of cult appeal and they have no idea what to do with it. If CN were really interested in capitalizing on SU they'd run it non-stop like their current favorite moneymaker, Teen Titans Go.

Lots of cult appeal, but likely a relatively small but just really vocal(and honestly fairly insufferable) fanbase. Sound familiar?

I think part of the reason they're spacing this out is an attempt to grow the fanbase beyond the tiny-but-loud-and-acts-like-its-big fanbase it has now.

I don't think any of these stations are all that stupid now. I think they all pay attention to the internet, and remember how huge and loud and ready to fire hose money the firefly fanbase seemed and then just didn't do shit and turned out to be fairly small.

Just because a bunch of people on the internet vocally like something doesn't mean there's lots of people ready to throw money at it, or even lots of tv viewers. High acclaimed does not equal moneymaker.

I'll openly admit this is a bugbear of mine, but my eyes never entirely unrolled after firefly/serenity when superfan people online go "THEY'RE SQUANDERING THIS MONEY PRINTING SHOW THAT EVERYONE LOVES".
posted by emptythought at 3:31 PM on April 20, 2016


To be clear, a LOT of people are watching Steven Universe. I don't have access to the Neilson database, but just a cursory search turned up this page, which shows that Log Date -- the most recent SU episode to premiere -- was the #14 cable show that night, in any time slot.

Animation is insanely expensive to produce. CN doesn't order multiple additional seasons of a show at once just for the heck of it.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 4:11 PM on April 20, 2016 [3 favorites]


(No one cares about this but me, but I should have said "crew" instead of "staff" up there.)
posted by Narrative Priorities at 6:27 PM on April 20, 2016 [2 favorites]




(SPOILERS, OBVIOUSLY!)
posted by Narrative Priorities at 7:26 PM on April 22, 2016


Do you think our whining succeeded? Nah. I am heartened by the fact that the Cluster story looks to be moving in a creeeepy direction. Still pissed that CN is such a bunch of wankers.
posted by emjaybee at 7:59 PM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


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