Answerman
Why Are Anime Series So Short These Days?

by Justin Sevakis,

Mathias asks:

Looking back at the past decades, it seems that less anime shows were made, but that they ran for a longer time, often going over fifty or even a hundred episodes. What made producers switch to the current system, were anime have mostly twelve or twenty-four episodes ?

I actually get this question quite a lot, even though I know I've answered it ages ago. Apparently it must've been so long ago that nobody can find it, so I suppose it's time to revisit it.

The way anime is financed in the era of late night TV series is very different from how TV series worked in the decades past. Generally, in order for a TV anime to be produced, you need at least four different organizations coming together into different roles. First, you have the planner (kikaku), who drives the show and acts as producer. You need the animation studio, of course, usually hired by the planner. You need a TV network. And then, finally, you need a primary sponsor. There are many other necessary companies, of course, but in terms of the bare essentials, these four make up the core of the production.

Prior to the boom of late night TV anime, these were all fairly dependably separate entities. The planning company would decide what to adapt (or create) and try and find a sponsor. The sponsor would supply the money in exchange for product placement and commercial slots. The animation studio would make the show, and then the TV network would broadcast it. And for decades, that's how the TV segment of the anime business worked.

And when it did work, it worked really well. If the show was a hit, it would drive sales of toys (and the sponsors were very often toy companies). As long as they sold, the sponsor was happy, and would keep throwing money at the show, which would go on, and on, and on. This would repeat until the toys stopped selling, or the planning company completely ran out of story to animate (which is something that they would try and stave off for as long as possible.) Many shows were planned with a finite number of episodes in mind (often 26 or so), but many more were designed to be open-ended.

The problem is that things often didn't work out that well. If a show wasn't a hit out of the gate, some sponsors were more patient than others in seeing if it would eventually develop an audience. Eventually, a sponsor would come to the conclusion that they were wasting money, and would elect to cancel the show. The problem is, animation takes so long to produce that, inevitably, weeks and perhaps months worth of episodes were already in production -- some of them done or near done. Shutting down an anime production is like trying to stop a freight train -- it takes a while.

This shut-down process would inevitably end up wasting even more money on a dud show, and really cut into the overall amount of funds that could be spent on other shows. Unless the show was an unbelievable stinker, it made more sense to finish the episodes rather than trash them before completion -- surely SOME fans would want to buy them on home video. Sometimes these final episodes were flushed out as OVAs after the fact. But ultimately the sponsor was unhappy. Many gigantic bombs wouldn't end up getting completely shut down until well over 30 episodes in. That's a lot of wasted funds.

Additionally, this system worked well for (some) kids' product, especially ones that easily lent themselves to toys, but other genres were far riskier. A mature military drama or romantic drama doesn't lend itself to merchandise sales very well, and in fact, you'll notice that 90s shoujo anime is full of really awkward product placement. (Teenaged girl is very worried about her love interest, so she'd better pull out her little rocketship toy aimed at 6-year-olds and check her fortune!) This is why you got a lot more kid-oriented TV series back in the day. Other genres tended to become OVAs simply because the creators didn't have to worry about shilling a sponsor's product. The home video itself was the product!

Anyway, in a slow transition starting in the early 2000s, the OVA market and most of the existing TV market ended up combining into the "production committee" system. This was mostly due to necessity, since the Japanese economy was in the toilet and so new sponsorship money was getting hard to come by. With a production committee, the planning and the sponsorship organizations basically morph together.

The Committee itself is a collection of companies with various and diverging interests in the show (say, a toy company, a music publisher, a video game developer, and a talent agency) that all throw money into the pot to create the show. They then pay TV channels to broadcast the show in the early morning hours, which is seen as promotion for the home video release, and whatever other merchandise comes out. While most planning is still driven by a single company, the whole committee has a say in the show, its content, and whatever business is conducted with the property.

In order to limit the risk to the companies on these committees, each season is planned out at only a finite 11-13 episodes. If the show is a hit, additional seasons can be ordered down the line. If the show tanks, each member of the committee is only out for the cost of a single season -- and often that cost can be made up through international rights sales, home video, and whatever small number of merchandise items managed to get released.

The production committee system can still go awry in strange and terrible ways (there have been a few incidents where the committee becomes dysfunctional and literally can't get anything done), but the system has endured for over a decade now, and is now the first choice for even shows that might've done well under the sponsorship system. There are still a handful of shows (mostly long-running kids' properties) that still do things that way, but if a show airs in Japan very late at night, and is likely only getting made a season at a time, you can be assured that a production committee is steering the ship, and being very careful not to get too crazy spending money on a huge number of episodes. Because you never know what will hit, and what will bomb.


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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.


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