Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
So, to get this out of the way, how did you wind up as Program Director for Neon Alley, given your rather well-known background in pro wrestling? It sounds like a fun story.
Haha, fair enough question. I guess the short answer would be that wrestling and anime are both very niche markets with their own niche fan bases. I have been creating, producing, distributing, selling, marketing, niche content one level or another for nearly 20 years. So while my background isn't in the core anime space, there was a lot I had to bring to the table to VIZ when they were looking to create their own network. One of the funny things is that I've been able to discover this rather broad crossover in fan bases, and that's been fun.
Were you an anime fan before coming to work at VIZ? If so, can you tell us some of your favorites?
I was a fan of the space, yes, but I wouldn't rightly be able to categorize myself as an Otaku. That's why it's great that you have people like VIZ's VP of Animation Brian Ige, who is a great leader, creating the concept for the whole channel, and Charlene Ingram, undoubtedly the best mind I know when it comes to anime, both in terms of making the content acquisition decisions for the channel. Char keeps her finger on the pulse of what fans want and cares so much to her core about the anime consumer.
I've definitely been getting my feet wet learning and exploring more series over the past year and a half. My exposure to anime prior to coming to work at VIZ was rather limited to the shows that had TV exposure. The Narutos, Bleaches, and One Pieces of the world, or back in my youth with Voltron and the like. It's been really great getting to know new series both through Neon Alley and through the recommendations of our loyal fans who post what they want to see on the channel on our Facebook pages, write us via Twitter or our customer service department, or talk to us at conventions.
Tell us a little about your duties at Neon Alley. What's your day-to-day like?
Man! How much time do we have? We have just a couple of people running this entire network, so the days are jam-packed with everything from technical programming to production of all of the interstitial content to social media interaction with our members and fans.
Now that we have launched a “Catch Up” service as part of member's subscriptions, we are also having to transcode all of the shows that previously aired previously into VOD files. So there is lots of tech to program and oversee. But we also spend time every week planning for the future on how to grow and build the service—how to continue to develop this anime lifestyle channel of ours. For example, for the new Fall season and going into 2014, we're adding some new interstitials, including news updates straight from Anime News Network. We'll also be announcing other new fun things in development to launch later this season.
When you're deciding on a programming lineup, what are your biggest priorities? Do you organize programming based on theme?
Our biggest priority is creating a lineup that will enable our members to watch the weekly premieres in prime time and there is often a consideration given to theme. For example, right now our Saturday nights are pretty much Shonen Jump Saturdays with two episodes each of Bleach, One Piece, and Naruto Shippūden—so that's a powerful block that includes one world premiere Shippuden episode every week.
The previous night, on Fridays, we debut some of our new shows including the world premiere English dub of Magi: Labyrinth of Magic and the network premieres of Puella Magi Madoka Magica and classics like Revolutionary Girl Utena and Ranma ½. This is the first time ever that Ranma ½ has been available in HD in English, and it looks spectacular, especially for a show that originally aired on Japanese TV in 1989. And then, Thursdays we have the Neon Alley debut of episodes of the supercharged Gainax favorite Gurren Lagann.
Often we try to place shows right before or after a similar show so that people who may not be as familiar with the series may discover it. That's the great advantage of a linear channel over just a VOD platform. Discovery. If I'm tuning in on Thursday to see Gurren Lagann, I may get exposed to Fate/Zero. Or if I'm tuning in on Saturday to see One Piece and I know I want to stick around for Bleach later in the night, I may check out Blue Exorcist in between those shows. On Fridays, we've started the popular series, K, again from the beginning. So we try to program to encourage discovery as well. Everything is designed with entertainment flow in mind.
How difficult is it to program a linear cable channel? What are some of the biggest challenges you face?
Well, it is definitely a challenge. You should see the spreadsheet we use. It reminds me of when you go to the doctor to get a blood test and they have all those vials with the different color tops. Or the paint sample aisle of a hardware store. Char jokes about it being rainbows everywhere. You want to make sure that your shows are debuting in good slots and that they repeat often enough that people have a chance to catch them, but not so often that you are getting the same shows over and over. That part really isn't an issue as we add more and more series because it enables us to restart ones that have finished from the start. With the new Fall season we are also restarting shows like Accel World, Zetman, K, and Tiger & Bunny from Episode 1. Adding Catch Up has also allowed us to mix up the linear channel a bit more and have more series on a given day because if someone's schedule doesn't match up with the linear channel they still have the opportunity to watch the latest episodes in Catch Up.
Can you tell us anything about the viewing habits of your average Neon Alley subscriber? What's the most popular thing on the network? The least? Is there a peak time when you can expect the channel's viewership to be highest?
The stat that I find is the best example really— remembering that we just hit our one-year birthday— is that the majority of our members have been with us between 7 and 12 months. That means those that are coming to Neon Alley are sticking around because they love the service.
In terms of viewing habits, we definitely hit our peak during our Friday and Saturday night prime time premiere blocks. Last week's debut of Magi: Labyrinth of Magic was the most watched show on Friday night. It was awesome to see some of the voice actors Tweet along, too. I had mentioned earlier that we're developing new interstitials for the channel and one thing that may debut later this season is a look at the most watched programs of the week.
What's the average demographic you're aiming to please with the network's programming? What sort of programming is most valuable to you?
Our key demo is just what our service is about: English dubbed anime fans! There are fans of all ages and backgrounds, but we tend to see the heaviest use among the 18-34 set.
Neon Alley was formed in part to fill that void on an easily accessible, all English, dubbed anime channel. There were a number of legal options for watching subtitled content, VizAnime.com, Hulu, Crunchyroll, Funimation.com and others, but no one was offering a 24/7 all uncut, all uncensored English dubbed experience that went beyond the programming into a fully immersive lifestyle channel. So we are looking for—and programming for—that English dubbed anime fan—and that fan that wants more than just the great shows. They come for the shows, for sure, but they stay for the entire experience of Neon Alley.
In terms of most valuable programming, we want the best shows out there, and it's great to be able to bring fans world premieres of English dubs. I've been saying lately that the channel is about being “ALL KILLER, NO FILLER.” We want every show on the network to be a good one, and so we are selective in what we choose to air. So ALL of our programming is really valuable to us and the Neon Alley brand.
How did you feel about the Catch Up feature? One of the most commonly said things about the network at its launch was that it felt strange in this day and age to have a linear network model, and that it should've included a Netflix-style on-demand service option from day one. Do you think the new Catch Up feature helps or hurts the linear channel model?
The Catch Up feature was always part of the plan from day one. The idea was to roll out the linear stream, have people understand what it was all about and what made it different than all of the other anime offerings, not just the all English part but the anime lifestyle network part as well, and then roll out Catch Up. Now, with Catch Up added, we have a complete service —watch on our linear stream schedule, or catch up on what you may have missed on your schedule.
To answer your second question, I think it complements the live stream and helps the service overall. As I just said a moment ago, it makes Neon Alley a complete service, just like any cable channel with its live 24/7 linear stream and then various episodes on VOD. One thing that made me really happy at New York Comic Con was that during the Neon Alley panel, one audience member specifically said “Thank you for not getting rid of the linear channel when you added Catch Up.” To me, that is exactly what we were going for!
What sort of programming would you personally like to have on the network? Notably, you now have Chikara Pro wrestling, which I assume is something you spearheaded—any other content like that you'd like to feature?
I want the network to keep growing. Adding the best anime is our number one priority. That is the core of the channel. Beyond that, I want to bring some additional programming—short-form interstitials and long-form full shows—that appeal to our members' other interests while still retaining a link into anime or Japanese pop culture. We have been airing music videos from a number of different Sony Japan artists and those have been getting good reactions. We're considering some other programming as well, but the key here is that most of that will end up on Sundays—the one day we break from our 100% anime-all-the-time format. Ever since we launched, Sundays have been dedicated to movies—both anime and live action kung fu movies.
To answer your question about our new CHIKARA show, yes, it was something I spearheaded, but not out of the blue. First, there is a rich history of wrestling and anime crossover. Just look at Twitter during Monday Night RAW—you see a lot of anime fans getting in on the action! From the original Tiger Mask manga turned anime series turned into real life pro wrestler for the New Japan Pro Wrestling group to the Ultimate Muscle manga, the anime world has certainly dipped it's toe into the wrestling world for decades now. We also ran some commercial spots on Neon Alley for both CHIKARA and Dragon Gate USA and we found a fair number of our members commenting on them in a positive manner on social media. So when the thought was to replace one of the Sunday kung-fu movies with a different kind of live action show—a wrestling one—CHIKARA was a perfect fit.
CHIKARA is such a unique show that combines the exciting in-ring action of lucha and puroesu—Mexican and Japanese wrestling—and blends it with comedy and science fiction for an extremely fun show to watch. And, a number of the CHIKARA wrestlers are now in the WWE, so there a bit of “before they were Superstars” nostalgia to some of the matches. In fact the main storyline right now centers around a guy who would come to be known today as Antonio Cesaro. So, I think CHIKARA is a great replacement for one of the weekly kung-fu time slots and 2014 should bring some additional programming to Sundays on Neon Alley. We're all working as a team to bring what fans want to see, so we are always open to suggestions. Neon Alley is successful because of its dedicated fans enjoying the channel and giving feedback.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today. If you're not already watching the channel, be sure to get your free trial to check it out and see what it's all about. The free trial, like the monthly membership, includes both the 24/7 live linear channel and the new “Catch Up” feature so everyone can get a taste of the only anime lifestyle channel! Even if you have tried it before, we encourage you to come back and check it again. We think anime fans will be very happy with the growing evolution of the service and how we keep making it even better!