Why Did Anime Take So Long To Take Off In America?

by Justin Sevakis,

Edgar asked:

I grew up in South America back in the 80s. Back then kids' anime was nothing short of mainstream in our country. We had several hours of anime in TV each day (such as the World Masterpiece Theater franchise) and some series were popular enough to get promo merchandising in products aimed at kids like cereals and ice cream. This continued into the 90s we got specialised anime magazines in normal book stores, many of them imported from Europe. From them, we learned that the fandom was as strong in countries like Spain, France and Italy as it was across the Atlantic in the opposite hemisphere. Then the Internet came around and I started speaking with people from North America and learned that in comparison, anime had a slower and humbler start in there. My question is, do you know whether Japanese publishers had an easier time or a preference dealing with countries in Europe and South America back in the day than with the U.S. to explain this?

The US has always been the toughest market to break into, specifically because we make SO MUCH STUFF. For the entire 20th century the US has been the #1 producer and exporter of pop culture material -- that's true today just as it was back then. The reason is that all of the major companies that distribute content -- the major TV networks, the record labels, the movie studios -- only really look to either make or shepherd new content to market themselves.

This has changed a lot in the last 20 years, but in some ways it hasn't changed at all. TV networks now look at shows from other countries, but not for stuff to license, but stuff to remake. Movie studios will join onto foreign films when they're still in development, rather than buy the rights to films already made. Those companies think of themselves as master tastemakers, so they insist on being able to influence the content of the shows while they're still in production. The stuff that's already made is nearly entirely left to small, independent outfits to buy the rights and get them seen in North America. That's why so few anime has ever seen broadcast on a major TV network here.

This is not at all how the content business works in smaller countries, where they produce and/or supervise very, very little of the shows they consume. Instead, they buy most of their content from other countries. How it works there, is every year, there are several trade shows -- MIPCOM/MIP-TV, American Film Market, TIFFCOM, and a few others, where content sellers (licensors) meet up with content buyers. They swap screeners and one-sheet flyers, have meetings, discuss deal terms. But the remarkable thing is, the content from America, while often clearly the highest budget, doesn't really stand that much separated from that of other countries.

So, yes, it was far easier for Japanese licensors to make inroads on other continents than it was in North America. Luckily times have changed, we have way more TV channels, way more independent distribution, and the internet. There are very few barriers to American fans seeing new content from anywhere in the world. The big media companies are pretty firm in their need to have a hand in creating everything they release, but that's nowhere near the barrier it once was.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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