Sean Akins

by Bamboo Dong,
Over the past several years, no force has been more responsible for bringing anime to the masses than Cartoon Network. Starting back in the mid-90s with favorites like Sailor Moon and Dragonball Z, they later began piling on a stupendous amount of other fan-favorites like Inu Yasha, Rurouni Kenshin, Cowboy Bebop, Trigun... the list goes on for quite some time. With the advent of Adult Swim, they've been able to show even dicier stuff, like Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex and Fullmetal Alchemist. 2005 highlights are even cooler, with hot titles like Samurai Champloo and Paranoia Agent. Who else could be responsible for this than someone who could quite possibly be the coolest man at Cartoon Network? That's right, Toonami producer Sean Akins. Responsible for much of the great anime additions onto Cartoon Network as of late, he's also been throwing his weight towards Toonami's new fall project, IGPX, a joint-production between CN and Production IG. Smart, energetic, and funny, the anime world just wouldn't be the same with Sean Akins.

How did you first get started with this whole thing?

I started delivering the mail at Turner Broadcasting in the 80s. I've been here sort of ever since. A guy named Lazlo, actually, invited me to a stairwell one day and offered me a job, so I came down here and I've been working here ever since 1997.

What challenges do you deal with when you work with Cartoon Network and programming?

Well, I'm actually kind of weird because I'm in the programming department, as well as the commercial department, as well as the development department, so there's not a whole lot of challenges. I mean, I can't think of anything specific, but anytime you're dealing with a whole lot of people in anything that you're working on, especially here at Cartoon Network, or anything you're working on for a major broadcaster, there's always 50 or 60 people for any given project and that's probably one of the big challenges—having so many people you have to communicate with and talk to, and make sure that everyone's on the same page of the project.

What do you typically look for in programs when you make the decision of whether or not you're going to air it?

That process is incredibly complicated. I mean, we'll look at every single aspect of a show. Are you talking about just a straight acquisition, like an existing anime title that's already out there, and what drives that, or are you talking about a program that we might create?

Both, really.

As far as acquisitions go, you look for a show that you think will have some appeal. Generally how it happens is, a show will air in Japan and become something of a hit. Maybe not a hit, but at least gain some notoriety. That's when it will first show up on our radar most of the time. Sometimes we get to the ground floor and we pair in relationships with studios or companies that are producing the shows, and we'll know about them that way. But normally, a show will come out, get some attraction, we'll check in, and we'll sort of hear about it. That's how it'll spark our interest and we'll able to investigate from there. So it's like, once it gets to that point, we'll see, “Is it appropriate? Will it fit on our air? If it'll fit, where will it fit, and will it have something that will complement something else on the lineup?” So there's a million different reasons that can drive that decision. “How many episodes are there, when can we have them?” All those things will sort of factor into it.

I've noticed recently that you guys have really broken into doing more mature kind of shows. Notable recent ones include Paraonia Agent, Samurai Champloo, stuff like that.

Well, most of that stuff is on Adult Swim. What happened was, for three years, Cartoon Network didn't have a franchise really, that catered to adults. Our primary demographic was for young kids 6-11, and then Toonami, which was for a slightly older, more male audience, like 14 year old boys. With the advent of Adult Swim, that gives us another avenue and certainly opens up anime, because so much of the material from Japan is for a slightly more mature audience. You can have shows that tend to be a little more extreme, and oftentimes we couldn't get it in because it was a show that wouldn't work, or we couldn't get it into Toonami because it was too much for a 14 year old. We really had no avenue for it, but now that Adult Swim has come around, we do have that opportunity. That opens up so many shows that we can bring onto Cartoon Network, and that's kind of been the major sort of driving force that's brought some of the more aggressive content onto Cartoon Network. We just had a new place to put it. Before Adult Swim, there was just no home for that kind of stuff. We could either cut it down to five minutes long and put it into Toonami, which didn't really make a lot of sense, or we just couldn't have it on Cartoon Network. But like I said, now that we have Adult Swim, that new adult demographic really opens it up.

So has the approach towards licensing changed any?

It really hasn't changed any except to reflect that new position. We're always out there, we're always looking for new shows, we're always looking for the best shows out there. You know, the sphere was sort of limited until we had a bridge to put more graphic stuff in. So the same people are doing it, we're doing it in the same way... it's just now there's more opportunity because the network itself is changing.

With some of the shows like Fullmetal Alchemist and Naruto, there's going to be some serious bloodshed and impalings and that kind of stuff. How are you planning with dealing with that?

Actually, those shows are not edited by us. Toonami used to do a lot of premiere preparation, but over the years, we've sort of gotten out of that business, so these shows are going to come to us from the distributor. There's going to have to be some sort of editorial that happens with the properties and I know that's going to frustrate a lot of people, but it's kind of the realism of the situation. There's certain things that we just can't do, like a lot of the more graphic violence. With things like sexual content, we're limited in that we can't show too much of it, so the show's definitely going to have to be modified. But we always try to preserve the integrity of the work. But again, you make certain sacrifices to open up the property to a much larger audience. So that's how we deal with it.

When you were airing Case Closed, it got dropped rather quick. Do you think it would have fared better in a different programming slot? It was only being aired at midnight, right?

Yup. I don't know of a place where Case Closed would have done well, where we could have put it, or if it would have done better in a different slot. If you put it somewhere else, then you have to take into account the editorial that has to be put into it, and with that show, it's just tough since the overall tone is adult or adult in nature. He's always trying to solve a murder, or there's some other adult kind of deal. It was just one of those things where we really wanted it to work, we gave it a chance, but it got dropped quickly. It didn't get dropped quickly because so many people were watching it, let's put it that way. As broadcasters, we can only do what we can do. We put it out there and if the show doesn't find an audience, we can't really wait on it too long. Unfortunately, people weren't really coming to Case Closed.

Is there a reason why Adult Swim is being lengthened by 1 hour?

Ehhh, yeah, there probably is, but I have no idea. [laughs] There's all kinds of crazy stuff all the time. Sometimes it's because of the way it's being programmed, sometimes it's because there's blocks being rerun, sometimes there's a bunch of different reasons. I'm not the Adult Swim authority. I can probably find out, but I don't really know off the top of my head. I'm sure they've got a good reason.

On Adult Swim, they have a lot of those cards with the black backgrounds and the white text. Those are excruciatingly popular; do you have any thoughts towards that? Those are some of people's favorite parts of Adult Swim.

[laughs] I've never heard of anything referred to as excruciatingly popular. That's awesome. Are they? I had no idea.

Do you guys really have people who go to all the online forums and pick out some of this content that gets thrown up on the cards? It would seem like such a thankless task.

You know, almost everything in television is a thankless task. There's just a lot of people here who work on those cards, they work on those shows, and we're all into this kind of stuff, so it's not really like someone's task is to search online and try to find something to put in the cards. It's usually someone who will come in and say “hey, did you go see this?” and something will get shot around and end up in the cards. It's not like we have someone tied to the computer. I mean, we've got them tied to the computer, but they're not tied to the computer quite like that. It's not too grueling, but certainly television production isn't really a glamorous production by any means.

How do you think splitting the Adult Swim and Cartoon Network ratings are going to affect things?

Well, that's a big question. It's going to affect all kinds of things in different ways. Primarily, that move was done to give the networks more pure numbers. Usually, when we were reporting all our numbers before, everything was all jumbled up and it was hard to get true information. So now, splitting up those ratings, we can really see exactly how many adults are watching, and that drives ad revenue, rates, and shows, and ratings, and all that kind of stuff. So it's going to have a profound effect on everything, more just from our standpoint. Like, I don't think your average Joe Blow at home who's watching Adult Swim will feel a real change, but for us, it'll come up as having a deeper understanding of who's watching, when they're watching, and why. We'll be able to give more accurate reports to the advertisers who try to advertise on our block and on our network.

Are there any sneak peeks or hints you can give us towards what people can look forward to in the future?

Sneak peeks and hints... There's a lot of stuff going on, not too much I can talk about. The big news that I'm talking about these days is the first Toonami original which we're working on right now. Set to air this fall, it's called IGPX (Immortal Grand Prix). It's a co-production between Toonami and Production IG. It's sort of a giant robot racing show. We're very excited about it, especially now that the first few episodes are in. Toonami Studios is going to be in charge of the organization, so we're directing the English dub. It's not really our first original, but it's the first time we've ever worked with a popular Japanese studio and co-developed something from the ground up. We worked directly with writers, directors, and tried to make a show that the world has never seen before.

Well that's cool.

Yeah, it's very cool. It's definitely exciting. It's a dream come true to work with IG. We have a very great relationship with those guys and we consider ourselves very lucky to be able to do this kind of thing. There's all kinds of things always kind of bubbling and happening, but with television, there's so many things that just never come to fruition that I hate talking about stuff until I actually have a tape in my hands. So unfortunately, I don't have much more news, but Adult Swim is continuing to look at all kinds of other stuff. Certainly anime makes up a large hunk of everything appearing on Adult Swim and they're sort of on a tireless search for all sorts of new things and the next big thing to bring to an anime audience. But Cartoon Network is really, in my opinion, a real mover and shaker as far as this center goes. As soon as you're talking about TV, Cartoon Network is one of the few places where you're really gonna get some of the real stuff, so hopefully people are liking what we've done with anime over the past six or seven years. I think we've kind of revolutionized American television as far as that goes, and hopefully we'll continue to do that.

Is there any competition at all between the anime you show and some of the comedies that Adult Swim puts out, like the Brak Show and Sealab2020?

I would say there's competition. I mean, it's kind of not competition. Well, it's sort of competition. [laughs] It's sort of difficult to explain. The difference is that a lot of the comedy shows that Adult Swim makes, they're actually making it right here. Like, they animate them and they produce them, and many of them they produce right here at Williams Street or Shirley in Atlanta, so it's tough when you can't really have a competition going because we haven't really made shows like that. There is always a sort of a dividing line between comedy people and action people. Generally they are different people. I don't know why that is. I like comedy shows too, but it seems like people who are working or making the comedies really don't like anime, but the people who are working with and making anime aren't really into the comedies I mean, you get some competitions maybe in that sense, but not a real competition.

What direction do you hope Cartoon Network and Toonami will head in?

As far as the network goes, it's on a good direction right now. I want to make sure we stay cool. When I was hired at Cartoon Network, that was sort of my directive. I got hired here, and Lazlo said, “Sean, I want you to make the afternoon cool.” And that's about all he told me. That was sort of the marching order that I was given from the very first day, and that's still sort of what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to make sure that we bring some of the best animated entertainment to people of all ages all over the world, and we're certainly beginning to do that. I think Cartoon Network is a great network. What other network can you watch Tom & Jerry and Fullmetal Alchemist? I mean, that's crazy! We're sort of a crazy network, and I hope we stay crazy. And as far as that direction goes, I'm two thumbs up for crazy, and I think Cartoon Network should hold onto those crazy roots forever. And as far as Toonami goes, again, I think IGPX is a great step forward for us in that direction. We want to continue to be a part of some of the finest stories being told today within our sort of sector and genre, work with some of the most talented creators and animators not only in Japan, but all over the world; to capture the imaginations of anime fans and animation fans both in Japan and in the United States and everywhere else there's Cartoon Networks. That must've sounded all convoluted and crappy and that sort of thing, but all of that's true!

So is IGPX going to be released in Japan at the same time?

You know, it's tough to answer that question. It's going to be released everywhere at the same time. But when you're talking about a global premiere of an anime property, if they all come on this year, that's pretty much all at the same time. It's cool to say “global premiere,” but it really doesn't give us anything as far as a business goes. There's no advantage to having it premiere everywhere, but certainly it's going to premiere in Japan and the United States probably within a month or a couple of weeks within each other, and perhaps the rest of the world within a few weeks or a month after that.

Well it certainly sounds cool. Giant robots racing each other? That's awesome.

It's like giant robot roller derby, is what it's like, and it's the coolest thing of all time. It just takes advantage of the incredible strengths of both studios, both the guys here and sort of our sensibilities, and the almost unmatched talent that Production IG can bring to a project. It's got a little bit of a... sort of Johnny flair and style mixed in with some of the sort of that bulletproof work that IG can do, so it's unlike any show I've ever seen before. It feels like it sits in a really different place. Don't get me wrong, it's still a cartoon and guys are flying giant robots, but the music is just kind of different, and it just sort of shows up in a different place than some anime that you just sort of... you know, something that someone just suddenly puts out. I think it's got a lot more care into it, and that'll pick up fans when we finally get it on TV.

To wrap things up, what's your favorite part of the job?

Well, I hate all of it. No, I'm kidding. You know, I like every part of this job. I've got probably the most amazing job of anyone I've ever spoken to or known. I can't explain to you how I got here, I don't know how all of this happened, I don't know where it's going to go, but it's certainly been a fantastic ride. I've been at Cartoon Network for nine years. I didn't think I'd be here this long, but just one year after another, there's another great opportunity and the opportunity to make more stuff. I just want to make these things. I guess I got stuck when I was like 13 or 14. I'm just endlessly fascinated by cartoons and giant robots and super heroes and guys defeating evil, so I have the opportunity every day to pursue my dreams and make some amazing things happen You get to work with a talented group of people. I've assembled a team here that I think is the one of the best in the world, and all of those things are great.

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