Sym-bionic Titan: Why Merchandising and Quality Animation Don’t Mix

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Sym-bionic Titan is an American animated series that was unfortunately cancelled before it even had a chance to establish itself. Created by the legendary Genndy Tartakovsky, who is also responsible for the creation and production of Dexter’s Laboratory  and Samurai Jack, Sym-bionic Titan was extremely promising. But because it only lived through a short 20-episode run, it wasn’t able to establish a strong enough fan base to successfully protest against its cancellation.

 

The series centers a princess (Ilana) and her two guardians (Lance and Octus) who witness the hostile takeover of their home planet, so flee to Earth for the sake of keeping Ilana’s safe. Because they are being hunted by antagonists from their home planet, they decide to hide in plain sight by posing as a human family. What drives the series’ premise is that the protagonists are borne warriors who can summon high-tech and self-aware battle suits to defend themselves against the other interplanetary beings who are ordered to terminate them. However, it doesn’t take long before Ilana, Lance, and Octus are tracked down and attacked. And after fighting as individual units, they soon realize that they can merge into one large “titan” that resembles Transformer-like gundam commonly seen in Japanese anime.

 

The series premiered on Cartoon Network and continued to air on it’s Adult Swim segment, the home of animated series that are targeted at older audience members broadcasted alongside shows like Rick & Morty and Bob’s Burgers. So naturally, it’s audience mostly consisted of teenagers and young adults. What’s great about Sym-bionic Titan is that it is character-driven above all else. The three protagonists are forced into their current dynamic during the start of the series, so we as the audience get to know them as they get to know each other; a connection that mirrors Star and Marco’s initial relationship in Star vs. the Forces of Evil, however Ilana, Lance, and Octus’ dynamic is much more complicated.

 

Let’s review what we know about the series so far:

  • It was led by an amazing and well-established storyteller.
  • It provides its audience with character-driven stories that focuses on building the dynamic of the three protagonists.
  • It has a unique and engaging premise that represents a hybrid between American animation and Japanese anime.
  • It was given the boot after a single season.

 

But why would such a promising series created by a well-established storyteller be cancelled after only barely being given a chance to shine? Similar to Young JusticeSym-bionic Titan was given the “no merchandise = no new seasons” treatment. Yes, a program that made its way onto Adult Swim was cancelled on the premise of not being able to secure a merchandising contract. Let’s look at this statement closely:

 

high-quality, narrative-focused animated series aimed at an older audience was cancelled because it couldn’t get its hands on a toy-manufacturing deal. It’s no wonder the series’ executives weren’t able to get a toy company on board with the series. Even manufacturing companies know that toys don’t sell to older audiences very well. And as much as I appreciate fans of all ages collecting toys and action figures based on their favorite content, the number of teenagers and young adults purchasing these products, unless buying them for little nieces and nephews, is limited. Yet executives decided to place the series’ success benchmark in merchandise sales, before even securing a contract to create and distribute these products.

Before I continue, let me just say that I obviously did not sit in during the network’s board meetings. My information is based on articles that tell a consistent story. Who knows? Maybe the cancellation of the series was a result of a scandal or some kind of conspiracy. However, I can confidently say that based on the information floating around in cyberspace (since we all know that everything posted online is true . . .), the series’ cancellation was rooted in a toy contract that failed to materialize.

 

And on top of this frustrating blow, rather than silently dropping series while allowing it to see the light of its former unreached glory through reruns, Sym-bionic Titan was financially and legally “written off”. In other words, it was treated as a wasted expense so that Cartoon Network could reduce the amount of taxable income they made that fiscal year. When a television series is written off as an expense, the chances of it being picked up again is almost non-existent:

Well it’s a bit complicated, technically neither Turner (CN, Toonami, Adult Swim) or ANY
OTHER group can air SBT on T.V., however, from my understanding the rights of the show are kind of floating around when this happens. So by that logic someone could snatch them-up if they want to, however, they are useless to most TV content providers. If someone does end up picking it up, they can then theoretically release content that is not aired on TV, like a DVD/Blu-Ray box set, art, comics, etc… so long as it is not on T.V. the show could also be picked-up outside of the country by this logic since U.S. does not equal international law. [Read full article here].

 

Basically, the chances of a revival are slim to none; and seeing that the petition for the series’ revival has under 3000 signatures, even if it wasn’t written off, it wouldn’t stand much of a chance of seeing the light of day.

Think about it, the pilot series Infinity Train has just under 30 000 signatures on a petition for it to be greenlit by Cartoon Network, but even its full production has yet to be confirmed (although its numbers look very promising). Still, financially and legally stating that the series was a wasted expense means that almost all hope of it being renewed for a second season is squashed.

 

As mentioned in a previous post, series containing high-quality narratives don’t mix very well with heavy merchandising:

Based on many comments and observations, mild merchandising seems to be requested by most fandoms, but not nearly to the point where it influences the story, just enough to give viewers a tangible object to hold onto for the intangible content that they’re passionate about. Paraphrasing what Stuff with Scout Fly mentioned in his video [now deleted] against the animated series Teen Titans GO!, merchandising should never lead a media text. Rather, the development of television series should be based solely on intricate storytelling, and spin-off products should only follow if their demand is present (in tasteful formats and numbers, of course).

 

The problem is, when a series focuses on heavy branding, telling deep, engaging, and progressive stories becomes and afterthought. The reason behind this is that long and convoluted plots that bleed into each episode distracts the viewer from branding attempts, and vice versa. So if the goal of a series’ production is to sell associated merchandise, then formulaic and self-contained episodes are the way to go. In other words, shallow series root from shallow motivations, and Sym-bionic Titan is the furthest thing from shallow.

 

Luckily, Tartakovsky was given another chance at concluding Samurai Jack with a fifth season, over a decade after it was cancelled. But better late than never, right? Who knows, his reestablished relationship with Cartoon Network might lead to another promising series after Samurai Jack’s finale. Let’s just hope that his next project is given realistic success measures and gets a fair shot at establishing itself in the world of animated storytelling.

 

 

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