Saturday, March 31, 2018

End of an era: Vanguard leaves Sunday mornings for late-night

On April 8th, 2012, the first episode of Cardfight!! Vanguard Asia Circuit aired on TV Tokyo. It was 10:00 AM on a Sunday morning in Japan, twenty-six hours later than the first season's timeslot. Since that episode aired, Cardfight!! Vanguard has retained its timeslot across seven seasons of animation and nearly six years of continuous broadcast.

Until today.

The final episode of Cardfight!! Vanguard GZ has aired, and with it comes an end to Vanguard's stranglehold on the slot. After the 24th episode closed, the first thing to follow was a TV spot for Kiratto Pri☆chan, which will be taking its place in seven days' time. The next season, which begins May 5th, will be broadcast at ten different times. All but two of them are after 9:00 PM. Its primary slot is 10:00 PM JST Saturdays on Tokyo MX, and its latest slot is 3:00 AM Monday morning on Sun TV. In Japan streaming services have struggled to gain ground, with only around 16% of residents using a subscription streaming service compared to more than 50% overseas. Traditional television broadcasts and video rentals are still thriving, and so the change represents a potentially harmful shake-up for the franchise domestically.

Who is this new slot targeted at? Vanguard has cross-demographic appeal, but while Future Card Buddyfight is Bushiroad's elementary school show, Vanguard is primarily targeted at late middle through high school students. (The biggest clue to this--both Aichi and Chrono began as middle school students that eventually went through the all-important transition to high school.) Perhaps there's a fourteen-year-old working a graveyard shift desk job somewhere there that thinks this new slot is a dream come true. But for the majority of Vanguard's target audience, these are inaccessible air times their parents would never let them tune in to, and it's hard to say if any but hardcore fans will be following this series. The new season's most accessible broadcast time for its traditional audience is Wednesdays at 7:00 PM, taking over from...THE Karaoke★Battle 2018?

North American viewers will probably prefer the change. For those of us in the midwestern United States Asia Circuit was airing in the dead of night at 10:00 PM through the grainy low-quality video playback and lossy audio of Keyhole TV. (This was a dark time, when Bushiroad had chosen to not renew their contract with Crunchyroll as a direct result of how heavily pirated Vanguard was--they sincerely thought no one was watching, and thus it took a good thirteen weeks for fan outcry to change their minds. Remember kids, KissAnime and HorribleSubs almost killed Vanguard.) With the show now moved thirty-six hours forward, we'll be getting "Origin" at a cozy 9:00 AM, as if it were a real Saturday-morning cartoon. Those on the west coast will instead be up at 6:00 AM sharp to catch the new series, or otherwise spend their mornings hiding from their Twitter feed.

All joking aside, the move to 10 at night is concerning. Some have interpreted it as an opportunity to inject the show with "darker" themes, but those hoping for Bushiroad to hand Aichi a gun anytime soon are in for a rude awakening. The more likely explanation is that the series' history of falling ratings and poorly-performing merchandise has hurt its future with TV networks. Of note is that while seasons five, six, and seven of Vanguard were all greenlit long before they went into production, no similar deal has been announced since early 2014. It seems the anime has been renewed season-by-season up to now, and the confidence once placed in the brand is long gone.

Bushiroad has taken the appropriate measures to fight for the franchise's survival, aggressively marketing the upcoming anime through a total takeover of the Yamanote Line, and pushing the rebooted game at major events like Anime Japan 2018, all while promising to focus on their international presence in this year's strategy conference. The new series is set to debut May 5th, with a subbed simulcast appearing on Crunchyroll. For the English-speaking world, the game itself will follow on June 8th.

Come this time next year, where will this new Vanguard be? Will it recapture everyone we lost in Asia Circuit, Link Joker, and G? Will it be found worthy of being called back to its old home--or perhaps become something else entirely?

Time won't tell. We will.