Adult Swim: Mass culture or revolutionary?

It’s impressive to see how far the producers of Adult Swim shows have pushed the limits of the dark humor they have incorporated in their television programs. Adult Swim places their cross-hairs directly on the minds of millennials by creating content that is relevant and consistently entertaining in the eyes of young adults. They often feature examples of cartoon nudity, excessive violence and crude humor based on sex and drug use.

Adult Swim programs are written and produced by people in their mid twenties to early thirties for young adults in the same age group. Much of their content is censored and rated at TV-14 or TV-MA due to the explicit nature of their programs. The shows featured on the network tend to display edgy, often borderline vulgar humor that may be considered offensive to more conservative viewers and children. Adult swim shows like Black Jesus, Rick and Morty and Robot Chicken share these characteristics.

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Up until the turn of the century, TV was relatively tame and predictable. Police dramas and TV-14 shows like The Simpsons were some of the few shows that had content that may have been unsuitable for children. That all changed in 2001 when Adult Swim came into existence. Up until this point, most unfiltered, crude violence and language was reserved for movies and DVD. Adult Swim’s parent company, Turner Broadcasting System, wanted Adult Swim shows to appeal to college-aged viewers. They subsequently sent representatives to 30 universities across the United States to promote the young adult television network.

Adult Swim used to air at night immediately after Cartoon Network ended. I remember watching Cartoon Network as a seven to ten-year old boy until around 10PM. Being naive and very young at the time, the humor of Aqua Teen Hunger Force made no sense to me whatsoever. This cartoon stuck out like a sore thumb compared to the rest of the cartoons I was watching at the time. There were no cute characters that taught children morals and values. There were three anthropomorphic articles of food that led normal human lives while swearing constantly and using phrases like “I have banged hundreds of broads.”

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This new wave of adult cartoons Adult Swim brought to the mass audience ties directly into Post-modernism and Banet-Weiser’s chapter on branding strategy. It’s no surprise that all the shows on Adult Swim share the same Family Guy-type of humor as the branding team at Adult Swim obviously wanted to find a way to target a specific type of audience.

The brand doesn’t need much to draw their viewers in Nickelodeon did. Most viewers are either teenagers or adults with time to spare at the end of a long workday or school day. The humor is dry and comprehensive enough for most people to consume it as mass culture, yet is polarizing enough to be in it’s own niche. Adult Swim has essentially its own Nickelodeon effect and brands itself as one of the best late night television shows to watch by keeping their time-frames late at night.

Banet-Weiser’s article, The Nickelodeon Brand: Buying and Selling the Audience, touches on niche markets, specifically about children. “These developments include the emergence of the cable industry, the subsequent development of niche networks, and the progressively more formidable presence of the children’s market in the media economy.” (Banet-Weiser p. 71).

This is the biggest similarity the Nickelodeon brand shares with Adult Swim. They both target a very specific age demographic in order to generate revenue and retain viewership. 60-year-old grandparents would not want to watch Ricky and Morty every day just like 23-year-old grad students couldn’t actively consume Nickelodeon shows on a daily basis.

Adult Swim also exhibits postmodern ideologies. It was very uncommon to see these types of shows air on television prior to the 1990s. Adult Swim has taken ideas from classic late night tv shows like The Simpsons and injected it with steroids. An excerpt from the Vulture.com article Stoner Week: How Adult Swim Conquered Late-Night TV says,“Despite only programming from 8 p.m until around 6 a.m., Adult Swim ended the first quarter of 2015 as cable’s No. 1 network among adult viewers under 34”.

That says all we need to know. Most television prior to the 80s and 90s was family friendly and heavily censored to accommodate most middle class Americans when the television entered the mass market. When I think of television in the United States prior to the turn of the century, I think of every person using a Mid-Atlantic accent while listening to a ham radio. To have an entire 10 hours dedicated to cartoons and TV shows filled with dirty jokes is postmodern. It’s a concept that would be completely unheard of in 1988 or before.

Reference List

Banet-Weiser, S. (2007). The Nickelodeon Brand: Buying and Selling the Audience    Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship. Duke University Press.

Adalian, J. (2015, June 2). Stoner Week: How Adult Swim Conquered Late-Night TV.        Retrieved November 30, 2016, from http://www.vulture.com/2015/07/stoner-week-how-adult-swim-conquered-late-night.html

Anderson, J. (2015, Dec. 16)Adult Swim Reigns For 11th Straight Year As The #1 Destination With Young Adults | Retrieved November 30, 2016, from http://www.turner.com/pressroom/adult-swim-reigns-11th-straight-year-1-destination-young-adults

Carter, B. (2014,Feb. 4). Adult Swim, No. 1 With Younger Adults, Is Expanding.       Retrieved November 30, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/04/business/media/adult-swim-no-1-with-younger-adults-is-expanding.html?_r=0

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