Friday, June 15, 2018

Anime on PBS

It's the twentieth anniversary of "Cowboy Bebop" this year, notable for being the gateway anime series for a lot of American anime fans. It was definitely one of the titles that got me to go full otaku way back in 1999-2000. However, a much bigger influence was the existence of my local PBS station's Sunday science fiction nights, the one of the only places in the U.S. at the time that was showing uncut anime, often subtitled.

KTEH was Silicon Valley's PBS station, based out of San Jose. Starting in the '80s, it showed imported episodes of "Doctor Who," and the station built a geeky evening of genre television around it over the years. "Red Dwarf," "The Prisoner," and "Blake's 7" featured regularly, and I know this was the first place I saw the 1980 version of "The Lathe of Heaven." Under programming director Karen Roberts, KTEH was known for going outside the usual channels to acquire broadcast rights for niche shows that nobody else was interested in. Starting in the mid-'90s, anime started appearing in the lineup, supported by the local otaku community via pledge drives. "Tenchi Muyo" and "Urusei Yatsura!" were some of the early titles.

The programming decisions were often fan driven to a surprising degree. The majority of the anime acquisitions were shown with subtitles because the donors were polled and that's what they wanted. I remember during a pledge drive in 2002, you could vote for which series would be licensed and aired next. I voted for the "Generator Gawl" OAV, but "All Purpose Cultural Catgirl Nuku-Nuku" won. However, there always seemed to be restrictions and complications behind the scenes. The pledge drive hosts would talk about titles that they were trying to get the rights to, but negotiations often fell through. When dubbed anime was shown, it was usually because the American rights holders refused to licensed the subtitled versions. Occasionally we'd only see a few episodes of certain series like "Bubblegum Crisis" make it to air because the rest ended up licensed to a different network.

Still, for a couple of years the 10PM hour on Sunday night on KTEH was reserved for anime. It reminded me of a proto-"Adult Swim" in many ways, because the selections were very eclectic, the scheduling was a little chaotic, and it was never guaranteed what was going to show up there. Some offerings, like the "Ranma ½" movies, were really a stretch to call science-fiction. However, the anime always ran uncut, which was highly unusual for the time. A silly sex comedy with the occasional nudie shot like "Urusei Yatsura" or a violent techno thriller like "Serial Experiments Lain" could air on KTEH without the censoring that most other broadcasters demanded. Only a few premium cable operators like Encore and STARZ were willing to air anything unedited.

Easily the highest profile anime to ever run on KTEH was "Neon Genesis Evangelion," the notorious, controversial 1996 giant robot series that pitted three teenagers in giant robots against the apocalypse. It was bloody, it was traumatic, it was unapologetically for mature audiences, and all twenty-six episodes aired on a succession of Sundays on KTEH starting in March of 2000, completely uncut and subtitled. During the accompanying pledge event, viewers were polled on the correct way to pronounce the title. I don't remember which one won, though I remain a proponent of "EvanJELLYon." The anime fandom circles I was active in at the time were jubilant about KTEH pulling off the deal. However, the American anime ecosystem was already in the middle of drastic changes, and the particular confluence of factors that put anime on PBS were evaporating quickly.

Literally the day after "Neon Genesis Evangelion" had its US premiere on KTEH, "Mobile Suit Gundam Wing" premiered on Cartoon Network's Toonami block and became a massive hit. Suddenly there was fierce competition to license anime for American consumption by both cable and terrestrial networks, and KTEH never really managed to land any titles as large as "Evangelion" in the following years. Instead, we got increasingly obscure things like "Sakura Wars" and "Ruin Explorers" for a while, and then anime quietly disappeared from their schedules after 2003. And then KTEH merged with nearby station KQED in 2006, and that was the end of Sunday science-fiction nights.

I always found it surprising that KTEH's anime broadcasts were largely unknown among most anime fans. But then, KTEH didn't have an especially large audience, and most of the shows it aired remain pretty niche. Today's anime fans tend to skew younger and less nerdy. Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" carries on where KTEH's Sunday science-fiction night left off, though, and they even showed all of "Evangelion" uncut in 2005 and 2006. It aired on PBS first though, five years earlier and with its credit sequences intact.

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