The Power of Visibility

Since I’ve liberally invoked Harry Potter’s business model, I should probably point out an excellent example of the power of visibility from my experiences studying the market for anime generally and Sailor Moon in particular. This applies to every market from children’s books to political thrillers, but it is most apparent in our school-age markets because it combines all the things we’ve just learned into a very powerful practical history lesson.

When I was working for DIC Entertainment as a marketing consultant, one of my key responsibilities was projecting and/or tracking the success or failure of various initiatives for the English-language adaptation of the series. Sailor Moon premiered in syndication through a distributor called The Program Exchange. It debuted in 1995, before Pokemon and before many of the more successful anime series had an opportunity to build their own audiences.

One of the interesting conditions that led to Sailor Moon’s ultimate success was the fact the original Japanese animated series already had a large and growing fan base in the United States even before the show was adapted for the U.S. market. The manga also had a readership, even though it was necessary for some of the books to be translated digitally and distributed to fans without authorization by Kodansha, Bandai or Toei. Some episodes of the show were subtitled by other organizations, also without permission. This only served to increase the demand up to the point where the original syndication package was released by DIC.

While the relationship between the “subs” (fans who preferred the Japanese version) and the “dubs” (fans who preferred the DIC adaptation) is probably best left a subject further studied in my book, the fact is Sailor Moon’s syndication deal is a conclusive example of what happens when a commercial product has limited to no visibility. The key problem with the DIC version of the show in 1995 was that syndication left scheduling up to individual television stations. Sailor Moon wasn’t on a network in the U.S., so episodes could be (and were) scheduled at what could be generously called “haphazard” times. Many fans complained they had to set their alarms for the dark and early hours to keep up, as their favorite show was on at 5AM or some other unpopular hour.

Remember this was a billion-dollar property with tremendous success in Japan, Hong Kong, Italy, France and Spain. The risk of the show producing sub-par ratings was minimal, especially considering the already established fan base and their widespread and growing activity online. Nevertheless, because the show wasn’t visible to its key audience, it struggled to the point of near failure for the two years between 1995 and 1997.

A number-one property was driven to the brink of total failure because nobody could find it. It was invisible. Recall Shane’s Laws of Bookselling. If your book is invisible it will not sell. If your book doesn’t sell, it’s because it is invisible. If your internationally-famous legendary animated television series is invisible it won’t sell either.

But then something happened.

Because of changes in the U.S. broadcast markets in the mid-1990s, new shows were having much better success when they were on network television. In Canada, for example, Sailor Moon was on YTV, which was a nationwide network. Here in the U.S., the show eventually found its way to Cartoon Network, and became the 4PM anchor series in a block of programming called Toonami.

Within three years, the series had expanded to four seasons and saw its ratings triple. It had a #1 movie on Amazon, and it helped kick off an anime revolution that is still influencing home video, streaming, interactive, merchandising, television and American culture more than 20 years later.

Consider this for a moment. There was no difference between the show that failed in syndication and the show that helped turn Cartoon Network into the #1 cable channel in America. It was exactly the same product. What changed?

When Sailor Moon was on Cartoon Network at 4PM weekdays for two years, it became visible. That made it possible for DIC’s series to make history, help kick off the $4.3 billion dollar anime industry and help vault Pokemon into a market worth 11 figures.

When Sailor Moon was in syndication and being scheduled at five in the morning, it was invisible and it accomplished nothing except to upset its fans and drift to the brink of total disaster.

That, my fellow authors, is the power of visibility.

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