Licensing of the Monsters: How Pokémon Ignited An Anime Arms Race

Two Saturday morning lineups fought for monster dominance

header

 

"Hey, what do ya' got there? A rabbit?" Batman asks his mentor, staring at a video of Pikachu on a massive underground computer screen.

 

"It's a Pokémon," Bruce Wayne replies.

 

Five seconds later, Batman is shocked so hard by the tiny yellow creature that he ends up flying headfirst through another computer monitor (Using a clip from the "Blackout" episode of Batman Beyond, an episode that would've aired for the first time just days earlier.) It doesn't make much physical sense, but this bizarre 1999 crossover promo did establish two things: 1) Pokémon was coming to Kids' WB, and 2) Pokémon was important. So important that Batman actually took time away from obsessing over crime and vengeance to care about it.

 

Echoing a 1997 promo where the comedic Bugs Bunny let us in on the "secret" that the serious, dark Batman was coming to Kids' WB, it almost seems like a passing of the torch. Kids' WB, up until then, was a programming service chock full of classic Warner Bros. cartoon properties like Bugs, Daffy, Pinky, Brain, and various members of the Justice League — all animated Americana. 


Pokémon wasn't a huge risk as the 4Kids Entertainment dub of the show had done well in broadcast syndication, they had plenty of episodes to work with (sometimes airing three in a row), and it was based on a game series that was already a worldwide smash hit.

 

But the show was ... different.

 

And it would end up changing cartoons as we knew them.

 

Part 1: Batman Jumps Ship

 

It's hard to think of a better scenario when it comes to appealing to kids than the one Fox Kids had with Batman: The Animated Series. Debuting in September 1992 and airing on weekdays just after school let out, it received immediate acclaim due to its moody, beautiful animation and storytelling that didn't talk down to anyone. Little kids could get into Batman throwing crooks around and adults could marvel at plots like the one where a former child actress with a medical condition that keeps her from aging takes her former co-stars hostage and ends up holding a gun, hallucinating, and sobbing into Batman's arms.

 

It did so well that Fox tried to air it on prime-time Sundays and though this was short-lived — turns out, Batman was no match for Ed Bradley on CBS's 60 Minutes — it solidified the show as "cool." This was a show that could hang with the big boys. You couldn't say the same of something like Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.

 

And then, in 1997, it was gone. A five-year contract ran out and Batman leapt completely to Kids' WB, where a continuation of the show (the often even grimmer The New Batman Adventures) aired later that year. There, it joined Superman: The Animated Series in a one-two punch of programming called The New Batman/Superman Adventures. When it came to Kids' WB, competitors not only had to deal with the Merry Melodies crowd, they now had to face the World's Finest Heroes.

 

This, along with a departing Animaniacs, left Fox Kids with a gap in flagship programming. Sure it had various incarnations of the Power Rangers (which was still holding strong) and Spider-Man, but if you look back on 1998 programming, little of it would survive the year. Silver Surfer? Gone by May. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation? Out by December. Casper? Dead in October. By May of 1999, Warner Media would announce record ratings thanks to Pokémon, while its competitors, including the Disney-led ABC, Fox, and even Nickelodeon, would suffer losses in the Saturday morning area. Pokemon would have the best ever series premiere numbers for Kids' WB at the time.

 

Ash and Pikachu

 

A chunk of that has to do with 4Kids Entertainment's (or to be more specific, 4Kids Productions) handling of the show. Again, Pokémon was a proven concept. If you love monsters, adventure, and collecting things, you'll probably find something to enjoy in the franchise. But the dub was particularly strong. For years, dubbing was seen as an inherently laughable thing in America, full of exasperated voice actors trying desperately to convince you that they weren't portraying three different characters, and lips that didn't match the dialogue. Entire Japanese series were reduced to laughing stocks in the U.S. because why focus on the lovingly created miniatures and top-notch tokusatsu action in Godzilla if one of the actors sounds weird?

 

But while Pokémon wasn't the first great dub, it was a remarkably underrated one. Veronica Taylor's work as Ash Ketchum was relatable, funny, and consistent. And Racheal Lillis, Eric Stuart, and Maddie Blaustein's turns as Team Rocket's Jessie, James, and Meowth gave us villains that could've easily been the most repetitive parts of the show  — you can only try to capture Pikachu so many times before you should logically find a second hobby — but instead were one of the most entertaining aspects.

 

Aside from some easily meme-able bits — Brock's drying pan and jelly donuts, for example — Pokemon became a seamless addition to the Kids' WB lineup and would end up giving many fans a lifelong love of anime. And it was great for 4Kids, too, as in 2000, they would be number one on Fortune's 100 Fastest-Growing Companies.

 

Fox Kids wanted an answer to this. And it would soon find one.

 

Well, two.

 

Part 2: Monsters Rule

 

Saban Entertainment was no stranger to Fox Kids. They'd been the one to adapt Toei's Super Sentai into The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers for American and international audiences, creating an unexpected sensation that combined monsters and martial arts. And in 1999, they nabbed Digimon Adventure, a series about kids that gain "digital" monster partners when transported to a "digital world," which had begun airing earlier that year in Japan. Based on a fighting virtual pet that had already been around for a few years, Digimon was a natural fit for an anime series and also a natural fit for a climate that was desperately trying to find the next Pokémon.

 

Renamed Digimon: Digital Monsters, it premiered in August of 1999. Of course, accusations followed that it was a Pokémon rip-off, considering that they were both about befriending terrifying laser critters, but they offered fairly different things. While Pokémon was more episodic, Digimon gave viewers a more Dragon Ball Z-esque experience (they were both Toei productions, too) with the titular monsters evolving and gaining "power-ups" due to fighting increasingly powerful villains.

 

Almost two months later, Monster Rancher would join the Fox Kids lineup, airing on Saturdays at 8:30 AM after Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century (a Fox Kids lost relic if there ever was one). Together, Monster Rancher and Digimon would cover the programming block with monster action, sometimes airing twice each. Meanwhile, Pokémon would do the same for Kids' WB, and if you look at their Saturday morning schedules from 1999 and 2000, it appears they just shoved Pikachu in whenever possible.

 

Looking back on Monster Rancher is always odd, though, because it's so specifically trapped in the time period where it originated. The video games used metadata from readable discs to create new monsters for the player, meaning that as soon as people gained the ability to download or stream media online without having to travel to their local Circuit City, the game would look absolutely archaic in comparison to its peers.

 

Monster Rancher is a very fun show based on some very fun games, and the dynamic array of personalities and their particular squabbles in the core group actually reminds me a lot of One Piece. But even the show itself deals with reviving monsters on giant stone discs — a prehistoric-looking adaptation of a video game gimmick that would, a decade later, appear prehistoric itself.

 

The Monster War was waged across 2000 and 2001. And though it appears Pokémon was the clear winner — in 2020, it's the most popular franchise with the widest reach, even if Digimon does produce some stellar shows and movies — the ratings tell a different story. In the May sweeps of 2000, Pokémon (and Kids' WB) took the prize among kids 6-11, but in the end, Fox Kids would score a victory of a 3.1 rating to Kids' WB's 3.0 (the first sweeps win since 1997, the year that Batman left.)

 

Digimon

 

Early the following year, Fox Kids would score again, narrowly beating Pokémon on Saturday morning in the same timeslot and even coming ahead of properties like X-Men. And what would propel this February 10th victory? The first appearance of BlackWarGreymon, the Shadow the Hedgehog to WarGreymon's Sonic.

 

However, Pokémon would still help create ratings records for Kids' WB, even though late 2000/early 2001 saw a slide that would often cede dominance to Nickelodeon. Jed Patrick, who was president of The WB at the time said: "I didn't think Pokémon would fall off as much as it did ... every fire cools down a little, but that doesn't mean it doesn't stay hot."

 

Even though, in retrospect, claims that "Pokemania" had died seem a little ridiculous — the latest games, Pokémon Sword and Shield, just became the highest-selling entries in seventeen years — big changes were ahead.

 

Part 3: It's Time To Duel ... Or Not

 

In early 2001, Joel Andryc, executive VP of kids' programming and development for Fox Kids, was looking for a "Digimon companion series to create an hour-long anime block." He felt they were too reliant on Digimon, as they were airing it three times in a single morning. Likely not coincidentally, that summer Fox Kids Fridays were dubbed "anime invasion," advertising Flint The Time Detective, Dinozaurs, Escaflowne, and Digimon. In one commercial, a single quote zips across the bottom of the screen: "Anime Rocks!" Nicole, TX

 

That it does, Nicole from Texas.

 

Meanwhile, 4Kids Entertainment would provide Kids' WB with another monster show: Yu-Gi-Oh! Known as Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters in Japan, this anime adaptation absconded from retelling the stories found in the early chapters of the manga — which were mostly devoted to Yugi running into jerks, only to have his Egyptian spirit "alter ego" deal karmic retribution on them — and instead focused on the parts that involved the cool monster fights. So basically the parts that were the most like Pokémon.

 

But how would this be received? In 2000, Canadian studio Nelvana had licensed the anime Cardcaptor Sakura and turned it simply into Cardcaptors — an extremely edited version that removed many important relationships and plotlines and tried to streamline the show into a pseudo-Pokémon story. It's gone down in history as one of the most questionable dubs ever, and never really made a splash on Kids' WB. So they wouldn't want a repeat of that.

 

But would kids be into a card game? The cards did summon monsters, but in Pokémon and Digimon, the monsters are just there, moving around and not relegated to a glorified checkers board arena. It turned out, yes, kids would be REALLY into that. Yu-Gi-Oh! debuted at number one in multiple demographics in September 2001, and would remain a steady part of its lineup for years to come.

 

Yu-Gi-Oh!

 

And how did Fox Kids respond? Did the "anime invasion" work out? Well, sort of, but not in the way they were hoping.

 

In 2001, due to diminishing ratings and audiences, Fox Kids Worldwide (along with Fox Family Worldwide) were sold to The Walt Disney Company. By November 7th, they'd canceled their weekly afternoon blocks, and the next year, they'd end up selling their entire Saturday morning block to a company that had provided their rivals with the very same TV shows that aided in sinking them: 4Kids Entertainment. The final show to premiere on the original Fox Kids was Galidor: Defenders of the Outer Dimension, a live action series that stood beside Alienators: Evolution Continues (a cartoon sequel to the mediocre 2001 comedy Evolution) and the underrated Medabots as the block's last gasp. 

 

Renamed FoxBox in late 2002 (and later 4KidsTV in 2005), the 4Kids run schedule would, over the years, include anime like Kirby! Right Back At Ya!, Ultimate Muscle, Fighting Foodons, Sonic X, Shaman King, and eventually, in 2004, the infamous One Piece dub. The first Saturday of the new FoxBox lineup would also outdo the previous Saturday's Fox Kids lineup. Disney would acquire the rights to Digimon and it showed up on ABC Family in late 2001 (eighteen years later, a reboot of the original series would air, which can be watched on Crunchyroll).

 

Eventually, in 2007, the Monster War would come full circle. 4Kids Entertainment announced they would be taking over the Kids' WB Saturday morning block entirely, renaming it the "CW4KIDS," as The CW had been born after UPN and The WB had ceased to be. Pokémon was long gone by this point, having been dropped by Kids' WB in 2006, and was now overseen by The Pokémon Company International on Cartoon Network.

 

"We wish Pokémon USA much success going forward," the CEO of 4Kids Entertainment said. Later sued over "illegal agreements" regarding the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise, the company would eventually file for bankruptcy in 2016. Pokémon Journeys, the latest installment in the franchise, launches on Netflix on June 12th. 

 

banner

 


 

Daniel Dockery is a Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. Follow him on Twitter!

 

Do you love writing? Do you love anime? If you have an idea for a features story, pitch it to Crunchyroll Features!

Other Top News

26 Comments
Sort by:
Hime banner

Try The NEW CrunchyrollBeta

check it out