It’s been a dreadful summer for creative teams in the animation industry: not long ago Disney dropped the ball and leaked an episode of Gravity Falls on the UK iTunes (not even the next episode due to air, but the one after that) when the show was finally on the verge of coming back from a five month hiatus, and this past week the first two episodes of Rick and Morty season two found their way onto the internet.
And while I’ve seen a fair amount of justification along the lines of “well it’s out there now, just live with it” there are still a hell of a lot of issues, creative and financial, that we need to discuss here. Because whatever else might be true, this is an awful thing. First off, it’s obvious a losing proposition to assume that everyone, on their honor, will just go ahead and not look at the content that’s been made available to a fandom that just spent almost two years on hiatus. But the knowledge that people will seek out this content doesn’t negate the responsibility and the criticism that goes along with that. So, what’s the big deal?
Let’s start with financial, since capitalism walks and all that jazz. Rick and Morty, truthfully, isn’t in as dire straits as some shows – this isn’t Hannibal, where cripplingly low ratings for the season 3 premiere got the show cancelled before three episodes were even out.
The first season of R&M enjoyed ratings comparable to returning staples of Adult Swim’s lineup (Superjail, Venture Bros), averaging about 1.5 million viewers and episode and topping two million for the season finale. For comparison, that puts it somewhat below fellow AS newcomer Black Jesus (which ran more in the more consistent range of 1.5 to 2 million an episode) but well within bounds for successful renewal (most shows of R&M’s loose subgenre – flat, simple visuals with disturbing visuals and mid to extremely dark humor – have to dip below one million an episode before they risk the axe).
Even better, the newly minted run of comics has thusfar managed to sell out the physical printings on its first two issues. If nothing else, that seems to show that the series’ fans are (likely due to an older demographic) somewhat better at putting their money where their mouth is (certainly better than poor Gravity Falls, which has very little merch to buy in the first place).
All of that puts the show in a better position than many of its ilk, downgrading the tone of this essay from “doomsday clock” to “c’mon,” but just about every one of them has a flip side as well. The nature of Adult Swim as a network does allow it to run more cult TV shows and to get by with lower than average ratings (once again for comparison, dipping below 1.5 million has been quite a worry for Steven Universe fans). It also allows for more creative freedom, since the relationship between AS and its shows is more in the nature of buyer and independent contractor than a studio system – but that also means less protection for a show when something like this leak happens.
Unlike Gravity Falls, who had the might of Disney to get the leaked videos and screencaps taken down quickly after they surfaced, the R&M team is pretty well fucked for help from the higher ups (reflected in crew-mod reactions over on Reddit, which are a sort of resigned “look just don’t post it here” stances).
And while strong initial ratings are a good cushion for the show, insuring that it’ll likely coast through an isolated incident, that’s by no means an indication that viewers get to stop worrying about ratings. It’s been evidenced for years now that traditional corporations embrace new media only enough to try and warp it into the images of previous business models; in this case, that means that while R&M is streamed in multiple places (on Adult Swim’s website and more recently on Hulu) the continuance of the show is built upon the observance of very specific, controlled metrics that still stem mainly back to the television (the amount of excitement with which people discuss those leaked episodes online, no matter how visibly, doesn’t count for shit in this regard).
The streaming and television model, as well as the fairly limited run of physical goods like the Blurays and printed comics, also puts the series in unique territory as far as the usual arguments for piracy are concerned – most prominently, the (true) “piracy is not a lost sale, because they’d have never bought the thing in the first place” doesn’t apply when there isn’t a paygate to get base access to the content (and AS’s site is region free, so that’s out too). Supporting the financial model of physical goods is a help, yes, but there’s a certain amount of playing the game still to be done as far as the initial airings to get those goods in the first place.
Two episodes out of ten is a fifth of the season’s total runtime, and while the most hardcore fans (the same who will buy those goods) will doubtlessly watch the actual premiere, there’s a knock-on effect that siphons off less dedicated viewers who just watched the leaks and called it a day, their pent-up enthusiasm used up without the follow-up to seek out the network airings until much later (if at all). And finally, successful leaks encourage others to attempt to repeat the stunt for the sake of attention or site hits, perpetuating a one-time manageable problem into a more dangerous bleed.
At the end of the day R&M is a very small, new cult show (that likely made it to air at all solely on the enormous previous success of Harmon’s work on Community), that has been smart enough in manufacturing limited supply to create its own brand of success. And that small, specially defined success is not an invitation to read the series as a super-hit that “won’t notice” the impact of pirated content.
The second issue is a lot more bleeding heart, I suppose, and I’ve seen it dismissed more often than not. But it remains true nonetheless: watching and spreading leaks of content like this one are disrespectful to the creators. Whether the available episodes are finalized versions or would still be owed a few tweaks, one of the tradeoffs in the creator/viewer relationship is the power of the creator to choose how their art is presented.
We take it in, we give criticism or praise and engage in the collaborative effort of fan culture, but that initial moment is the creator’s (especially with TV shows, where the creative team is no doubt making a hell of a lot of concessions already). The blood and time they pour into their work is a precious thing, and once they put their work out into the world they’re letting it go with the trust that people will take it in and enjoy it.
To take one step further and wrest it from their grasp is a violation of the trust between creator and fan, part and parcel of conceptualizing the artist as vending machine rather than fellow human. It is the difference, if you will, between working a bag of Doritos out of an inanimate object and breaking into someone’s house and stealing your half-finished Christmas present. Art is commodified enough already. We don’t need to help. And for fuck’s sake, can you imagine Roiland’s face after over a year of pouring his soul into this thing?
Love is a powerful thing, especially for younger folk, and there are definitely times when impatience gets the better of us. But it’s worth examining the bigger picture, especially when this is a new series dependent on visible support rather than a never-to-be-localized film or out of print series. So no, you are not human monsters if you got caught up in your excitement and watched the new episodes.
I mean, unless you’re perpetuating download or streaming links to the link. In which case, may all your meals over the next year taste of rancid anal seepage and corpse mold. But, y’know, most of you. Probably still human beings.