Op/Ed: ‘The Legend Of Korra’ Showcases Online Storytelling

Nickelodeon's 'The Legend of Korra' transitioned to an online-only format this season.

Nickelodeon’s ‘The Legend of Korra’ transitioned to an online-only format this season. (Nickelodeon)

OPINION

by Wes Smith

When Nickelodeon announced this season that The Legend of Korra would be moving to an online-only format, fans of the show feared the worst.

The news came right in the thick of San Diego Comic Con, where Korra held a panel in Ballroom 20. Creators Brian Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino reassured a packed audience that the show was not cancelled, and the change would not affect the storytelling efforts of the creative team.

Looking back, the move should not have come as much of a surprise. The animated sequel to the hit ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender,” started with strong hype and viewership in 2012. However, as the show reached its third season, traditional television viewership had fallen from the first season 3.5 million viewers to a 1.5 million-viewer opening for this year’s premiere.

Other struggles also kept Korra astray, from a massive flop of the Last Airbender film by M. Night Shyamalan to a leak of several episodes prior to Book Three airing. Nickelodeon decided to air this season shortly after the first announcements and trailers went up, giving fans little time to build anticipation. By SDCC, it was already sent to the digital realm.

Some fans have worried about the move, claiming that it could mean the death of the show, that Nickelodeon has lost faith in Korra, and that the original four-season plan would be scrapped. However, I believe that, if anything, Nick has been extremely forward-thinking in handling the future of its content.

“By the time we got to Book Two, the numbers for digital streaming greatly outweighed what was happening on the channel,” explained Konietzko during the SDCC panel.

It’s a phrase that more and more networks are coming to terms with when dealing with their content. As technology advances, the industry is struggling to understand how to grow and adapt to a viewership that is increasingly unfamiliar of what the world was like without cellphones and broadband internet. The advent of tablets, Hulu, and Roku devices have changed the game in ways that the entertainment industry is still learning to monetize.

Often times, the entertainment industry is seen as being a villain against the internet and new devices. In some case, that view can be justified. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court decided for the companies in American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. v. Aereo, Inc. in which a company was utilizing individual antennas to retransmit over-the-air broadcast signals to subscribers via the internet.

In Korra‘s, case, however, Nickelodeon has opened itself and opportunity to come out ahead of the game and, indeed, that could have been their plan all along. The lines of audiences have blurred to the point where online-streaming accepts two demographics at once: “nerd culture” adults who are finding entertainment in animated series and the younger audiences seeking the more mature fare than the last generation had ala The Hunger Games.

“It’s no secret that Avatar, and especially Korra, aren’t typical Nickelodeon fare. So, they’ve had a hard time trying to fit it into their programming,” continues Konietzko.

“The Book Two finale… the numbers were insane when they streamed it. When it went on Nick.com, it was the biggest streaming event they’d had all year.”

It’s true that The Legend of Korra hardly fits in with the current Nickelodeon demographic. The show features political undertones, themes on complex relationships, and, especially in the case of this year’s finale, isn’t afraid to kill off characters via somewhat unsettling (for Nickelodeon, anyway) methods.

Essentially, it’s a show made and branded for people that grew up on the 90’s Nickelodeon, a demographic which, unsurprisingly, is among the highest users of online content.

Viacom may not want to put Korra right next to its Spongebob cash-cow for obvious reasons. By putting it online and testing the waters for online content, it has put itself in the ever-growing ring of producers looking to create content just for streaming audiences.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Arrested Development was purchased by Netflix and arguably started the shift towards streaming-only content. Now, it is a standard practice that garners awards nominations right beside traditional viewership. House of Cards, anyone? Orange is the New Black ringing any bells? How about that Community revival?

And the industry is taking notice on more than just awards. Last year, the Nielsen Ratings, the Holy Bible of television indexes, added online viewership among its official records after many services were keeping their own tabs for years. Additionally, while actual television sets are still the landslide favorite (albeit aided by app-launching devices like Roku and Playstations), Nielsen has already estimated smartphone viewership to be close to 100 million in Q4 2013.

What makes Korra unique is that it is the first potentially blockbuster animated show that owes its success to the same kind of viewers that subscribe to several streaming services instead of paying for a traditional cable package. The “cord-cutting” demo is right up Korra‘s alley.

If Nickelodeon is willing to take advantage of Korra‘s online viewership, it could find a way to not only create content for several demographics, but also monetize each of them, as well. In much the same vein as popular apps Crunchyroll or Hulu, it could begin offering exclusive series for a nominal monthly fee or via licensing with fellow streaming services. For example, Hulu has already locked down Sailor Moon Crystal, another massively popular animated franchise, to have an edge over its competitors for the “New Adult” category of entertainment.

Perhaps Nickelodeon really is banishing The Legend of Korra and future incarnations of the Avatar universe into the mire of forgotten television. However, given the brand’s popularity online and among streaming viewers, it’s difficult to think a company that prides itself on having a block of nostalgic shows from the 90’s would be so short-sighted towards a demographic it appears to understand quite well.

Book Three ended with a powerful showcase of what strong storytelling can do to an animated series without the burden of a child’s demographic hanging overhead. Even if it wasn’t necessarily a financial success yet, Nickelodeon was willing to give the writers the kind of adult push the show needed to make it a genuine critical success after a lackluster Book Two.

If Nick can’t show The Legend of Korra on its traditional channel, that’s understandable; it doesn’t quite fit. However, they’ve opened themselves up to be at the forefront of a quickly-changing age of television watching if they choose.

Something tells me they knew that when they sent the show online.

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