It’s not often that my fannish obsessions remind me of my former professional life, but Nickelodeon’s decision to take its critically acclaimed sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender -- The Legend of Korra -- off the air and onto exclusively digital distribution was a painful reminder of my time working as a news reporter. Or,
It’s not often that my fannish obsessions remind me of my former professional life, but Nickelodeon’s decision to take its critically acclaimed sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender — The Legend of Korra — off the air and onto exclusively digital distribution was a painful reminder of my time working as a news reporter. Or, to be more accurate, it reminded me of working for a news corporation in a time of economic uncertainty.
On Wednesday, one day before the San Diego Comic-Con where the creators of Legend of Korra had many events scheduled, the site Nickandmore.com announced that Nickelodeon would air one more episode (two were originally scheduled for this Friday) before pulling the remaining five episodes off the schedule entirely. After a few hours of confusion and speculation, series co-creator Bryan Konietzko clarified in an image post on his Tumblr of Korra surrounded by snow that Korra was not cancelled, but would be moving to digital outlets. Co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino also assured fans that there would be still be a planned fourth “Book” of Korra.
“So this was a disappointing development for sure but as long as you all are able to see the show in some capacity, I’m grateful,” DiMartino said on Facebook. “And honestly, you’re all watching it online anyway, right?”
The shocking part of this decision, for me and many fans, was that Nickelodeon seemed determined to keep the show off the Internet, advertising new episodes with admonition that they couldn’t be seen online. Fans complained about the first two books being pulled from iTunes and new episodes not being available. Episodes of the new season were also not streaming on Nick.com’s website. In fact, the episodes from the three-part premiere were only made available for purchase online July 14 — almost three weeks after the season’s June 27th premiere.
This corporate about-face feels all too familiar to me. For almost three years I worked for a newspaper with an incredibly large parent company, and in those brief years we saw multiple and sometimes contradictory business strategies, almost none of which were articulated to the public in advance. Editions were suddenly folded multiple times. Our paper went from largely subscription-based with coin-operated newsstands to subscription in some neighborhoods while others had the paper delivered to every house free. Then there was no subscription and only free newsstands in certain neighborhoods. Then the delivery to every house was disbanded. The paper went from printing 12 editions to printing two, and then long after I left I read an article stating an former manager of the newspaper bought it. Despite folding so many editions previously, he said the paper would now be “expanding.” The paper did have a website, but the amount of focus we were expected to give it and the resources the company expended upon it also changed many times throughout the years.
The death of the print newspaper has been heralded for well over a decade, but the lesser-known story is that cable TV faces similar struggles. A report late last year from businessinsider.com stated that not only are ratings dropping, but so are the amount of customers who buy cable TV or even televisions in the first place, while digital viewership is going up.
Legend of Korra has been hit with similar declining returns, its Nielsen ratings dropping by about half with every season. Still, to many fans like myself, Nickelodeon does not seem to have been pulling its weight in an unforgiving market. After a long break between Books 1 and 2, Nickelodeon moved the episodes from a kid-friendly Saturday morning timeslot to one late on Friday night, and then constantly changed the timeslot as the series wrapped up. For this season, in a move that I suspect was spurred by episodes three to six being leaked weeks earlier, the network suddenly announced it would be premiering Book 3 with very little advertising, and then took a weeklong break in between airing episodes one through three and episodes four through five due to the July 4 weekend. None of this breeds anything resembling consumer confidence.
Given the demands of the market and the strong online fanbase, I think deciding to keep Legend of Korra out of digital distribution will ultimately seem like the bigger mistake than pulling it from the airways. Part of me says that because I prefer watching it with less of Nickelodeon’s grating television ads, and I imagine a lot of other fans also feel that way and are “watching it online anyway.”
As a 29-year-old who watched the last two episodes with a glass of wine in her hand I do recognize I haven’t been Nickelodeon’s target audience in quite a few years. Yet it’s still worrisome that a critically-acclaimed show, one of the few starring a young woman of color, is considered not as worthy of airtime as a rerun of Spongebob Squarepants. It’s distressing that in a shrinking market the television networks have decided to buckle down and become more homogenized, and that rapid turnarounds for quick results are prized over sticking with a plan and attempting a more natural growth. We live in what many critics are heralding as a golden age of television, yet this golden age usually centers around shows about white, heterosexual men (Breaking Bad, True Detective), while alternate stories are pushed to the margins or, like Orange is the New Black, only seen on alternate providers.
Legend of Korra is not a perfect show. At times the creators don’t always seem to know what to do with some members of the cast — in particular Korra’s group of immediate friends who have been saddled with frustrating love triangle subplots. The animation was spotty at times during Book 2 and while the show has to be commended for touching on plotlines that normally wouldn’t be touched in a children’s show, such as war, revolution and the struggle between nature and technology, the results are not always satisfying. (“Were the non-bending ‘Equalist’ terrorist group truly reacting to being oppressed or were they being manipulated by their leader?” remains a question that can still set off fights on Tumblr.) Yet I have always loved its show for its unforgettable and unique heroine and how it has built off the original Avatar in ways that expand the mythos while also at times questioning the judgment and choices of the first show’s cast. I hope that in digital distribution this show finds its natural home, and that these all-too-familiar corporate about-faces become less common in a future of more choice for viewers. Until then, I don’t imagine any of us will benefit.