Cartoon Network’s animated series Steven Universe, created by Rebecca Sugar, recently ended its fourth season on a five-night, one-episode-per-night event, known unofficially as a “Steven Bomb,” an all-too-common airing technique that has generated much debate and discourse over the years within the TV animation community.
The show, first airing in 2013, centers around the titular “Steven Universe” (played by Zach Callison), a young boy living with a group of magical guardians, “The Crystal Gems,” who defend the Earth and humanity from extraterrestrial threats. Said guardians include: The stoic-but-sweet Garnet (played by singer-songwriter Estelle), the rambunctious Amethyst (played by Michaela Dietz), and the overprotective Pearl (played by Deedee Magno Hall).
Over the years, the series has garnered critical acclaim for its relatable and compelling characters, dedication to stellar storytelling, and excellent music (the series’ first soundtrack release on June 2nd has been lobbied for by fans since the first season). It has also developed a large online following, with numerous accounts across Tumblr and YouTube being dedicated to discussing the show, and the Steven Universe subreddit, r/StevenUniverse, having close to 90,000 subscribers as of the writing of this article.
“Steven Bomb 6,” as the recent event was called online, was the latest in Cartoon Network’s seemingly unusual method of releasing their shows: Week-long special events, followed (occasionally) by a month or so of weekly episodes, then followed almost always by a hiatus, with no new episodes airing and no word of when they will air until just a few weeks prior. Since the series’ premiere, the Tumblr blog “Hiatus Universe” has counted fourteen completed hiatuses , the shortest being 23 days long and the longest being 124 days long.
This has been a long-running source of contention among fans, many of whom preferring a standardized, weekly schedule to the five episode bursts the network seems so fond of. EyeofSol, a cartoon reviewer on YouTube, said in an October 2016 video, “So it used to be that you would make a whole season, and you would air it, and then you would have a mid-season break, and then you rinse and repeat, basically. That worked out and you always knew when a new episode was coming.”
In the past decade, however, most children’s cartoons, not just Steven Universe, have taken to the hiatus trend. Disney XD put the recently-concluded series Gravity Falls on a 364 day hiatus in-between seasons in 2013 and 2014, and has currently put the popular series Star vs. The Forces of Evil on a hiatus following the conclusion of its second season. Nickelodeon’s long-running show SpongeBob SquarePants was notoriously subject to hiatuses throughout its ninth season, which began in 2012 and only ended in 2017, a whopping five years later. Right now, Cartoon Network’s The Amazing World of Gumball, following a month-long event this past February, is in the middle of a hiatus, as is Adventure Time, following its four-night-long, eight-part “Elements” miniseries. Steven Universe itself is also on a brief hiatus until it airs an hour-long, four-episode special event titled “Wanted” on Memorial Day at 7pm.
The Bomb-Then-Break method is especially damaging to shows like Steven Universe, in which plot-developing, world-building episodes are frequently interspersed amongst more slice-of-life, character-driven episodes. Many fans who tune into the show specifically because of the former therefore become understandably irritated when the show airs a few weeks of the latter and then goes away without another word.
That does not mean, however, that the Bomb-Then-Break airing strategy does not contain some positive aspects. Cartoon reviewer PIEGUYRULZ, following the three-month-long “Summer of Steven” event (in which one episode was premiered every weeknight throughout most of Summer 2016), stated in a discussion video, “Having something to look forward to, like a short, 11-minute burst to look forward to all day, […] just makes life better.”
In the same video, however, fellow reviewer Phoenixpen pointed out the inherent problems with the event and others like it by saying, “I had a very difficult time with the Summer of Steven, because every single day there was spoilers [sic] everywhere, and there were leaks, there was so much content to talk about and I always felt like, ‘I can’t go online, I can’t go on my normal YouTube, or forums, or anything’ because […] every single day, there’s new stuff coming out.”
By “leaks,” she was referring to the almost alarming tendency for Steven Universe episodes and clips to go up online before they’re supposed to, either by way of access to Turner Broadcasting’s servers or genuine accidents on the part of the network and/or cable providers. The former is the most common, with almost every episode getting a two-minute preview leaked about a five days early. Going off of what YouTuber Awestruck Vox of The Roundtable said regarding these types of leaks, the issue here is that the previews, which are usually used on the network’s website for non-cable subscribers to view in place of the full episodes, are uploaded to a public server about a week in advance, and therefore accessible if one knows where to look.
The latter, however, is where things get complicated. “Lion 4: Alternate Ending,” the first episode of the most recent Steven Bomb, was accidentally leaked by a Canadian On Demand service on March 30th, allowing the episode to make the rounds online over a month before it was meant to air.
Even worse is what happened with the previous Steven Bomb, titled “Out of This World,” which was slated to air the week of January 30th. However, all five episodes went public online on January 2nd, almost a full month before they were meant to premiere. Now, this was unusual because it went online not via leakers, but via Cartoon Network’s website/app.
To make matters worse, CN removed the last four episodes of the event from their site, long after ripped copies flooded YouTube and Dailymotion. And adding to the confusion was Matt Burnett, a former writer on Steven Universe, who said in a tweet that the episodes were put online “mistakenly,” only for Cartoon Network to state in a press release that it was “intentional,” as part of their “See It First” promotion.
Since then, possibly as a result of the “Out of This World” incident, Steven Bomb 6, along with similar events for The Amazing World of Gumball, We Bare Bears, and Adventure Time, was put on Cartoon Network’s website/app in full the Friday before, rather than just the first episode.
A possible explanation for this development is that with the rise of streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu, in which certain shows get entire seasons released at once, the average person has grown less-accustomed to waiting a week for every new episode over the course of a single year. As a result, a relatively new viewing method has been popularized: Binge Watching. Viewers are now used to getting a lot at once as opposed to stretched out over time, and the Bomb-Then-Break strategy appears to be television networks’ response to that. It’s a middle ground that tries to appeal to both the binge-watchers and the traditional viewer: The former get to have a lot of episodes in a short time, while the latter still get to watch regular premieres, albeit condensed from weekly releases to daily ones over the course of a week.
In an odd turn of events, however, on the Wednesday prior to the Bomb’s finale, the season five premiere was released on the Cartoon Network app, later confirmed by a promo the following night to be a sneak preview of the aforementioned Memorial Day event. Reviewer PIEGUYRULZ, who had previously spoken favorably of the Summer of Steven, said onTwitter: “Wait. CN actually put this episode up themselves… what [sic] is going on with their release of SU? I’d be fine with SU being a show that airs online only, but PLEASE come up with some consistant [sic] release schedule because this is annoying. […] Have they done this while they are in the middle of premiering a week of new episodes? Like dropping an episode on a Wednesday is arbitrary [sic]” One possible explanation for this exceptionally unusual practice is that, as the world slowly moves more towards a digital-only society, the scheduling department at Cartoon Network may be trying to gauge which releasing tactics work the best, essentially using their shows to experiment so that if TV does indeed go online-only in the future, they already have the necessary demographics information.
In a Reddit Q&A, Alex Hirsch, creator of the hiatus-heavy Gravity Falls, gave a behind-the-scenes take on why modern cartoons tend to have erratic scheduling: “Entertainment is always a struggle between perfectionist artists like me and the people who pay the bills, and sometimes I would pull my end of that rope too hard. I have no regrets about how hard I worked or how much I cared, but I know we would have had less hiatuses if I was less specific with my vision […] Often episodes are held in order to be played during the seasons or events that the programming department has calculated will get the highest ratings. All channels do this, its [sic] their job, and I’ve been told it works.”
This claim, at least in regards to Steven Universe, is supported by an article by The A.V. Club, which reported that the current system Cartoon Network has in place boosted their ratings significantly in the 18-49 age demographic by 15% in 2015, as well as “topping” the 6-11 age group that same year. Now, this does not account for the record lows the series has experienced as of this year, but that can easily be explained by the aforementioned Out of This World leak (a major outlier in the shows’ run so far) and lack of promotion for the subsequent episodes. This is supported by the fact that Steven Bomb 6, a much more advertised and overall better-handled event, made it through the one million viewer threshold, despite the early release by Cartoon Network.
The series’ writing has also been affected by the schedule, with Matt Burnett stating on Twitter that “[Cartoon Network makes] it a big event when the show airs, and we’re writing with 5 episode bursts in mind now.” This is no more apparent than in season four, whose mid-season story arc, the previously mentioned “Out of This World” event, began and ended in distinct, definite spots, almost becoming a miniseries in a way. This is seen by some to be a far cry from the arcs of earlier seasons, which were less stand-alone and more obviously tied into the larger plotline. On r/StevenUniverse, user u/MagikMagikarp said, “Right now everything feels weirdly disjointed. Problems are created and solved in the span of two or three episodes, which doesn’t work well in a show that tries to create an overarching narrative. Things are too self contained.”
One more problem with the Bomb-Then-Break cycle is that after “special events” become a regular, expected occurrence, their “specialness” starts to wane. Ten years ago, for instance, airing five new episodes in a week would have been a big deal in and of itself, but nowadays the practice is just cause for frustration, and the actual content of the episodes is what the fans get excited over. And due to the erratic scheduling clashing with the show’s pacing, fans might not even get that excited for the episodes as they would have otherwise.
But of course that doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t viewers who are more or less neutral to the whole debacle, and can laugh at the scheduling while still enjoying the content nonetheless. Just ask Steven Universe himself, who, in the short “Steven Reacts” (a spoof of YouTube reaction videos), ended with, “I can’t wait for the next episode! …Whenever that is, am I right?”