HBO Max’s Purging Of Animation Is A Sad Sign Of Things To Come

Animation can’t catch a break these days, and neither can the talented creators responsible for bringing our favourite shows and films to life. Idiotic executives and out-of-touch big wigs sitting atop the food chain are happy to cancel shows and make them unavailable to the majority of audiences if it means saving a few pennies. Media is being wiped from existence like their artistic merit means nothing, giving the public little recourse other than piracy. Lost media used to be a term thrown around for long-since-abandoned shows of the early 20th century, but we’re seeing it happen in real-time, faster than ever before.

It shouldn’t have to be this way, but our continued reliance on streaming services as the landscape changes means we are subject to harsh business practices and the sad reality that the things we love can be taken away with little to no explanation. This is exactly what happened on HBO Max this past week, with the merger of Warner and Discovery seeing an avalanche of content being removed from the service for seemingly no reason. Well – no good reason beyond wiping away debt and helping the company’s bottom line.

Here’s the short version: 68 films and shows were removed from HBO Max with no explanation this past week. Creators weren’t warned ahead of time that this was going to happen with some even finding out as we did, and HBO hasn’t come forward to provide worthwhile reasoning either. It has told some users that this cycling of content is apparently a normal part of business, but never have we seen it carried out on such a scale with this much of a blunt attitude. It was done with purpose, and the recent merger has shone a cynical light on exactly why it might have happened.

I am no expert on the streaming landscape, nor am I a lawyer with knowledge on taxation and copyright, but some seem to believe this might have been done for tax purposes, or so Warner Bros and Discovery can bank the cost of production from certain projects to help chip away at its mounting piles of debt. Like I said, I’m no expert and could be assuming things that are untrue, so I’ll leave it to industry professionals to explain things properly.

Infinity Train creator Owen Dennis published a blog post on his Substack that delves into things a bit deeper from the perspective of animation. The show has already been cancelled and will sadly never see the conclusion it deserves, but now Warner Discovery is taking away any legal means of watching it altogether. It sucks, and can’t go on without us making a big ol’ stink about things. Corporations exist because they rely on our continued apathy, and to see so many speak out on this bullshit has been sobering despite all the negativity that stems from so many excellent shows being given the finger.

According to Dennis, the removal of these shows was meant to happen a few days later, with creators to be notified of the situation to avoid risking the fracturing of relationships with talent across the industry. Warner Bros Discovery seemingly doesn’t care about how it looks in the midst of all this, happy to burn bridges and lessen its creative worth to avoid providing creators and artists with the livelihoods they deserve. And to make things worse, Dennis states that a big reason for removing these shows and films is to avoid paying talent the residuals they would otherwise earn as shows attract viewers on streaming services.

Of course a base rate was paid during production, but residuals often contribute towards healthcare and other amenities in the United States that everyone needs to survive. Taking that away because you want to save yourself some money is greedy and callous, and displays a blatant disregard to people who made your success possible in the first place. Warner Bros Discovery would be nothing without the thousands of people creating these shows and movies, and that goes double for animation, which held up entire companies throughout the pandemic when live action came to a stand-still. Warner Discovery had made it abundantly clear that it doesn’t care.

Residuals are a single drop in a very large pond for most actors and creators though, but when you assemble all the shows and films involved in these payouts the numbers start going up into the tens of millions. For a company as big as Warner Discovery it should really take the bullet and do the right thing for all those existing beneath it, instead blame for poor business decisions and piling debt must be thrust on those who will suffer the most from the fallout.

And here we are, with show runners, artists, actors, and so many others reacting to the news of their hard work being wiped from existence in real time in ways that I can only describe as heartbreaking. It sucks, with shows like Summer Camp Island being removed before episodes are even set to air. You’ve also got underrated gems like Mao Mao, which could have found a new audience on HBO Max yet now must go without.

Dennis provides evidence that Infinity Train continues to perform incredibly well on digital storefronts, often topping charts and attracting new viewers. The same logic can be applied to other shows in the HBO Max library that were apparently removed due to poor viewership. It’s nonsense, and the real truth is far more bitter and underhanded than any of us could have expected. There’s a chance a lot of these shows could come back, and I really hope they do, but the fact they can be removed without notice like they’re nothing scares me, and points to a future where animation is taken for a ride more than ever.

We already exist in a world where the academy deems animation as a distraction for children, while companies like Netflix are happy to cancel projects that stand a chance at pushing the medium forward because it must only focus on the most successful and most infantile examples of the craft. Boss Baby or bust, even when fans have shown again and again that there is a rabid audience for shows like The Owl House, Infinity Train, Midnight Gospel, and so many others that weren’t given a big enough chance to shine.

Streaming services operate on disparate trends that quickly become outdated, while determining a show’s success through frankly outdated viewing figures from cable television has long grown pointless. Yet networks and corporations still stick by them, and those calling the shots are oblivious to the blood, sweat, and tears that go into keeping them all afloat.

Animation isn’t going anywhere, but I worry about its future in a landscape where corporate busybodies fail to understand its potential and believe it must only ever serve the lowest common denominator. This perspective is outdated and fails to respect the thousands of people who put everything into creating the shows and films that pull in record profits.

All those involved are human beings, and deserve better than to see their achievements torn away from public view purely because some grumpy boomer saw some spreadsheets and deemed the hammer needed to be brought down to save face. The only ones suffering as a consequence of this are those that made it all possible in the first place, and audiences who deserve greater agency in a medium that keeps having its potential squandered.

Please watch shows like Infinity Train, OK KO, Midnight Gospel, The Owl House, Mao Mao, Summer Camp Island, and countless others when the chance arises. Media is finite, and moves by companies like Warner Discovery are making that more obvious than ever.

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