The history of Cartoon Network's Toonami has had more ups and downs than most. Despite putting out some of the best Cartoon Network programming of all time, it still managed to get canceled (temporarily) in 2008. Some consider it a defining childhood experience, and seeing as it's been on the air for decades (longer than some of its viewers have been alive), that may be true.
It's been over two decades since the programming block debuted, enough time for some to forget Toonami's television reign.
When it was canned in 2008 only to reappear four years later on Adult Swim, many asked, "What happened to Toonami?" The answer is as complicated as the lore behind TOM's constantly changing appearance, and as mysterious as the Ghost Planet Spaceship Absolution he broadcasts from.
Before there was Toonami as we know it, there was Power Zone, an action block that helped popularize shows like Speed Racer and Super Friends. The block only saw one year of airtime before being canceled, and for a while, Cartoon Network went without a definitive action block.
Then, in 1997, Toonami was born. It was down to the wire whether or not the programming block would work on TV. With the creators working up to the hour before airtime, the interstitial footage that defined Toonami almost didn't make it into the original broadcast.
Like much of early Cartoon Network, all the block had were re-runs of old Hanna-Barbara cartoons, namely Roulette, Thundercats, Voltron, and The Real Adventures Of Jonny Quest, but it eventually gave birth to something much larger.
Toonami interstitials have become a trademark of the channel. The bumps between shows can sometimes run for more than two minutes, and often carry a storyline and message. Considering most channels limit themselves to around 30 seconds of footage advertising upcoming shows, Toonami was really trying something new.
Sean Akins and Michael Cahill cobbled together the original interstitials from things they considered entertaining when Toonami first aired in 1997. Bootleg anime, drum and bass music, and skateboarding all made it into those early cuts, and defined the tone the channel would take for years to come.
The Midnight Run programming block of 1999 debuted Toonami's most recognizable host, TOM. TOM was a robot, voiced by Dragon Ball voice actor Sonny Strait, and he was in charge of broadcasting the network from the Ghost Planet Spaceship Absolution. As Toonami grew older, TOM went through multiple incarnations (including the replacement of Sonny Straight with Cowboy Bepop voice actor, Steve Blume).
The creators fleshed out his tone and character, with the intent of making him a cool, older brother figure to their young audience. TOM's distinct voice and appearance played a big part in connecting the viewership with Toonami.
American television capitalized on anime in the 2000s. The Sci-Fi channel had a programming block called Saturday Anime, and 4Kids TV hit the airwaves in 2005. Toonami, however, was different from other stations that showcased anime. Creators said it's because they were trying to have a conversation with their viewers, not talk down to them. Fans said it was because it was the only channel that took anime seriously.
Either way, they changed the face of television by popularizing shows like Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z in the west. The reverence they showed the genre even attracted the attention of publishers like Bandai, who contacted Toonami first to broadcast the original dub of Gundam in the US.