It should be a fairly easy question to answer:
When did Dragon Ball Z debut in America?
Turns out that’s a pretty tricky question, with a near-endless rabbit hole of confusing documentation and internet hearsay ready to lead you astray.
If you do a cursory search online, episode listings that trace their way back to FUNimation’s edited English dub from 1996 (rather than skipping ahead to the Toonami era with the Texas voice cast — yes, it was FUNimation producing it the entire time) tend to list a premiere date of September 13, 1996.
(FUNimation’s own “Rock the Dragon” DVD box set, a 2013 release compiling those original two edited seasons, simply lists a premiere year of 1996. Cowards!)
Even Chris Psaros’ old DBZ Uncensored website, a relatively-contemporary archive of commentary from that era, explicitly lists Dragon Ball Z‘s first episode as airing September 13. That’s that then, right? Everyone says it’s September 13, 1996.
As is often the case with Dragon Ball in America, that is not the whole story.
We Have to Go Back… to 1996!
Following their initial go with the original Dragon Ball television series in 1995, FUNimation’s English dub of Dragon Ball Z picked up a year later, absolutely debuting in syndication in September 1996. This is universally agreed upon.
So why is a definitive date even in question, never mind so hard to pin down?
Dragon Ball Z, as produced by FUNimation, was distributed by Saban Entertainment to syndication partners, local network affiliates that managed their own time blocks. These broadcast times could be entirely different from one city to the next. For example, the show aired on KCAL, a Los Angeles CBS affiliate, on Saturday mornings, while the show aired that same weekend on WPIX, a New York WB/CW affiliate, on Sunday mornings.
And that tosses another wrench into the mix. Looking through advertisements of the era (and editor’s note here: also my own direct experience watching the show back during this time across multiple cities), it would seem that all of the broadcasts were on a Saturday or Sunday.
September 13, 1996 was, in fact, a Friday.
Back Into the Archives
From here, the search takes us in a few different directions, but a couple stalwarts surface to the top as always: Usenet (some of the best-archived online material of the day), and old newspapers.
Something to be aware of while searching television listings in September 1996 is that FUNimation’s 1995 stab at Dragon Ball was still actively airing and re-airing across the country, so it is important to make a distinction between a “Dragon Ball” broadcast and a “Dragon Ball Z” broadcast here in 1996. There is also yet another important distinction to make, but that is a topic for later on in this article!
Slogging through newspaper TV listings of the day, it appears the vast majority of debuts were indeed for Saturday, September 14, with quite a few also slotted for Sunday, September 15.
WXIN, a Fox affiliate in Indiana, appears to have debuted Dragon Ball Z on Saturday, September 14, 1996. Unlike other shows on the same channel debuting around the same time, Dragon Ball Z is curiously not listed with a special notation as a series or season premiere this day in the Indiana Tribune‘s Saturday, September 7, 1996 issue, instead listed with a brief description of “Saiyans seek to rule the world.” This may simply be another way to indicate a premiere, however, as the next week’s September 14 issue listing the September 21 broadcast lists the title Dragon Ball Z, and nothing more.
(Editor’s note: I checked through all of WXIN’s broadcasts for the week prior to September 14, looking for perhaps another reference to Dragon Ball Z that the search functionality was not catching, something that is fairly common with OCRed newspapers; I didn’t see anything.)
The Sunday, September 8, 1996 issue of the Statesman Journal from Salem, Oregon lists different shows each day during the weekday 6:00 a.m. timeslot for the week of September 8-14 on channel 49 (KPDX, a local Fox affiliate), with Dragon Ball Z slated for that Friday, September 13.
So there is at least one for September 13…!
Ah, but hold up yet again! What if some of the local networks actually aired it even before Friday, September 13? After all, the September 14-20 issue of TV Guide, a special fall preview issue, includes a blurb about Dragon Ball Z noting its debut… back on September 7!
Dragon Ball Z (syndicated, debuted September 7) A roly-poly boy is is mankind’s last, best hope against aliens bent on conquering Earth. The mystical adventure series is adapted from a phenomenally successful Japanese cartoon.
This same confusing date was brought up on Usenet back in September 1996, with an initial assumption that the date was wrong or a misprint, but a curious response follows:
As this “DBFC” (“Dragon Ball Fan Community”) was an email listserv of the day, there is likely no record of its conversations anywhere, so this takes us back to the newspapers. Does anyone list Dragon Ball Z as airing any time in that week prior?
Turns out: yes!
The September 7, 1996 issue of the Albuquerque Journal from New Mexico notes a weekday 7:30 a.m. timeslot on channel 50 (KASY, a local UPN affiliate), with Dragon Ball Z listed as airing… Thursday!
It is hard to say for sure if that is indeed what happened that week in New Mexico in September 1996 (programming changes are always possible), but that is a pretty concrete listing for Thursday, September 12.
Which Date to Use?
So what now? How do we cite a debut date for FUNimation’s English dub of Dragon Ball Z on American television? Do we go with the commonly-accepted and verifiable in at least one instance of Friday, Saturday 13? Or do we go with the one example we found listing Thursday, September 12? How about that TV Guide blurb noting September 7, somewhat backed up by an old Usenet response?
Or do we ignore all of those, and instead go with the far more widespread weekend dates, giving us a premiere date of Saturday, September 14? This makes the weekday premieres kind of like a “soft launch” or “sneak peek” versus the formal weekend launch.
To some degree it does not really matter, because this is not when Dragon Ball Z premiered on American television: it was two years prior.
The Broadcast That Pre-Dates Them All
If you are deep enough in the Dragon Ball fandom to be reading Kanzenshuu, you may know that FUNimation started with the first TV series in 1995, and you may know that Harmony Gold had a go at the franchise many years before even that. You may even know that Dragon Ball Z (and Dragon Ball GT!) aired in their entirety in raw Japanese on the International Channel, and even the Mexican dub of Dragon Ball Z aired on Telemundo, all here in America.
But for the official debut of Dragon Ball Z specifically, we have to journey to the western-most part of the United States:
Nippon Golden Network
Nippon Golden Network, commonly referred to by acronym as “NGN,” is an American television channel broadcast out of Hawaii. The premium channel was notable for its 1990s broadcast of the Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z television series in its original Japanese language with accompanying English subtitles, following Harmony Gold’s initiative with the franchise and ahead of FUNimation’s later acquisition.
That’s right: the first broadcast of the Dragon Ball Z television series in America was in its original Japanese language with English subtitles.
NGN kicked things off with the original Dragon Ball television series Sunday, January 5, 1992, running through the full series to its final episode on December 11, 1994. The Dragon Ball Z television series debuted the next day, December 12, 1994, picking right up after the first television series.
Just over 100 episodes of the Dragon Ball Z series appear to have been produced by NGN. Dragon Ball Z‘s final listing for broadcast on Nippon Golden Network in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald is actually quite late: Tuesday, August 8, 2000 at 6:00 a.m. Some of the show’s timeslots would eventually be replaced by programming such as Japanese news show “Hodo 2001”, though the show’s Monday evening and Tuesday morning timeslots were actually taken by Dragon Ball GT the next week!
With an official subtitled version in the wild, it is easy to imagine how precious recordings of NGN broadcasts would have been back in the early-to-mid 1990s, long before the first official subtitled release from FUNimation (the joint FUNimation/Pioneer release of the first DBZ movie, Dead Zone, in late 1997). Indeed, NGN recordings were regularly distributed in the fansub scene, recognized for what they were and identified as such.
The NGN subtitles were by and large accurate and faithful to the original dialog, and — following Harmony Gold’s limited production — actually brought us some of the first official localized terms for character names, attacks, items, and more; “Candy Cloud” — the NGN name for Kinto’un — is by and large one of the most fondly remembered names.
So What’s the “Real” Premiere Date?
At least for Dragon Ball Z, we can pretty concretely say that its American debut happened the morning of December 12, 1994, in its original Japanese language, subtitled in English, broadcast via Nippon Golden Network.
That still does not really answer the question of exactly when FUNimation’s English dub truly premiered, but “during and around the weekend of September 14, 1996” is a fair, comprehensive answer.
On Episode 412 of our podcast and the 20th anniversary of FUNimation’s DBZ dub, we looked back to see how it stood the test of time!
Of course, this does not account for the original Dragon Ball television series and films, which debuted on Nippon Golden Network in 1992 as previously mentioned… but even this is not the original Dragon Ball franchise broadcast debut in America! For that, we have to turn things back another few years to the works of Harmony Gold…
… which is yet another story for yet another day!