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They just spent ten minutes showing us Alec Su taking a bath.—Urban Dictionary on fanservice
Gratuitous display of characters in skimpy clothing, or none at all, under the assumption that it will attract or "reward" viewers. The character is usually female, though fanservice of male characters is far from uncommon.
This is not just a fan term, but one used during the production of, and even in the dialogue of, various shows. For example, the end-of-episode previews during the early part of Neon Genesis Evangelion frequently promise "more fanservice."
While the specific term "fanservice" arose from the Anime community, the concept of adding a little titillation to a work is far, far older. When nudity or sexual content is an expected part of a work, it's not Fan Service; it's only when the nudity or sex is thrown in "just because" that fanservice becomes a part of the narrative. For example, nudity in a pornographic movie would not qualify, while Sharon Stone's infamous "beaver shot" in Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct would. Real fanservice is seldom explicit or graphic -- that is the territory of pornography. Instead it is primarily there to "add a little extra" by teasing and titillating the audience.
Some shows may have designated fanservice characters; characters who, even if they are main characters and have a role beyond fanservice, can always be found in a fanservice situation. Some shows, especially American shows, have characters for both male and female fanservice. Exactly how much fanservice makes its way into a series can depend on what channel a show is broadcast on, but with the advent of series on DVD, this can be subverted with liberal application of Censor Steam.
While some fanservice can increase the appeal of a show, too much fanservice can become very distracting and in some cases, put viewers off completely, especially if the fanservice is directed towards the opposite sex. Unfortunately, since fanservice can lure in viewers so easily, especially the male audience, fanservice has become a common trend in Japan and it is incredibly difficult to find an animé without any fanservice.
Very hard to subvert or even Lampshade Hanging -- the former is usually disturbing and the latter is well, just fanservice with a joke attached. You might as well have the person wearing nothing but a lampshade.
"Fanservice" is sometimes used in a more general way, to mean adding things to a show that don't need to be there, but nonetheless please the viewers. When this is something non-sexual, like needlessly flashy attacks in a Humongous Mecha show, it's Pandering to the Base. Sexy fanservice is considered the default form, because it is everywhere, and it's easy to add to any kind of show.
Sex Is Interesting is what happens when a writer tries to rationalize this in terms of narrative craft. Attempts to increase the overall amount of sexual content in a series fall under Hotter and Sexier; a similar process but for more violent content is Bloodier and Gorier. Contrast Darker and Edgier.
Not to be confused with Fan Flattering.
Waldorf: You know, they seem to chronicle the various forms of sexiness to a very large extent.
Statler: Well, we all like what we can't have!
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