2017 has been a tumultuous year for anime streaming with Amazon launching Anime Strike, Netflix more aggressively licensing big-name series, and more recently HiDive entering the fray. Meanwhile, Crunchyroll and Funimation’s partnership has continued to evolve with both becoming part of the VRV bundle service. Of course, this shift in the landscape of legal anime hasn’t come without its fair share of resistance. I’ll be recapping the points of contention in this article and detailing how they can be addressed to best serve the community. The article will go service-by-service in alphabetical order to retain fairness in representation (I want to stress that this is not meant to be a take-down of any of these services but rather a constructive discussion starter).
But first, I want to address two philosophies that are critical to the points I’ll be making:
The Consumer/Business/Artist dynamic
I believe first-and-foremost in advocating for consumer-friendly policies. Businesses will live or die based on their ability to fulfill the needs of their customers.
The concern of the consumer should be to look out for their own interests and safeguard themselves from business practices that don’t align with their interests (ethically). Businesses need to provide goods and services that the consumer deems worth paying for if they want to be successful. Their bottom line of making a profit shouldn’t be at the expense of consumer interests.
The other function businesses in entertainment industries must play is compensating the artists making the content they deliver. Crowd-funding models aside, they are the middle-man between the consumer’s money and the artist’s wallet. It’s not the responsibility of consumers to pay for the work of artists but rather for businesses to offer a product consumers deem worthy of their money so that artists can be paid. It’s true that consumers need to support artists by proxy of businesses in order for such art to be made, but by that same token, art funded by businesses only has as much value as the consumers are willing to pay for it; if the value proposition is not in line with what people want then it won’t get made. A harsh but true reality.
In short: businesses hold the entire burden to service the needs of the consumers so that they can fund art. They must fulfill both of these goals to survive.
Pirates will pay for the right service
One of the biggest misconceptions thrown around in discussions about legal content distribution is that pirates will pirate no matter what and thus their concerns shouldn’t be addressed. It’s exactly this stigmatism that keeps pirates sailing the high seas. The truth is that pirates will pay for the right service. The way the modern content distribution landscape works is that people take the path of least resistance. Businesses need to provide consumers with a legal alternative more appealing and convenient than the illegal option. Debates over the morality of piracy are moot here; this is the reality of how these businesses work.
It can and does happen that pirates are converted. One example is a friend of mine who pirated anime for the better part of a decade before realizing that Crunchyroll’s service had improved from its early days both in the quality of its player and its catalogue. The instant availability of the service provided a more convenient alternative than keeping up with and downloading individual episodes. He’s been subscribed to the service to this day.
To give another anecdote: before Apple launched Apple Music, I would pirate some of the music I listened to. While I gave artists money through concert tickets, I simply didn’t have the money to support my passion on an album-by-album level. While the advent of Spotify presented the option of streaming to me, the only way I would ever use a streaming service was if it integrated with the iTunes library I had built up over a decade, plenty of which I had paid for. Apple Music provided a solution to all my problems: I no longer had to pirate and all the music I could want was available instantly at my fingertips for $10/month, the price of a single album. Suffice to say, I was given an option better than piracy and I took it without hesitation.
There will of course be some who pirate habitually or because they otherwise can’t afford the content, but to write off everyone who pirates as someone who will never pay is an unhelpful and incorrect mindset. Many either don’t know about the legal alternatives available, would pay if they had the money or are waiting for the right service to fit their needs. These are people who should be listened to as they’re established fans that can be turned into paying customers.
As a clarification for this article: I am not endorsing or condoning piracy, but rather trying as best as possible to talk about it objectively as a thing that happens.
With that out of the way, let’s discuss the ways in which each anime streaming service can improve:
Amazon’s Anime Strike has been the most controversial of anime streaming platforms in 2017. The service took the anime content available through Amazon Prime Video and moved it into a channel accessible for an additional fee. The service also saw Amazon more aggressively license anime beyond their 2016 deal to have exclusive access to content from the noitaminA programming block. What can Strike do to shred the stigma it’s garnered around its business model within the community?
The double paywall
Strike is available for $5/month… but only if you also pay into Prime for a culmulative $100/year. Effectively, this means that entry into Strike will set you back $160 annually, bordering on three times what its anime-specific competitors charge (a $13/month option is also available, although it ultimately comes out to the same price). This price is simply untenable for anyone but current Prime subscribers. For one, Strike’s selection of titles compared to its major competitor Crunchyroll is incredibly lackluster. Crunchyroll has had years to build up their catalogue so nobody is expecting Strike to match that out of the gate, but the much more limited selection paired with the extra $100 price tag means that this gap in value proposition is rendered impossible to ignore. Even with the premiere simulcast titles it’s been grabbing these past few seasons, Crunchyroll simply has more variety, and for a fraction of the overall cost (not to mention a significantly more extensive back catalogue).
And then there’s the issue that those who don’t have Prime most likely either don’t want it or can’t afford it. Both of these scenarios take the option of a Strike subscription off the table; Amazon is effectively losing money through its double paywall. Some will argue that it’s a smart business decision for Amazon to nearly triple up on the profits it earns from each new customer it does gain, but I believe the loss in customer goodwill and growth will ultimately hinder Strike in the long run.
There’s also a third, more fringe scenario that I wanted to note: those like myself who use a Prime service that allows members to give a limited number of other accounts access to their 2-day shipping benefits are also excluded from buying into Strike. It’s a byproduct of Amazon Video being cut out of those shared benefits, but alas it’s another scenario in which it really seems as if Amazon doesn’t want people’s money.
There’s no candy-coating it: this double paywall makes would-be customers turn tail fast. It locks away exclusive licenses behind a gate with a gold key. This needs to be fixed if Amazon is to convince the community at large to pay for its service.
No free option
This is a common flaw across multiple of the services here. One of the defining features of Crunchyroll is a free-with-ads option, allowing people to view new simulcast episodes a week after airing in 480p. This is critical to their business model because it combats piracy and builds a viewer base that may later choose to become paying customers. People have the option to try out the medium, get caught up on what’s new and–if they then decide they want a better viewing experience and more timely releases– pay for premium. This has been an incredibly successful venture for Crunchyroll. In a 2013 interview, CEO Kun Gao noted that fewer than ten percent of the service’s viewers were paying subscribers but that the ads subsidized the freeloaders. Ultimately, all parties involved win: the consumers get the content and the service/industry makes its money. It’s been proven to work.
The lack of a free option also means there is no way to legally watch their exclusive licenses if you aren’t paying up, leading people to can’t/don’t subscribe to the service no options other than pirating or not watching, neither of which are ideal. A free option benefits all parties involved and Amazon will need to find a way to implement one if it looks to compete at the same level as Crunchyroll. Availability and access are everything in this business. Unfortunately, the lack of a free option is a byproduct of their broader Video service and as such is something they’re unlikely to change for Strike alone unless they break it off into its own entity. I hope I’m proven wrong here.
An unappealing corporate face
Ask me to name you Crunchyroll employees and I could rattle a good few names off the top of my head. Ask me for Strike employees and I couldn’t name you one.
This may seem completely unimportant but having human faces that are directly interacting with users is critical in maintaining positive customer perception. One of the reasons Crunchyroll has fostered so much goodwill is because people like Miles and Victoria take an active role in community discussion hubs to hear feedback. Crunchyroll has a personality that people have come to love and thus they feel good about giving the service money. Strike’s failing in this regard hurts their customer retention and presence in the community. It also gives customers the impression that their complaints aren’t being heard as if they’re screaming at a brick wall.
A prime example of the current corporate face of Strike is exemplified through Lauren Orsini’s Forbes article about the service. In her interview with a PR representative, Lauren was told not to highlight any of their answers that would portray the company in a negative light (read: their non-answers to questions about customer concerns). Lauren went ahead and publicized these anyway in service of the community. While Strike has continued to have an open dialogue with Lauren despite this (definitely a good look considering this is grounds for blacklisting at some companies), it goes to show that Strike is more interested in playing straight-laced PR than addressing what people feel are problems with the service. This isn’t going to win over any customers.
Something Anime Strike gets right: offline viewing
In the interest of wanting to paint a more complete picture of each service, I’m going to highlight something that each does right. In Strike’s case, it’s the option to “download” episodes for offline viewing.
Not everyone is always connected to the internet when it’s most convenient for them to watch anime. For example, watching during a commute or on an airplane can be impossible save for torrenting. Strike gives customers a legal way to bring their anime on the go no matter their situation.
In a show of the strengths of competition, this feature triggered a reaction from Crunchyroll to announce a similar one for its own service, although its release it still impending.
Whereas Anime Strike and HiDive are newcomers to the scene, Crunchyroll has been around for over a decade. As such, the service has had the time to iron out many of its technical kinks, build community relationships and otherwise hit its stride. There’s no question in my mind that Crunchyroll is currently offering the best service on the market. Even so, that doesn’t put it above criticism. Here are the improvements that I think Crunchyroll can make to best service its customers.
Earlier this year, drama erupted when customers noticed a sudden drop in the bitrate of Crunchyroll’s video encodes. The company addressed that the issue existed and vowed to restore the quality of their streams, something they immediately made good upon with changes in their encodes for any future simulcast episodes (they’ve yet to comment on the status of their catalogue titles at this time).
I’m not the right person to talk about the technical side of video streaming, nor do I want to comment on the convoluted drama surrounding that incident, but even before it happened I had noticed that Crunchyroll’s streaming quality was less than perfect. Compression artifacts were often present and lines were jagged/blurry (would this be called a lack of anti-aliasing here? Again, not my area of expertise). It’s not untenable by any means but it’s always been a noticeable way in which Crunchyroll wasn’t keeping up with its competition. Hopefully they’ll continue to improve on this front.
Better app development
A round of layoffs at Crunchyroll this past January (said in this anonymous Reddit post to have been in their engineering department, although given the anonymity at play I do not consider this a solid source) has left people I’ve spoken with worried that development of their service-specific apps has stalled. Instead, these same people allege that development efforts have been refocused to apps for parent company Ellation’s VRV bundle service. Whether or not this is true, I can vouch that their Playstation 3 and Playstation 4 apps are updated infrequently and problems can take over a year to be addressed.
One example of this that I encountered was a bug in the Playstation 4 app wherein rewinding would cause the player to cut off the end of an episode. It was an issue I brought up to the customer service team multiple times over the span of a year. After being told the issue would be fixed it still took months before any change was seen. I’ve also heard of other problems in the past such as encodes on the Playstation 4 app being of a lower quality than that available online, although I can’t confirm this myself.
The point here is that whenever Crunchyroll’s apps are brought up, it tends to be due to dissatisfaction. A faster turnaround on both response and repairs would go a long way.
Improvements that Crunchyroll is working on
These would-be criticisms are features that Crunchyroll is known to actively be developing. First is an HTML5 player to replace its current Flash player. People might have laughed when Apple launched the iPhone without Flash in 2007 but in the decade following we’ve seen the Flash platform slowly die off due to the rise of more stable options. It’s time for Crunchyroll’s Flash player to go as well. People who pay for Crunchyroll’s extra-premium offering have the opportunity to help them beta test the in-development HTML5 player and I hope it’s rolled out to all users sooner rather than later.
There’s also the aforementioned offline option that Crunchyroll announced in response to the functionality being integrated into Strike.
Something Crunchyroll gets right: A surfeit of catalogue titles, editorial content, etc.
I’m going to be honest here, despite the criticisms I levied against the service, Crunchyroll is on the whole doing a lot more right than they are wrong. I’ve already talked about its free option and community outreach, both of which have been critical in endearing people to the service. There’s also its commitment to providing feature/editorial articles and videos that help fans discover and appreciate series. That discovery mechanism is particularly helpful given the service’s rapidly expanding catalogue thanks to its partnership with Funimation. Ultimately, it’s my opinion that Crunchyroll is offering the best value-for-money of any anime service on the market. My only hope is that this doesn’t cause the company to rest on its laurels.
HiDive is the newest competitor to the anime market, having launched less than a month ago. It comes into the playing field with innovations such as customizable subtitles and in-episode live chat. Without the established catalogue of Strike via Amazon Video, HiDive is coming into the game from square one. Given this, I don’t want to be too critical of its currently sparse offerings since the service needs time to come into its own. There are still a few other issues that the service should address, though.
No free option for exclusives
Premium exclusivity rears its head again in HiDive, but only to a limited extent. Most of the platform’s content is available for free with ads in standard definition, similar to Crunchyroll. The difference is that its simulcasts and a few other catalogue options are locked behind a paywall. As such, I have to raise the issue with this practice here as I have with other services. I stated earlier that premium exclusivity leaves no option other than piracy for non-subscribers and that Crunchyroll has proven an across-the-board free-with-ads option to be financially viable. Thus, locking exclusives behind a paywall is not necessarily the most business-savvy move.
This said, I do want to commend HiDive on otherwise employing a free-with-ads option, in some cases applied to content that hasn’t previously been made available for streaming. I just hope that they’ll take it one step further. Free-with-ads (with a week delay) on simulcasts keeps people coming back weekly which leads to retention of potential subscribers.
No stated permanent subscription price
HiDive is currently in a launch period wherein a subscription costs a discounted $3.99/month for an undisclosed amount of time. What people’s subscription will be bumped to after this period has yet to be announced. This is inherently not consumer-friendly. People need to know what their rolling subscription will charge them in future and when that change will take place. This is ultimately a minor complaint that will inevitably solve itself in time but the bigger point is that I want to encourage the company to have a more open relationship with its users going forward.
Okay, I said I wouldn’t be too harsh on their content offerings but it needs to be said that their initial simulcasts options are lackluster. Battle Girl High School and Action Heroine Cheer Fruits are not exactly series setting the anime community on fire, and RIN-NE Season 3 is the third season in an already lengthy series, thus meaning its appeal is inherently limited. They’re going to need to do better than this if they want to compete with the other players in the business; Legends of the Galactic Heroes is great but consistently great simulcasts are the key to retaining customers.
Something HiDive gets right: licensing OVAs
One thing that sets HiDive’s content apart from the competition is its focus on licensing OVAs. Many of these never see the light of day overseas unless fansubbed (and you’ll be pirating them if you want to watch). For fans opposed to any piracy but want the full experience with their favorite shows, HiDive is opening that door. Hopefully they’ll continue to put an emphasis on this.
I also want to commend HiDive for locking down streaming rights for Legend of the Galactic Heroes. It’s a big deal for what many consider to be one of the all-time greatest anime to be available legally. Their rollout model of releasing three-to-four episodes a week exclusively to premium members is certainly frustrating, but ultimately this was an important license. Now if somebody could do the same for the oddly unlicensed Neon Genesis Evangelion…
Netflix needs no introduction. They’re the single biggest name in television/film streaming, period. They’ve always had a small yet solid selection of anime available on the service but have over the past few years have begun licensing exclusives. Netflix’s business model doesn’t always mesh with the wants of the community, though. Here are the changes the service must make to best suit the customers it looks to gain.
If there’s one major sticking point people in the anime community have with Netflix, it’s that they don’t simulcast their licenses, instead opting to release them in bulk after they finish airing. This leads people who don’t want to wait for months no option but to pirate– including people who have access to a Netflix account. This became doubly bad with this year’s Little Witch Academia, their highest-profile exclusive license yet. Not only was the series held in limbo for six months while it aired but at this time they’ve only released the first cour while giving no release date for the second.
Simulcasting is an incredibly important aspect of the anime community. It’s where the discussion about many series is cultivated and keeps said discussion sustained over an extended period of time. If premium exclusivity hurts the discussion, not simulcasting at all decimates it. Little Witch Academia didn’t go unwatched but those who did watch it were left no option but to get it via illegal means. Those were views and potential subscribers that Netflix could have had. Additionally, a legal option could have made the series a huge splash hit beyond the group of people willing to pirate. Sure, it still has the chance to find its audience among legal streaming devotees but there is squandered potential regardless.
So, why does Netflix insist on this release model? It’s dictated by the way they release all their original-labeled content; it’s all about binge culture. It’s a model that makes sense for their self-produced series considering the way in which Western audiences consume content. Anime fans don’t necessarily share in these same habits, though. People want to experience series as they’re aired in Japan. It’s not like Netflix has never done weekly releases before. They’ve aired shows in regions outside of North America on a weekly basis, but here they’re fickle about their binge-focused business model. If Netflix wants their licenses to flourish then they’ll need to consider the consumption habits of audience they’re vying for.
No dialogue with community
And this leads into a problem Netflix shares with Strike: they don’t have anyone reaching out to the community to discuss the criticisms levied against them. It’s mostly the same scenario here and I won’t bore you by repeating myself. Netflix may be even less likely than Strike to make a change here because anime is only a relatively small part of their business. It feels unlikely that they’d uproot their business model for it, and such a feeling is exactly the problem in the first place; we’re left in the dark. For both Strike and Netflix, the tension caused by their business models could be greatly alleviated by having a public face addressing concerns.
Price vs. content (and the lack of a free option)
$10/month is asking a lot if all you’re interested in is anime content. While I feel it’s a fair price for the berth of content offered by the service, it’s also significantly more expensive than the other services I’ve mentioned. The majority of the anime content you’d be paying for is also available elsewhere. In fact, Netflix’s anime offerings have actually been dwindling over time. Many of the big series once available have since expired and little new has been added. If you’re only buying into Netflix for anime, you’re essentially only getting a small handful of content not available legally anywhere else.
Given that Netflix is unlikely to release an anime-only option, one answer to this problem would be expanding their back catalogue by licensing classic series that have gone unlicensed (Evangelion, Macross, & PreCure come to mind as three possibilities that would fulfill valuable niche needs). Right now, Netflix’s anime selections are simply not good enough to justify the price for them alone.
Let’s also throw “lack of a free option” into the mix here, although there is no world in which that changes because we’re talking about Netflix here. It’s a losing battle but I advocate for it nonetheless. I would be shocked to see them offer this for any of their content, let alone anime.
Something Netflix gets right: its dubs and image quality
As previously stated, I’m not one to watch dubs. However, I’ve heard on multiple occasions that the quality of Netflix’s dubs (which they produce for every exclusive license) is a cut above the rest. Similarly, Netflix’s image quality is top-notch. Both of these things are ways in which the service is giving value to the community, and hopefully they can do this in other areas where it counts to make themselves a worthwhile competitor in this market.
Ultimately, competition is good in any market. What I’m scared of is that we’re at a breaking point as to how many services people are willing to pay for to access the full extent of content. Right now you’re looking at $22/month for access to all of the aforementioned series (plus $100/year for Amazon Prime which is also available as a monthly charge, and not taking into account whatever price HiDive will increase to). Bump that to $26/month if you’re also interested in Funimation’s library of dubs at which point VRV’s $10/month tag nets you access to both that and Crunchyroll.
I noted earlier that the best way to combat piracy is to offer a better service, and that people who pirate can and will be won over. However, every new service introduced to the scene spreads content thinner and thus makes it more expensive and less convenient to watch anime legally. This is not to endorse or condone piracy; it’s just the reality of the business. It feels as if we’re close to the tipping point and I’m worried that it could cause a crash of the anime streaming industry.
I honestly don’t feel the anime streaming landscape is too healthy right now which is why I felt this was an important article to write. There’s a lot of contention in the community about the way that content is being delivered and the cost of access. Content is becoming more fragmented than ever and something will need to give in order for things to move forward. It’s incumbent upon us to let the services know what we want out of them and also to reward them with our money when they fulfill those things.
Are there any issues or praises you feel I missed in this article, or do you disagree with points I made? Let’s talk about it in the comments. This is meant to be discussion, not a manifesto. And as always, thanks for reading!