Wednesday, 27 February 2013

My hopes for the new anime streaming service, Daisuki

With the news earlier today that the Japanese anime industry is finally looking to take control of the neglected overseas market, I thought I'd do something I've been thinking about for a while and post a comparison of the existing solutions along with some hopes for the new one. It will be interesting to look back on when we finally hear more details about Daisuki!

Since we only have two active digital anime providers available to the UK, my post is going to focus on them. Viki haven't picked anything up for the UK for a while (as far as I know) while the other modern services such as FUNimation, Hulu, The Anime Network and the upcoming Anime Sols deliberately block foreigners to focus exclusively on a US audience. The current situation here is bleak; without Crunchyroll's efforts to expand to the UK we'd be left with only French company Kaze's Anime On Demand side project for a handful of delayed streams each season. Long dead UK company ADV Films did try some cross-promotion with a local version of The Anime Network before streaming had caught on fully. The other UK DVD companies have yet to show much interest in simulcasting at all, letting an opportunity to market their existing UK discs remain unexplored.

Cost
I've heard a lot of paranoid comments on this front as it's well known that Japanese DVDs, BDs and CDs are very expensive for customers overseas. My own experience with Japanese streaming on (the Japanese) Nico Nico Douga and Animate TV has been that pricing tends to be reasonable and quite flexible.

The US (and by extension UK) streaming market is usually ad-supported with options to pay a subscription for privileges such as fewer (or no) advertisements, faster access to new episodes and high quality streams. Crunchyroll's model is a perfect example of this done well, and they offer free guest passes so that subscribers can invite their friends to try the service. This brings a social element into the payment system and means that existing subscribers can often be found teaching newcomers that the site exists and offering them spare guest passes.

Anime On Demand is currently completely free - and it's a perfect example of getting what you pay for. There are no ads even for free customers, yet the quality of the streams is never quite as good as Crunchyroll's, new titles are delayed for periods of six weeks or more and there is no social element to alert viewers to new episodes or to let users recommend other series or services on the site itself.

Strangely, neither seems to have dabbled in the model I often see on Japanese networks, where the first few episodes are free and then you either pay for later ones or watch them during free broadcast periods, paying to view episodes you missed using pre-purchased credits. I feel that trying out the 'pay as you go' model as an alternative to full subscriptions is well worth exploring if it's working in Japan. I would still prefer to subscribe, but the strength of having the option to pay for individual episodes is that it gives customers a sense of security if a service doesn't license any titles they are interested in for a prepaid subscription period. This was already an issue with Anime On Demand last year when they briefly took subscriptions then failed to license anything for a long period other than the continuation of one series, Rinne No Lagrange.

Personally speaking, I don't like being bombarded with advertisements I'll never click for products I'll never buy, so I'll always go for a paid subscription if available. The one exception is advertisements for anime or items which directly relate to the series I'm watching. Before Animate TV started blocking the UK, I often ended up buying more merchandise than usual thanks to the beautiful banner artwork I'd see on my way to each new episode.

Simulcasting
I don't think that fans overseas appreciate this much. In Japan a show might air on completely different days depending on the region and television station. Because of the entrenched culture of piracy, overseas fans have come to see anything which airs more than an hour after the very first airing somewhere in Japan as a 'delayed' broadcast. Most 'simulcasts' today aim to be available online before the pirated copies begin to circulate and cut into the viewing figures.

However, I feel that it's interesting to note that when Fate/Zero was airing worldwide back on Nico Nico Douga, there was a second stream of the show on Crunchyroll as well which was shown with a one-week delay. A large number of overseas fans preferred to watch on Crunchyroll due to the higher quality video and optimised playback tools; in return they were happy to wait an extra week for each episode. So long as there's good communication and fans are given a reasonable choice so they can watch in a way which suits them, it seems that there's no strict consensus on how quickly anime has to be delivered.

Sales of DVDs/BDs
Another thing that has escaped nobody's notice is that the home video market overseas has shrunk. Many titles never make it to DVD at all any more in English-speaking countries. I've noticed that more and more series are coming out in Japan these days with English subtitles on the discs from the outset - a fantastic trend. However, with no marketing overseas and no way to sample the show at all, it's very difficult to be tempted to blindly purchase a series which doesn't have a simulcast. As my blog shows, I will still make a blind purchase in some cases (JoJo's Bizarre Adventure volume one arrived today). I am definitely in a tiny minority though, and I'd be spending a lot more on importing anime Blu-ray discs from Japan if I had the chance to see the shows first. Worst hit by this is something like Gundam, where I've collected every previous series on DVD from the US. When the more recent Gundam titles began airing, I was happy purchasing the English-subtitled international release of Gundam Unicorn as it was a high budget, high quality OAV I was confident I'd enjoy with a relatively low cost. I had to skip Gundam AGE, however; with no streaming available in the UK in any language, it was impossible to justify purchasing the single Blu-ray discs of a show which I thought might have been too 'kiddy' for my tastes. On the other hand, I didn't enjoy Fate/Stay night so I wasn't planning on buying Fate/Zero when it was released in two expensive Blu-ray boxed sets. Nico Nico Douga streamed the show to the UK, and I loved it so much I preordered both boxed sets with no regrets. The availability of legal streaming can greatly influence my purchasing habits, and this means more money goes straight to the Japanese anime companies.

Sales of other merchandise
One of the most interesting points made in the Daisuki press release was that the service will include a way to buy merchandise for the shows it streams. Crunchyroll dabbles in this with their shop and daily deals, and before I realised that most of the good ones are only for US-based customers I regularly checked the homepage to see what the newest deal was going to be. They even let people buy memberships as gifts (which I really like).

When I am streaming a new series, I often get swept up in the moment and want to buy merchandise for it; my house is full of character goods, music/drama CDs, figures and indeed the eventual home video releases. When it comes to new fans, I often see them struggling to find the music from a show or a legitimate place to purchase models, and even reading news websites on a daily basis I often miss announcements of new merchandise myself. Making the purchasing of anime goods possible right on the same site I'm streaming from is a very good idea and could really help monetise even less popular anime in new ways. This is an area where Daisuki can definitely exploit its strong ties with the Japanese merchandise companies to drive growth in a brand new way. They should also, if possible, reach out to local distributors (in both Japan and the overseas countries) to sell DVD versions of their shows where possible. I'm excited even imagining a service where I can try One Piece, enjoy a few episodes then click a button and order the first season on DVD for my collection.

Languages and regions
This is one of the areas where Crunchyroll's strategy is vastly superior to Anime On Demand's. Crunchyroll is a US company and the default language for its subtitles is US English. However, with a single click you can switch to Spanish or Portuguese on a large number of videos no matter where you live. In contrast, Anime On Demand is a French company which runs two completely separate, region locked sites for its French and English customers. It's even more frustrating when the English version is delayed due to a subtitle problem and you can see the French version is available yet not select it because of region locking.

There is an ingrained philosophy within the anime industry that everyone only speaks the language of the country they are currently situated in, not helped by the two loudest voices in most negotiations being in countries where this is largely true. On a global scale, however, this belief is completely preposterous; I'm happy to watch streams in raw Japanese or with subtitles in German, French, Italian or Dutch; other viewers don't speak Japanese but are fluent in Chinese, Portuguese or Spanish. There are hundreds of thousands of potential viewers who speak excellent English but live in countries which don't have English as their primary language, and they're resorting to illegal methods to watch anime - usually in English - because of the failure of the anime industry to address their needs.

One of my friends has also raised a concern that future content may be only available dubbed into English. This has become a pressing issue ever since Persona 4 was released on Blu-ray in the US without the Japanese audio at all, and on Crunchyroll some Gundam titles were released in English only as well. A reliance on dubbed content attracts some viewers and upsets others. I would not personally be interested in streaming or buying any anime that wasn't available with its original (Japanese) language audio track intact.

Even if a person only speaks one language, the demands of modern life often involve people travelling across borders. It's bizarre that I can be a UK citizen with a UK subscription to say, Crunchyroll, then go on holiday to a region outside its licensing reach and be unable to access my services until I return. This has historically been the case because of complicated contracts granting exclusivity in different regions, and it must stop if the anime industry wishes to properly cater for the requirements of an increasingly mobile, educated market.

Another related problem is specific to Europe, where the Japanese anime industry will grant Europe-wide rights to a UK, Italian, French or German company who will then only release the title in their own region and language. Whenever a license is granted to a company which does this, markets such as the UK end up being blocked from an entire anime series for many years until it becomes popular enough in other markets to make its way to DVD. We also see it occasionally when a US company picks up global English-language rights then locks the actual service to the US. It's a foolish way to behave, and Japanese companies should not tolerate this deliberate refusal to properly market and monetise their titles. It's probably the first excuse most people who watch pirated anime bring up, too, and while I don't agree with them personally I can certainly see their point. The piracy situation would be far easier to deal with if entire continents weren't being tempted every day by the lack of availability of legal alternatives.

Social Anime
One of Crunchyroll's greatest strengths has been its modern, fun strategy to involve anime fans in the site. Every new episode is promptly listed right on the front page, giving users one-click access to the newest content. On top of this, they announce every new episode on social media platforms such as Twitter, so if there's a delay or a user forgets that today is the day a particular series launches they can receive a reminder in their social media feed. In contrast, Anime On Demand requires regular visits to the site's often-unchanged front page to see if anything new has arrived. Almost nobody knows what's been licensed or when episodes of a new series will finally debut.

Crunchyroll have also expanded their brand with a shop, an active news feed and a robust commenting system which give users more ways to recommend and discuss titles with their fellow viewers, turning streaming into a social activity with a sense of community around it. Alternatively, if they don't wish to make use of the social media features, nothing is stopping a customer clicking straight through to the newest episodes without being bothered. Crunchyroll caters for two completely different audiences; it offers an appealing platform on which both older and younger fans can coexist.

Mobile Anime
One of the biggest benefits of streaming is the ability to take a vast library of anime with you legally wherever you go, watching it on a train, at a friend's house or on a family television without having to bring a computer or DVD with you. Crunchyroll offers support for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Apple iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Google TV and Roku Box already; forum threads occasionally surface indicating plans to add more devices to this list over time. Even though I am rarely away from a computer I've already become an active user of the iOS and PS3 versions of Crunchyroll. Being able to watch episodes of Kuroko No Basuke on my iPad wherever I go is a luxury I couldn't have dreamed of a few years ago. The convenience has even made my partner a fan of streaming after years of skepticism.

Anime On Demand has taken a different approach and tried using a HTML5 video player to allow mobile users to access the content without needing to install an app. I've never had any luck viewing any of their videos on my iPad, phone or consoles. Perhaps this is just a matter of a good idea hobbled by a lack of support? Without the benefit of mobile access, the deficiencies in Anime On Demand's simple player compared to Crunchyroll's optimised software are glaring.

Titles and Competition
Assuming that Daisuki successfully deliver a service which meets all of my requirements, I would definitely be comfortable paying a subscription. One concern that has been raised - especially by fans in other regions where they have more than one viable paid anime streaming service already - is that they'll end up paying yet another subscription to spread the available anime titles even thinner between all of the companies. This has potential to cost fans extra without necessarily offering them any benefits.

Relatedly, some people have complained that of the titles listed, several already stream in English, for example Puella Magi Madoka Magica is available in the US through Aniplex USA and One Piece is available in the US from FUNimation. The key words here are "in the US"; English-speakers outside the region have no legal way to watch these series on a streaming service whatsoever. While it may ruffle some feathers in the US if the fans there don't perceive that they're getting as much of a benefit as foreigners with the new service, I am deeply grateful for what this implies. A legal stream of the two series mentioned in the UK will increase awareness and sales of the home video versions for our local companies, and they could finally allow us to get caught up to our lucky cousins in the US.

The other possibility for the 'duplicate' licenses, if it's not a nod towards the global market, is a shift in focus from the standard exclusivity model for licensed anime. At the moment, series licensed by Anime On Demand in the UK cannot appear on Crunchyroll without the UK being excluded from Crunchyroll's vastly superior stream of the same show. This grates when both services have the license to Magi, except Crunchyroll can only stream it outside the UK. Anime On Demand provide it here, but a day later than Crunchyroll's already-delayed simulcast. This delay serves absolutely no purpose and reminds me on a weekly basis that the UK market is not as important to anime companies as the US one. I'd much rather just watch it on Crunchyroll at the same time US fans are allowed to.

It would be very exciting to me as a consumer if this limitation was eventually lifted, allowing the companies which provide the best service to reap the rewards of customer subscriptions instead of forcing fans to subscribe to multiple websites to view one series on each (in a worst case scenario). Failing that, I at least hope that the new Daisuki service will keep the limited budgets of fans in mind, and ensure that younger viewers aren't priced out of streaming by too much competition. A free ad-supported or time limited streaming model will definitely help fans with less disposable income enjoy what Daisuki has to offer.

Summary
This has ended up reading as a fan letter to Crunchyroll in many ways. They have a lot of experience with the overseas anime market and they're doing a lot of things right. My hope for the new Daisuki service is that it takes a careful look at what's working well and doesn't make the same mistakes other companies have over the years. I'm really, really looking forward to being able to see Gundam, One Piece and the others legally in my own country after all of these years. Good luck!

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