Big Robots, Bigger Hearts: Anime Streaming Is Big Bucks

Big Robots, Bigger Hearts: Anime Streaming Is Big Bucks

04.18.19
"That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime" is a fantasy anime based on RPGs and is part of a whole genre where people get reincarnated as unexpected things. Promo Image.
04.18.19

You might have noticed that we’re in a golden age of television. One that’s only threatened by the sheer volume of content that’s out there.

Streaming services are stockpiling shows left and right, with platforms like Netflix putting so many series out so fast it’s hard to keep up. They probably dropped a new series while you read that sentence.

And yet, the rules of the marketplace seem to demand that *even more*  shows make it onto every available screen. The same way that there is a seemingly endless variety of laundry detergents on store shelves.

To bulk up on content, Netflix has turned in recent years to anime (that’s Japanese animated series for any Baby Boomers who are lurking) — and in the past two years they made big investments, funding 30 series as part of their $8 billion push for original content.

Yet Netflix is far from the go-to name in watching anime online. In so many ways they are late to the party. While they’ve committed to new versions of classic series like “Ultraman” (using CG animation) and “Cowboy Bebop” (live-action adaptation) and have acquired the streaming rights to “Neo Genesis Evangelion,” the heart of anime streaming lay elsewhere.

For starters, there are a seemingly endless supply of websites where users can stream anime for free. Anime fans have always been resourceful when it comes to spreading the gospel, and in the streaming era lists persist of sites that provide ad-supported and, um, other means of acquiring their fix. You can even find some classics buried in the depths of YouTube with questionable levels of legality.

That obviously hasn’t stopped major subscription services from emerging.

We’ll start with Crunchyroll, which has been around for more than a decade. They recently raised their prices (by a whole $1.04, oh no!) for the first time since they started up in 2006. Crunchyroll is home to a mountain of anime offered up primarily in subtitled form. That’s the preferred format for anime purists, and also happens to be less expensive to produce for American audiences.

What Crunchyroll is to subbed anime, Funimation is to dubbed anime. The two used to be partners, but Funimation — which is owned by Sony Pictures Television — skipped out with their library last year. They took some gems along with them, including the aforementioned “Cowboy Bebop.” For fans who prefer dubs to subs, Funimation has long been a critical player in the anime scene.

Both Funimation and Crunchyroll are in the simulcast business. In broadcasting, that means when content is sent out simultaneously on different channels. In anime streaming, it indicates that when a show goes up in Japan, it also hits other parts of the world. For Crunchyroll that means shows hitting in subtitled form, for Funimation it means in dubbed form. Some dubs on Funimation go up the same day as the broadcast in Japan. Given that fans used to have to wait years for official translations, or for other fans to do the work on unofficial versions, simulcasts are an attractive feature.

You’ll also find simulcasts at HiDive, which launched in 2017. HiDive’s catalog is a lot smaller than the two services we’ve already mentioned, and if you’re looking to maximize bang for buck, it is part of the bundle at VRV.

VRV is a bundle of channels that is run by Crunchyroll. The company doesn’t own all the channels, but it has partnered with channels who share its core audience. For the anime curious, it’s a pretty sweet deal (I say this as someone who is subscribing to VRV after switching off his Netflix account until “Stranger Things” comes back.) VRV gets you access to all of Crunchyroll, then puts in HiDive, Boomerang (which has a bunch of “Looney Tunes” and other Warner Bros. favorites), Rooster Teeth (makers of the anime-styled “Gen:Lock” produced by and starring Michael B. Jordan), and nerd culture channels like Geek and Sundry. This “thin bundle” strategy is what’s likely to dominate the whole of the streaming industry — anime or not — in the years ahead. For the moment, VRV costs $9.99 — just two bucks more than Crunchyroll on its own.

Of course, bundling anime and cartoon channels together might not be enough to survive in a world where the streaming giants’ goal seems to be total market domination.

Netflix has a CGI “Ultraman” series which they have locked down as an exclusive. Vibes of “Iron Man” here.

Netflix is spending all that money, and is locking down exclusives as they always do. Its only weakness seems to be the service’s unwillingness to stick with any series for too long — which has a lot to do with how content deals are structured. Usually the longer many series go on, the more a studio has to pay everyone involved.

And then there’s Hulu, which has a cache of anime itself. That’s in large part due to a relationship with Funimation, so Hulu subscribers can find “Cowboy Bebop” and “Attack on Titan” there. They recently signed a first-look deal for distributing Funimation series, including simulcast series. For the anime curious, jumping in on a Hulu subscription (or remembering that you already have one) isn’t a bad option at all.

What’s interesting from a business standpoint is that streaming services remain a bit of a “black box” when it comes to what’s actually driving success. The business leaders at companies like Netflix appear to be betting on just having so much content that there will be something for everyone. Yet when it comes to the cultural conversations, we collectively still seem to gather around a few key shows. Since Netflix and their competitors don’t like to share their viewership numbers, it’s hard for all of us to know if entertainment is still a hit-based business, or if we really have entered an era where big winners are no longer the big story.

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