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Anime is one of the biggest fronts in the streaming wars

Over the course of the 2010s, streaming services for anime have grown from a niche market to a mainstream one. Companies like Sony, Netflix, Amazon, and AT&T / Warner Brothers are vying for top spots with shows like My Hero Academia and Carole & Tuesday. Investments by these huge corporations have helped produce more anime and made it more widely available outside of Japan. They’ve also made things much more complicated and expensive for consumers.

Currently, it’s possible to legally watch almost every new anime show airing within a few hours of their Japanese broadcast — with the right subscriptions. A membership for Crunchyroll, FunimationNow, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and HiDive will cost you a total of $42.95 a month. Because there’s little to no overlap between what is available on each service for simulcast, anime fans looking for a comprehensive selection can’t just pick one. New episodes of My Hero Academia are released the same day they air in Japan on Crunchyroll, FunimationNow, and Hulu (thanks to a deal with Funimation). But if you want to watch Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe’s new show Carole & Tuesday, your only option is Netflix.

It’s a mess, especially if you’re a consumer looking to keep up with shows as they air. New seasons of anime air in Japan every three months, each having some 30 to 50 new 30-minute-long shows, which will usually run weekly for eleven to thirteen weeks. There is a constant abundance of new content available for licensing.

To better understand how some of the biggest entertainment companies in the world have gotten involved in streaming anime, it helps to look at how the five main services that exist now came to be involved in simulcasting anime.

Crunchyroll has been in the anime streaming game the longest. When it started back in 2006, it was a place where users could share unlicensed fan translated and subtitled anime (aka fansubbing) and other East Asian shows. But by the early 2010s, it transitioned to a subscription and ad-supported model of licensing and subtitling shows itself exclusively for its service. Crunchyroll’s biggest selling points were that it had shows up on the service faster than pirated versions, professionally translated, and it was supporting the original creators. By February 2017, it had grown to over a million paying subscribers and 20 million registered users.

In 2016, Crunchyroll announced a partnership with competitor Funimation, where the two companies would share some of their exclusively licensed shows, along with some series from their back catalogs that would now be available across both platforms. This also included adding Funimation’s newly relaunched streaming service FunimationNow to VRV, a video streaming service bundle run by Crunchyroll’s parent company Otter Media, and giving Funimation the home video distribution rights to Crunchyroll’s catalog of shows.

This partnership however would come to an end in October 2018, just a few months after Crunchyroll’s parent company was acquired by AT&T. It was then made part of Warner Bros. Entertainment, alongside Cartoon Network and Adult Swim.

Funimation, the company behind FunimationNow, started in the mid-1990s as an anime licensor and distributor for home video and TV broadcast in the US. Best known in the ‘90s for its English dubs of Dragonball Z, by 2009 it began streaming some older licensed shows through its website as well as through Hulu.

Then in 2014, it began a subscription service for streaming what it called “simuldubs.” Rather than wait months for a DVD or Blu-ray release containing a dubbed anime, it would start releasing episodes to subscribers within a few weeks of the episode airing in Japan. This service would relaunch as FunimationNow two years later, at which time it also entered the previously mentioned partnership with Crunchyroll.

But in 2017, Sony Pictures Television would purchase Funimation, end its deal with Crunchyroll the following year, and then sign a multiyear deal with Hulu. This gave Hulu the first chance to license subtitled and dubbed shows that would normally be exclusive to FunimationNow.

Amazon didn’t really come into the picture until 2017 with the announcement of Anime Strike, an add-on channel to its Amazon Prime Video subscription that would give subscribers access to exclusive anime for an additional $5 a month. The service included shows Amazon had licensed itself along with shows from licenser and distributor Sentai Filmworks.

Anime Strike would only last just over a year after having not been particularly well received despite some prestige shows simulcast on the service like Land of the Lustrous. However, Amazon continues to license and invest in new shows like Vinland Saga. Most recently, it produced a new version of Blade of the Immortal, its first anime series that is only available worldwide on Prime Video and wasn’t broadcast on Japanese TV.

HiDive is the youngest of the services, forming at the end of 2017 by first acquiring Anime Network Online, the streaming service of subscription video-on-demand company Anime Network. After the end of Amazon’s Anime Strike, HiDive became the exclusive home for most of Sentai Filmworks’ licensed content. It also entered into a partnership with Crunchyroll similar to what it had with Funimation, sharing some content between the two services and adding HiDive to the VRV video streaming bundle.

Netflix took its first serious steps into anime simulcast streaming in 2014 by producing its first original anime, a computer-generated show based on the Knights of Sidonia manga series. It also acquired the exclusive license to stream The Seven Deadly Sins anime, based on a popular action / adventure manga series of the same name.

It continued to exclusively license a few shows over the next few years, including Ajin and Little Witch Academia from fan-favorite animation studio Trigger. Then in late 2017, Netflix declared that a sizable chunk of the $8 billion it planned to spend on new content in 2018 would be on anime. That helped it secure shows from high-profile creators and studios like Shinichiro Watanabe (Carole & Tuesday), Production I.G (Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045), and Kyoto Animation (Violet Evergarden).

Netflix, however, releases its simulcast shows very differently compared to its anime streaming competitors. While in Japan, shows are available on the service within a day of the Japanese broadcast. Internationally, it will hold a show until months after it has finished airing and then release the entire season, usually both subtitled and dubbed. It’s common for a binge-trained audience, which runs counter to the simulcast viewing habits of consumers on other services.

The biggest change going forward in streaming isn’t going to be in the services, but in how they license shows. Or, rather, how these companies invest in shows.

Historically, companies looking to stream or release a home video version of a series outside Japan had to acquire a license from the show’s production committee. These production committees are companies created just for the show and made up of all of its stakeholders. Those stakeholders include not just the animation studio in charge of production, but could also include the channel / service that will air the show, the toy companies that’ll produce the show’s merchandise, music companies that might acquire or make the songs for the opening and ending themes, book publishing companies if the show is based on an existing novel or manga, etc.

Lately, these streaming services have started becoming part of those production committees, or taking advantage of the fact that another subsidiary in the corporation is already on the committee. Sony, for instance, was already involved in anime production through Aniplex, an anime production company housed under Sony Music. But with Funimation now part of Sony, it’s been able to get favorable agreements from Aniplex. This is notably occurring right now with the simulcast of Fate/Grand Order – Absolute Demonic Front: Babylonia, whose subtitled episodes have a 30-day exclusivity to Funimation streaming services before they can appear on any other ones. Dubbed episodes have a year of exclusivity.

This sort of internal corporate synergy is likely going to become the norm, which will stratify shows in much the same way as the rest of the streaming wars: exclusives on Disney+, Warner Bros. content only being on HBO Max, and so on. This could lead to more competition and investment in the shows companies license, which in turn could hopefully improve the pay and working conditions of animators and other production staff who are already overworked and underpaid. For consumers, there is more easily accessible anime being made than ever before — but only if you have the money.

The answer to this is really dependent on what you are looking for. If you already pay for Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, or Hulu and aren’t concerned with being absolutely up to date with what’s new, then you’re good already. All three have pretty large catalogs of shows both old and new.

If you are looking to keep up with new shows weekly, you’ll likely end up subscribing to Crunchyroll, FunimationNow, or both. Crunchyroll tends to quantitatively license more shows than FunimationNow does, but between the two, you should end up with access to 75 to 90 percent of a given season’s new shows. Both also have extensive back catalogs of shows, especially long-running ones like Naruto and One Piece.

HiDive is a great addition to Crunchyroll if you subscribe to the VRV bundle instead of to both services individually. On its own, it is hard to recommend unless you are looking to watch a specific show that only it has; there are a couple like O Maidens in Your Savage Season (one of our best anime of 2019), Bloom Into You (one of our best anime of 2018), or the classic ‘90s anime Legend of the Galactic Heroes.

But all of this is of course fluid, and dependent on if a service has the show you want to watch. This is especially true if you are trying to stay current, and it can require a lot of digging online to find out what new shows are going to be on what services. We try to make that a little more manageable with our previews of each new anime season.

This Article was first published on theverge.com

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