The future of TV distribution already exists, and it’s called Crunchyroll

cr_verticalAttorney-General George Brandis announced last month that the Australian government wants to drastically curb film and TV piracy, but with methods that have been demonstrably ineffective in other  countries. Following Foxtel muscling iTunes and Quickflix out of selling HBO shows the day after broadcast, this is another step leading us further away from the convenient distribution systems that could genuinely reduce piracy. Instead of curing the problem by building towards a flexible, geographically egalitarian system, Big Media and the government are merely treating the symptoms with resentment and hostility.

Yet progressive distribution models are prospering. Netflix is frequently held up as the benchmark, but it only distributes its handful of original shows in all its territories at once. Even if they set up shop here tomorrow, we’d remain bound to free-to-air and pay TV distribution for all other new shows. Hulu comes closer with next-day streaming of American broadcasts, but it’s US-only (unless you’re geo-dodging) and doesn’t include content from key cable channels like HBO, Showtime, and FX. And that’s just American programming. The problem repeats in most countries.

No, the model for the future is Crunchyroll. If you haven’t heard of it, that’s for the very reason it’s so effective. Crunchyroll doesn’t stream mainstream TV shows, but a niche product: anime.

If you told Australian downloaders of pirated TV shows about a site where for around $7 a month (with no contract) they could legitimately stream many of their favourite shows in high-definition within minutes of their broadcast, you can bet most would see no more reason to pirate. That’s Crunchyroll, at least for its specialty area. A more comprehensive fusion of Netflix and Hulu’s models and available in far more countries, it presents episodes in the timely, convenient, and high-quality fashion that audiences are clamouring for. Australian networks continue to run shows late, delay their broadcast by weeks or months, and generally make watching TV a chore. Foxtel’s pay TV monopoly, meanwhile, forces viewers to pay huge sums even if they care about only one or two shows.

While Crunchyroll doesn’t tick off every wish list item (such as downloadable episodes), it more than satisfies 10 million monthly visitors, 200,000 of whom have a paid subscription for extra perks. At a time when affordable, convenient, and legal distribution of mainstream TV in countries like Australia seems further away each day, I can’t quite believe it exists.

Crunchyroll actually began as an unauthorised site streaming pirated episodes subtitled by fans (fansubs), but its popularity led to co-operation with Japanese anime distributors and venture capital funding to transform it into a serious and legitimate operation. Dozens of new anime shows and dramas are broadcast on Japanese television every year. When long-delayed DVD releases were the only legal way to watch them, fansub downloads were rampant. With Crunchyroll and anime home video distributors streaming so many shows, the need for fansubs has reduced dramatically*. There’s little reason to pirate anymore unless you simply must have a portable copy and can’t wait for the home media release.

Crunchyroll now streams most anime shows broadcast in Japan and aims to eventually stream all of them. An army of translators subtitles each episode in several languages (thanks to early access to scripts) and a new episode is available to stream every week. You can watch it for free in standard-definition with minimal advertising a week after broadcast, or pay $7 a month and watch in high-definition without ads within minutes of broadcast. Apps are available for XBox, Playstation, Apple TV, and other devices so you can watch through your TV. The economics of streaming even gives fans outside Japan access to far more anime than they had in the DVD era. Shows that would never have received a home release – and still never may – nonetheless stream on Crunchyroll.

Old episodes are available too, and most shows continue to be available years after they finish. The streaming quality is excellent. You can even choose from a range of resolutions in-browser from SD through to 1080p, while mobile and other apps play HD when the connection is strong enough. The options embarrass the stubbornly standard-definition streaming of Australian catch-up services.

Most surprising is the sheer number of territories shows are available in. New shows are often licensed for dozens of countries, some worldwide (except for Japan). Only a few high-profile examples are limited to key territories like the US, like recent smash Attack on Titan. (In Australia, at least, Madman stepped in and streamed the show). But as a rule most of Crunchyroll’s content is available widely without the company needing to ‘launch’ in a new territory as Netflix does due to existing content agreements. The paucity of supported languages somewhat negates this accessibility, but from a licensing perspective it’s still impressive.

Watching anime has gone from a remote, second-hand experience to one of absolute immediacy, living up to the international social and cultural experience that TV has become. I think about being able to watch Game of Thrones and Mad Men this way and get goosebumps, knowing that all my frustrations with TV availability would be solved.

If this post just reads like a drooling plug for Crunchyroll, that’s because online TV distribution in Australia is so malnourished. What progress has been made is often negated by expense or delays. Crunchyroll offers pretty much exactly what we need for TV in general. The kind of idealised distribution system pined for in the endless comments on every article published about Australian piracy already exists, after a fashion.

Of course, it’s more feasible for anime, herculean subtitling notwithstanding. Japanese production houses aren’t more progressive than Big Media companies. They just offer a niche product and aren’t owned by multinationals with pre-existing content arrangements in most other territories, which prevent Netflix launching anywhere it wants. Although anime has a huge and passionate fandom, it doesn’t generate the massive profits of premium American and British television, so Crunchyroll’s admittedly tremendous achievement in licensing international distribution rights wouldn’t have been as labyrinthine a battle as it would be for, say, HBO, to transform how it sells its shows overseas.

But it should stand as the example that all content producers should aspire to if they want consumers to happily pay for their product. At the moment, one Hollywood behemoth in one territory sells to a rival in another, such as Time Warner-owned HBO selling exclusive rights to News Corp/Telstra-owned Foxtel in Australia. Foxtel then only offers shows in package deals that force consumers to pay $50-120 a month (usually on a one-year contract) even if they only want to watch a few. Instead, the behemoth that owns the show needs to distribute it internationally themselves, or through local companies who are obliged to distribute in the exact same manner as in the home territory.

Cutting out the regional go-between no doubt has local economic quandaries that hinder such innovation, such as local jobs and the benefits from relationships between multinational benefactors and local content producers. I don’t have the expertise to analyse these, but I can offer the perspective of a somewhat informed consumer frustrated when studio-sponsored groups like the Australian Screen Association deliberately dodge the issue by just pointing to flawed local streaming options for some shows as if they magically solve the poor availability or high asking price of all others.

HBO Nordic serves as a model for how consumer-friendly international TV streaming could look. For around $US15 a month, all new HBO episodes are available for streaming within hours of their US broadcast and a back catalogue of most of their shows is available for streaming any time. If the only TV you care about comes from HBO, 15 bucks a month sorts you out. HBO Nordic is essentially the company’s Crunchyroll, except a bit more expensive and only available in Scandinavia. They call it their laboratory for a potential future where they offer their programming online separately with no need for an expensive basic cable package first. Although it may not be performing as well as hoped – seemingly due to technical and pricing missteps – the principle behind it is progressive and sound.

Sure, this bright future may mean subscribing to a set of streaming packages that amount to a similar cost to cable. Studios are increasingly withholding content from Netflix while establishing services like Warner Archive Instant. But the flexibility and choice would still outstrip what we have now.

We hear constantly from tech-savvy Australians that they’ll pay for such convenient, flexible, and affordable services, and the reason Big Media don’t provide them isn’t due to ignorance. It would require a massive paradigm shift that shareholders and CEOs would be terrified to attempt: essentially the abolition of international licensing, which local third-party stakeholders are understandably resistant to. Yet there’s also ignorance in the corporate conviction that piracy can be reduced to any significant degree using punitive methods. Their efforts might be redundant anyway given the economic impact of piracy isn’t a foregone conclusion.

When the democratic future of distribution is already here in pockets like Crunchyroll, the demand for it to be enacted on a wider scale won’t abate. Unrelenting consumer demand that can even lead everyday people to pirate is a force to tap, not lamely attempt to suppress. For the joy of watching new episodes legitimately in a way that doesn’t frustrate or demean you, you may want to start learning about anime. Funnily enough, Attack on Titan is an awesome place to begin.



* Statistics on the impact of legitimate streaming on anime piracy proved difficult to find, let alone any that account for the parallel reduction in anime viewing overall since its boom in the early 2000s. So although Crunchyroll’s role in reducing piracy is not quite irrefutable, its huge visitor stats strongly suggest that it’s satisfying a demand, particularly among those who used to pirate solely due to lack of availability. If anyone has a link to relevant stats, please leave a comment.

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