Woo boy. This is a topic I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while now but also one that I’ve kind of dreaded talking about at full length because of how visceral the discussions around it have been. However over the recent months, and more specifically some of the events of the past week, its grown far too big not to say something about so I guess it’s finally time for me to address the 100 million pound elephant in the room: Netflix. Netflix rolled onto the anime scene a couple of years back with their acquisition of Knights of Sidonia and while their approach of withholding the show until after it’s broadcast and launching it all at once was mostly just something of a nuisance at the time, the outcries against them have grown increasingly louder as they’ve gone after “bigger” titles like Little Witch Academia and The Seven Deadly Sins. Now if you’ve followed me on Twitter for any decent amount of time, then you’ll know my stance has generally been that of the “lesser of two evils” variety when compared to Amazon’s Anime Strike service, but even the lesser of two evils (depending on which you view as the “lesser evil” I guess) is still evil so it’s time to dive into an important question: Is Netflix truly “killing” anime?
On a surface level this seems like a pretty one and done argument. Netflix refuses to simulcast their anime licenses outside of Japan, despite simulcasts being the general standard for the hardcore anime market nowadays. The lack of a simulcast harms discussion for their shows, and even worse makes a lot of people more likely to pirate stuff. The reality of the situation however, is a little more complicated and requires touching upon a subject that a lot of hardcore anime fans are hesitant to admit to: the hardcore anime base that keeps up with seasonal anime and simulcasts and anime is not the majority of the audience that watches anime.
Now this isn’t to say that the hardcore market isn’t a significant one. After all if it wasn’t, Crunchyroll wouldn’t currently be sitting at over a million subscribers and we wouldn’t have the far greater misfortune of Amazon strong-arming their way into the industry with a cruddy service that keeps stuff behind an insane paywall. But even with all that in mind the truth of the matter is that most people who watch anime do so on a much more irregular schedule and generally tend to come across shows by chance or word of mouth rather than actively combing for the newest stuff the same way folks like myself have gotten used to. Even for Crunchyroll, who pretty much pioneered the simulcast market as it exists today, many of its most well known and popular titles are things that finished ages ago, and they put just as much pride in simulcasts as they do having an extensive catalog of titles that stretches back for decades.
While seasonal fans like us might lament having to wait X amount of months to watch a new show, and may move on in the meantime, there are many more who’ll come across stuff later down the line and won’t even know something was delayed to begin with. Netflix knows this for better or worse, which is partially why they aren’t likely to adjust their current model anytime soon as the amount of hardcore eyeballs they’re losing is probably outweighed by the amount who are just happening to come across something for the first time. Heck the very fact that they’ve continued to push further and further into the market is a pretty clear sign that their anime pickups are hitting whatever numbers they’re currently looking for. So when fans talk about Netflix “killing” anime, they’re primarily talking in terms of their darling show of the season not getting the same amount of attention as other stuff, which granted sucks, and I can totally sympathize with that, but isn’t quite what I’d call death. Especially since the effects that these titles being held out on has on the amount of buzz they get is somewhat debatable. As much outcry as I’ve seen over Netflix supposedly destroying any chance of Little Witch Academia finding an audience, that show was still pretty much everywhere in terms of anime circles while it was airing (which sucked for me since I waited for the Netflix stream but I digress) and I’d have a hard time imagining most people who keep up with this stuff regularly wouldn’t know it exists. The seasonal anime fandom is as such that the argument of anything falling completely under the radar for reasons other than not being all that remarkable is kind of a false one, and even if its not necessarily through legal means, if there’s a hot new show out there worth getting excited about, you can bet the word will spread somehow or another.
So now that I’ve talked a little bit about the somewhat exaggerated death of anime by Netflix, it’s probably about time to talk about some of the service’s actual benefits as there are a actually a few. Diving into one of them requires once again looking at something most hardcore fans don’t really like discuss at length which is the need to cater to the more casual anime market. Casual audiences are a source of both mockery and dread for pretty much any fandom, and anime fans in particular can get pretty prickly about them but they are a vital part of the industry. After all no one’s really born a fan of anything, and just about everyone starts off casually before going deeper into stuff. However reaching this market typically requires making stuff accessible to them in places they’re likely to find them, and that’s been an ongoing battle within the industry. In the old days, TV deals were pretty much the most surefire way to reach a broader, younger audience, but even with the Toonami block still managing to stay on the air, and being relatively successful, television isn’t really the preferred viewing method for young people anymore. It’s streaming, and at the moment there isn’t really any dedicated streaming service on the planet bigger than Netflix.
The service currently sits at around 100 million subscribers and if even 3-5% of that audience has at least a casual interest in anime (which granted might be an overestimation, but it’s probably impossible to gauge exactly how many people on the planet actually care about anime), that’s still several times the supposed maximum audience Crunchyroll is currently reaching. Couple that with the the fact that the service has a wider reach and offers multi-language dubs for several countries and it’s not really hard to put together which service has the greater potential to create new anime fans. Speaking from personal experienced I’ve talked to quite a few kids who aren’t super into anime, but have gotten interested in shows like The Seven Deadly Sins or Hunter x Hunter because they were easily available on Netflix, and with Little Witch Academia currently available on both the main site and it’s kids show section, it could possibly end up finding an audience with young girls in addition to the 20-30 somethings like me who were probably going to watch it no matter what. In that respect I think Netflix could do a lot to give anime a bit more presence when it comes to reaching out beyond the hardcore sphere, and if some of these titles can end up finding brand new audiences and drawing more people into the fandom then I’m pretty much all for it.
Going a bit more into the actual industry side of things it’s equally worth mentioning that the reception to the service has been pretty positive on their end. While the amount of money Netflix likely offers for their acquisitions is undoubtedly a contributing factor in that, studios like Trigger have mentioned that they’re a lot easier to deal with than the usual Japanese television networks, and Netflix’s recently announced slew of titles that are being produced exclusively for the service could be a real game changer. Without the initial hassle of a television broadcast these shows don’t have to deal as much with the usual constrictions of things like strict episode runttimes, censorship and most significantly: scheduling. The weekly anime production schedule has long been a merciless problem for the industry and one that’s affected not only the quality of the shows, but the health of the people who work on them. Being able to work on this stuff on a more flexible schedule would be an absolute boon for the industry and one that would frankly be better for just about everyone involved, including fans since unlike their acquired titles, we’re all getting this stuff streamed at the same time, Japan included. It’s hard to say how much Netflix will push this particular initiative and for how long but I really hope that it ends up becoming their basic standard for dealing with anime, because (for the time being at least) it offers nothing but positives.
Having said all that though, it’s worth pointing out that pretty much nothing I’ve said here really negates the fact that the problems currently surrounding Netflix’s form of anime streaming are well…problems. By holding onto their acquired titles until they’ve finished their broadcast run in Japan, they’re undoubtedly encouraging piracy on the behalf of the hardcore fandom and that fact is inescapable. Even more than helping to shape the simulcast market into what it is today, one of Crunchyroll’s (and to a lesser extent Funimation’s) biggest contributions to the industry has been in helping to make piracy less convenient by offering things faster than pirates can keep up with, and giving us just about everything any given season of anime has to offer. Seeing that undermined in any capacity is incredibly frustrating to folks who’ve tried to remain loyal to the industry, and with how long self-justified piracy has been an issue for anime, anything that lends more fuel to that is harmful.
Additionally while I do think the effects of buzz from hardcore fans are a bit overstated in terms of how much it helps some of these titles, it’s still pretty effective in giving stuff attention in a market that’s flooded with a nigh endless amount of things to watch. Unless you’re dealing with a really massive, somewhat pre-established title, withholding it until the season’s passed WILL hurt interest, and with how quickly new shows come out, it’s extremely difficult for most things to get a second wind when it comes to the hardcore audience. These issues are particularly frustrating because they can easily fixed by Netflix simply choosing to simulcast anime internationally the same way they do select TV shows in the US, and anime in Japan. Sure they might lose some casual viewers by not being able to offer dubs right off the bat (this is almost undoubtedly the main reason they choose to withhold stuff) but if hit shows like Attack on Titan and One-Punch Man (granted they don’t actually own these titles but I doubt their licencors would say no to offering their dubs if they were offered enough money) can thrive on the service with just a sub-only option, there’s no real reason they can’t take a risk with stuff that’s obviously more niche like Kakeguri and throw the hardcore side of the market a bone. These are things that need to be more properly addressed and so long as they aren’t there’s harm in Netflix being a part of this industry and that’s something I’d ideally prefer not to say about any of the companies that are legally providing anime for us.
So is Netflix “killing” anime? Well I suppose that really depends on your exact point of view. There’s a lot of potential long term benefits to their entry into the market like the chance of expanding the audience for their titles, and ligtening some of the burdens when it comes to actual anime production, but the short-term issues they bring to the table by refusing to simulcast their titles are real ones, and the fact that they’re so easily fixable makes them all the more annoying. I don’t expect for anything I’ve said here to convince anyone to stop complaining about Netflix, nor would I want anyone to. After all if they weren’t so stubborn about their binge strategy I could be watching Kakeguri right now (and I REALLY want to watch Kakeguri for uh…reasons) and the only chance anyone has of convincing them to adjust their current strategy is by continuing to speak to them about it. What I do hope though, is that more people take the time to look the benefits Netflix does and can offer (moreso if they actually do choose to listen) for the industry, because they do exist and looking at this purely in terms of the immediate problems feels a little shortsighted. So in the end I’m pretty much starting this the same way I began: that Netflix is at best, the lesser of two evils when compared to Anime Strike whose mere existence is nothing but a nuisance in it’s current form. Unlike Strike however, I do genuinely believe that with time, Netflix could end up becoming a force for good.