Why the Netflix Model Doesn’t Work For New Anime (At the Moment)

In our new-fangled world of the internet and streaming services, innovative ways of accessing video content have become mainstream, and most consumers enjoy ’binge watching’ shows instead of the weekly format that we are accustomed to. This has its advantages, as it allows you to watch a show at your own pace, not worrying about making sure you’ve watched last week’s episode, as it’s all there already. Surprisingly though, as streaming new content to binge has only been around less than a decade, some shows aren’t available this way, with one of the big ones being anime.

Recently, discussions on social media have started introducing the idea of having certain shows held back from the weekly release schedule, and all put out at the same time, allowing for binge watching to be the main way people watch these titles. A lot of people were vocally opposed to this idea, including myself, as there are a lot of points that it does not address clearly, and it does not consider all of the factors the release of a television show has.

Traditionally, anime that has been released, except a few such as Re-Life, have been broadcast weekly in Japan, either as web episodes or on television. From this, people have had the ability to watch these episodes weekly, since the invention of IRC chat rooms, with people pirating them. In the last 10 years, companies like Crunchyroll, and more recently larger businesses like Amazon’s Anime Strike, have been releasing anime simultaneously with Japan, fully subtitled in a variety of languages. This allows fans of shows to be able to watch it as soon as possible, and engage with other people who are also watching it, creating a culture of hype surrounding these.

When a show is not picked up by a content provider, one of the remaining fansub groups that still exist then subtitle them, and release them on the internet weekly, so people can still enjoy them and talk about them with their friends. If you are one of the people who refuse to pirate anything, of which these people are few and far between, you then have to wait until the majority of people have watched it, posted spoilers, and made the show a less enjoyable experience for those with the patience to wait. This is not to say that either side is wrong with what they are doing, just that this is the consequence of a show not simulcasting. The idea of holding back a show to allow it to be binge watched afterwards is crude in its execution, as it does not take into account this culture of consuming anime.

When Netflix pick up an anime that has yet to air, they use their sense of belief of how people want to watch shows, and hold back releasing them, until the entire show is available to release in one go. As Netflix have done this with a lot of western programmes, I’m sure they have a lot of data to back up their ideals for regular programming, but these other shows have one benefit that anime doesn’t. You can’t watch these other shows anywhere else. For example, Little Witch Academia is currently airing in Japan with one episode a week; within a day of it airing, a fansub group has already released an English subtitled version of that episode, and almost 60000 people will have torrented it, and watched it. This isn’t even including the majority of people who will then watch the fansub after it’s been uploaded to illegal streaming sites, who quote figures of one million views of the first 13 episodes of the same show. In comparison, Attack on Titan season two has had only half as many downloads; with 2 and a half years of hype behind it.

Without the hold-back; there are 30000 potential customers for this show; using basic mathematics, and a Netflix subscription costing £5.99; £179900 is “lost” every month Netflix does this. The worst part is, these hold-backs don’t benefit any type of customer. Those who want to binge watch everything in one go, will still have the possibility of being spoiled by pirates and Japanese fans; and those who want to watch the show weekly now have to obtain it using illegitimate means. The strangest part of it is, Netflix’s Japanese branch have Little Witch Academia as a weekly release, meaning only part of the company agrees to this methodology.

Now, you may be thinking that these problems wouldn’t exist if piracy was out of the picture, and you would be right in this instance, but piracy also has a major reason as to why it should exist and is almost impossible to get rid of that I won’t go into here. The important thing is, how can companies solve this problem?

One way would be simply to allow weekly simulcasting of any show that airs weekly in Japan, removing the problem entirely. The other is a lot more drastic, and would require multinational cooperation. If anime was created in a way that it was all ready to be released at the same time, and then released as a batch everywhere in the world; there would no longer be a split in the market and everyone would have access to it at the same time, meaning those who were pressured into piracy no longer have a reason to. Netflix already does this with their Netflix Originals that it produces in house, so it makes logical sense to do this with anime they acquire international rights for. Unless both Japan and the West are on the same page regarding this, I see no way of making all consumers happy.

Now back to my initial problems; when an anime is licensed by a company outside of Japan, they then decide how to deal with distribution themselves, bar a few guidelines. If any of these distributors have opposing ideologies about how to distribute a title, with one doing a weekly release and another doing a batch release after the whole show has aired, this creates easily pirate-able copies of any show that the other distributor would want to hold back, not even accounting for the Japanese broadcast version that could be fansubbed. This situation means that a large portion of the audience that would wait for a batch will feel ripped off, and just pirate the anime anyway; causing a loss in revenue. At that point, you may as well not even bother streaming it, and work on a faster home media release.

So if a distributor tried to use the Netflix model to release a new anime, they would either have to accept the loss of revenue from people pirating it or using VPNs to watch it from other countries, or obtain global rights, including japan, to allow the anime to be released simultaneously around the globe, allowing hype to be created, and the minimum amount of piracy to happen.