What Anime Curation Tells Us About The Streaming Wars

Curator's Note

Above: The trailer for Enter The Anime (2019), essentially a Netflix press release concealed as a documentary, illustrates its efforts to directly cater towards anime fan communities. 

As streaming platforms struggle for dominance in a saturated market, anime serves as an interesting case study to help parse streaming curation strategies. This post examines anime curation on three streaming platforms (Amazon Prime Video, Crunchyroll, and Netflix) to examine how streaming platforms address and curate particularized markets, contents, and fan communities.

Amazon’s approach to anime in the past has been remarkably different from the rest of its content curation. Whereas most of Amazon’s content acquisitions appear to model their warehouse business model (acquiring enormous amounts of content, often regardless of quality), Amazon Prime Video’s short lived add-on subscription, Amazon Strike (2017-2018), curated anime behind a paywall within the Prime Video service. Many found the extra $5 a month for the service, on top of the annual Prime fee, to be plainly unaffordable. Notable here is the business and curatorial decision to separate anime from the rest of the Prime Video collection.

In contrast to Amazon’s content warehouse approach, Crunchyroll is labeled as a "niche" streaming site because it is primarily dedicated to streaming one unique type of content: anime. Initially founded as an anime piracy streaming site in 2006, the site’s popularity, alongside the rise of torrents, helped significantly shift anime consumption practices to online streaming. Crunchyroll pioneered the “simulcast” approach, offering subtitled anime episodes with 24 hours of their premiere in Japan.

This shift in access to the latest shows has resulted in pushback against Netflix’s handling of anime content. Netflix’s model of dropping seasons all at once, as opposed to Crunchyroll’s same or next day day access to newly premiering anime series in Japan, has drawn ire from anime fan communities. Netflix, like Crunchyroll, co-produces many anime to ensure streaming rights, but still hold fast to their season bundle drop model in a messy compromise between catering to particular fan communities, while refusing to change company-wide curatorial practices. 

While Crunchyroll, alongside its former rival, then partner, now rival again Funimation, used to dominate the anime streaming market, hosting the majority of newly releasing series. Now, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, as well as newer upstarts such as HiDive and Retro Crush, are increasingly placing their stake in the bid to win the anime streaming wars. This case study of streaming anime serves as a microcosm of the streaming wars, and indicate that, rather than relying on the idealized consumer, streaming platforms are increasingly identifying and catering to unique content markets.


Great post!

One feature that is often overlooked in the discussion of long-tail distribution is the way that niche content begets different modes of audience engagements and brand bonding, which creates a challenge for internet distributors who endeavor to be neutral platforms. It’s not as simple as “put it out there, and they will find it” in the way that Chris Andersen laid it out—with niche content, the experience is on sale as much as the content. 

It seems internet distributors must either choose between catering to niche fandoms (like Crunchyrole) with intentionally geared platform features at the cost of a wider mainstream viewership or catering to the mainstream crowd through more conventional features while failing to provide the particular and authentic experience that fans of niche content want.

As a non-anime fan, I’m just curious, to what degree do you think Crunchyrole and Netflix (with its anime content) are catering to different audience groups? Do hard-core anime fans who subscribe to Crunchyrole have any incentive to watch the anime content on Netflix? Do you think the viewers who are watching anime on Netflix are the dabblers, who wouldn’t care to subscribe to a site that is completely focused on anime, or who can’t afford to subscribe to multiple platforms and have chosen to put their money on the site with a wider variety of content? Generally, what I'm asking is, are these two sites competing for the same audience group, or are they after different types of viewers?

Thank you so much for the enriching comment. I think Crunchyroll certainly is catering towards the particular audience of anime fandom. So much of their social media presence is embedded in the logics of this fandom, including tweeting screenshots of anime and even starting their own convention (Crunchyroll Expo).

I think Netflix kind of wants it both ways. The way its app is designed is basically one large vast pool of content, somewhat sorted by themes or other attributes (anime usually gets sorted together, as well as “anime-inspired” shows), which makes it seem there’s a general/idealized audience in mind in that design. But on social media, Netflix appears to silo their twitter presence to reach different groups. The NX on Netflix twitter (https://twitter.com/nxonnetflix), for instance, caters to the “geek” crowd, and mainly tweets about shows that would go hand in hand (anime and Castlevania, for instance). 

I do think that many Netflix people may dabble in anime, but aren’t engaged enough in the general fandom to want a dedicated streaming site for it. But many anime fans watch other things as well. I think hard-core anime fans usually do consume some other content - they may have a subscription for Netflix, but it’s probably not just for the anime. Rather, it’s quite possible they get Netflix for everything else it offers, plus the completionist bonus of having access to all the anime shows across different platforms. 

There’s also the reality of piracy. A result of Netflix refusing to drop episodes weekly, many anime fans looking forward to the latest episodes premiering in Japan merely pirate them instead of waiting a few months for their Netflix debut. Meanwhile, Crunchyroll offers the instant-access anime fans are now accustomed to. It would be worth looking into Netflix’s concerns (if any?) around piracy - perhaps they are just too big to care. 

Jacqueline -- Thanks for the post (and for tweeting it out so that I caught it). I appreciate the consideration of the dreaded "Netflix jail," the delay that keeps anime programs from airing during the same TV season they air in Japan and on sites like Crunchyroll (CR) and Funimation. I gripe about it all the time to myself. 

What I'd like to ask you to weigh in with are thoughts about the ownership of CR and Funimation and if that shifts the streaming wars in certain ways for you. (For folks who may not know: Funimation is majority-owned by Sony and has a first-look deal with Hulu, majority-owned now by Disney. CR is now a subsidary of WarnerMedia, previously being owned by an AT&T subsidary (and WarnerMedia has HBO Max forthcoming and made a big deal about its deal with GKIDS to get Ghibli films for the platform).)

In what ways, if any, do you think these ownerships shift anything for how these anime-specific platforms are positioned in the streaming wars? Does it serve WarnerMedia to have CR as a separate platform? (I joked just this week to a friend that CR may eventually be folded into HBO Max at some point.) And while Funimation obviously benefits from the Hulu deal financially, does sharing its catalog with a more mainstream streamer (mainstreamer?) dilute or enhance its brand, or standing with casual viewers of anime? (I ask, fully aware that Hulu picks what it wants, after titles have been available for a while and mostly have dubs available.)

Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

Part of my dissertation research is looking at the transition from broadcast to streaming through the objects of WarnerMedia, Cartoon Network, and HBO Max. What I find interesting is how HBO Max is levering its animation IP (such as Adventure Time: Distant Lands and Jerrlystone, a Hanna-barbera reboot) as draws into the new service. I don’t think HBO Max/WarnerMedia would bring in anime (leaving it to Crunchyroll), because of branding (what ‘HBO’ as a brand means, what 'WarnerMedia' as a brand means) and how anime is quite different from most forms of content (somewhat disruptive to those already established brands). I think this extends to even the broadcast era, where programming blocks, bumpers, and promos for Toonami and [adult swim] serve to distinctly brand and distinguish these forms of programming from the rest of Cartoon Network.

That being said, I could see HBO Max becoming something like VRV, where for an extra few bucks, you can get a bundle of streaming sites. This kind of parcelling out content could be a way for WarnerMedia to not dilute the ‘brand’ of HBO, but still offer a competitive streaming bundle.

EDIT (May 7, 2020): welp, nevermind! Looks like HBO Max wiil be leveraging anime after all!! https://www.theverge.com/2020/5/7/21250936/hbo-max-crunchyroll-anime-netflix-amazon-funimation-fullmetal-alchemist-death-note-kill-la-kill?utm_campaign=theverge&utm_content=chorus&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter


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