I'm still in the process of putting together the list of Best Anime Streaming Releases of 2010, but while doing so a question came to mind. Given the state of the economy, the speed with which fans pounce on new releases and and the general ramping-up of the delivery technologies, how soon will streaming and downloads become the predominant way for anime lovers to get their favorite shows? Will 2011 be the Year of the Anime Stream?
This question has been batted around before, and most of the people I've talked to about it tend to identify with a few different camps. The first are the folks who want some kind of physical media to go with their purchases -- that is, if they buy a specific show, they want something tangible associated with it.
The second are people more comfortable with the digital age -- they don't mind buying just a file, as long as they're free to do with it as they please.
Third are folks who don't even mind not owning a specific thing -- what they want is a guarantee of continued access to something via a subscription. If they get a rental account to NetFlix or Cunchyroll, they want to know the show they watched a week ago is still going to be there in a year or two.
There's a lot of crossover between these three positions -- the physical owners, the virtual owners, and the subscribers, I guess you could call them. Each one of them represents a valid position, and I think they all have one thing in common: when people buy something, they want to know that it's theirs.
The folks who buy a DVD or Blu-ray Disc are in the best position, since nothing short of the total obsolescence of the format will prevent that. (Even those who bought LaserDiscs -- me included -- are still able to play those.) Downloaders are in roughly the same spot. But those who rely on streaming services, whether free or subscription-based, are at the whim of the library-keepers and the licensors. If a title disappears from NetFlix or Hulu, that's that -- and since such licensing deals are generally not perpetual, this happens more regularly than you might think.
Jessi at S1E1.com just wrote about this in a recent post: "It's extremely frustrating to recommend a streaming show to someone only to find out that it was taken down without any announcement." I agree completely, especially if that stream was the only viable way to see the show in question. Even more frustrating, as she goes on to point out, is to know that there are great shows still lingering in unlicensed limbo, which a tiny but extremely ardent group of fans want. Unfortunately, the economics of anime licensing don't really allow a sub-sub-subset of fans to be served efficiently. And so the only options left for fans are either expensive (buy the unsubtitled Region 2 DVDs) or illegal.
This year's crop of simulcasts and direct-from-Japan licenses yielded several shows that really caught my attention. (Some of them are on my best-of list, so I won't reveal them here just yet!) What struck me most about them was not just how fun and creative they were, but how releasing them on streaming first, as opposed to a DVD run or a broadcast slot, might well have been the only way they could have found an audience domestically. If something does well enough in streaming, odds are it can be bumped up to a physical release -- and I can think of two or three shows from that list which I'd buy on disc in a heartbeat if they were offered.
I'm holding out hope that as streaming and simulcasts become the first line of exposure for shows to more current and next-generation fans, the licensors and distributors will find ways to increase the flexibility of the presentation. A lot of this is hard to change overnight, but some striking shifts have taken place in the last couple of years, which have in the end served fans -- and the industry -- all the better.