January 23, 2020

The Netflix fox

It's hard to think of another media company that has been so consistently ahead of the technological curve as Netflix. Founded in 1997, less than two decades later, Netflix went from tech startup to putting its biggest competitor out of business. And then having almost completely cornered the market, it abruptly pivoted to the nascent video-on-demand model.

By 2011, CEO Reed Hastings was chomping at the bit to spin off the mail order DVD business and focus on streaming (partnering on the hardware side with a company called Roku). This first attempt was met with howls of protest. Though quickly walked back, Hastings didn't abandon the goal. I didn't see it at the time (which is why I'm not CEO of a big media company). But as my brother pointed out, "However screwed up NetFlix is, the networks and movie studios are worse."

Well, at least I was right about the value of maintaining the Netflix DVD brand even while the mail order business entered a slow (yet profitable) decline. In fact, Netflix continues to tout it on the streaming side.

On the DVD side, Netflix focused its shrinking attention on common-denominator bestsellers, understandable given its shrinking audience (the backlist is slowly shrinking too as damaged DVDs are not replaced, but it's so big it can shrink for a long time). I've also come to realize, however, that I have little interest in most of what Hollywood has to offer. And when I do, a one-off rental from Amazon Prime or buying the DVD will do.

I tried Hulu and wasn't that impressed. Hulu struck me as designed for the "like cable only different" audience. So I figured it was time to give the Netflix streaming service a spin around the block. I was already a Netflix DVD subscriber.

As it turns out, something interesting happened to Netflix in the meantime. The long tail lives!

Today Netflix is the world's biggest streaming service, with 160 million subscribers and a truly worldwide reach. Netflix has thus far shared the streaming space with competitors like Hulu and Amazon. But Hollywood has awakened to the streaming challenge. Disney+ debuted in late 2019 and WarnerMedia will introduce HBO Max later this year, each service bringing along enormous catalogs of content.

This is where Netflix's global footprint creates the unexpected twist. It's a business, after all, and would like to produce a lineup of fat-tailed hits everywhere it has a presence. So in Japan, Netflix produces dramas and reality series that would be competitive on any other Japanese network, and outbids its competitors abroad for production rights to series like Violet Evergarden from Kyoto Animation.

Chris Anderson was right all along. Netflix is still in the long-tail business.

If all Netflix did was produce fat-tail hits in every market it operates in, the end result would still look like a bunch of long tails to everybody else. Which is why hand-wringing business analyses about competition from Hollywood behemoths like Disney and WarnerMedia largely misses the point—unless Netflix makes the mistake of thinking that it is in competition with these Hollywood behemoths too.

According to Japanese mythology, the more tails a fox has, the more powerful it is. Anderson's model does need a bit of revising. Rather than relying on one big long tail, Netflix has built a business based on a whole bunch of tails for completely different audiences. Netflix has essentially become a global version of MHz Networks (which will abandon its broadcast network and transition to a streaming-only platform this March).

Netflix and MHz—now that'd make for an interesting partnership.

Related posts

Netflix switch
Hey, watch this!
Death of the doctrine
The streaming chronicles
Streaming according to Pareto

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January 16, 2020

Death of the doctrine

Like the VHS that preceded it, the DVD rental model was based on the "first-sale doctrine." The first-sale doctrine is a legal principle governing the rights that govern the distribution of intellectual property.

After the initial transfer of ownership of a legal copy of a copyrighted work, the first-sale doctrine exhausts copyright holder's right to control how ownership of that copy can be disposed of. For this reason, this doctrine is also referred to as the "exhaustion rule."

The first-sale doctrine applies to physical media. To things. Once Netflix (or your local library) purchases a DVD like Bohemian Rhapsody, it can rent it to whomever it wants and thereafter doesn't owe 20th Century Fox a dime (other than respecting a general restriction for personal use).

But the bits and bytes of streaming media are licensed, not sold, with conditions eternally attached. Like prices, windowing, and exclusives.

Right now, the only way to rent Bohemian Rhapsody on Amazon is to bundle it with HBO. Those terms are dictated by 20th Century Fox. The double-edged sword of digital delivery means publishers can use all that real-time rental data to dynamically price content and pick and choose the distributors.

The ability to extract value from the entire distribution chain is why everybody in the media and software space is jumping on the subscription-based licensing bandwagon. At the right point on the cost/content curve, it makes sense. But what that point is depends on the personal tastes of the viewer.

For me, Crunchyroll, HIDIVE, and Netflix are the best ways to get the most programming for the least amount of money. I've got years of content at my fingertips for a nominal monthly fee.

But subscriptions can also be something of a con, with the low recurring fees hiding the long-term cumulative costs. And then the sunk cost fallacy kicks in, leading us to attribute more value to a service we feel compelled to use (having already paid for it).

The old cable model is poorly structured to adapt to individual choices. Much better if, having paid for a service, it continues to offer a surplus of content you want to watch at a price you are happy to pay. In many specialized video-on-demand niches, that is exactly what streaming provides.

And so that is where the long tail lives today.

Related posts

Netflix switch
The streaming chronicles
Streaming according to Pareto

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January 09, 2020

Netflix switch

When the DVD rent-by-mail business took off twenty years ago, I signed on with Greencine (since defunct) to feed my anime and Japanese movie habit. But Netflix caught up fast. A new processing center in Salt Lake City shortening the turnaround time convinced me to switch. We've been together almost fifteen years.

Netflix has since closed the Salt Lake City center. The single-day turnarounds now take three or four. To give credit where it's due, Netflix uses the "Informed Delivery" service, which (if everything works) notifies Netflix when the envelope is scanned into the USPS system so Netflix can send out the next one.

With my grandfathered one-out, two-a-month plan ($4.99/month or $2.50 a disc), Netflix's DVD service was so cheap the money almost didn't matter. Still, my "Active" queue kept shrinking while my "Saved" queue kept growing (until Netflix zapped most of the "Saved" titles from the catalog).

I'm mostly talking about the more obscure GKids anime releases and old classics. My theory is that Netflix tracks how many times a title appears in the "Saved" queues of its customers and only acquires it when it hits a certain threshold.

Netflix has abandoned the DVD "long tail" for new titles and isn't acquiring anything but bestsellers anymore. Mirai was popular enough but most anime movies obviously aren't. Although Netflix is actively acquiring anime series and feature films on the streaming side, its DVD business doesn't know they exist.

So I looked more closely at Amazon Prime Video and was surprised at how many of the titles in my "Saved" queue were in its catalog. Granted, prices for older titles range from $2.99 to $3.99 but that's a small price to pay for instant gratification and zero commitment.

There are movies on the Criterion Channel I'd like to see too, but not enough of them to justify $10.99/month, even using the subscribe–binge–quit approach. It'd be nice if the Criterion Channel did one-time rentals too. In other words, the original Blockbuster Video model. What's old is new again.

Indeed, I'm a bit puzzled that Netflix, responsible for putting Blockbuster out of business, doesn't offer the option, say, a kind of interlibrary loan arrangement with providers like Criterion and MHz. That's what Amazon is doing with Prime Video (and, no, you don't have to join Amazon Prime to use Prime Video).

Though once rental costs approach the four dollar mark, I'll think seriously about buying the DVD or simply won't bother. Back when Netflix first jumped on the streaming bandwagon, I was a regular Luddite about the whole thing. But Netflix has since acquired enough Japanese content to pique my interest.

So after shipping more than 800 Netflix DVDs back and forth through the good old-fashioned mail, the time has finally come to bid physical media (mostly) goodbye.

Related posts

Hey, watch this!
Death of the doctrine
The streaming chronicles
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January 02, 2020

Violet Evergarden

Kyoto Animation's gorgeously animated Violet Evergarden, based on the light novels by Kana Akatsuki, begins with a premise I didn't expect, then takes off in a different direction from that, and finally ends up in a pleasantly familiar place, albeit with an unusual main character.

The story takes place in an alternate universe Leiden (Holland) shortly after the end of a Great War. As revealed in brief flashbacks, Violet Evergarden was a kind of Wonder Woman during the conflict, a teenage super-soldier paired with her own handler, Major Gilbert Bougainvillea.

Although a strategic victory, their last mission leaves Violet without her arms and Major Bougainvillea missing in action and presumed dead. Discharged and fitted with artificial limbs, Violet is handed over to Gilbert's friend and commanding officer, Claudia Hodgins.

The first episode resembles the early chapters of Anne of Green Gables, as Claudia tries to get one of Gilbert's relatives to take in this odd and socially maladroit girl. Like Marilla, Claudia concludes that he is in a better position to look after Violet's interests than anybody else.

Also retired from the military, Claudia runs the CH Postal Company, a secretarial service that makes the most of the word processor of the day, the typewriter. This brought to mind the classic British sit-com As Times Goes By, in which Jean Pargetter (Judi Dench) runs a typing agency.

CH Postal Company also has a "Sandy," a competent and attractive senior employee, Cattleya Baudelaire.

But the CH Postal Company's real forte is not simply transcribing but composing correspondence for its clients. This line of business struck another note of familiarity.

In the NHK drama Tsubaki Stationery Store, when her grandmother dies, Hatoko (Mikako Tabe) inherits her stationery store. The store never sold much actual stationery. Rather, her grandmother wrote letters for people who had something important to say but didn't know how to say it.

For Hatoko, estranged from her grandmother in the years before her death, picking up where she left off results in an emotional struggle that constitutes the core of the drama.

The demands of such a job present a seemingly insurmountably high hurdle for Violet, not because of her prosthetic hands, with which she can type faster than any of the other "Auto Memory Dolls" (as the typists are known). But because of her complete lack of emotional intelligence.

She is basically a female version of Data from Star Trek. She is wont to interpret language literally. Common circumlocutions confuse her. She reflexively salutes her superiors and answers "Ryoukai" to casual requests (the military equivalent of "Aye aye, sir").

It's no surprise that her first attempt to communicate a client's intentions—and not her literal words—ends badly. So why does she insist on pursuing an occupation she is manifestly unqualified for? Because of Gilbert's last words to her, the words of the most important person in her world.

"I love you." And she has no idea what that means. (Yeah, I know, cue Foreigner.)

At this point, director Taichi Ishidate extracts the story from the stalemate with some narrative slight of hand. He basically hits the fast forward button and levels her up to experienced Auto Memory Doll mode in one episode.

Utterly implausible from a mental health point of view. But Ishidate is correct that letting Violet "find herself" through work, by getting her out of the house and going on adventures, is infinitely more interesting than her spending the next half dozen episodes in psychoanalysis.

Sort of the same way Danny on Blue Bloods never stops working cases even when he's ordered to see a shrink.

Violet gets a Wonder Woman moment when she takes an assignment in the country of her old enemy and runs into a gang of insurrectionists out to scuttle the peace talks. (It's hard to miss echoes of the climatic scene in the original Ghost in the Shell.) But she's not going back to that life.

Her character arc thus takes her from a soulless war machine to a soulful Kwai Chang Caine with killer secretarial skills. Sort of as if Sandy in As Time Goes By had previously worked for Judi Dench when Judi Dench was M in the James Bond films.

I reminded of Kate's observation that Dean Cain's Clark Kent in Lois & Clark is his default self (in Japanese, his honne). Superman is the costume (his tatemae). Similarly, Violet Evergarden is about a superhero shedding the costume and finding her real "normal" self.

As noted, the setting is an alternate universe early 20th century Europe. The orthography is not recognizably Roman. The typewriters resemble the vintage manual I grew up with (before the Model D and the QX-10). Violet's artificial arms are more sophisticated than any modern prosthetic.

That along with the anachronistic fashions that pop up here and there lend Violet Evergarden a subtle steam punk ambiance that brings to mind the worlds of Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy and Hayao Miyazaki's Porco Rosso. It's a world with a lot of room for growth.

So far, the series has spun off an OVA and two films, the second of which (delayed by the fire) will be released in April 2020.

Violet Evergarden is an exclusive on Netflix.

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December 26, 2019

Roku Express 3930R

I "cut the cord" (well, canceled my Dish account when TV Japan jumped to DirecTV at almost twice the cost) eighteen months ago. Sure, you could pay me to sign up for DirecTV (DirecTV has the best full-fledged Japanese language package), but short of that unlikely event, I'll stick with streaming. My technology of choice is the Roku platform.

Any set-top box I use must work with an inexpensive programmable or pre-programmed IR remote (a feature that rules out the Fire TV). I have no plans of getting a television with higher than 1080p resolution anytime soon, so for the last year and a half I had been using a Roku Express 3900X.

It was not without glitches. The 3900X always reported Wi-Fi signal strength as "Poor" (-80 dBm) even when a Wi-Fi analyzer next to it never dropped below -50 dBm on a clear channel (full signal strength). When testing the connection, the Roku often reported there was no connection at all. Strangely enough, this didn't seem to affect actual performance.

I might have seen more problems crop up at native resolutions higher than 720p. Subsequent firmware updates didn't help, so the glitch was likely in the hardware. At the time, similar complaints showed up in tech forums, so it wasn't just me. The common conclusion was a manufacturing defect with the antenna.

But it hobbled along well enough to keep using for the past eighteen months. Still, while I usually forswear upgrading a device that more or less works simply for the sake of upgrading, when the new Roku Express 3930R went on sale, I figured it was worth paying $24.99 to answer the question.

Well, whatever the glitch was, it's fixed. The 3930R consistently reports an "Excellent" Wi-Fi signal at -40 dBm. That's loud and clear.

I described the 3900X as half the size of a pack of playing cards. The 3930R is a bit smaller and squarer, with the edges rounded rather like a computer mouse. It's a more aesthetically pleasing design, though it's so small it's hard to even notice except when the little blue power light is on.

I like the simplicity of Roku's "Windows 8" style interface. Nine icons fit on the home screen so that's what I limit my options to. For me, a big advantage of streaming is leaving behind the "traditional" MVPD model (Multichannel Video Programming Distributor) and its endlessly scrolling program guides, not replicating the same old with a virtual MVPD.

Related posts

The streaming chronicles
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December 18, 2019


Peaks Island Press proudly announces the third volume in the Donna Howard mystery series.

Making the most of her unique ability to speak to remnants of the dead, Donna Howard researches the provenance of art and antiques. This time, her investigation into a colonial-era portrait delves into the dark history of her adopted niece, SarahAnn, uncovering a kidnapping and a murderer who got away scot-free.

The journey to uncover that history takes the Howards and the Gregersons from Maine to upstate New York, from wedding venues to house museums. Facing a past she never knew, SarahAnn questions what constitutes a person's "real" heritage and whether breaking the law is justified in preventing a more heinous crime.

There are times when honestly confronting the past may leave our descendants with no choice but to choose their own ancestors.

Google Play

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December 12, 2019

The magic mirror

Illustration by Kyosai Kawanabe.
(1831-1889). In chapter 5 of The Space Alien, Kitamura-san describes a piece of mind-reading alien technology as a "magic mirror."

At first glance, it looked like a round silver metal tray. When I brought my face closer to it, I did not see my reflection as in a typical mirror, but a reflection of my mind. The thoughts of the person holding the mirror are displayed like a photograph on the surface of the silver plate. In short, a movie of the mind.

This "magic mirror" bears a strong resemblance to the jouharikyou (浄玻璃鏡) in Buddhist mythology, commonly translated as "Enma's Mirror of Judgment" or the "Mirror of Karma."

Enma (閻魔), commonly known outside Japan as "Yama," is the Ruler of Hell. Enma is a wrathful god who judges the dead. But unlike Saint Peter, he stands at the gates of Hell, where he decides which of the six paths in the eternal cycle of death and rebirth (samsara) the recently deceased will take.

One of the tools Enma uses when passing judgment is a mirror. Wrote the poet Kobayashi Issa (courtesy David Lanoue, edited for syllable count), perhaps referring to Issa's habit of "stealing" flowers from the gardens of his neighbors,

In Enma's mirror
shines back a reflection of
the plum blossom thief

This "magic mirror" reflects the deeds and true nature of those who stand before Enma, such that they cannot deny the verdict he hands down.

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December 05, 2019

A green light (for pedestrians)

I mentioned hassha tunes last week. These are the melodies played on train platforms in Japan that signal a train's departure. It's a nice way to hurry people along without ringing a loud bell or blaring a klaxon.

These tunes are particular to the train line and the station. A more universal melodic alarm is played at crosswalks to indicate when pedestrians have the right of way. Japanese are not ones to cross against the light.

Toryanse (通りゃんせ) is a traditional Japanese nursery rhyme (comparable to London Bridge is Falling Down). If you spend any amount of time in Japan, you will hear it. A lot. That pentatonic scale will soak into your brain.

Here is a vocal rendition of the traditional song.

If that's not melancholy enough, here is the actual MIDI melody that is played at crosswalks. Think of it as a kind of mental cattle prod to herd you out of harm's way before the light changes. Very Pavlovian, me thinks.

This crosswalk in Mitaka in Tokyo alternates Toryanse with the cheerier Comin' Thro' the Rye (which in Japan is well known as "The Sky over My Home Town").

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November 28, 2019

Traveling by ear in Japan

Train culture in Japan is so ubiquitous, so deeply entrenched, and so widely embraced that every time a line opens up or closes down, a new model of Shinkansen debuts or an old one goes out of production, a swarm of reporters show up and the fans turn out in force.

There is a whole genre of reality show on Japanese television that simply involves the host (and a couple of friends) hopping on a train and going somewhere. Japan Railway Journey is a good example. Episodes can be streamed (in English) at NHK World.

You can famously set your watch by a train's arrival time in Japan. But the engineering goes beyond the mechanical and reaches right into your head. CityLab describes the psychology behind what you hear over the loudspeakers.

Also known as departure or train melodies, hassha tunes are brief, calming and distinct; their aim is to notify commuters of a train's imminent departure without inducing anxiety. To that end, most melodies are composed to an optimal length of seven seconds, owing to research showing that shorter-duration melodies work best at reducing passenger stress and rushing incidents, as well as taking into account the time needed for a train to arrive and depart.

Thanks to the Internet, you don't have to go to Japan to hear them. The Sound of Station website has collected arrival/departure announcements from around the country, in some (not all) cases accompanied by the aforementioned hassha tunes.

You don't need to understand Japanese to navigate the site. Just click away. But to narrow it down a bit, here are the Japan Railway stations. Japan National Railway was split up and privatized in 1987 like Ma Bell but the distinction remains.

And here are the private railway stations (more hassha tunes in use here).

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November 21, 2019

Nippon TV and NECO

A commenter contributed a comprehensive overview of the Nippon TV and NECO International channels to the (Almost) Live Japanese TV post. I thought it deserved a post of its own. The press release linked to below also makes me wonder if AT&T Now plans to expand its international offerings in the future.

According to this press release, Nippon TV is supposed to be available via IPTV and OTT (though some programs won't be available).

The press release mentions DirectNow as an AT&T OTT service, and that DirecTV subscribers can live stream TV through the Apple or Android app. I wonder if they are referring to either of these services when they mentioned the availability of OTT and IPTV services? In any case, at the moment, Nippon TV isn't available to live stream from the app and isn't available via AT&T TV (DirecTV Now's new name) either. So perhaps this will be a future goal for Nippon TV?

Anyhow, I have DirecTV and I'm subscribed to all the Japanese channels. Comparatively, Nippon TV and NECO International have less variety in their programming than TV Japan. Both of the newer channels still have a "work in progress" feel to them. So possibly their programming mix may change over time.

Once in a blue moon, TV Japan programs will have English subtitles, English dubbed audio available, or shows featuring people who speak in English. However Nippon TV and NECO International are solely in Japanese with no subtitles or alternative audio options.

At the moment, NECO International plays nothing but classic Nikkatsu movies. It's like the Japanese version of Turner Classic Movies. However the channel's mascot is a bright orange cat dressed like a rapper. Seems like an odd mascot to have for a classic channel. So it seems like they'll add some modern movies eventually. In fact, today they showed Bamy, a 2017 Japanese indie Horror movie, the most modern movie they've shown thus far.

As for Nippon TV, it mostly shows dramas and variety shows. No news, no documentaries, no music shows, no sports (though eventually it's going to broadcast Yomiuri Giants games), no anime and no talk shows.

About eleven dramas series run each week. Every month features two simulcast dramas. Right now the featured simulcast drama are If Talking Paid and Nippon Noir. Most of Nippon TV's dramas shown are fairly new, around 2018–2019, with a few dated ones (older than 2017) mixed in. Dramas also include Hulu Japan exclusives and some WOWOW versions. After the last episode of a drama has aired two to three times, it is replaced on the schedule with another drama. So that the lineup doesn't go stale.

The variety shows are Tokuson Life Hacks, The Quest, Matsuko in the Room, Matsuko Roid, two Arashi shows (Ninosan and Must be Arashi), season 16 of Gochi Dinner is on You, Shot, Monday Night Light Show, Celebrity Confessions to Ariyoshi, and some other talento/celebrity driven variety shows. Over the course a week, about eleven to thirteen variety shows run on the channel.

Nippon TV and NECO International repeat programming but it isn't done in an annoying way. It seems as if it is done in way to reach every US time zone. This gives many the opportunity to catch up on a show they missed.

I'm happy with all of the channels. These new channels complement, rather than replace TV Japan. At least one new Nippon TV drama still simulcasts on TV Japan per month. This month it's Our Dearest Sakura, which is only on TV Japan at the moment. However The Quest (variety show) and Shoten (comedy show) air simultaneously on TV Japan and Nippon TV. However I think each channel airs different seasons.

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November 14, 2019

Streaming the big three (the user experience)

My "big three" are the three streaming services that feature localized Japanese content, almost entirely anime, front and center. To start with, subscription rates roughly reflect overall market share and the number of titles in their catalogs.

Crunchyroll  $7.99/month  $79.99/year  

By comparison, Netflix's basic SD plan is $8.99/month ($12.99/month for HD). Hulu with no ads is $11.99/month. HBO Max will debut at $14.99/month.

I'll be discussing how they well the big three run on the Roku Express platform (3900X and 3030R), together with their browser-based queuing systems. So keep in mind that I'm only reviewing what I use, not the capabilities of these services on all the available devices.

When everything is working the way it should, Crunchyroll delivers the best video experience on the Roku. Alas, its bigness has caused load balancing problems in the past, resulting in forced resolution downgrades, which rendered it basically unwatchable. In the words of Yogi Berra, "No one goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

I only observed this during live streams or same-day updates to popular series, and I haven't found myself in that situation of late. In any case, if AT&T intends to replace its satellite service with streaming, it had better be able to handle the traffic.

HIDIVE occasionally encounters similar problems that have resulted in a hard crash of the Roku app. Even under normal conditions, HIDIVE has a video quality glitch where it can take a minute for a stream to ratchet up to the correct resolution. The same thing happens when using the Roku Replay function.

Again, this is most apparent under high load conditions. The HIDIVE Roku app otherwise runs well, despite having only been released this year. HIDIVE does have some irksome design issues (not technically bugs). For example, having to log into the website every time you reopen the browser. Crunchyroll and Funimation time you out after a week or so.

On HIDIVE, you can create up to three profiles per account. But the app is missing a line of code that says, "If there's only one profile, don't ask to select a profile." The result is a useless extra click every time you access the app. This bug was fixed on the website.

HIDIVE and Funimation mostly use closed captions instead of true subtitles. Crunchyroll encodes each language-specific stream with its own set of pre-rendered subtitles or dub track. Pre-rendered subtitles look and display better, and don't randomly switch the language settings between episodes, which the Funimation Roku app does far too often.

This happens occasionally with HIDIVE too, though on HIDIVE this glitch seems to be tied to the encoding of specific videos.

The Crunchyroll approach can get confusing because each encoding is treated as a separate title. You have to be sure to queue up the right one or the Roku app can end up spinning its wheels and never playing the video, probably because of a DRM or language setting conflict.

Another downside is the occasional cryptic message: "Sorry, due to licensing limitations, videos are unavailable in your region." In most cases, it simply means that one of the video streams (usually Russian) is not licensed for North America, not that all the videos are unavailable in the North American market.

Crunchyroll has the best browser-based queuing system. The Crunchyroll queue reminds me of the Netflix queue (using "Manual Ordering") and that's a good thing. It's just the queue and a recent history list, with an absolute URL that can be bookmarked. You can add, remove, play, and organize titles using "send to top" and drag-and-drop.

You can only add and remove titles from the HIDIVE queue, and it does that well enough. But HIDIVE generates the queue dynamically on the home page, where it plays hide and seek amidst the promotional material. The Funimation queue has its own page, except it is slow to load and often delivers you to a cluttered landing page instead of the queue.

C'mon guys, could you please just copy Crunchyroll? Or Netflix?

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November 07, 2019

Streaming the big three (comparing content)

Crunchyroll is the biggest kid on the block, with the most content in every category. The most titles, the most user comments, most user reviews (both in terms of quantity and quality), wide-ranging forums, and a blog. Like Amazon, when it comes to discoverability, it's worth checking Crunchyroll even if you're going to watch someplace else.

HIDIVE recently took steps to catch up in terms of user-generated content by partnering with MyAnimeList and integrating the MyAnimeList rating system into its listings. Funimation has a decent review section for most titles. Funimation and HIDIVE use their blogs to announce new titles, while Crunchyroll actively covers the whole industry, making it a daily read.

HIDIVE offers a bit more granularity in its search filters than Crunchyroll, though you have to remember to apply the filters in a stepwise left-to-right fashion. And you can only search on titles. Funimation has a useless filter option once you drill down to the genre categories, useless because you can only select the genre categories you're already in.

Crunchyroll, Funimation, and HIDIVE acquire all the content they can afford, so practically any anime worth watching makes it to the North American market. Crunchyroll wins the quantity race with its emphasis on subs. Funimation and HIDIVE compete in the dub space. In many recent cases, Funimation ended up with the dub and Crunchyroll with the sub.

Right now, I have the most saved shows (bookmarked or in my queue) in Crunchyroll, followed by HIDIVE (lots of classics), with Funimation trailing in third place. To be sure, Funimation has must-see titles like Hyouka, Robotics;Notes, Assassination Classroom, Spice and Wolf, and Snow White with the Red Hair, so it's not easily passed over.

The recent consolidation of Sony-owned Aniplex of America (and its subsidiaries) under the Funimation banner should expand and extend the Funimation anime catalog.

With the smallest catalog of the three, HIDIVE leverages its relationship with Sentai Filmworks to give its catalog the look and feel of a curated library. This "quality not quantity" approach includes many of my favorite Kyoto Animation franchises, such as Clannad, Beyond the Boundary, Tamako Market, and K-On.

As noted previously, licensing and content sharing deals are as fluid as the tide in this business, so Funimation ended up with earlier Kyoto Animation titles like Full Metal Panic, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and Kanon.

HIDIVE also has Strawberry Marshmallow, Makoto Shinkai's Garden of Words and the outstanding Patlabor franchise, including the three full-length movies, that are less mecha movies than traditional police procedurals. Patlabor WXIII deserves mention in the psychological horror and monster movie genres as well.

The geopolitical anachronisms (and magneto-optical drives) notwithstanding, the original Patlabor series (especially the first season) holds up well. Thanks to being originally mastered on film, it looks great after thirty years.

Sentai Holdings, HIDIVE's parent company, recently garnered a $30 million investment from the Cool Japan Fund, a public-private partnership the Japanese government uses to promote cultural outreach. This support should help to cement Sentai's unique status as an independent licensor of Japanese anime not owned by a big multinational.

Crunchyroll has the biggest live-action catalog of the three but is systematically letting its licenses lapse (sadly including outstanding series like Antiquarian Bookshop, Hero, and Galileo), and now has only a few more titles than Funimation. If you're an Ultraman fan, Crunchyroll still has five full series.

Most of Funimation's live-action content are movies (which adds up to fewer hours of actual content). Four Japanese titles worthy of attention are Shinobi, Goemon, Assassination Classroom, and Space Battleship Yamato.

HIDIVE has the most eclectic lineup, ranging from two seasons of an AKB 48 reality show to Lone Wolf & Cub and Samurai Punisher from the 1970s and a Godzilla flick from the 1980s. For the older tokusatsu demographic, two series, two movies, and a special from the samey but enjoyable (in measured doses) Garo franchise.

Then there's the misleadingly titled 100 Sights of Ancient Cities, which is about traditional Japanese arts and crafts. Tabiaruki from Iwate is the kind of travel show you'd expect to find on NHK World. I'm a little puzzled about how HIDIVE ended up with these titles but they do make for a nice change of pace.

Of course, you don't subscribe to these services for the live-action offerings. It's all about the anime. Thankfully, the big three don't make you buy a pig in a poke. You can search their catalogs without subscribing and bookmark the URLs for shows. Funimation and Crunchyroll have "free" ad-supported options and HIDIVE has selected "free" episodes.

In any case, the subscriptions are reasonably priced. On an annualized basis, you can get all three anime services for the cost of HBO Max. Or maybe you'll just get HBO Max (that will include Crunchyroll). I'm sure that's what AT&T is hoping. Oh, and toss in HIDIVE too. It's the best value buy and has an impressive backlist of oldies but goodies.

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October 31, 2019

Streaming the big three (a little background)

That's Crunchyroll, Funimation, and HIDIVE. The biggest streaming services—Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu, to name three—all have substantial anime libraries, demonstrating the mainstream acceptability anime has garnered in the last decade or so. But at my "big three," Japanese content (mostly anime) makes up 99 percent of their offerings (the remainder going to a handful of Chinese and Korean productions).

Crunchyroll was acquired by WarnerMedia in 2018. It has exclusive access to Kadokawa titles and is a majority owner of distributor Viz Media Europe (along with the Hitotsubashi Group).

Funimation has been in the anime localization and distribution business since 1994 and is now owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment. It has a content sharing arrangement with Hulu.

HIDIVE was independently incorporated from the assets of Anime Network Online, and remains the exclusive streaming distributor of select titles from Sentai Filmworks and Section23.

How the big three compete in what nevertheless remains a niche market shines a spotlight on the evolution of the streaming business. Netflix in particular made its mark as a one-stop shop, a repository of what Chris Anderson christened a "long tail" library of everything for everybody. But especially in streaming, both upstarts and veteran Hollywood movers and shakers are challenging the one-stop shop model.

Netflix again becomes the case in point, with WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal taking back the rights to Friends and The Office. Half of Netflix's most-viewed content is owned by Disney, which is launching its own streaming service. Hence all the billions going to in-house productions. As Justin Fox observed back in 2015, everybody wants to be HBO these days, including former long tail poster child Netflix.

On the other hand, former Amazon Studios strategist Matthew Ball argues that the market can only fragment so far before that fragmentation becomes self-destructive to the aims of the content providers.

There's an ongoing balancing act going between content providers, who want to drive the most viewers to their branded sites, and production companies, who want the most eyes watching their shows. That tension doesn't go away even when the site and the production company are the same entity. As Netflix illustrates, we've entered a shaking out period.

Each of the big three has exclusives with distributors and content developers, so the only way to (legally) access most anime in the North America market is to subscribe to all three. But they also have to maintain deep enough catalogs to make a subscription worth the bother. That means shared content on top of content sharing deals. Though the deal making can have curious consequences.

If you end up on a title page at Crunchyroll with no videos attached, well, that's what happens when media businesses get divorced (though I appreciate that Crunchyroll preserves the stubs).

And just to make things that much more interesting, Crunchyroll is joining the lineup of HBO Max, the new streaming service from AT&T (which owns HBO and WarnerMedia). All well and good, but this raises questions about the future of VRV (which is anchored by Crunchyroll) and its content sharing deal with HIDIVE. Oh, if you're curious about what happened to Friends—it ended up on HBO Max.

As has the Ghibli Studios catalog. If nothing else, AT&T has deep pockets.

Netflix and Amazon (annoyingly) continue to acquire anime exclusives to entice subscribers to buy into the rest of their offerings. Hulu has a "first look" content-sharing deal with Funimation. But with Amazon divesting itself of Anime Strike (some of whose assets were acquired by HIDIVE), at least in North American, the anime streaming universe seems to have comfortably divided itself among the big three.

I have no idea where this business is going in the long term, especially with AT&T (which owns DirecTV) publicly proclaiming its preference for streaming over satellite distribution. We're in the middle of a sea change and the channel is crowded with many tiny schooners and fleets of huge tankers all trying to grab the least-obstructed course to an open sea of media consumers.

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October 24, 2019

Emperor Naruhito becomes Emperor (again)

On Tuesday (Japan time), Naruhito was formally enthroned as the 126th emperor of Japan. He succeeded to the position back on May 1, a day after his father abdicated. As with the gap between elections and inaugurations in the United States, it takes a while to get all the ceremonial ducks in a row.

The question of a female emperor aside (more a 19th century issue), the Imperial Household Agency sinks the roots of these ceremonies as deep as they will go. Forget about the Middle Ages. The accession regalia is based on the best known historical recreations of Heian era (794–1185) court dress.

Empress Masako and her female attendants wore juunihitoe, a twelve-layer robe (the literal meaning of the word) quite different from a kimono. The emperor wore a ryuei-no-kanmuri headpiece and a sokutai.

Unlike kimono, yukata, haori and hakama, which are still worn today (you can probably see all four while watching a sumo tournament), you'll only encounter juunihitoe and sokutai on these rare formal occasions and in historical dramas.

Shinto serves the same approximate function in these ceremonies as the Church of England does in the coronation of British monarchs. The Imperial Household Agency maintains a pro forma separation of church and state by organizing the "private" religion rites independent of the "public" enthronement.

It's all the same taxpayer money and civil servants, of course, but like the rites and rituals themselves, there is a great deal to be said for going through the motions.

The substance of the enthronement mostly came down to Emperor Naruhito accepting the job offer. Here is the official translation by the Imperial Household Agency.

I have hereby succeeded to the Throne pursuant to the Constitution of Japan and the Special Measures Law on the Imperial House Law. When I think about the important responsibility I have assumed, I am filled with a sense of solemnity.

Looking back, His Majesty the Emperor Emeritus, since acceding to the Throne, performed each of his duties in earnest for more than thirty years, while praying for world peace and the happiness of the people, and at all times sharing in the joys and sorrows of the people. He showed profound compassion through his own bearing. I would like to express my heartfelt respect and appreciation of the comportment shown by His Majesty the Emperor Emeritus as the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people of Japan.

In acceding to the Throne, I swear that I will reflect deeply on the course followed by His Majesty the Emperor Emeritus and bear in mind the path trodden by past emperors, and will devote myself to self-improvement. I also swear that I will act according to the Constitution and fulfill my responsibility as the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people of Japan, while always turning my thoughts to the people and standing with them. I sincerely pray for the happiness of the people and the further development of the nation as well as the peace of the world.

Emperor Naruhito is following his father's example of keeping these things short and to the point. Inaugural and State of the Union stemwinders should have a timer that cuts the mic after twenty minutes. No such speech need be any longer than Abraham Lincoln's nonpareil Second Inaugural Address.

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