March 31, 2014

Full stream ahead

Manga and anime in the U.S. had a thriving fan base long before they were commercially viable. With an already established market, and since their IP was getting pirated anyway, Japanese publishers made the rational decision to license it.

The market for physical media--manga and DVDs--maxed out about ten years ago. Then the bubble burst, driving several established importers/distributors out of business. The demand for content was still there and the licensors were still licensing . . . .

So the sensible solution was streaming, with a side business in printed books and discs. Hulu and Crunchyroll deliver many anime episodes a week after they air in Japan, beating the pirates to the punch. (Unsurprisingly, Crunchyroll was a pirate site before it went legit.)

Mid-list genre novels and live-action television dramas from Japan have never made that break. With no existing market to feed, Japanese media companies couldn't be bothered to try and create one. (Or they tried once and now are twice shy.)

NHK's year-long Taiga dramas and morning serials are often licensed throughout Asia. But to this date, never in the U.S., even though recent series like Ryomaden, Go, and Atsuhime have accessible storylines and attractive lead characters.

Korean television dramas, by contrast, can be found in abundance. The Japanese section of Hulu has a boatload of anime and only a handful of television series, mostly anime remakes. The Korean section has over 200 live-action television series.

Despite the fact that South Korea has half the population of Japan and a third its GDP. This isn't a supply problem. But how can there be a demand when hardly anybody knows the supply exists, or think it consists primarily of gonzo game shows?

As an ethnic group, Korean-Americans (1,706,822) do outnumber Japanese-Americans (1,304,286). I suspect the bigger reason is that Korean broadcasters (and the South Korean government) have more realistic expectations about the size of the market.

At Anime News Network, Justin Sevakis explains that anime continues to thrive because

License fees have fallen to a point where they are relatively reasonably priced, and an American publisher can reasonably be expected to buy the rights to a show, produce subtitles (or occasionally a dub), put it on sale, and make a decent profit.

The cost of a studio-quality dub alone can wipe out the profit margin for a series, which is why so few anime series are dubbed these days (or dubbed well). And the fan base for Japanese live-action dramas? Microscopic.

Korean television content is also more likely to be distributed with a second-generation demographic in mind, while the sole Japanese satellite channel--TV Japan--is directed primarily at an expatriate audience. Subtitled shows are few and far between.

There are plans in the works to create a more export-friendly "Japan channel." And NHK is slowly building a fledgling distribution network based on its news and infotainment programs.

Drama-wise, NHK still has to put something good out there to start the word-of-mouth going. Such an effort would dovetail with the government's "Cool Japan" initiative, launched in 2010 with the goal of creating a profitable overseas market for Japanese culture.

Frankly, NHK has got nothing to lose by releasing one or two series from its ginormous catalog through Hulu.

I'd start with Go, and advertise it as Shogun from the point of view of the women [in fact, they started with the more accessible Ryomaden, a fine choice]. NHK already does a subtitled version of its Taiga dramas, so most of the heavy lifting has already been done.

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