Tuesday, June 26, 2007

:anime: The New Wave in Distribution:: On Demand, Online, and Legal

Fansubbing has long been an integral part of anime fandom. Arguably, it is the greatest portal available to those wishing to sample some of Japan’s animation works without the need of actually knowing the language in order to understand what the actors are saying. Over a decade ago, the translation of anime titles by amateurs was solely relegated towards anime clubs and special mailing lists that released tapes of subtitled shows to paying customers. However, with the advent of computers and the Internet, nearly all fansubbing operations have moved to the confines of websites, chat rooms (most notably, IRC), and peer-to-peer networks, where they are offered for free, are highly prevalent, and easy to find.

Anime companies and distributors, who license anime shows and sell them to fans outside of Japan, have kept a keen eye on this particular staple of the genre for years. Fansubbing is a rather complicated and grey area in terms of legality, as they are essentially translated copies of foreign television shows broadcast over foreign network airwaves. A myriad of issues come into play, such as violations in respect to copyright and rebroadcasting terms, that often paint fansubs as illegal in nature. Debatable as it is, they are repeatedly cited for the slide in DVD sales in North America.

The concept of “on demand” (getting what you want, right now) has gained steady acceptance across all fronts, as newer technology is adopted to meet the needs of the consumer. With the Internet becoming a more readily available resource, many entertainment companies have begun to offer online music and video on demand (VOD) services presenting downloadable content for a nominal fee for or via free streaming as a means of curtailing the prevalence of peer-to-peer file sharing and bootlegs. This includes a growing number of those in the anime trade, who now have digital distribution services of their own aimed at chipping away at the base of fansubs.

The Japanese have long established online distribution venues, so North America has been rather late on the movement. Some companies host their services on their own sites, while others have sought out third parties. One of the earliest examples was sputnik7, which formerly hosted Manga Entertainment titles on their web site in the early 2000s before sinking into relative inactivity. One of today’s more popular spots is Adult Swim Video, the online portal of the well-known channel’s lineup of shows, which features titles from Geneon Entertainment [USA] Inc., Bandai Entertainment, and FUNimation Productions LTD. Similarly, there is one from sister channel Cartoon Network called Toonami Jetstream, which webcasts shows from site partner Viz Media, LLC and others. In addition to these is one of the most ambitious of the third parties, Vuze, a new iTunes-like VOD service from peer-to-peer client maker Azureus, which allows users to download high-quality videos from a number of name television networks and distributors, including those in the anime field, such as Starz! Media (parent company of Manga Ent.), Geneon Ent., and Central Park Media.

In contrast, ADV Films utilizes its own power to provide its content over the Internet, with promo “goodie bags” over self-hosted BitTorrent links and its ADV Universe service. Bandai Ent. revived its former “Anime Village” moniker last year to promote its own online VOD service (and, primarily, its new series, Eureka Seven). It has since went offline before returning as purely an online store in the self-same year, with a message on the bottom of its front page stating that it is in a “transitional period” and set for a relaunch.

Perhaps even without the concern of fansubbing and bootlegging activities, the adoption of digital distribution and video on demand would have still been as strong as it has been. Companies have begun to see the interest in the public and the popularity of these types of services, as well as the profitability that lies within them. By offering content free or of little cost to the consumer, one increases the presence of their titles and their chances of creating potential customers of the “hard copy” editions. It is one of the best moves the North American industry has made in some time, and hopefully more companies will join in, in the future.

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