Friday, November 30, 2012

:anime: The Lights Are On Neon Alley

(Source: Edited from Official Site (background image))

In The Beginning…

About two years ago, Google released a product named "Google TV", a set-top box-like device/platform which integrated itself in between one's set-top cable/satellite box and HDTV. It enabled people to access the Internet and streaming content, such as that from Google's own YouTube, on their HDTVs, while giving them access to their cable/satellite service at the same time. The instant my eyes laid upon the article I read, my mind began to race with ideas. The notion of having an anime-based network as already been realized by two entities--The Anime Network and FUNimation Channel--but neither have a great deal of exposure over the airwaves, though they have fared better via cable video-on-demand (VOD) and even more so on streaming sites, such as the aforementioned two. It is not an easy venture to grab a spot on a cable or satellite system, particularly as a niche one with a smaller viewer base than most. A streaming site can offer more flexibility, control, and security, but it lacks the type of access one can achieve by being "just a click away", nor does it possess the greater comfort and larger screen size one can enjoy on a television screen, especially when it comes to HD content.

A product like Google TV, however, presented the best-of-both-worlds: combining the freedom of streaming and the ease-of-access of television. In essence, as one could watch videos via apps or simplified versions of sites via the built-in web browser, a company or site could create their own "channel", either live-streamed or VOD-style. Such an arrangement would be beneficial for providers, who could control ad revenue and keep a larger slice for themselves without relying on a middleman or having to break through so many barriers-of-entry as through traditional means (i.e. cable/satellite providers, networks). In the end, fans could watch all the shows they wanted and distributors could reap the benefits as directly as possible.

I was ecstatic over its prospects and very eager to write about it, but the instant the deluge of potential came over me, I also knew it was doomed from the start. Unsurprisingly, TV networks were not so warm to the idea of viewers gravitating away from their respective broadcasts to just-as-easy-to-access online venues, which would have translated to drop in the all-important ratings (mind you, they could have still reaped off of ad revenues there, but still…). As such, networks like NBC and CBS began blocking access to their sites--which stream video--from Google TV devices and have even gone as far as restricting the jointly-owned Hulu from being accessed, as well. These efforts played a very sizable role in hampering the product's growth and attractiveness, leaving it as more of an obscure piece of hardware bearing Google's name than what it ever could have been.

Enter Neon Alley

With the stifling of Google TV, such a promising avenue for anime providers, already thin on broadcasting exposure, seemed closed. Early last month, Viz Media launched its very own channel, Neon Alley, dedicated to anime series and movies, as well as anime-related live-action and martial arts films. But rather than venture through the truculent waters of cable and satellite negotiations, the anime and manga distributor decided to go through the decidedly-different route of launching its network through the PlayStation 3 game console as a subscription-based, live-streaming video channel ($6.99 /month). Naturally, this invoked memories--both good and bad--of Google TV, though its prospects appear to fare much better. For one, the PS3 is a far more proliferate device than GTV types, ensuring not only a larger base of potential customers, but eliminates the need to purchase one to watch it (not to mention that it is compatible with SDTVs, unlike GTV). It can also match many of GTV's assets, being capable of HD streaming (which NA is), accessible via a remote control (albeit, as a separate purchase), and quick, easy-to-find and -access apps. The console/entertainment center has already proven its worth with VOD services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Crunchyroll, allowing one to watch video on their TV like they would with any other broadcast show. Neon Alley, however, takes the earlier dream concept a step further by providing a full, actual network.

Beyond reachability, there is great promise in the service itself. For Viz Media, they not only have an outlet of their own to showcase their library, they are also not shying from showing content from others, as well (ex. FUNimation having One Piece and ads from their own shows being aired). Instead of having to contend with getting a slot on Adult Swim/Toonami, now there is a venue available that has more space than a late Saturday night block. In some respects similar to Toonami's impact among casual viewers, Neon Alley finds itself in a position at garnering attention from that group, particularly those who 1) don't mind subscribing to another video service (or never have), 2) would rather watch their anime dubbed as opposed to subbed (the predominate format for streaming sites), or 3) just like the notion of having an anime channel at their beckoning. It can also be an attractive choice for those who might be overwhelmed by the sheer number of titles that are available on streaming sites, and while its outreach may not equal something like terrestrial broadcasting, NA undoubtedly holds an edge in a number of areas where TV and streaming are lacking.

However, "potential" is one thing, but "execution" is something wholly different. To its credit, Neon Alley has gotten off to a surprisingly good start. The network has a very nice and bold presentation and a professional feel to it, giving it the proper feeling that one is watching an actual television channel. Viz Media also did a very fine job at selecting its launch lineup and laying out its schedule, populating with well-known properties (e.g. Naruto, One Piece, InuYasha), ratings-grabbing action series, notable non-action ones (e.g. Death Note, NANA). The setup is not only smart in the way everything is timeslotted, but also in allotting chunks of time for marathon-easy/long-running series and repeats. And true to their word, the commercial time is truly limited, amassing to a minute or two after a show's eyecatch for its designated break (replete with even factoids and weekly anime/manga bestseller charts!), and the programming itself is uncut.

Counterpoints and Contentions…

Neon Alley does manage to make many of the right steps, but even so, there are a number of matters worth call into question about. The most obvious one would be whether the TV network model has any place in this present age of "on-demand", particularly in a market like anime, which is conducive to the "watch whenever" mentality. Many fans like the idea of being able to watch a show at whatever time is most convenient and however many episodes they would like. A "restricted" setup like a network would seem to go against of that ideal. In addition, there is the dilemma of it only being available via PS3 at launch, which makes some sense as a quasi-TV channel you watch on your TV, but also invokes the question as to whether the service is hampering even greater reachability and exposure by not being available on PCs via their website.

On top of that, streaming in-of-itself can be a fickle thing, as the quality of the stream (auto-adjusted, no selectable options) could definitely stand some improving and an increase in bandwidth (scenes with darkness or a lot of movement tend to suffer the most) and shows not originally in HD or remastered could probably stand some re-encoding, as well (a few SD shows, like Death Note, and older martial films look downright hideous). And perhaps most pressing of all, is the incentive great enough for some folks to spend an extra $6.99 /month for their anime fix when they can get whole lot with their current subscription to a Netflix or Hulu Plus? How many will see the value in a straight-streaming service to even have it as their sole subscription?

Inherent Favors

Legitimate many the questions may be, many of Neon Alley's positives manage to overcome its negatives. One aspect that works in its favor is that TV-like ease-of-access, which not only works in terms of comfort, but also lends itself to allowing one to watch shows one would normally not go out of their way to watch by choice (i.e streaming, purchasing discs/download-to-own). From a personal standpoint, there are shows like Pokemon and Bleach (or in NA's case, Naruto and InuYasha) that I would likely not sit down and watch over other shows at my disposal, but if they were on television at the time or were being marathoned, I would most certainly turn them on and watch. Certain shows are like that for certain people, and that can certainly be the case for a title like One Piece, a well-liked show that, at 500+ episodes, seems like a daunting feat to watch right in the middle via streaming or simulcast, but with something like NA, which is broadcasting it from the beginning, it makes it easier to get right into without feeling like you've missed the boat.

Another aspect going for the television format is that inherent "event" factor, something that cannot quite be duplicated by even a streaming simulcast. Yes, many can watch the newest episode of an anime once it is posted, but the type of buzz generated by a live broadcast--whether by social media or simply by just watching it as it airs--is a particular one that comes by a greater magnitude. Regular TV broadcasts and the successful live webcast specials of the Rurouni Kenshin OVAs/movie and Puella Magi Madoka Magica at niconico are good examples of this, and Neon Alley naturally lends itself to creating that type of live attention, particularly when new episodes and movies are broadcasted. Lastly, the service has also proven itself to be a good complement to a pre-existing streaming subscription: if one wanted to watch anime, but nothing particularly in their queue or just something for kicks, there is always Neon Alley. As a whole, it can make for a worthwhile addition for an anime lover's viewership,and at $6.99 /month, there is enough substance to it to make the cost justifiable.

Just A Suggestion…

While there are positives to be found in the service, that does not mean Neon Alley could not stand a few improvements beyond just those takeaways worth addressing. It would be very helpful, for example, if there was some kind of mobile device app which featured the program guide and information on the shows and movie appearing on NA, which would make it much easier to know what comes on when (with perhaps a reminder function--in-app or via email--to tell you when something does). Additionally, it would be also be nice if one could search for all available times for a show from the on-screen guide (in either case). As for programming, as good as the scheduling & selections have been, its non-action titles (ex. NANA, Death Note, Vampire Knight) and lesser-known properties (ex. Buso Renkin, Nura) could definitely use more timeslots and/or better repeat airtimes. Better coherency and consistency in when those repeats air, overall, is also a very vital need. It would be nice to see more shows, in general, and more platforms supported, as well, but those are among the most likely to appear in the near future. A VOD-like "catch-up" feature has been one of the most notable, and sensible, requests, too, and the signs on that front are looking positive (and thus giving NA a "best-of-both-worlds" vibe and assuaging the on-demand-favoring detractors).

A Strong Beginning

Normally, when a new service debuts, there tends to be a fair amount of tweaking and hurdles to contend with out of the gates. Neon Alley, though, has gotten off to a solid and impressive start. It is clear Viz Media put a good deal of research, planning, and effort into trying making it work. There is more of a push behind it that goes beyond it being merely a "passion project" or something with more ambition than brains. NA has managed to do more things right than wrong, from its smart scheduling and title selection, to its measured launch on the PS3 (not biting off more than they can chew from the outset) and its professional presentation. Neon Alley helps make due on the promise that a product like Google TV had in respect to the potential of independent content control for anime companies and distributors, and also provides a new dimension for anime fans to view content. It also provides a possible new dimension for the likes of The Anime Network and FUNimation Channel, who are likely keeping a close eye on Neon Alley's model succeeds or fails. Future competition will be just one area that they will have to contend with, as the service will need to continue prove itself not only as an attractive alternative/complement to VOD, but also as a worthwhile investment for casual and hardcore fans alike.

Expanding its outreach beyond the PS3, improving both its stream quality and schedule, and implementing an integrated, VOD-like "catch-up" feature are among the most pressing and sought-after matters for Viz Media and its NA staff. As good as Neon Alley has been in its near-first two months of operations, there still remains a tough hill to climb. But with the attentiveness and determination that is being placed into it, the streaming network, at the very least, is taking the right baby steps forward in the right direction.

No comments:

Post a Comment