What separates Viz Media from FUNimation, Sentai Filmworks, Crunchyroll, Daisuki.net, and even Nozomi Entertainment? Simple: they are the only North American anime distributor around that does not make their simulcast streams or their handful of online-exclusive titles available to Canadians in any way, shape, or form. For more insight on the situation, please follow the jump.
Less than two weeks ago, Viz Media confirmed that they had picked up the exclusive rights to simulcast the new nuclear post-apocalyptic mini-skirt anime Coppelion for both the US and Canada. Given that VizAnime.com exclusively hosts streams from Hulu, a good percentage of their audience has been left out in the cold as Hulu has remained unavailable in Canada since its launch six years ago. I have yet to watch Coppelion and have no clue if it’s going to hold any kind of relevance later on down the line, but it is merely the latest example in a trend that we see happening each season. Whether it’s Tiger & Bunny or Zetman or LAGRANGE, Viz is always sure to provoke at least a wince of frustration from a number of potential viewers by nabbing at least one anticipated title and stashing it where it cannot be seen by Canadian eyes. While most of these bigger titles tend to have DVD and BD releases at some point, there are a number of titles which Viz has deemed worthy only of online distribution , such as Hitman Reborn, MÄR, and Strawberry 100%. While they no doubt see themselves as trailblazers for this innovative cost-cutting approach, those titles forever elude members of the Commonwealth in Hulu’s rigid confines.
There is reasoning behind this Hulu-exclusivity. Content embedded from that platform generates a substantially higher amount of ad-revenue, and Viz has not been the only company guilty of going down this path. However, FUNimation has since taken to redirecting Canadian IPs to a local ad-supported player. It’s not great and does tend to misdirect a lot of the time, but it is at least functional. Sentai Filmworks has done the same with their Anime Network platform. In their earliest days of streaming, Viz did make videos available to Canadians through Joost.com, but failed to find an alternative after that service went on the wayside. For them to follow FUNimation and Sentai’s approach definitely makes the most sense. Three alternatives to this solution do come to mind, but they are severely flawed.
The first alternative would be pushing to have licensors and distributors separate the US and Canadian streaming rights. Ideally, Canadian rights would only wind up with companies that are more likely to be accountable to their audience. The reality is that even more titles would fall through the cracks unless some kind of Canadian exclusive player were to pop up. And honestly, do we really need another service to deal with? Not to mention that dividing the internet into even more narrow regions would be incredibly frustrating to anyone who perceives it as a medium which transcends national boundaries, and I’m pretty sure that’s everyone.
The second alternative is for Hulu to become available to Canadians. Yeah yeah, you can stop laughing. As it stands, there’s absolutely nothing stopping them from making an exception for anime, since unlike American television programs, giving Canadians access would not bring up any conflicting rights issues. In fact, the same can be said for other international television programs on Hulu. Currently, that site is only way to watch programs including Hatufim (the Israeli series that Homeland is based on) Lars von Trier’s classic Riget, and the hilarious Danger 5. (Which I can’t believe is actually getting a second season!) I have no doubt that the licensors for these shows are simply sitting on the Canadian streaming rights, and it’s a damned shame. Unfortunately, if such an exception were ever going to be made it would’ve happened by now. Not to mention that if Hulu ever does make its way into Canada it will be an entirely new platform, leaving the videos on Viz’s site unaffected, along with every SNL clip currently embedded across the blogosphere. And honestly, I think that we’ve heard enough complaining from American users at this point to know that Hulu actually kind of sucks.
The third alternative is that Viz reworks their Neon Alley service into something that their audience actually wants to use. In a way this seems inevitable, but at the moment they seem insistent on hopelessly pushing the platform as a live TV channel that does nothing more than serve the questionable desire of running an all-anime TV network that so many companies seem to have. (I’m sure this is also why Sentai hopelessly clings to their “Anime Network” misnomer to this day, even though they only had a broadcast channel for about a week-and-a-half.) Since Neon Alley is available in Canada, Viz is obviously using it as a counterpoint to their lack of Canadian support elsewhere. Given that the service only offers English dubs long after their original broadcasts and has yet to air streaming-exclusive titles like Reborn, I think it’s safe to say that Neon Alley does little to satisfy what Canadians are actually demanding.
With all of the problems those alternatives would present, I have a simple proposal for Viz Media: just follow the example set by FUNimation and Sentai and redirect Canadian IPs to a local ad-supported player! If independently run distributors can pull it off, there’s no reason why one with massive Japanese parent companies like Shueisha and Shogakukan shouldn’t be able to as well. Viz has claimed on their Facebook page that they would lose money by doing this, but given that they purchase streaming rights for all of North America, I think it would be more accurate to say that they’re profiting off of not making their content available in Canada. That’s a stigma that should definitely concern them as a company.
Now just to clarify, I realize that there are multiple legal workarounds for Hulu like American VPNs and the free browser extension Mediahint, but keep in mind that loopholes like those don’t resolve the underlying problem. As a North American distributor, Viz should be obligated to serve the entire market that they license their products for. Anime companies are breaking a lot of ground for international programming with their simulcasting approaches, but if these companies can’t maintain a balanced ecosystem in even just one of these “regions” that they’ve carved out, then it certainly doesn’t bode well for online streaming as the worldwide endeavour that I’m sure we all want it to be.
(Note: Monster, the series which inspired the header image for this post, used to be among Viz’s online-exclusive titles. The rights have apparently expired in the US, but I thought the fact that Superchannel wound up being the only legal venue for anyone to see the series in Canada was too good a joke to pass up.)
[EDIT (2013-10-08): Originally there was a link to a related Facebook page here, but after receiving some feedback, I have decided to re-evaluate that approach of reaching through to Viz. I also edited the entry slightly to make it less of an overly-passionate “call for action.”]