Sony Pictures Entertainment has completed its acquisition of the anime streaming service Crunchyroll, and intends to "create a unified anime subscription experience as soon as possible", according to Tony Vinciquerra, its CEO. Sony already owns the anime service Funimation, so it's likely we'll see the two services come together in some form.
There are few specifics on what shape that'll take, only that it'll "broaden distribution" for partners who make the anime content for each service, and expand what they can offer to fans. It's described as an "alignment".
In some ways, this is a microcosm of where streaming is expected to go in the next few years – consolidation in the media industry has already been happening (Disney acquiring Fox, for example), but there's likely more to come.
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It's largely expected that in the arms race of the streaming wars, only a few victors will eventually emerge. Warner Bros, for example, is in the process of merging with Discovery – both have streaming services, and combining HBO Max and Discovery Plus in some form, whether through bundles or one super service, is likely to give them some real firepower in winning subscribers around the world.
Fewer services and increasing subscription prices: this is the likely future of streaming. Right now, though, we're currently in the phase where the services are spending tons of money on content just to woo you – Disney Plus, for example, is expected to lose money until 2024, according to analysts quoted by the New York Times (opens in new tab).
Sony acquiring Crunchyroll is a different situation in a few ways, though. Anime is a niche within the context of streaming, and the audience is therefore smaller. Crunchyroll has 5 million paying subscribers, as of this month – unlike a lot of streamers, it has a free ad-supported tier, too, with 120 million registered users in total. The previously competing Funimation Now also has a free tier. Netflix, of course, has 209 million paying subscribers – so the scale is vastly different.
Not specific enough
The audience for Crunchyroll is clearly hyper-engaged with the subject, though, in a way that most Netflix subscribers aren't likely to be. And response to the news of Sony's completed acquisition of Crunchyroll on Twitter (opens in new tab) is mixed – with some raising concerns that a monopoly is not necessarily good for the consumer.
"I was really hoping this wouldn't go through," says one user. "This basically creates a monopoly on the anime streaming industry in the US (and possibly other countries in which both companies operate). This is almost never good for the customer."
Others have pointed to Sony's track record with games publishing as a sign that it can make acquisitions and produce great stuff – but that's really not an apt comparison, here. Sony has never bought another platform holder alongside PlayStation, for example, just individual game developers. Others still have expressed frustration that the announcement doesn't say enough about what happens next. Crunchyroll's blog on the subject (opens in new tab) only offered up three short paragraphs.
Subscribers are in a 'wait and see' moment. It's on Sony Pictures Entertainment to show that absorbing the competition is actually good for the subscribers who use these services – and not just to vaguely speak to that point.
"With the addition of Crunchyroll, we have an unprecedented opportunity to serve anime fans like never before and deliver the anime experience across any platform they choose, from theatrical, events, home entertainment, games, streaming, linear TV," says Vinciquerra in a press release. That all sounds fine – but again, it's not very specific.
It is true that generally speaking, competition has been healthy in streaming services for the viewer. It's why Disney Plus is making rad, big-budget Marvel and Star Wars TV shows. It's why HBO Max has gambled on releasing all its 2021 movies at the same time they hit theaters. It's why Netflix has at least one new original movie coming out every week this year. They're all looking over their shoulders at what their competitors are doing – and spending accordingly to fight back.
Hopefully this unified anime experience really is a big win for fans. The ecosystem of anime has been big enough to support both Crunchyroll and Funimation to date – they've each grown as anime has exploded in popularity in the West. Sony has an incentive to get this right, but it's dealing with an audience that seems to be pretty firm in what it wants. Any wrong moves are likely to be judged harshly.