Crunchyroll Springs a Surprise on Fans This Spring

Whenever a company gets new management, everyone has the same questions: what’s going to change? What’s going to stay the same? On one hand, new people can bring in new ideas and help reinvigorate a business. On the other hand, executives can also move away from the company’s ideals and popular aspects.

In the case of Sony purchasing Crunchyroll, some changes were bound to happen, and there have been some expected and some rather unexpected developments. HIDIVE left VRV back in September 2021. Many Sentai Filmworks/HIDIVE titles including Akame ga Kill, Food Wars, and Food Wars were removed from the service as of March 31st. Funimation titles were added to Crunchyroll, and the spring season would be centered on Crunchyroll. Funimation continues to exist, but the brand is being retired. Starting in June, new Blu-ray releases as well as continuing box sets will be released under the Crunchyroll name. And on the manga side, the company is teaming up with Alpha Manga to add select titles from the Alpha Manga app to Crunchyroll. The list includes Gate: Where the JSDF Fought and May I Ask for One Final Thing? for a total of seven new series on Crunchyroll Manga, of which the first three chapters are currently available.

Now, though, Crunchyroll has announced perhaps their biggest change yet.

Crunchyroll’s New Rules

Crunchyroll has risen from its fansub founding to become an anime powerhouse, and it was perhaps the biggest name in streaming even before it started getting deep into its various mergers and partnerships. But for years, their model has been simple: subscribe for a membership (called Crunchyroll Premium) to stream shows without ads and to access them as soon as the same day in Japan, or wait a week and watch those latest episodes and everything else with ads. Crunchyroll Premium has played around with its additional benefits and pricing over the years, but it currently starts at $7.99 a month.

This approach has helped cater to a wide variety of fans and budgets. Those who want instant gratification with the latest shows and avoid TV-style commercial breaks could pony up the cash, but those on a limited budget or don’t mind checking out shows later or well-beyond its debut could view anime for free. However, that’s about to change:

“For the Spring 2022 season and future seasonal releases, Crunchyroll will update our offering on simulcast titles by subscription tier. To view new and continuing simulcasts, a premium monthly or annual subscription will be required. With the exception below, we will no longer be offering simulcast episodes one week after release as an ad-supported, free viewing option. For continuing series, ad-supported viewing on any new episodes will not be available in line with the Spring season, however, previously published episodes are still available to all user types.”

New shows like A Couple of Cuckoos, Shikimori’s Not Just a Cutie, and Spy x Family will be available to stream for free a week after their debut, but that only applies to the first three episodes and only until May 31st. Crunchyroll boasts it has “more than 1,000 hours” worth of anime available to stream with ads and promises to “continue to offer free content going forward”.

Crunchyroll has at least 5 million paid accounts. That’s a fraction of its 120 million registered users, but it’s hard to determine how many monthly active visitors it gets. According to Alexa, Crunchyroll is in the top 500 sites globally and ranks #177 in the United States. Even if a large chunk of its visitors are just reading news or decide not to watch a show for whatever reason, the number of viewers choosing the ad option is certainly not small. It’s a drastic change to not have the platform’s latest additions not available to all users within a week of its Japanese debut.

When Crunchyroll first unveiled the changes, there was some confusion as to what happens once, say, Summer 2022 rolls around. Some people took Crunchyroll’s statement to mean that concluded series and/or cours will be added to Crunchyroll’s free library. In a later statement to Anime News Network, Crunchyroll reiterated previous seasons’ content will remain available for everyone. They’re “only stopping the automatic free availability of all simulcast content”, and while additional shows and/or episodes will be added for free and guest viewers, there was nothing about when or even if simulcast content like Dawn of the Witch will be made available to the public.

A Rise in Piracy?

So with no promise of opening up Spring 2022 and beyond content to everyone, predictably, very few people celebrated this announcement. Yes, it’s not how, say, Peacock runs its service, but consumers in general are resistant to changes, good or bad. And it’s hard to see the upside in making new content limited to subscribers. There were the usual comments about more people turning into piracy because of Crunchyroll’s new model.

Cost is one of the most common cited reasons why people want to turn to illegal sources. Crunchyroll could ostensibly offer a cheaper-but-still-ad-supported version, as even Disney+ is preparing to offer a cheaper subscription plan despite being one of the lowest-price services. But I don’t know how many anime fans would choose to pay approximately $5 a month to get those latest episodes but still sit through commercials as if watching shows on TV. Or perhaps if Netflix finds success in charging subscribers more to split the account among multiple households, Crunchyroll will add multiple profiles for slightly more.

Yes, I’m sure even a $5 plan would be hard for some families and individuals to afford. And there are many people who aren’t interested in anime per se; They’re just interested in a particular anime show, so the current $8 a month plan is hard to swallow just to tune in for a show or two for several months.

However, according to the government, the poverty rate in the United States is about 11% and the median household income is around $68,000. So the majority of households can afford Crunchyroll, which is about the price of 1 or 2 people eating at McDonald’s. Like this site estimates a Big Mac meal at $5.99, this one at $8.19, and locations near me are $6.99 to $7.79. Restaurants charge an average of a 300% markup on food, and eating at home averages around $4 per meal. I certainly sympathize with those truly living paycheck to paycheck, but Americans usually eat out at least twice a week — and perhaps almost every day in some locales.

Those numbers probably fell during the pandemic, and eating is a basic need, unlike watching a show. But skipping one or two meals a month at a restaurant is certainly feasible for most individuals if they really want to support Crunchyroll as an official source. Obviously, the situation is different for people in different locales, but for those who love to tune in every week for the latest hits, there are likely ways they can shave off the cost of one luxury for another (Crunchyroll).

If cost is an issue, RetroCrush or official YouTube streams for instance are available for ad-supported content, plus Crunchyroll still has a whole ton of series available to watch with ads. Most households likely have at least one anime-inclusive streaming service like Amazon Prime Video or Netflix, so they will still have places to turn to. With most shows being based on an anime or light novel, people interested in shows could also check out official sources for the original versions for free or cheap, such as MANGA Plus/VIZ Media for Spy x Family or their local library for manga and light novels.

Changing Habits

I’m sure a lot of people will blame Sony for this change, and certainly, they’re the ones in charge now and are implementing the changes. There was always going to be some way for Sony to try to recoup some of its invoice to AT&T, and rather than a price hike, this is how they’re covering it.

Do I think most anime fans who have been using Crunchyroll for free for years will be immediately jumping on the Crunchyroll Premium bandwagon? No. I’m sure not even Sony believes that. But Crunchyroll has been consistently gaining subscribers at a good pace since hitting the three million mark back in mid-2020, and I don’t think suddenly making simulcasts Premium-only is going to lead to the service losing subscribers. Plateauing, maybe, but I’m assuming Crunchyroll will continue each season to make the first few weeks of several of its new shows free for a while to help hook viewers. I do think that Crunchyroll perhaps should keep the first episode or two of a new series for free though, as a way of finding that new hit series that gets people to subscribe.

As for current Premium members, this new rule technically only adds to their value, although there may be some resentment versus subscribing for simulcasts voluntarily versus feeling forced. But I doubt maybe Premium members are going to jump off the bandwagon simply because free users — many of whom have likely been getting a Premium-like experience thanks to adblockers — are not going to be able to tune in a week later to watch all the new seasonal anime.

Is it disappointing shows like Tomodachi Game may not get as large of a following as they would have just a season ago? That people will miss out on it because they don’t want to subscribe for whatever reason? Certainly. Despite Crunchyroll’s emphasizing of “fans first” and “fans win” with the Funimation merger, that is hard to swallow with content being now paywalled after having been accessible for years. And there are certainly valid complaints about Crunchyroll as a service and as a company, including stability of the service and its various apps.

Some people always have a reason as to why they need to pirate a show — series spread out among multiple services, low quality streams, imperfect or undesired translation choices — so Crunchyroll’s simulcasts now costing about $8 a month is not the fall of anime as we know it. The Great Streaming Wars has clearly been dividing the services for the past few years, and the industry is still experimenting with pricing points. But the idea that fresh content requires money to enjoy is nothing new — it’s the same model as movies in theaters versus on-demand/rentals versus airing on TV months or years later. You may even have paid more to see The Batman upon release than another movie at the same theater. Meanwhile, places like Netflix require a subscription to view their entire catalog, and to view their latest anime acquisitions does require waiting after the episodes air in Japan. So again, what Sony is doing is in-line with other services’ approach. Who knows if AT&T-owned Crunchyroll wouldn’t have done the same thing eventually.

Personally, there are very few anime series I want to or follow through with watching on a weekly basis, so I could tolerate the ads and the 1-week delay. For a show like Spy x Family, which I have been very excited for, well, I probably would just wait for the season to complete and marathon the show for the cost of 1 month’s service. But I also have no problem passing on things I want to see completely. I’m a big Sailor Moon fan, and I’ve never seen the Eternal movies since I don’t have Netflix. Could I afford to subscribe for a month to watch them? Yes, but as much as I’m sure I’d enjoyed them, I haven’t. So while I’m still hoping for Blu-rays, I’ve accepted the fact I may never see them. It stinks, but I just don’t want to bother and want to put my time and money elsewhere. If you’ve been looking forward to Trapped in a Dating Sim: The World of Otome Games is Tough for Mobs or other Crunchyroll exclusives this spring, as disappointing as it may be, I suggest you also either look for content from previous seasons/years or start your Crunchyroll Premium membership.

Are you a Crunchyroll Premium member? Why or why not? Will simulcasts being premium-only change that or your viewing habits?

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