The fansub discussion debate has been going around the community for a while now, ever since DVD sales started taking a plunge. Plenty of industry professionals have addressed it, as well as prominent members of the press, and the occasional high profile fan. Most people seem to agree on several points, with the first and third being the main focuses.
1) Fansubs are attractive because they allow overseas audiences access to the same content as the Japanese at about the same time, give or take 12-24 hours. With current licensing and release schedules, this sort of time frame is impossible.
2) Fansubs are the only option for many lesser, obscure series that will likely never see a license deal.
3) When people completely substitute official releases with fansubs, it hurts sales and the industry in general.
4) Fansubs will probably never go away, no matter what measures the industry takes; after all, they’re free, and people like free things. But the bottom line is that they’re still illegal.
Personally, I don’t feel as if I really substitute DVDs with fansubs. Before p2p made file-sharing so easy, I would just watch dubs on TV. You know, the good ol’ days of Toonami and Saturday morning Fox Kids. And then I would just record the episodes on VHS tapes if I wanted to have something to watch later. Spending money on them was more or less out of the question for a stingy Asian kid with no allowance and just-as-stingy parents. Even as I grew older, there were few exceptions to the I’m-not-buying-anything-because-I’m-a-cheapskate sentiment. I would buy manga sparingly (to date, I own less than 30 volumes of manga), but the only DVDs I ever bought were the first two volumes of TRSI’s Gravitation release (which I ended up hating because the dub is horrible, and even the subbing seemed of questionable quality).
If p2p never came to be, I would have probably just continued like that, watching dubs on the telly (or subs on what was formerly the International Channel) or borrowing DVDs from friends that weren’t as amazingly cheap as me. These days, I’ve gotten into buying more miscellaneous merchandise such as figurines and wallscrolls, but DVDs have never been high on my priority list. So even though now fansubs are available to me, my habits haven’t changed much at all. I delete a lot of fansubbed series after I’ve watched them, and even the ones I keep I don’t rewatch all that often. Of course, I might be the exception here, and there might be tons of people that will forgo buying a DVD because they already have the fansub, especially as many people have actually come to prefer the quality of fansubs better, but I’m more inclined to believe that people who like DVDs will always buy DVDs and people who don’t, won’t, regardless of fansubs. After all, I’m blaming the decline of DVD sales on the economy more than anything else.
And you can’t even argue that fansubs have replaced television broadcasting for me because if I can (not owning a TV hinders this ability at times), I will almost always rewatch a series dubbed if it’s airing. The only exception to that is when the network decides to be an asshole and move a series, without telling anyone, of course, into a random and completely unreasonable time slot, as was the case with the final arc of Yu Yu Hakusho — 5:30 am death slot? No thanks, Cartoon Network. Fuck that.
But nowadays, even that exception seems to be melting away as Adult Swim streams all of its anime weekly. So even without a TV, I’ve been able to catch Death Note and Code Geass dubbed and rewatch random episodes of FMA and GitS:SAC when I’m in the mood. I love this streaming thing so many companies seem to be testing out right now. The embedded ads don’t trouble me at all, and hell, I’d actually prefer if they put a big chunk of ads in the middle where the normal commercial break is instead of partitioning them randomly and breaking up my show in inconvenient places. This kind of leads into all the discussion of digital distribution of new series in Japan.
I had an idea, but even though I realized it was probably impossible, I liked it anyway. The only thing stopping overseas companies from being able to distribute episodes near-simultaneously with Japan is the redtape, right? Licensing is a lengthy process that often takes months of negotiations at best. But other than that, fansubbers have obviously proven that it’s perfectly possible to release a decent-quality speedsub in as little as six hours after the show airs in Japan. And that’s only because they depend on the live broadcast for the RAW. If companies could negotiate series while they’re in production and obtain the video at the same time as the Japanese broadcasters, then it would definitely be possible for them to produce a decent-quality sub for digital release at about the same time as the Japanese broadcast.
I’m not really sure how much revenue can be generated from embedded ads alone, but I’m pretty sure most fans don’t mind them much as long as the turnaround for access is fast. Hell, personally, I’d be more than willing to pay a fee for it that kind of an official speedsub, whether per episode or by subscription. It goes back to point number one up there — most people that watch fansubs do it because the things they want to watch just aren’t available as quickly as they want them. The nature of fansubs is free, but I’m willing to bet that most of them, if they could, wouldn’t mind paying for it if there was an official service that could offer the same.
Of course, there’s plenty of risk here because the overseas companies wouldn’t be able to see how popular a series is with the Japanese audience before they decide if they want it. Considering most fansub groups consist of less than ten people working on as many as five or six series simultaneously, I don’t imagine it’d take many human resources to crank out official speedsubs. The only issue is the cost of a license, but I really think the Japanese companies should more compromising on that front. After all, fansubs are available to everyone, and chances are, if Americans are watching them illegally, then plenty of Japanese are also. Someone has to provide the RAWs after all, and with so many people glued to their computers all day, I’m sure a lot of people would choose an illegal RAW on their computer over catching it on TV even if they could. And if overseas fans are assumed to be ditching DVDs in favor of fansubs, then it would be plausible to think the Japanese themselves are doing the same.
So here’s an idea: I don’t think it would be unreasonable for overseas companies to only negotiate a subbing and digital distribution right at first. Further rights — dubbing, overseas television broadcast, DVD, and merchanding — could come later after they judge whether a series was popular enough during its subbed release to warrant a bigger investment. This model would allow the Japanese to potentially license out many, many more titles than they currently do as a partial license would be cheaper and more attractive. It would allow overseas companies to test the waters without putting in too much of a commitment. And most of all, it would allow fans a legitimate alternative to fansubs.
I don’t pretend to be an expert though. I’m not really “in the know” about all the complex workings of the industry, so I obviously don’t know how reasonable this suggestion actually is even if it sounds simple enough to me. Maybe this is an uninformed proposal, but I’m just another fan feeling somewhat guilty about my fansub watching habits while simultaneously not seeing much of an alternative. I watch a lot of series dubbed because I saw and liked them subbed. Case in point: how many series only hit Stateside and became maddeningly successful after a viral spread of popularity online via illegal means? Naruto, Bleach, and Death Note come to mind immediately. And now Haruhi, Lucky Star, and Gurren Lagann are on their way.
So I still don’t buy the DVDs for the most part, but there’s ad revenue and subscription fees, right? It’s debatable, I know, but trying to kill fansubs (impossible as it is) without providing an official alternative would probably cut off access to a significant portion of the fandom, and that would be sad.