Crunchyroll has announced a major move into legitimate distribution of anime with a deal with TV Tokyo, Viz co-parent Shueisha, and Pierrot, major producers in the Japanese anime industry.  In conjunction with the launch of this deal, Crunchyroll is redesigning its site to “ensure that all professionally-produced content is approved by licensors.”  This is a major departure from its previous model, which relied primarily on user-uploaded content. 


The first anime distributed under the new deal will be Naruto Shippuden, which will be streamed  to paid Crunchyroll subscribers, and free with advertising support, beginning on January 8th.  Viz Media announced late Sunday that it would be offering Naruto Shippuden free on beginning in January (see “Free Naruto Anime in U.S. Days after Japan”).  Viz also said that it would be continuing to distribute episodes through Hulu and Joost.   


Crunchyroll had previously arranged with Gonzo (see “Gonzo Series Available for Download”) for distribution of its series in English nearly simultaneously with broadcast in Japan. 


This move continues the trend toward online distribution of anime in the U.S. on a nearly simultaneous basis with the broadcast of new episodes in Japan.  As Crunchyroll CEO Kun Gao put it, “By providing more viewing options to fans and closing the release gap with domestic broadcast in Japan, Crunchyroll helps fans satisfy their craving for the latest anime while supporting rights holders’ efforts to monetize their content.” 


The impact on DVD sales of such widespread, rapid, legal availability of online anime content is unknown.  Early indications, according to Viz, have been that there is no impact (see “Interview with Viz’s Dan Marks, Part 1”).  To own anime legally, fans will still have to buy it, whether through DTO services or on DVD, so it may be that there’s a distinction between fans that are willing to watch things once and forget about it and “collectors” that want to have episodes available for viewing on the platform of their choice at any time.  And as Blu-ray becomes more prevalent, that may be an additional incentive to buy packaged media.


What is clear is that the landscape for anime distribution is changing rapidly.  The long-awaited “convergence” of TV and computers is being bypassed by fans that are very comfortable watching entertainment on their computers and don’t see any difference between that and the screen in their living rooms.  The impact of that phenomenon on TV viewership and DVD purchases is unclear, but the scene is changing so rapidly that the effects, on a scale heretofore unimaginable, should be visible in 2009.