How Birds and Ninjas are Killing Traditional Broadcast

This is the beginning of the end for traditional broadcast.

Last month, Hawaii became the first state to cease analog television broadcast when it cut its analog broadcast as part of a plan to free up a large chunk of the wireless spectrum for additional communication. Due to the nesting season of the Hawaiian dark-rumped petrel, Hawaii elected to accelerate its analog shutdown one month ahead of the rest of the nation.  As expected, people freaked out.  Turns out, as the president of the Hawaii Association of Broadcasters puts it, “No matter how many commercials we run, there will always be a certain part of the population that doesn’t get the message.” 

Interestingly enough, Hawaii’s shutdown coincided with another sign of the death of the traditional broadcast model.  January 15th also marked the beginning of a new media model for the anime phenomenon, Naruto. For those of you who just scoffed or, perhaps, are unaware of the show, the joke’s on you.  To get an idea of how large the show is, I’ve compared its search volume index to that of another notable phenomenon: President-elect Obama.


Consistently outranking Barack Obama (with the exception of the period directly prior to the election) is no small feat.  Even if we constrain our search to the United States, Naruto still sporadically outranks Obama, particularly during January and August.  Behold, the power of the internet!

A brief background: Currently, the U.S. distribution rights for the Naruto series is owned by Viz Media.  They dub and air the show on Cartoon Network as well as handle other U.S. licensing and merchandising efforts.  

For years, Viz has been at odds with the so called “fansubbing” community, groups of dedicated fans who translate and subtitle foreign films and TV series, particularly anime.   Technically, fan-subbers are engaging in piracy (though they generally do not sell their work) because they distribute the copyrighted works free of charge and without agreement from the publisher.

Fansubbing began as a small, niche phenomenon during the 80’s, but the internet’s capacity to reach a broad, rapt audience with a free distribution model has caused the practice to balloon in size and scope.  In Naruto’s case, a group of dedicated fansubbers calling themselves Dattebayo led the charge and quickly became the premier fansubbing group on the web.  Their fansubs (primarily the popular Bleach and Naruto series) routinely garner downloads in the hundreds of thousands, usually pushing 400,000 and occasionally reaching 600,000 or more – their most popular episode, Naruto Shippuden ep. 1 pulled in almost a million viewers!

Their secret?  Releasing subtitled versions of Naruto within hours of its airing in Japan.  Viz Media wasn’t releasing those episodes statewide until months after their initial run.  Though, Viz Media was slow to change their model, they eventually sat down at the table with the fansub community to understand the needs of their fans (and try to reconcile them with the needs of their business).

The result of those efforts launched today as Naruto began airing on popular online networks Hulu and Joost (as well as popular anime portal, Crunchyroll).  Episodes will be subtitled and available immediately after airing in Japan.  With their analog TV no longer an option, I wonder how many Hawaiians will be watching online now?

We at AgencyNet would like to extend a hearty congratulation to Viz Media for showing that media companies can adapt to the modern media ecosystem and for being willing to listen to their consumers and improve their product.  Music industry execs, we hope you’re paying attention!

Update: Initial response is mixed.  Fan reactions to the idea was overwhelmingly positive, but poor quality streams and uninspired, un-synced subtitles have drawn the ire of many of the show’s loyal followers.  Remember, quality is king.  Perhaps, Viz Media should consider employing the Dattebayo team to continue their subtitling work on the series.  That would be a media coup for everyone.

Update 2: The government delayed the national transition to digital broadcast.  The 86% of Americans with cable TV still don’t care.  We really do need to get better at innovating BEFORE the innovation itself is obsolete.  That said, what are you going to do with your newly freed radio spectrum?