Crunchyroll, We Need to Talk

Look, Crunchyroll’s got some problems, we can all agree on that, right? A strange number of leftists feel the need to defend them, which I suppose is an understandable impulse given the kinds of people who most often pop up against them, though that doesn’t justify all the vaguely progressive people who somehow feel the need to die on the hill that is radical anti-piracy. Lies are frequently told about them and even my lovely wife has made a video rebuking some of the false claims CR faces, something I absolutely get it. It hurts to see misinformation even when it’s against someone you dislike and it only makes your side’s arguments look worse. But we can’t just correct these errors without an attempt to tackle the issues the company does have, because they’ve got a lot, and I’m tired of how little that’s been addressed. Companies aren’t our friends, they’re our enemies. You wouldn’t trust an international arms dealer just because they’re selling to you right now, would you? No, I don’t think you would. So listen, Crunchyroll, it’s time to talk.

Part 1: Workers

Let’s get some initial facts out of the way, put the real issues on the table asap shall we? Crunchyroll has not consistently treated its employees well. They’re a Silicon Valley company under the control of broader investors after all; they don’t exactly exist in an environment where workers rights are all-that-valued. Ever thought that CR’s translations are sub-optimal, especially given that you’re paying for them? Well, that’s because they’re hardly paying for them. Former translators who I talked to described the pay as “way below industry standard”, somewhere around a third of what other anime companies pay. That’s made even worse when you take into account the fact that anime and manga translators already get significantly lower rates than those doing technical work. Does underpaying translators sound absurd given that they’ve got over 2 million subscribers who use the service specifically for translations? Well, you’d think so, but as all the details in regards to CR demonstrate, companies are not moral entities, so if they can profit more, they will. So if the translations feel a bit slapjob then yeah, the pay is a factor. As one of those I interviewed said, “you only get as much caring as you pay for”. While there are still plenty of talented, dedicated translators who work for the company, bad pay will only encourage shoddy work.

But hey, that’s not all! Not only are the translators paid poorly, the entire system has serious issues! Managers who make the ultimate subtitling decisions often aren’t translators at all, according to one of my sources. At the same time, almost all of the translation staff are contractors, a situation described by one translator as being part of the “gig economy”. I’m not one to praise traditionally-employed wage labor but when you look into past periods, there was at least a job security that’s utterly absent from these conditions. And while these aren’t the only causes for poorer translation work, with audience apathy and tight deadlines due to the anime industry’s notoriously poor planning being other causes for sloppy subs, it can’t be said to help. And, more importantly, it’s simply a bad thing. Translation is hard work and like for any other form of employment, those engaging in it deserve to be financially secure. There’s this tendency in our society to venerate “deserving labor” as that which should be paid well, something which excludes creative work and more menial tasks, but that’s a wrong-headed approach, one which ignores the importance of all these tasks and more significantly, these people. Everyone deserves to be secure and the amount translators receive does not enable that.

This is absolutely made possible by an audience that typically ignores the work that goes into translation, treating the final product like some kinda candy from Willy Wonka’s factory, an ignorance that’s aided by Crunchyroll’s continued lack of crediting for translators. And that’s not to mention the simple fact that this is how these kinds of Silicon Valley tech companies work, chewing up and spitting out workers as they like even in this highly specialized field of labor, because folks need jobs and will do what they gotta in order to get them. And let’s remember, when you’re a contractor, it’s a hell of a lot harder to unionize. It’s not impossible, though, and I’m just gonna leave that fact on the table.

And if you think this is a situation which has only afflicted their translators then oh boy have I got a bridge to sell ya. A couple of years ago, the engineering section saw significant layoffs, with the jobs being replaced by workers in, drumroll please, the Republic of Moldova, which just so happens to be the poorest country in Europe. And why was this? Well, I can’t read into the minds of execs but I will say that former employees indicate it’s from head company Ellation’s goal of working on VRV over CR. And let me just drop one other bit of useful info: the median salary in the country is, let’s see here, less than 400 bucks a month, so, have a guess why they might want to drop the employees they needed to pay in San Francisco, where the pay would need to be well above 4000 bucks a month. And even when the staff was at Cali, there were plenty of dreadful stories that you can easily find on their GlassDoor page, including the always fun topic of sexual harassment, coupled with a management which actively redirected work from CR to VRV. Talk about bad bosses.

There are obviously employees who enjoy working at the company and some may well respond to this video. Of course, I’d like to say that if the front-facing PR parts of CR are the ones which treat their workers best, and employees from other sections report that as being true, then the anecdotes we do easily get are going to be the best-looking ones, but I’m sure people like Miles and Cayla are genuinely happy with their experience. It’d be absurd to claim no one enjoys working there even some translators and engineers. But that doesn’t erase the number of poor reports that exist on the public Web, freely available for anyone to look at, or the multiple employees that I was able to track down who had serious issues with the way the company was run and how they were treated. Crunchyroll is not some massive diversion from the status quo in Silicon Valley, but when the status quo is as nasty as it is, that’s just damning them with faint praise. And of course, while you should care about the plight of the workers purely for the sake of it, I understand that many end users simply don’t. I can’t share that approach at all, but I’ve got to accept it. So, let’s get another thing straight: if CR treats many of its workers poorly, you can’t expect perfect behavior towards its customers.

Part 2: Consumers

Hey, so do any of you remember how in 2017, CR was caught having replaced literally every video on their website with ones of far worse quality, something that was initially dismissed by many as the whining of pirates, until there was a large enough critical mass that they were forced to address it? Just me? Well, according to their official reports, this was legitimately all just a big mistake. Let’s accept that as true for a moment, as while it sounds suspicious, I hardly have the technical know-how to accurately evaluate if it’s true or not, I’m just an English major. Even being as generous as possible to CR here, this was a strike of massive incompetence, one that followed not all that long after the layoffs and shift to Moldovan development. It also occurred shortly after VRV’s debut, a fact I’ll just leave right there. Of course, this has been fixed, mostly. CR’s encodes are still significantly worse than, let’s say, Amazon’s, but they aren’t actively atrocious right now, barring the issues that still crop up occasionally. However, that’s not to mention the fact that many of their backlog shows still have the botched video, despite promises they’d fix all of it. When their tech blog said regular updates would come, well, that didn’t happen either. Again, employees from the company are sure to be watching this video, and I really mean to ask this in good faith: why haven’t these posts continued coming? I’ve gotta be honest, it reads to me like they stopped as soon as the pressure relaxed which makes the whole mea culpa look pretty disingenuous.

A specter is haunting Crunchyroll, the specter of their own PR. The history of all hitherto existing CR promises is a history of delays and undelivered updates. Let’s ignore the scummy ways in which they began by charging people to watch fansubs they stole, because as gross as that is, it has little influence on the company right now, and there’s no meaningful way to make up for it. Instead, let’s look at the ways in which they still fail their paying customers.

HTML5 streaming was promised for years and only arrived in 2018, possessing significant problems in spite of that for quite some time, including such obvious ones as not being able to get rid of the timeline bar and being incapable of changing languages or removing subs without reloading the page. This is shockingly incompetent given that it had been in beta for well over a year before it launched officially! Furthermore, such essential features as offline downloads, promised for 2017, still haven’t released! Let’s be honest, there’s no excuse for this. I’m sure the Japanese side of things has placed plenty of hoops for them to jump through but if it wasn’t viable, they shouldn’t have said they’d do it in the first place. And yes, this comes back to the issues with workers. I’m sure those in Moldova are trying their best and of course they’ve still got some staff in California, but when you aren’t treating your workers well and are actively assigning many of them to work on your company’s other streaming platform — one which, in not being tied explicitly to anime, looks a hell of a lot more appetizing to investors — then you aren’t going to get new features quickly. And frankly, that only makes things worse for consumers. Of course, I’m not going to pretend that most people pirate because they can’t download their episodes, after all, illegal streaming services beat out torrents by something like 100x, if not more, but it certainly has an influence on my decision-making process, though I’m willing to admit that much of why I torrent is a lingering mentality from my time on /a/ rather than any principled decision on my part. Regardless, as the rage towards the lack of HTML5 shows, viewers do care about these issues when made aware of them, and the company will be forced to capitulate if enough of a stir is made. So remember folks, VRV has offline streaming downloads and CR doesn’t, despite the fact that they have the same videos available. Might wanna let them know how that makes you feel, especially for those non-Americans in today’s audience.

Part 3: Capital Doesn’t Care About You

Every company, especially in the modern media landscape, is going to present itself as the best thing since sliced bread, often as better. CR’s reps will spare no opportunity to talk about the ways in which they’ve improved the western anime landscape, taking us from a place where fansubs would often come weeks after episodes aired — and that was the better option, as the speedsubs would often be unwatchably bad — to a world wherein we get almost every anime within a couple hours of its release in Japan. And yeah, that’s a good thing, I’m very glad that it’s happened. Of course, fansubs are far from dead, there are still quite a few anime that get no official translations, and many are on streaming services but so poorly-done as to need fans to fix things, but let’s put that to the side for now. CR’s introduction of simulcasts on a large-scale has changed the way anime is consumed in the West and that’s unmistakable.

However, the company is not content to merely stop there. Let me be clear once again: I have no doubt that every single member of the public-facing departments are genuinely invested in anime and making the community a better place, even if I would disagree with the efficacy of their methods. However, while companies are made up of their members in a certain sense, they also exist for their own sake and the sake of their owners, and the fact that those who work for CR genuinely care about the community does not mean that the company or its execs do. Let’s get things straight. Crunchyroll, and more specifically, Ellation, only cares about the anime community insofar as it’ll make them a profit to do so. This should be obvious, but sometimes, it feels like it needs restating. So when the company’s PR focuses on its importance to the community, no matter how much those who write it may genuinely care, you need to be suspicious. CR Expo’s organizers probably do want to make a fun con to attend, but it still serves to pump up the brand recognition and power of the company, only further serving the clear goal of making “Crunchyroll” the first word you think of when you hear “anime”. They can only benefit from establishing that mental link, so of course, their PR will explicitly or implicitly attempt to do so. The CR branded Anime Awards are just another example of trying to establish this connection.

The issue, here, is that CR is not what makes up anime. Ignoring the many shows which go to their competitors or just aren’t licensed at all, CR simply is not what people come to this community for. The service is a streaming platform, not a community in itself, and yet it seems that they’d like to change that. Again, this is only natural, the company will see far more success if it becomes an entire experience in itself. But as someone who loves anime due to the many people who create it — most of whom see little-to-nothing from CR, though I can’t blame them for the state of the industry — and the stories it has to tell, CR does nothing for me aside from the admittedly very important task of subtitling shows. But, let’s be real, the translators are not the ones who are getting the dividends when CR doubles in size in less than two years. Money simply doesn’t trickle down and it never will, not to the translators, not to the engineers, and not to the staff behind your favorite shows.

Anime is obviously going to be a part of capitalist systems as long as capitalism exists — fingers crossed on that one — but that doesn’t mean we need to allow a company like CR to dominate the entire landscape. However, we should keep one thing in mind: they only care about keeping us happy insofar as it helps them make a profit, but for now at least, keeping us happy is a requirement. If viewers do what they can to hurt the bottom line, be that through mass outrage or through outright boycotting, they could be forced to pay their workers better, or finally roll-out offline streaming, or fund shows people actually want instead of garbage like Kemono Friends 2. They could put their money where their mouth is with the faux-progressive sentiments and actually help marginalized people in a more direct way rather than using the rainbow flag as a cloak while they produce often-repulsive shows. They’re always going to be an amoral company, plastering a friendly, “woke” veneer over the Kafkaesque interior, but we can at least try and minimize the damage in spite of that. To return to the metaphor of the arms dealer, it isn’t wrong to buy from them. Those weapons will help you accomplish what you need them to. But they’ll always be ready to sell to your enemies for the right price, so I’d avoid cozying up to them too closely, or you might end up with a bullet in the back of the head.

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