There's a really interesting article on Anime News Network that's part of a 3 part feature about the anime economy written in March 2012. There's some interesting notes about streaming in it.
There was a drop-off in DVD/BD sales because in most places outside of Japan, buying the physical media is the only way to watch something for the first time, since the majority of these shows don't air on TV like they do in Japan. Most people who buy physical media usually don't re-watch shows, so once on-demand options started popping up (in the U.S. ADV's Anime Network, which still runs as "The Anime Network"). Fewer people were buying physical media, even in Japan:
The people buying anime DVDs are now mostly the ones looking to buy a specific show. Now that the logjam of liquidated stuff from 2007 has cleared and several shows from the past have gone out of print, fans are reminded that there's value in having a permanent copy of your own. Publishers are finding ways to boost this collector's value, with books and nice packaging, and ever so slightly bump their prices up. Most people watch the show for free, but the few thousand people who love it enough to collect make the whole venture profitable.
So the trend is leaning away from DVDs and BDs. It's something that's helped by services which provide streaming and on-demand access to anime. As far as the industry changes to make this happen:
When it came to the actual logistics of delivering the final product, things worked pretty much the same way in 2006 as it did in 1986: the lab assembled the final show onto a broadcast quality videotape. That went to the TV network, and then the lab cut out all the commercial breaks and sent it the duplication plant for home video. And then, when all that was done, the licensor made up some presentation materials and a crappy looking VHS screener copy for overseas publishers to peruse. If they wanted it, the licensor negotiated a deal with them, signed a contract, and then called up the lab again. The lab made a copy of the masters and FedEx-ed them to the publisher. The end.
This system was reliable, but extremely expensive and slow -- two things that online streaming, with its razor thin margins and gotta-have-it-now delivery schedule, make completely unacceptable. With episodes sometimes being finished only hours before they air, the only way to do a simulcast is to send the finished video to the streaming service digitally, as a file. But adjusting to a new, all-digital way of doing things has been a steep learning curve for licensors... and an expensive one.
So these shows are being licensed and streamed with ads. The ad money wasn't enough for the licensors so they demaneded a "minimum guarantee"
And so, licensors have asked those companies to put their money where their mouth is. Now, each anime costs a licensing fee (or "Minimum Guarantee") of $1-2,000 per episode for simulcast internet streaming rights. Which is still not much, but at least it's enough to ensure that the whole endeavor will contribute SOMETHING to the show's profitability.
Some licensors are still not convinced simulcasting is worth it. Some don't want to split up ownership of rights -- they don't want to have to deal with Crunchyroll AND Section23 AND Hulu, they want a single company to act as custodian for every line of business for a show, and if that means they miss their chance to simulcast, well, it's clearly not that big of a loss. Other licensors just aren't prepared for the mountain of approvals and other work that suddenly has to be done WHILE the show airs.
In comes subscriptions:
The $6 or $7 per month that sites like Crunchyroll charge each user every month is way, way more than any viewer can earn for the site by sitting through ads. TV Tokyo recently announced that Crunchyroll had nearly 70,000 paid subscribers. If that number is accurate, that means, at $6.95 per user, that comes to $486,500 in revenue a month -- more than enough to keep the lights on and pay for the less popular shows. Clearly they're not getting rich on that kind of revenue, but if that's truly the sort of numbers they're doing (they wouldn't confirm for us), they're doing OK.
Crunchyroll isn't alone in going this route. Hulu is trying to push more of their user base towards their $7-per-month Hulu Plus service, which adds access to shows on game consoles, networked Blu-ray players and smartphones. In Europe, France's Kaze Anime has slowly been developing their subscription service.
As far as how publishers gauge which shows to pick up, it's a little different than before:
There are a few big problems yet to be sorted out. The first is with discovery: how do you get the non-obsessive fans, the ones who aren't up on each new anime season, to watch these shows? With a dedicated anime-only site like Crunchyroll or Funimation.com, it's pretty hard. The only people going to those sites are the ones who already know what anime is, and are actively seeking it out. Hulu and Netflix are great storefronts to entice new fans, but they're still not ideal marketing tools.
Actually, it's almost impossible to do any sort of marketing for a simulcast at all. Since the agreements to simulcast a show aren't hammered out until the week the show starts -- or later -- how does a company start to generate hype for their new product? Unless an anime fan is REALLY engaged -- the sort of fan that reads ANN every day and stays on top of every new release -- a show can slip by completely undetected.
The old way of licensing, there's a time to see how well a show does in Japan, the ratings, some demographic information, and even more recently, a publisher can look at hype within its market about a show that's currently airing in Japan. But when it comes to simulcasting and streaming, you don't have that luxury, so it's a lot harder to pick properties to attempt to license. Different U.S. publishers treat this differently, between Crunchyroll, Sentai, Funimation, etc.
Crunchyroll doesn't have means to distribute and produce physical media like Funimation does, while Funimation often relies on other streaming services to handle it's licenses for streaming. The major change here is that it's harder to gauge which shows to license because it's done before the show even airs in Japan. The upside is that the Japanese property holders don't have the ratings to hold over the heads of potential licenses.
The other thing that article notes is that this is all a work in progress and it's still a very new paradigm for the Japanese studios and rights holders.