Earlier today, Viz announced the official launch of Neon Alley. For those who don’t recall, Neon Alley is Viz Media’s linear streaming anime service. The channel, which is exclusive to the PlayStation 3, is a subscription service with a monthly fee of $6.99. Currently, the company is offering a one week trial to new applicants.

The press release, as usual, is upbeat about the new service. Viz President and CEO Ken Sasaki was quoted as saying “The Neon Alley premiere on PlayStation 3 is a landmark event for anime fans […] Neon Alley combines the appointment viewing and joy of discovery of traditional broadcast TV with the ease of subscribing to a dedicated anime channel. Fans will find all of their favorite series alongside the best of the best new series they didn’t even know they were missing!”

But, really, what is it that people are paying for?

By definition, a linear broadcast is a single outgoing feed from the network to the subscriber. The viewer has no control as to what comes through on this form of broadcast, which offers its own pros and cons. Most of the pros come on the side of the broadcaster, as it ensures a consistent viewing experience, a predictable schedule, and the ability to accurately track program performance for advertisers. At the same time, it allows broadcasters to present a full, twenty-four hour schedule with a smaller range of content. Titles the provider wants to push can be placed into prime spots where more viewers typically tune in, and better leverage advertisers on the performance of these programs.

On the flip side, this particular form of broadcast is tied to a schedule, which means that viewers must contend with the fact that what they want to watch may or not be on in the case of events like work, school, or family functions. This also means that the viewer is at the mercy of the provider in regards to content. If what is airing isn’t to the viewer’s preference, his only recourse is to change the channel.

Anime providers have traditionally used a “Video On Demand” approach to content. This means that, rather than force a video feed to the viewer, he is instead given a smorgasboard of content. Dozens, even hundreds of titles are presented, which the viewer can wade through at his own leisure. He can sample, watch, and enjoy at his own pace, regardless of his obligations. This is a much scarier prospect for providers, as they typically have less control over the experience and the programming being viewed by the audience. They can do little more than suggest titles to an audience, who may or may not accept the recommendation.

Viz’s decision to use a linear broadcast is intriguing, since they’re bucking the trend that’s been set by their peers. They’re consciously opting to offer what many will perceive as an inferior product to the likes of Crunchyroll or FUNimation. There is a potential advantage in the fact that Neon Alley will offer dubbed content – a desired trait in the greater market. In addition, the company is trying to garner a stable of content that appeals across demographics, with heavy hitters like One Piece and Naruto mixing with premieres of shows like Tiger & Bunny.

Of course, there is also the laundry list of challenges that the channel faces in its early days. A quick look at the schedule shows a general lack of content, as exhibited by the blocks of repeating programming that fill the day-to-day schedule. While this can be rectified in time, word travels quickly online, and a reputation can be crushed before it begins.

Note the numerous repeats in this fragment of the schedule.

Likewise, the channel’s potential is stifled by its confinement to a small platform. Currently, the PlayStation 3 has roughly 23.8 million units sold in America, according to informal estimates. While this sounds like a giant potential audience to sell to, we can safely assume Neon Alley will be a niche product on the PSN. Just how many subscriptions will be netted remains a mystery, but I have my doubts on the ability to attract a large bed of subscribers. Ideally, we’ll see Viz begin to branch away from PSN and into new markets in the coming months. Expanding outward will certainly allow the network to reach new audiences, which would allow for a greater chance at profitability.

There certainly is an audience that wants the linear experience, and would gladly pay the $6.99 per month for something in the vein of Neon Alley. Likewise, there is a growing group that desires an alternative to the norm, where one can view the popular shows without having to go through the fractured networks of Crunchyroll, FUNimation, and the Anime Network. If Viz can successfully tap these two groups, they’ll certainly have a bright future ahead with Neon Alley. Viz likely won’t supplant the current “big boys” of digital but, so long as Neon Alley is profitable, they won’t need to.