Streaming has become a way of life in our culture today. I can say without exaggerating that every single person I know has, at least once, binged a television show.
Netflix was the pioneer of streaming, moving the times and adapting from a DVD delivery service, to a streaming service, to essentially becoming its own network brimming with original content. The company has been a hit in every stage of its development, and it’s still on top today.
Netflix is on top, but it is certainly not alone. Many other streaming services have emerged to try and capture Netflix’s success, and the company has been joined by Hulu and Amazon Prime as the unofficial ‘big three’ of streaming services.
Today, we’re comfortably saturated with a plethora of affordable streaming options and new, original content. However, this comfortable saturation is on the brink of becoming uncomfortable over-saturation. We’re at yet another tipping point in the way we consume media, and there’s a lot of factors contributing to what could (if services aren’t careful) be the downfall of streaming.
Today’s streaming status quo
Many, many sites have tried to launch their own streaming services, and networks have created streaming platforms as a way to supplement their on-air programing and continue to profit off of shows they own that are no longer on the air.
So far, this hasn’t had a huge impact, as these services haven’t become too huge and the ‘big three’ have been able to provide, for the most part, everything we need.
Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime have been able to coexist, with all three providing occasionally overlapping but ultimately different content. All three offer some old classics that still have an audience today, while also creating original hits of their own with Stranger Things, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, respectively.
The prices are manageable to subscribe to all three at once, especially with the added incentive of Spotify’s discounted partnership with Hulu and Showtime, and the free 2-day shipping that comes with an Amazon Prime account.
However, this status quo is about to change, and the biggest indicator of this is the hit that Netflix’s lineup is about to take. Two of the company’s biggest binge-able staples are about to leave the site: Friends and The Office. Combined, these two shows alone make up 5% of all Netflix viewership.
There’s just too many streaming services
What’s more concerning than Netflix’s loss of these shows is where they’re going. It’s not to another one of the big three. It’s to a brand new streaming service that’s being launched next May- HBO Max (the cable network’s third streaming service, for those that are keeping score).
HBO Max boasts access to all of the network’s programming, as well as content that HBO had nothing to do with, like the smash hits Friends and The Office. A subscription to HBO Max will cost $14.99, more than double the combined price of my student discounted Hulu and Amazon Prime accounts.
HBO has ambiguously promised that current subscribers of HBO Go and HBO Now will gain access to HBO Max with no additional cost, though there seem to be some strings attached here that the Home Box Office hasn’t made easy to find quite yet.
In addition to HBO Max, Apple TV+ will be available to the world starting on November 1. The service appeals to a niche audience right off the bat as the technology is catered specifically to Apple device users. However, they are combatting this with the low subscription price of $4.99 a month and star-studded original programming. Most notably, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon’s comedy The Morning Show will be available exclusively through Apple TV+.
Competition is leaving its audience behind
A plethora of streaming services is not new, but the widely unnoticed B, C, and D-list streaming services have shown the up and comers what they need to do to compete with the big three. In the early days of streaming, if I wanted to watch an old TV show, there were three or four streaming services I could choose from.
The idea of one streaming service being the sole carrier of a show it didn’t make is a relatively new phenomenon- and a costly one for the services. Netflix paid WarnerMedia (the powerhouse behind HBO Max) $100 million to keep Friends for just one year.
Streaming services are already setting themselves apart from one another with their own original content that they are all churning out in mass proportions. While each service having its own unique programming lineup is an attempt on their part to encourage audiences to subscribe to their service over others, it actually forces audiences to subscribe to them all, and they’re not going to put up with that for long.
With content spread this widely across so many services, audiences are going to find themselves subscribing to a streaming service for access to just a handful of shows that they want to see, and when this starts to add up, it will hardly seem worth it.
Network television was competition at its finest as audiences had complete control. There are over 100 channels at their fingertips, and they could cycle among all of them at no additional cost. It was a crazed effort on the parts of the network to hold their audience’s attention that pushed them to be their best.
Now imagine that if you wanted to change the channel you had to pay anywhere from $4 to $15 a month. This is exactly what premium cable, like HBO, Showtime, and Starz did, but there are some key differences between them and streaming that allowed this model to be successful.
Firstly, they boasted no commercials. In addition, there were only a handful of premium channels that appealed to a very niche audience and they marketed themselves as a supplement to regular network programming, not a replacement.
Streaming services, on the other hand, are presenting themselves as an alternative to traditional cable television and are working to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. HBO Max is working to widen its existing audience with the addition of Friends and The Office, as well its Game of Thrones prequel that is in the works. Netflix, meanwhile, has titles overflowing from every category imaginable.
Netflix is the only service that has been able to keep its promise of being ad-free, while Hulu requires an up-charge to receive commercial-free viewing, and Amazon Prime, while only featuring ads for its own original programs, has additional viewing fees for some of its content.
While streaming services are growing their confidence in marketing themselves as a complete alternative to cable, encouraging audiences to ‘make the switch’, content is about to be spread so thinly across them that subscribers will soon be questioning whether the switch was really worth it.
It’s too late to go back to cable
This conundrum is so concerning because what the content streaming services have created is truly revolutionary. The creative freedom that the format allows, from run-time to explicit content to genre, couldn’t be more exciting for an aspiring writer (like myself).
These huge leaps in ingenuity aren’t just noticeable to people who have studied the medium. The biggest hits of today are straight-to-streaming-originals. Even if audiences can’t put their finger on why they’re so attracted to streaming originals, they would realize it the minute they were asked to sit through six commercial breaks in 45 minutes.
Audiences are quickly losing their patience for commercial interruptions after being spoiled by Netflix, but more than that, commercial breaks inherently change the structure of a TV show’s writing. Shows for cable are written to keep the audience from changing the channel when a commercial hits, so the last scene before each commercial break is a cliff-hanger or a high point of some sort.
Today, especially with the increased number of commercials per episode, this structure gives the story an unnatural and jagged flow. Audiences pick up on this, even if they don’t know exactly what it is about the streaming originals that feels so different. Hulu without the ad-free upgrade still has just as many commercials as an episode of cable TV, but its original shows aren’t written around them and it shows.
So where are audiences going to go?
The huge interest in MoviePass has prompted theaters to launch their own versions of the plan, but with a sound business model.
AMC has a plan giving subscribers 3 movies a week for just over $20 a month, while Regal Cinemas has a similar plan that gives patrons unlimited movies. These plans pay for themselves almost immediately.
All of a sudden, it’s cheaper to go out to the movies than it is to stay home and watch TV.
This bodes well for everyone who, like me, is tired of the cycle of remakes, reboots, and sequels we’re in. Right now, people generally go to the movies to see something that they’re specifically interested in and have probably had their eye on for a while.
If audiences begin seeing multiple movies a week or even just multiple movies a month, they’ll be seeing the majority of what’s in theaters. They’ll begin to want to see more, different, and better things- once again, competition at its finest.