Our Love Affair With Streaming is About to get Mighty Complicated
When, in late 2018 and early 2019, Netflix stated that it was raising the prices for its Canadian and American subscribers, the reactions were swift and impassioned, with many vowing to delete their accounts and look for better alternatives. Soon after, Hulu declared that it was scaling down the price for its basic subscription plan, in a transparent reaction to the indignation surrounding their perpetual competitors.
These news were not met with the usual eye-rolling and carrying on: 2019 comes with a long announced change in the streaming landscape, a change that is by turns auspicious or inauspicious, depending on who you ask. Disney and WarnerMedia have announced that they are launching their own service later in the year; BBC, ITV and Channel 4 have been slowly pulling their most prominent shows from some versions of Netflix (Downton Abbey, Doctor Who), and while most have migrated to Amazon Prime Video, it’s only a matter of time before they pull those too, and converge into their own platform. Apple, and other such behemoths have also decided to jump into the fray in the coming months… needless to say, the choices will be positively dizzying.
A few years ago, subscribers leaving Netflix en masse and in protestation would not have been a source of much worry, because it was at the peak of hegemony. Now that people have a choice, however, things have changed, and I would look upon this exodus a bit more warily.
With the increasingly diverse options to pick from, for consumers, the streaming giant is no longer the big player in the field — with the number of subscribers to its biggest competition, Hulu, impressive and growing, that much is clear.
It would be natural to assume that all the above is good news for subscribers, who will at last have a say in how they consume their entertainment when one provider disappoints them. But a closer look suggests the contrary: the death knell of the golden age of streaming.
This aforementioned "golden age" refers to the time when one could get all the content one wanted, in the same place and/or at a relatively low price. If I wanted to watch Marvel films, independent movies, foreign titles, Disney offerings, anime and animation etc., chances are I could be relatively satisfied with Netflix’s selection.
Insidiously, over the years, I have found myself scattering and expanding my subscriptions to providers big and small, and surely, I am not an isolated case. I have Netflix, because I’m piggybacking on my sister’s account; Hulu, because it came with my Spotify Student account; Prime Video, because I already have amazon Prime, so why the hell not; Dramafever (recently defunct, RIP) and Viki Rakuten, because their selection is much more satisfying than anywhere else — and these are just those I use the most, on any given day.
In the center of that Venn Diagram, I’ve always been perfectly content with the freedom to dither about. I had no excuse to be bored when I could find a movie to watch across 5+ services, a show to turn to when Netflix’s dreaded “Too Many Devices” message showed up, an alternative when regional restrictions prevented me from enjoying a series while traveling overseas.
But I’ve come to realize that what I initially saw as an expansion of choice is, in fact, symptomatic of the aggressive tug-of-war providers have gradually engaged in: and in the end, this has not been to our advantage.
I like my entertainment plentiful — not expensive, and not complicated. Hence, when I am paying the same price (and in the case of Netflix, more) to get a modicum of content, across at least five different services, it comes across like an absurd waste of money.
It used to feel whimsical — almost extravagant — to string along multiple subscriptions, because most providers had similar blueprints. Now, multiple memberships is almost necessary if you want to have access to a broad scope of things. With each service further branching out, looking inward and working from the inside out in order to trying to differentiate themselves from its competitors, the disparities are becoming flagrant.
Netflix is, in general, where you go to find mainstream content, including big blockbuster films and wildly popular teen shows (although their independent film catalogue is commendable). Hulu is home to outstanding shows, irreverent comedies, and obscure films and documentaries you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else. Prime Video is where you will most likely find indie films, British content, and awards season darlings.
In short: by choosing to stay with only one provider over another, we consumers are now restricting ourselves from the cornucopia of entertainment we could otherwise be getting everywhere else. And this defeats the purpose of why streaming services came to be in the first place.
Netflix was a radical concept in the mid-to-late 2000s, when it transitioned into streaming because, taking the mantle from the fallen giant Blockbuster, it became the affordable bridge between old-school film and television, and services like TiVo. Netflix gave the power back to consumers, allowing them to designate when and how they were going to watch their favorite series and films, revolutionizing, in one fell swoop, the way we related to entertainment. We went from relying on TV Guides, theatrical releases, weekly television schedules and pricey box sets, to binge-watching, Netflix and chilling, and repeat-watching.
Netflix (and later Hulu et al.) was where things big or small, unloved or nearly forgotten, came to repose or else get a second chance. Cult films from all decades could be re-appreciated by anyone willing to put in the time. It’s safe to say that streaming made us, collectively, fall back in passionate, carefree love with what television and film could be, liberated from the constraints of price and availability.
As it stands, on the cusp of the approaching new decade, Netflix and the like are no different from the very structural constraints it sought to liberate us from.
The circular road to this outcome is not an obvious one, but in retrospect, has always been rather predictable. As its status within the entertainment industry has risen, so has Netflix’s ambitions. A number of its films and shows has notably gotten recognized at the Emmys, the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. The same goes for Hulu and Prime, who have gotten their fair share of nominations and awards for acclaimed shows and films like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Salesman (2016).
This success has slowly changed the business models of the biggest services, with most of them focusing on their respective Originals, and slashing and removing content in favor of allocating budgets to louder, more grandiose projects.
Which, to be fair, is comprehensible. They are absolutely in their right to move in the direction that they see fit; and for all of us who side with the underdogs and the small institutions, this has been vindicating. It proves, once again, that great things often start small and unconventionally. But that these changes are happening at the detriment of the loyal base that has supported them from their inception feels wrong, somehow, like we have been hoisted by our own petards.
Most people just want a place where they can watch and re-watch old classics and beloved childhood content. This nostalgia factor is being shoved aside by the increased focus on Originals, which are not that good, most of the time. Those who want to discover content and/or enjoy entires seasons are, in some cases having to wait week after week for new episodes: how is this different from watching cable television?
Netflix’s refusal to disclose its viewership numbers is one thread in an increasingly worrisome tapestry; this, coupled with the small changes, over the years, in the ratings system, the aforementioned increase in price, the geographical restrictions (and blocked access to VPNs) has rendered the streaming experience more irksome than is necessary.
Circumventing all these inconveniences is massive, massive work — no different from the way we tried to circumvent the restrictions set by the behemoths of the entertainment industry, in the late 90s and early 2000s.
I’ve written at length about my torrenting days, which were, at best, a flawed effort to enjoy the pop culture I was so restricted from, without money and access to them, and at worst, a deliberate middle finger to the entertainment industries that I found biased and elitist.
I was skeptical about streaming of any kind (music, film, television), because I liked to own my art and do with it what I please. Netflix somehow broke through my renegade ways, and for the most part, I’ve grown from my Kazaa and Mediafire days. I've gone legit. I am a streaming convert through and through. But this concession is cheap. It is a relationship that feels very one-sided, at the moment.
The frustrations of the last few years have bottlenecked, over the last few weeks, into a legitimate climate of uncertainty: streaming services risk alienating their audiences, as profit concerns take the center stage.
Shows being cancelled or removed from services and brought back by popular demand (like Sense8 back in 2017, or Friends in 2018, reinstated less than 24 hours later) attests to the fact that users still hold some leverage over streaming giants. People deleting their Netflix accounts and moving elsewhere proves that providers are going to have to compromise if they want to keep their dominion going strong.
But as the other big players in the field prepare to launch their own services, I fear that consumers’ voices will become fainter and fainter, in the grand scheme of things, and that we, and not them, will have to concede with our wallets if we want continued access to the entertainment we so dearly, dearly love.