Alright, media companies, we need to talk. The streaming thing was really cool for a while, but the luster has worn off, and we’re left with a situation that’s somehow even worse than having to pay for a bunch of cable channels we don’t watch. Something has to change, and I think we’re reaching a breaking point with regard to how many discrete streaming services people are willing to tolerate. Disney’s recent announcement of an intent to pull its programming off Netflix (at least, in the US) and form its own service has me screaming “enough already!”
I want to establish a baseline first, though. I tend to not like cable very much, and I’m pretty happy with what Netflix offers me. I like streaming. I say that because much of what I have to say may sound very much the opposite.
What did we hate so much about cable?
I think that, to a large degree, we already live in a post-cable world. Anecdotally speaking, I don’t know anyone who watches cable TV through a cable box anymore. The numbers are bearing that out, too. We’re cutting out subscription televisions services faster than ever, with nearly a million people ditching services like Comcast, Dish, Charter, and DirecTV in the last quarter. So it can be tough to remember what was so frustrating about cable.
With a cable subscription, everything comes in bulk. You want sports? You got it, You want movies? They’re in there. But it’s all tied together. You’re paying for Fox and MSNBC, regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, and so forth. To get the SyFy Channel, you have to fund TLC (which used to be called The Learning Channel, let that sink in).
Netflix was the first streaming service that felt like a proper relief from all of that. The service offered up enough options to make sure we could “channel flip” anytime we wanted. At one point, it was the only game in town. Or a least, the only game that mattered.
Now, the number of streaming services has exploded. Worse, everyone wants their own paid subscription service. Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, Amazon Prime Video, and (soon) Disney each offer a variety of shows and movies, as well as some specialty or another. You could even throw the anime-streaming service Crunchyroll in there, especially in light of Sony’s acquisition of their streaming partner, Funimation. Then, services like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue attempt to replace cable, offering a variety of channels you’d normally find on cable television. But we’re going to focus on the first and best-known group, as each of those services offers some kind of exclusive programming.
A list of headaches
Streaming services come with a whole list of pain points that, taken separately, aren’t so bad. But when you bunch them all together and multiply them by five, they turn into a huge migraine.
One of the problems is fragmented application support. With cable and over-the-air television, hardware is the gateway, and the jacks are all pretty universal. If you have a cable box or a digital antenna, you’re all set. With streaming, it’s not like the bar is set high, but it’s there. You can stream through any number of smart televisions, through an Xbox or PlayStation, or through a streaming box like Roku or Apple TV. For any of those to be a viable solution, though, the service provider has to support it. My cable box is ancient, but it still gets all the channels I subscribe to. Which is literally just local channels and HBO, but that’s kind of beside the point. Any channel I subscribe to is going to work.
On the other hand, if a provider doesn’t support a particular piece of hardware – a PlayStation 4, Roku, and so on – you’re out of luck. Amazon Prime Video didn’t hit Apple TV until just two months ago. Or if your device is old enough, the creator may stop supporting it. If you have an Android, iOS device, or game console, you’re probably good – but it’s not a guarantee. This is annoying for geeks like us, and downright baffling for the less technologically-inclined members of our families. But even if you have a modern, well-supported device, it can still be a problem.
Let’s say you’re not looking for Daredevil, The Handmaid’s Tale, Westworld, or The Tick. You just want to watch the 1998 classic romantic tragedy, City of Angels, because you haven’t cried in a while and Nicholas Cage always gets you. How do you find out where it’s streaming – if anywhere? At best, you’re going to be dealing with a third-party search option like Fan.TV, Canistream.it, or something like that. At worst, you have to hit your favorite search engine and hope someone has an updated listing. Not only does each streaming service have its own sequestered lineup of movies and shows, that lineup is constantly changing, no thanks to the opaque and volatile licensing deals the content holders cut with different streaming vendors.
But you’re okay with that, right? Because you’re cutting cords, you’re disconnecting from the cable company, and you’re saving money! Right? …right?
Streaming still wins the choice wars
I’ll give all these streaming services this: they’re all optional. You certainly don’t have to subscribe to them all. If you’re on a budget, the cost of a Netflix or Amazon Prime Video subscription is a lot more appealing than a cable subscription.
Paring down like that can be difficult, though. While I’ve long since dismissed Game of Thrones from my life (you can fight me down in the comments), there’s still pressure to keep up with so many of these shows – Fear of Missing Out. And more and more, that’s requiring multiple subscriptions. To maintain subscriptions for Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go/Now, and Amazon Prime Video, you’re shelling out a cool $40 a month. In other words, it’s not that different from a cable TV subscription, and a huge chunk of the available content is going to be duplicated between services.
Disney owns your favorite character
Let’s pick on Disney for a moment. The chances that Disney owns your favorite character are pretty good. Not only does the company have all its own licenses, including Disney and Pixar, but Disney also owns Marvel and the Star Wars universe. With Disney ending its agreement with Netflix and moving its content over to its own service, that means tons of material is disappearing from one service and heading to another service with its own subscription fee. Few companies could do what Disney is doing. No one else has that kind of collection of not just popular but beloved licenses. It’s not a cultural monopoly in the literal sense, but it sure feels like one.
Competition and Choice
Competition is a good thing. It forces the companies that want our money to have to work for it. To offer us new programming, better pricing, and exclusive features. That’s all great. But when it comes to streaming TV and movies, Netflix really is the king.
Over in the video game world we have something similar in Steam. Services like GOG, EA Origin, UPlay offer similar services and largely identical libraries. But Steam is the defacto standard. For many gamers, making a game exclusive to another service is as good as telling them, you don’t need this. As much as FOMO is a very real thing for many, Netflix is simply the only service some people are willing to subscribe to. There isn’t one, universal place to go to for content like we’re used to with cable and OTA television. Amazon Prime Video mitigates this somewhat by allowing you to add services like Showtime, Starz, and even HBO into your Prime account, but it’s still a problem, by and large.
Let’s put all the pieces together
With so many streaming services, you have what boils down to a bunch of premium cable channels that may or may not work on your device of choice, each with their own prices and their own ever-changing, difficult-to-search libraries. Depending on where you live and who you live with, that last one can be killer.
We have more choice than ever, and that’s great, but the choice is coming along with increasingly complex matrices of tech, pricing, and content. Which streaming service is right for me? Well, let’s take this 10-question survey…