What if you had to buy a separate ebook reader for each publisher? What if the e-reader you used for Macmillan books wouldn’t read HarperCollins titles, or your Penguin Random House reader wouldn’t read Hachette ebooks?
For all that the major e-reader vendors struggle for dominance and DRM locks you into the platform that you originally chose, you can still buy ebooks from any of the major publishers whether you use a Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iPad, or Google Play Books reader app. This is probably one of the factors that has helped the ebook market grow as large as it has (though independently-published titles such as those on KDP are another matter). But the streaming video market works differently.
I’ve written a couple of pieces looking at the way streaming video services are becoming increasingly popular and allowing show producers to bypass the traditional gatekeepers inherent to broadcast and cable television. But now those streaming video services are starting to look like gatekeepers of their own. The last year has brought a disturbing trend of streaming video provider balkanization, as various networks have started pulling their titles from the major streaming services like Netflix and Hulu in order to launch services of their own. And it seems to be getting worse.
We’re already at the point where you have to use stream-search services like JustWatch.us (for general TV or movies) or Because.moe (for anime) to try to find out where a show you want to watch might be hosted—and when you search on a given show, odds are pretty good you’ll find unfamiliar video service names popping up in the search list.
The CW’s shows like Arrow, Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow used to be hosted on Hulu, but now they’re on The CW’s own service. Ash vs. Evil Dead is on Starz. The new Star Trek TV series will only be on CBS’s new “All Access” service within the US (assuming that it ever gets off the ground, which is starting to look increasingly unlikely). Even DC Comics is planning to launch its own video streaming service, with the fan-demanded season 3 of Young Justice and a live-action series based on the Teen Titans comics. The funny thing is that this “unbundling” of shows from the major streaming services is happening right at the same time cable television companies seem more determined than ever to fight “unbundling” in that platform.
Meanwhile, the existing services are seeking to produce original content of their own, with Netflix earmarking $1 billion to make its own shows and movies (or purchase exclusive rights to original content, such as the new Mystery Science Theater 3000) in the coming year. It makes sense, given that these services don’t have to worry about losing licenses to shows they own—but where will it all end?
I already pay to subscribe to Netflix, Hulu (ad-free), and Amazon Prime. I simply can’t afford to start chucking $10 or so per month at a new service for the sake of one or two shows I might want to see—especially since paying that extra money to stream doesn’t get me any additional ownership rights over that content. I don’t really have time to watch much TV anymore anyway.
I used to follow Arrow, Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow week-to-week, but since they left Hulu I haven’t bothered—I either have to put up with the CW service’s annoying commercials (when skipping them was a major part of why I started paying extra for Hulu commercial-free), or pay out more money. And they’re just not worth the extra money or hassle to me; if I want to watch them, I can wait ’til the complete seasons show up on Netflix. And I’m not going to kick in more money for Starz, CBS, or even DC—even though I had been extremely excited when I originally heard DC was considering making more Young Justice.
Perhaps the weirdest thing about all this is that the music industry finally seems to have made peace with streaming music services. Figures from trade association International Federation of Phonographic Industry report the second year in a row of increased revenues, after 15 years of declines attributed to the rampant piracy that had flourished ever since Napster. And as with ebooks, the music industry is another arena where most major artists and titles are available from most of the same services.
But right when the specter of music piracy is dwindling, the proliferation of competing video services with title exclusivity is starting to make piracy look a lot more attractive to fans who don’t want to be nickel-and-dimed to death to see their favorite shows. It’s coming right back to the old “piracy as service problem” attitude, when fans who can’t get a show the way they want it start feeling justified in ripping it off.
Of course, comparing video streaming services to ebook sales availability is equating apples and oranges to a certain extent. You still have to buy those ebooks title by title even after committing to an ebook platform, and streaming services don’t bring content ownership rights with them the way ebook purchases do. (Or at least feel like they do, given that, legally speaking, ebook “purchases” are actually only “licensed.”) But on the other hand, you do invest money and time getting started with an ebook platform that locks you into titles available via that platform, just as paying for streaming services locks you into just those titles available through those services.
It’s possible that a more apt comparison might be to compare streaming video services to all-you-can-read ebook services like Kindle Unlimited or Scribd, which also have the specter of title-service exclusivity—but they tend to have the opposite problem of video services in that these ebook services have nearly no major-publisher title availability. If you want access to major publishers’ works, you have to buy them piecemeal, and it doesn’t look like that will be changing any time soon.
Will these new streaming video services from individual networks have enough pull to stay afloat? Or will their reliance on individual hit shows prove insufficient to give them long-term appeal? Personally, I’m hoping for the latter. I’d like these services to tank and the shows to migrate back to the major services I am willing to pay for. But it’s possible I’m in a minority there.