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.
I kind of disagree with you here, although I give you lots of kudos for calling out some of what I consider to be the “flaws” in the premise yourself, rather than only providing the information that supports your point of view.
However, as a cord cutter myself who relies solely on antenna and streaming video for TV content, what many of us actually prefer is a la carte ordering and no long term commitments. Granted, it would be great if Netflix could provide every show I ever want to watch for its $10 a month. I’d be all over that. But who would buy cable for $100 a month if they could get it all on demand without commercials from Netflix for only $10 and they could then cancel at any time. For a streaming service to provide that kind of catalog, they would end up bringing the price way up to cable equivalents.
Look at the mostly cable company-run live-TV services like SlingTV, PlayStationVue, and DirectTV Now. They all have less content and fewer features than cable does, but they cost almost as much and are more of a hassle. Their only advantage is no contract and more competition.
Complaining about the CW “service” is kind of unfair because the CW does not charge for the content on their streaming app (and so yes, you get ads, but at least they make it available and it is free). In fact, almost all of the major networks have something similar, with CBS being the only one to offer a paid subscription service), but CW does it better than the others. And CW gives you other options like providing their content to Netflix 7 days after the season finale airs, which in some ways is better because you can binge watch the whole season without commercials if you are willing to wait. I don’t have time to watch everything as it airs, so I don’t mind waiting for some things.
But in the end, what is an advantage to the content being available on a variety of different services is that you don’t have to subscribe to every service all the time. I keep Prime all the time because I have always had it for shipping anyway and would even if they didn’t have video, so I don’t consider it a streaming video expense. I keep Netflix all the time because I can always find something to watch. I can use antenna with Tablo year round no additional cost because my hardware and TV guide are already paid for. When there is something on another service, I will consider paying for one additional service at a time – watch everything I need on that service, then cancel. I do this with HBO for Game of Thrones. I did Sling Blue for the Cubs in the playoffs. I did Hulu to binge watch 11-22-63. And just about every show that you can imagine (except for those on premium networks like HBO and Showtime) is available via a season pass with episodes available usually without commercial the day after they air. I do this for The Strain because it is not available anywhere on demand (or wasn’t the last time I checked). So my monthly cost is only $10 a month when all I have is Netflix and $20-30 a month if I have a second service tacked on.
The point is all of these little services give you options. It would be nice if your content from these services could be aggregated in one place for easy access, but that is not in the near future. But while I want access to all of the shows I watch, I don’t need everything available at once all the time. I can only watch so much in a month. As long as these little services don’t cost a lot, I would rather switch services as needed than pay cable-equivalent prices to have everything (including lots of premium content I have no interest in) available all the time.
Like you, I have Netflix and Prime, the latter mostly because of the shipping. I’ve had it since its inception when it did not have other benefits tacked on. I did subscribe to Hulu briefly to watch a whole series and then unsubscribed. Likely my favorite is Acorn TV which is $4.99 a month and has a plethora of shows from Great Britain and the former Empire. I find it completely charming, and it is my favorite.
Yes, AcornTV and BritBox are on my radar. I am getting a lot of British and foreign shows from a secondary PBS station OTA and there are some good ones on Netflix too (and Netflix recently added the Australian show Doctor Blake Mysteries, which is one of my favorites although also available OTA), so I am going through those first, but when I run out of new stuff, I will likely subscribe to one or the other for a while.