Remember the song “Video Killed The Radio Star”? That’s been a common theme for pretty much all of human evolution - though admittedly, not with actual video vs. radio. The base point is the same, however. Humans throughout the centuries have had innovations that have absolutely and totally replaced what came before them. Horse power was killed by tractors; mobile phones replaced landlines; and so on and so forth.
When Netflix burst onto the scene, we all had an inkling that change was upon us. Over time - as more and more TV channels have launched their own dedicated service - there has been a narrative emerging. “Media consumption in the future,” a thousand op-ed pieces have opined, “is going to be strictly based on choice. You only pay for what you use. This is the end of bundled packages for good.”
Is this really the case, though?
A Good Idea… Maybe
On the surface, the idea that we are set to only consume the media we actually want seems like a bit of a no-brainer. We’ve all found ourselves paying for a TV package that includes channels we’d only go to if we happened on them by accident. The idea that we can just pick and choose what we want seems to be a gamechanger. Streaming has killed the cable star.
It’s easy to see why we’ve all become so enamored of streaming packages that we pick and choose; or even just buying individual episodes of TV shows on iTunes and Google Play. It gives us the feeling we’re getting our money’s worth rather than being ‘forced’ to pay for services we don’t want or need.
However, there are signs that the “all streaming is amazing and is going to kill cable” thought bubble is beginning to be in danger of bursting.
The Disney Launch
Disney recently announced that they will be launching their own dedicated streaming service. This will, naturally, involve them pulling all of their content from existing platforms - so no more nostalgia-fuelled evenings watching the classics of your childhood on Netflix.
The backlash was swift. Disney are the latest in a long line of companies who have chosen to go their own way with streaming, rather than contributing to a larger online library of multiple creators. At the opposite end of the spectrum, for example, WWE broke with major cable companies and launched its own network - much to the chagrin of users. Disney is now experiencing the same backlash.
The reason is simple: the numbers are beginning to add up. If you want HBO Go, Netflix, the new Disney, and a few others, you could quickly find yourself paying $70 per month. If streaming really is the be-all and end-all, then why does it suddenly start to be more expensive than a basic cable package? The whole concept was meant to save us money.
What’s Actually Happened
The way that the media has divided into small sections that you specifically subscribe to has not increased choice. What it’s actually brought forth is something far more damaging: restriction.
Take the most watched shows of 2017 so far. If you want to see them all, it would cost a small fortune in subscription costs to see them. The cost is simply untenable. This is especially true when you consider the early adopters of streaming; students and those in college, who don’t have the kind of permanence that is required for a standard cable subscription. Given that students are widely known for being short on cash, expecting them to able to find huge amounts of money to subscribe to everything just isn’t going to work.
On the surface, all those $7.99/month offers look like a great deal. That is, right up until the moment that you realize the latest must-see TV show isn’t in your subscription. All of a sudden, you’ve not got more choice; you’re more restricted. Sure, you can watch something that you do have access to, but TV consumption is a pastime that many of us like to share with others. If you’re not watching Game Of Thrones when it’s being broadcast, then you’re cutting yourself out of a huge amount of social interaction.
So what happens at that point? When watchers - students, families, and anyone else - are tapped out for cash and can’t afford to subscribe to yet another service? They torrent it. This is inadvisable; torrenting has become so oft-referenced it’s sometimes tough to remember that it’s actually illegal. Nevertheless, there is a saturation point where media viewers are out of money but still want to see a show. So that’s the option they choose.
When you examine the extreme number of streaming services that have emerged, then you can see the consequences of all this “choice”. What started out as a good idea that genuinely did increase choice has turned dark, morphing into a situation where suddenly a cable service looks like a good idea after all.
The Other Problem
Yes, there’s more than the above issue facing the future of how we consume media. The second problem is not about the media itself, but about how we access it.
To use any streaming service, you’re going to need an internet connection. That’s a given; and it’s also not something that many of us see as a problem. However, huge swathes of the US struggle for decent broadband speeds. While the speeds are gradually improving, for some people, streaming services just aren’t an option.
For those of us who do have decent broadband connections - well, we’ve got nothing to worry about, right?
The issue is net neutrality. A lot has been said about net neutrality over the past few years, including a notable segment by comedian John Oliver. Even with that said, net neutrality is not a widely understood term outside of those of us with a geeky side to our personality. In fact, even among geeks, it’s still not that well understood.
Put simply, net neutrality guarantees that everything on the internet is accessed at the same speed. Do away with net neutrality - as the current USA administration very much seems to want to - and companies can pick and choose what speeds you get. That’s bad enough in and of itself, but also opens up a more worrying door. There is a real chance that without the net neutrality protections, you could be charged additional fees to pay for faster access to certain sites and streaming services.
Let’s be clear, if this happens, it will change the way we use the internet forever. For streaming services - who, unlike cable, are solely reliant on the internet to bring their programming to their uses - the idea of a loss of net neutrality should be very worrying indeed. Furthermore, for you the consumer, it will again bring forth the question of far more restriction. There is a real chance that you could find yourself having to pay to access the subscription service itself, and then having to pay again just so you can access them at speeds that seem reasonable.
There is a fightback against the repeal of net neutrality. If this is an issue that particularly interests you, then it might be worth reading more into this.
So What Does The Future Hold For Consumers?
It may have seemed, once upon a time, that there was going to be nothing but good things to come from the subscription model. As times have progressed, however, it’s beginning to look a little more flimsy.
As a consumer, the best thing you can do is keep your options open and see what develops. It’s also important to keep an eye on how much you’re actually spending on different streaming services. It’s far too easy to sign up for those low sounding amounts and commit yourself to a service that you then only use sporadically.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that if you’re tempted to only buy an individual service for a single show, it might not be the best deal. You might be better off with a cable package, or buying the episodes individually. It doesn’t feel like it’s quite as good a deal, but in reality, it will work out as a lot less expensive. At least with these techniques, you avoid entirely forgetting about the subscription and paying for something you never end up using beyond the initial show you wanted to watch.
Of course, no one truly knows how the future of streaming is going to develop. There’s every chance that we’re going to find ourselves contemplating an entirely new development over the next few years, one that we can only imagine at this point in time. There’s always something new waiting to come along, so if you’re an early adopter of new tech, then you’re in luck. It might be that subscription is the way to go, or we go back to the old methods - but at least you can be sure you’ve got all the information you need to make the best decision for you.