Over the past few years, it’s become the stuff of legend in the modern tech world: Blockbuster turned down a chance to buy Netflix for a mere $50 million when it was just a plucky upstart. The video rental chain declined, and now Netflix is worth $70 billion — and Blockbuster is a distant (occasionally funny) memory.
Blockbuster couldn’t see it then, but everyone can see it now. Streaming is the future of media consumption, and though Netflix might be the biggest player, more and more companies are looking to get in on the action. Hulu and Amazon are working hard to rival Netflix, and The Big Three have carved out a niche as the biggest players in the field — but they’re hardly the only ones. Disney has announced plans for a streaming service, a new ESPN service is in the works, while CBS and DC Comics both have streaming networks on the way that will feature exclusive programming. Want to watch the new Star Trek series, or the new season of Young Justice? It’s going to cost you.
If you’re into niche programming, there’s no shortage of streaming options to find what you’re looking for. Boomerang has a streaming service for classic cartoons, there’s Crunchyroll for anime programming, Shudder for horror fans, Acorn for British programming, and services like MUBI and Fandor for movie snobs — and that’s just scratching the surface. The market even already has some casualties: comedy programming streaming service Seeso recently closed up shop, and the anime streaming service Daisuki also called it quits this year. Taking a wider view, platforms like YouTube, Dish’s Sling and Sony’s Playstation are piloting hybrid streaming services that feature some live, a la carte programming.
If you’re looking to save around $100 per month and drop a cable or satellite subscription bill, it can be tempting to cut that expense down to $30 or $40 bucks by subscribing to a couple of the top services and turning your old dish into a lawn ornament. A year or two ago, that looked like an infinitely promising option. Netflix was landing content deals left and right, and several of the major networks had lined up behind Hulu to offer next-day streaming for most of the big, new shows. Put simply: the future looked bright. But the streaming landscape is changing quickly, and in the next year or so, if you want to make sure you can see everything, your streaming bills could quickly stack up and rival what you’re paying for cable.
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Ironically enough, the problem is that streaming has proven itself profitable, maybe too profitable. It used to be enough to just cut a sweetheart deal with Netflix, or Amazon Prime, for the streaming rights to a content library. But now, studios are starting to realize they can just keep the whole pie by simply launching their own services outright. A company like Disney certainly has a content library that could support it, while CBS is leveraging the high-profile launch of Star Trek: Discovery to anchor CBS All Access. DC Comics is developing a brand new, live action Teen Titans series as a flagship for its streaming service, alongside a new season of the beloved animated series Young Justice. All of that is simply catch up to the game The Big Three are playing. Netflix has a flurry of hit originals like Stranger Things, Orange is the New Black, Luke Cage, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and House of Cards. Hulu is breaking out with high-concept swings like The Handmaid’s Tale and 11.22.63, while Amazon Prime does the same with shows like Man in the High Castle, Transparent and Fleabag.
Looking at content not specifically tied to a streaming service by default, it gets even more complicated. Studios know streaming rights are worth a premium, which is why you have high profile shows like Futurama jumping from Netflix to Hulu, and the cottage industry of tracking what’s leaving and hitting Netflix each month. The Big Three are looking to differentiate, and the way to do that is with exclusives. It’s why The Flash is on Netflix, and Orphan Black is on Hulu. Oh, and if you’re looking for Game of Thrones, HBO has its own app, too. Everything is getting sliced up into thinner and thinner pieces, as each service locks in exclusive content windows. Too much content is getting walled off into these niche services, and while that might be a good thing for the service wanting to tout its exclusives, for the people actually watching at home? It just creates more and more headaches.
If you actually decide to grab the scissors and cut the cord, you basically trade that extra cash for a far more complicated viewing experience. Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu are basically required, which starts your bill at around $30 per month. If you want to add a live streaming service to the mix, that will run an additional $30, on average. Add in a few niche services like HBO Go ($15), CBS All Access ($9.99) and Disney’s upcoming streaming service (price unknown), and your bill is already bumping into the $100 cable TV threshold you were trying to avoid. You also have to deal with a half dozen log-ins, user interfaces, and potential compatibility issues (Roku, Amazon Fire Stick or Apple TV?). That issue itself has spawned some ambitious tech to try and cut through the noise (Caavo’s upcoming, $400 set top box uses cutting-edge machine learning to simply handle all the clicking for you). But again, at that point you’re probably spending even more money than if you’d just taken advantage of a new customer sign-up deal at Dish Network or DirecTV.
The streaming market has never been more complicated, and it’s only getting worse. Taking the long view, it’ll be interesting to see if consumer unrest eventually swings the pendulum back to where it all began. Netflix became a juggernaut because it was setting itself up as a one-stop shop. If all these up-start services from studios like CBS, and Disney, fail to find enough subscribers, perhaps a service like Netflix, or Amazon Prime, could come out the other side a few years later with the deals to finally give consumers something simple? Even if it costs a bit more per month, isn’t the potential convenience worth it?
Regardless, we’re reaching a tipping point for streaming service overload — and the only thing that’s for certain is that it’s getting harder and harder to support them all.