It’s been a tumultuous week for streaming services. Netflix officially entered the publishing world, Disney announced it’s pulling its content off Netflix and launching its own service to stream the company’s content, and NBC revealed that it’s shutting down its struggling comedy streaming service SeeSo. Put those three stories together, and they underline a trend we were seeing even before Netflix entered the content-creation business back in 2013: streaming services are expanding, proliferating, and competing, making it increasingly hard for anyone but the biggest industry leaders to sign on a big enough audience to survive.
The splintering of the streaming market makes sense for everyone but the consumer. It’s logical for studios to want their own captive, paying audiences, so they can take in all the profits from their content, instead of letting a service like Amazon Video or Netflix leech it away. It’s logical for streaming services to want to create their own content, to draw more viewers and guarantee they won’t lose all their license options. But for customers, the streaming landscape just keeps getting more complicated. Amazon has expanded its streaming video service with extra-charge specialty channels. Services like Filmstruck, Shudder, and Crunchyroll are offering focused micro-services to highly specific audiences. And more and more studios are moving into streaming their own work. But when every studio has its own streaming service, and every streaming service is its own studio, we’re going to continue to be barraged with micro-services trying to escape SeeSo’s fate. Will any of them be effective? It depends on whether streaming-saturated audiences can be convinced to sign up for 10 little services instead of one big one. So we asked the staff: at this point, what would it take to get you to sign up for a new streaming entertainment service?
Bryan Bishop, senior editor
I signed up for Hulu specifically to watch The Handmaid’s Tale. It was the first time I’d done that for one specific show, but investing in Hulu didn’t translate into seeking out what else it had to offer. I’ve crossed the threshold into thinking it’s totally valid to sign up for a service just for one show, instead of evaluating streaming services by their broader collection of content. I have zero interest in Hulu’s library of programming. Library shows come and go between different services, and they’ve been devalued due to their lack of accessibility. What matters is the shows and movies that will always be available — and for a Netflix or an Amazon Prime, that means the shows they make. So compelling, exclusive original content will be the key to me signing up for any new service. Now, if every studio pulls a Disney and starts streaming exclusively on their own services, things get interesting. In that world, content quality is truly the great differentiator — and it’ll be easier to pass on a Warner Bros. service after its last 10 years than it will be to forgo Disney.
Andrew Liptak, weekend editor
I recently signed up for Comic Con HQ, a streaming service from the people behind San Diego Comic-Con. The service offers incredibly nichey programming that speaks to my specific tastes, like Alan Tudyk’s web series Con Man, Mark Hamill’s Pop Culture Quest, and non-original programming like Gene Roddenberry’s TV show Andromeda and Earth: Final Conflict. That’s still not enough to make me stick around past my original one-year subscription, though. I essentially signed up because of Con Man, which is entertaining, but not enough to get me to stay. On the other hand, my wife signed up for Hulu, which gives us other, much bigger exclusives like The Handmaid’s Tale, and hopefully, an adaptation of Joe Hill’s Locke & Key. Services like Netflix and Hulu are really making it clear that they’re focusing on building original series, which makes signing up for them a no-brainer, especially because they have big libraries to explore in the meantime. While Comic Con HQ sounds good on paper, it just doesn’t have the content library its competitors have. And as entertaining as Con Man is, I don’t see the service writing huge checks to get the next big show I really want to watch.
Tasha Robinson, film / TV editor
My knee-jerk response was that I’m not joining a new streaming service until it comes with a bundle that also gives me an extra four hours of free time a day, to actually watch the new content. But that isn’t entirely true. What I really want is a service designed first and foremost to meet consumer needs instead of studio needs. For me, that would mean opting into, and paying for, only the specific shows I want to watch, instead of getting inundated with thousands of titles I don’t want or need. It’s exactly what home viewers have wanted since cable TV was introduced: a way to pay for the channels they want, instead of supporting a non-optional bundle of hundreds of channels they don’t care about. The bundle model serves the company, which can claim it’s offering bigger and better services, and charge more for it. But so much entertainment these days is à la carte, and we’re finally moving toward the understanding that people value choice as much or more as they value variety. Give me the streaming service that’s the equivalent of Netflix’s one-DVD-at-a-time subscription: the streaming service that acknowledges how I actually consume shows, one at a time.
Shannon Liao, intern
I’m too picky to try out any new streaming services unless they offer something I’ve been actively searching for, like access to great indie anime, those random films from the 2000s I sometimes want to see but can’t find on Netflix or Amazon Prime, and old Disney kids’ shows I rewatch out of nostalgia. Jumping away from film and television for a second, I’d offer up my Spotify streaming music subscription as an example. I was momentarily entranced by Tidal when it first came out, and I made the switch. But although Tidal had exclusive content from Jay Z and Beyoncé, it’s fundamentally missing so many more great records and artists compared to Spotify’s already spotty selection. After a few days with Tidal, struggling to find anything I actually wanted besides Jay Z and his friends, I had to switch back to Spotify, the dominating brand in the streaming music industry. In film and TV streaming, Netflix and Amazon Prime (Man in the High Castle, The Night Manager) are the giants, and it’s going to be tough for any newcomers to challenge them.
Megan Farokhmanesh, internet culture reporter
I don’t have the time, funds, or attention span to blow on multiple streaming services. Have you come to offer me streaming mecca, an end-all be-all platform with every ridiculous thing I want? Otherwise, I’m not ready to take on the daunting task of thinking up a new password I’ll have to recover in three months. The last membership I signed up for was uber-specific, a Crunchyroll account, because finding both Yuri on Ice and Sailor Moon Crystal in one place is more of an undertaking than it appears. Before that, I considered myself in a healthy, monogamous relationship with Netflix. I want to watch Game of Thrones and The Handmaid’s Tale, but not enough to invest in my own account. And between my contemplation of shows like Breaking Bad or Master of None, I’m also cramming episodes of Gossip Girl and Riverdale like a woman shoveling potato chips, hand-to-mouth, down her gullet. Great original content is all well and fine, but how much trashy goodness can you offer me? I’m all set for now, thanks. Maybe I’ll check out that new original show on my friend’s account.
Natt Garun, technology editor
I realize what I’m about to say will never exist or work, but hear me out. Because I hardly watch TV shows, there usually aren’t patterns in terms of what network they’re available on. Different shows strike me for different moods — the last three shows I watched span between TV Land’s Younger, Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing New York, and Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. If there were a service where I could literally cherry-pick up to three television programs I want to watch, regardless of network affiliation, and have access to those on a monthly basis, I would definitely subscribe to something of that nature. Then a few months later, I’ll change the shows to match the seasons and moods. I don’t want to watch everything else — just the handful number of shows I have time for every few months. It doesn’t need to provide content recommendation either. I’ll make my own decision about what I want to watch based on my interactions out in the real world.
Ashley Carman, tech reporter
I’m going to admit something here that no one knows about me: I currently pay for no video streaming services. I share accounts with my parents (love you both!) and have some random person’s HBO Go login. I don’t think this guy knows I have access, but he’ll probably figure it out when he wonders who in his family watched every episode of Girls. Given my slightly covert operation, I assume one day, I’ll need to make a decision about which service I’m going to use and pay for myself. I’ll choose solely based on wherever I can get the most stuff for my money. I would never use a just-Disney service or a just-Amazon one, because I like some Disney content and some Amazon content. I want everything. Ultimately, if every studio or tech company becomes its own eponymous streaming service, I’d weigh my options with whatever has the most relevant content to me. Right now, I’d probably choose HBO Go. If the industry totally stratifies, I’ll probably subscribe to something random, and share my login within a group of friends, so we can all access whatever we want. Sorry, but I’m not paying for upward of three services. No way.
Casey Newton, Silicon Valley editor
The last streaming service I signed up for was the WWE Network, which has three big things going for it. 1) Its massive back catalog: on the network, you can essentially watch the entire history of professional wrestling in North America, from weekly television shows to monthly pay-per-views. 2) An impressive slate of original programming: my favorite thing in wrestling is a network show called NXT, which features up-and-coming performers who haven’t yet graduated to the main roster, honing their craft at a tiny Florida venue. 3) The network offers a massive value: new pay-per-view events that cost up to $60 can be streamed by network subscribers for a monthly $10 fee. It used to be difficult and expensive to be a pro wrestling fan; the WWE Network made it cheap and easy. Targeting niche users, then offering them convenience, value, and high quality — that’s a playbook future streaming services would be wise to follow.
Sarah Jeong, senior reporter
I currently subscribe to far too many streaming services, and part of me just wants to unsubscribe from all of them. I am tired of my favorite background television suddenly dropping out of the catalog, then having to hunt it down and find it on another service. As far as I’m concerned, the streaming market is just five services playing hacky sack with the same old content, over and over again, while I Google desperately for who’s streaming No Reservations or The Great British Bake Show these days. My biggest gripe is that Viki used to do this interesting thing where it was integrated with YouTube, and it allowed its community to annotate videos — essentially offering a crowdsourced subtitling platform. This was awesome, because there were all kinds of foreign dramas that hadn’t had any traction in the US and weren’t getting licensed, but there were niche communities who were excited to not only watch them, but subtitle them for free. Viki still takes advantage of the crowdsourced subtitling, but they’ve switched to a licensing-only model, which means that tons of shows are just no longer available anywhere. Long story short, the only thing that can get me to subscribe to a new service would be something innovative and unique… or, failing that, the unabridged 78-episode run of The Legend of Zhen Huan with even halfway decent English subtitles.
Lizzie Plaugic, culture reporter
Truthfully, the answer right now is “nothing at all could get me to sign up for a new streaming service, please stop trying.” I already pay for Netflix (even though I rarely use it), and Amazon, and I use someone else’s HBO Go login. These three services put together already give me too many options, especially when all I really want to do is watch Vanderpump Rules until I forget where I am. If I’m watching something at home, I really only have the attention span for TV episodes, so I don’t think better movie options could entice me. Maybe if there were some kind of HBO bundle that also offered Bravo reality shows, I would go for that. Otherwise, I don’t want to sign up for any more things, and I don’t want to spend any more money!