We’ve all been there: you have a sudden itch to watch a specific movie, and, after a cursory search of Netflix, you realize it’s not there. Next step: Google. Type in a search query for where that particular movie is streaming. It’s not on Hulu or Amazon Prime Video. It is, however, available via HBO Now, and this is where the decision paralysis hits. Do you sign up for the seven-day free trial, rent it for $3.99, torrent it, or give up and just find something on Netflix to fill your time?
This scenario — having more entertainment available to us, immediately, than at any time in history — is where the streaming exhaustion hits. It’s also what internet art collective MSCHF’s newest installation tackles. All The Streams is a streaming take on pirate radio stations. People who open the site can choose from six different popular streaming services — Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, Showtime, Amazon Prime Video, and HBO Now — and tune in to a live feed showing exactly one program from the service, already playing, just like traditional TV. There were just under 275,000 users at the time of this writing.
The website looks like an old-school radio unit with a TV monitor in the middle. A tuner lets you click on the different services to open up a specific stream from each. Clicking on Hulu might bring up a Keeping Up with the Kardashians episode, while HBO Now might bring up Game of Thrones, and Showtime may play some Dexter. MSCHF has subscriptions to all six streaming services, but making the content locked behind subscriber paywalls available to anyone isn’t exactly legal. The team knows this, and they’re already preparing for the takedown requests.
“Whenever media becomes inaccessible, piracy thrives again,” said Kevin Wiesner, creative director at MSCHF. “From the 1960’s BBC one-hour limit on pop music, to the iTunes store MP3 tyranny of the ‘00s. ‘All The Streams’ comes in response to the fragmentation and walled-garden paradigm that has risen to prominence for online video streaming services.”
MSCHF focused on six major streaming services, but there are a dozen more in the United States alone — and more are coming. The next few months will see the launches of WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, NBCUniversal’s Peacock, and Quibi. HBO Max will become the exclusive home to Friends, while The Office will exist solely on Peacock beginning in 2021. All eight Harry Potter movies are currently locked up with NBCUniversal, despite WarnerMedia technically owning the rights. Warner Bros. owns the rights to the Lord of the Rings franchise, but The Fellowship of the Ring isn’t streaming on HBO Now; instead, it’s on Amazon Prime Video.
Fragmentation leads to frustration, and frustration leads to piracy. There are entire TikTok accounts dedicated to recommending new free streaming sites that collect everything in one place because when it comes to home entertainment, consolidation is a benefit. The Intelligencer’s Brian Feldman wrote about the issue with splintering in June 2019, noting that not even keeping an expensive cable subscription would fix the problem. The “best centralized place to find media is, once again, through piracy,” Feldman wrote. “Now the legal options for media consumption are once again becoming overly burdensome in both a financial and logistical sense,” he said.
(Disclosure: The Intelligencer is a division of New York Magazine, which is a division of Vox Media.)
Downloading and illegally streaming content isn’t the only way that annoyed consumers are getting around subscribing to a dozen services. Top analyst group MoffettNathanson found that, last summer, 14 percent of Netflix viewers in the United States used a password that doesn’t belong to their household account. That’s a considerable amount of viewing — and it’s costly for the company.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said in 2016 that password sharing was a good thing because it meant more people were finding Netflix Originals, but things have changed a lot in a very short amount of time. In October 2019, chief product officer Greg Peters said the company is continuing to monitor the situation, adding that it’s thinking of “consumer-friendly ways to push on the edges of that.” (Though Peters clarified Netflix has no current plans to do that.)
Password sharing is a growing issue, and it belongs to the same family as piracy. Part of the issue is that streaming promoted the idea of a cheaper way to watch everything and, as things splinter further, that promise is disappearing. Back when Netflix licensed everything, people could spend $10 a month to get 90 percent of what they wanted.
That was the promise. Then companies decided they wanted to make their own revenue streaming the shows and movies they owned — the IP that made them successful as TV networks or film studios. It made sense for the studios, and it made sense to the streamers renting IP like Netflix. The only person it doesn’t make sense for, increasingly, was the consumer. And that’s what All The Streams exists to remind people of when they visit.
“We’re going to play anything and everything we feel like,” Wiesner said. “We’re going to make a Frankensteinian playlist of media that none of these streaming platforms could ever recommend to you because it would cost them the profits of their exclusively-owned content.”