The burning question that perplexes content-hungry individuals with a spare hour or two is this: What should I watch? However, in recent years, another question has overshadowed our evening streaming rituals: How do I watch it? Partaking in the delightful act of binging television shows can be surprisingly challenging, requiring some degree of research to decipher which streaming platform offers your desired content, and more importantly, whether you already have a subscription. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu are often insufficient to access the most popular shows. For instance, if you yearn to watch Idris Elba outsmart plane hijackers, you’ll need Apple TV+.
On most nights, I find myself stuck in this predicament, undergoing what seems like the five stages of grief. There’s Denial (“I swear I had a Paramount+ account”); Anger (“I cannot believe I have to pay for Paramount+”); Bargaining (“I promise I will cancel my subscription after the one-week Paramount+ trial period ends”); Depression (“I cannot believe I didn’t remember to cancel Paramount+ after the trial period ended”); and Acceptance (“Let’s just head to Netflix and watch Suits”).
We are all living in an era of abundance. Streaming is a modern marvel that grants us access to obscure documentaries, reality shows, Con Air, and an infinite number of videos that no old Blockbuster could dream of stocking. However, the act of consuming content has never been more frustrating than it is today. The streaming landscape has fragmented into countless platforms, and the user experience on each one has deteriorated. Advertisements plague our screens, and desperate streaming services attempt to boost engagement metrics with dubious features. Last month, Variety reported that Warner Bros. Discovery plans to integrate CNN news alerts into its popular streaming service, Max, interrupting your episode of Succession. Perhaps the worst part is that it’s becoming more expensive. This fall, the combined monthly cost of the top streaming services is expected to exceed the price of an average cable package for the first time.
We find ourselves in a streaming paradox, where the success of streaming as a business model and a consumer experience has tragically become its downfall. It’s a paradigm shift that offers us more choices than ever before, while simultaneously making it harder to truly enjoy that abundance.
At first, streaming felt revolutionary and enticing. Netflix launched its service in 2007, right in the middle of my college years. The introduction of binge-watching TV episodes is forever memorialized by a significant decline in my GPA from freshman to sophomore year. The concept was simple: pay a reasonable monthly fee for unlimited entertainment in one convenient location. For a while, Netflix, like any good tech product, just worked flawlessly on any device.
Naturally, Netflix’s overwhelming success sparked a streaming arms race. Studios poured billions into creating tech products, and tech companies poured billions into becoming production studios. In 2014, Netflix became the first streaming platform to receive an Academy Award nomination. Soon, platforms and studios engaged in costly bidding wars for new titles and produced a staggering number of shows and movies to attract new subscribers. Executives reluctantly embraced the on-demand subscription model while recognizing the fragility of the streaming business.
Now, we are witnessing the repercussions. The truth is, producing and distributing content at the scale of Netflix is incredibly expensive without a head start. According to The Wall Street Journal, traditional entertainment companies such as Disney and Warner Bros. have reported combined losses of over $20 billion since early 2020 as they rushed to compete with Netflix and its rivals. Streaming platforms are grappling with subscription fatigue, as there are limits to how many platforms people are willing to pay for.
In response, major streaming services have raised prices, and Netflix has cracked down on password sharing. And that’s not even considering the content itself, which has slowed down in production and may be perceived as less ambitious by dissatisfied viewers. Complex bundle tiers are emerging, requiring meticulous calculations. Want Disney+? That’ll be $8 a month, or $11 if you prefer an ad-free experience. How about Hulu? It’s $8 a month with ads or $15 a month without. But wait, you can get Disney+ and Hulu together for $10 a month with ads, or $20 a month without. Want to add ESPN+ to the mix? Just add $3 a month, or $10 if you want an ad-free experience. Got it?
While the streaming arms race has expanded studio catalogs and generated more original content, accessing all these options means spending more money. One notable example is when NBCUniversal launched its own streaming platform, Peacock, and withdrew the licensing rights for The Office from Netflix. This decision cost NBCUniversal $500 million and forced Netflix subscribers to fork out an additional $12 a month to continue streaming the beloved sitcom. Cutthroat studios may view streaming as a zero-sum game, but for most consumers, it’s not. Friends of mine have resorted to unthinkable practices, like keeping spreadsheets to keep track of their streaming subscriptions’ costs.
Not that cable television was superior, and we should revert to a time before Tubi, Mubi, Crackle, Popcornflix, Vudu, and Crunchyroll. However, for all its shortcomings, cable made sense in ways the modern streaming environment does not. In a podcast with my colleague Derek Thompson, media analyst Julia Alexander recently described cable as a “beautiful, almost socialistic experiment.” Our current streaming landscape may offer consumers the à la carte experience that cord-cutters desired, but there’s a chaotic element to it all. For studios, writers, and actors, the streaming model is mostly unsustainable, depriving them of the revenue they used to earn from reruns and other sources. It’s possible the promise of streaming and the uncertainty it introduced may significantly harm the film and TV industry for years to come.
If the streaming landscape feels eerily familiar, that’s because it is. As writer Cory Doctorow has argued, tech platforms occasionally provide genuinely helpful or unique services, subsidizing costs for users to lure them in. Once users become reliant, the companies “abuse” them, either by raising prices or selling their data through surveillance, as part of a process known as “enshittification.” You may have noticed that Google Search isn’t as reliable as it used to be. However, there’s another side to enshittification. Occasionally, a new service emerges, offering an idealized and heavily subsidized version of itself. It’s so spectacular that it gains rapid adoption and is quickly imitated by competitors, leading to its economic unsustainability. Think MoviePass.
Streaming seems to embody both aspects. It’s a genuine technological feat that has granted us unprecedented access to content. Like MoviePass, the earliest iterations were almost too good to be true—offering immense value and utility. The model was beloved and aggressively copied, ultimately reaching a point of absurdity. In the long run and under nonzero interest rates, the model may simply be unprofitable. It’s a tale of scale-chasing that results in irrational business decisions, burning through piles of cash, and providing users with increasingly subpar or bewildering products.
What remains is a cognitive dissonance embedded in our streaming rituals—the sense of being presented with limitless choices while also experiencing a lingering feeling of loss. It’s possible that people like myself fail to fully comprehend how fortunate we are. Nevertheless, our current streaming paradox also reflects the experience of living a life mediated by Silicon Valley. Perhaps the lesson is that infinite choice is theoretically glorious, but in reality…
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