Netflix. It’s great. But movie studios hate it, Disney’s trying to break it, and there are new streaming services popping up all over. Is the new streaming era of TV sustainable or will we end up back where we started: overpaying for content we don’t want. Rosie, Kayleigh, Emma, Megan, CP and Mel investigate.
Netflix helped to kill the old subscription cable model of television but in doing so it’s created its own competition: at first, in a variety of half-baked streaming startups, and now in the proliferation of well-funded network and cable-owned streaming services. What do you think of the rise of platforms like CBS All Access and Disney’s forthcoming venture?
Rosie Knight: Honestly, these services often stop me from watching content. I’d like to watch Star Trek: Discovery but I’m not going to pay $5.99 a month to do so. I feel like most of these subscription services are short sighted, though in the UK Disney actually have a full streaming service called Disney Life, which costs less than $5 a month and includes pretty much every movie, soundtrack, book and tv show that the company has ever put out. It also has thousands of old animation shorts and content like that, as well as allowing downloads to watch offline. It’s easily the best version of a streaming service that I’d seen with a super accessible interface and content that was worth the price of entry.
Sadly I now realise that was probably a beta-test for the service that they’ll soon be rolling out across the world, which I assume will be far more expensive and far less extensive in the content it includes due to international licensing. Basically I need a service to have multiple things I would watch for a really affordable price for me to be interested. And I think these singular services set a ridiculous and problematic precedent that will lead to us all paying jacked up prices to get any kind of diverse programming.
Megan Purdy: Honestly, I am never going to pay for a single content-source streaming service. I have never paid for speciality cable in my life (though I had HBO for awhile as part of a condo package) and the same goes for streaming services. When Disney makes the switch to having all of its Marvel and Star Wars content on its own platform, that’s when I’ll give upon rewatching anything from the MCU and Star Wars. I think these platforms have a tremendous amount of potential for their owners, particularly those who have already developed strong content brands and have loyal consumers, but from a viewer perspective, this all just feels like we’re travelling backwards in time, once again having to open our wallets for a content patchwork, forced to pay for content we don’t want, in order to get the content we do want. There is no individual film or show I love so much that I’d be willing to drop another $9.99 CAD a month just to watch and rewatch it.
Fortunately, as a Canadian much of this siloing has yet to affect me. Few of the single-source platforms operate here and when their content gets licensed for the Canadian market, it goes to far more easily accessible platforms: like network tv.
Kayleigh Hearn: I was just at a brunch where a friend asked if I’d seen Star Trek: Discovery yet. I said no, and he hadn’t seen it either—and in both our cases, it was because we were unwilling to pay for an entire new streaming service just to see one show. There was an air of, “Man, who do they think they’re kidding?” about it, and unsurprisingly, people are pirating the hell out of Discovery. I’ve also grown up with the “Disney Vault” telling parents to buy a Sleeping Beauty or Aladdin DVD with “do it now, before it’s gone forever” urgency, and manufacturing walls between classic movies and consumers is nothing new with them. I’m also old enough (sigh) to have enough lingering attachment to physical media that I’d just get a Captain America: Civil War Blu-ray, and not a new streaming subscription, if I wanted to watch it a dozen times.
Véronique Emma Houxbois: The cable subscription model may not factor into the lives of a certain segment of tech savvy millennials and Gen Xers, but it’s far from dead, especially where sports and news are concerned. Which has been one of the biggest bugbears for me as someone trying to avoid the burden of a cable subscription while also being in Canada. There’s a lot of stuff out there that I’ve wanted to take advantage of that offer more appealing content to me than Netflix does like Hulu or the WWE Network that just straight up is not available here, or not without a cable subscription.
I’ve had Crave and Shomi at various times, and the problem when those were concurrently offered services is that one of them had a strong TV library and the other had a strong film library, which I assume happened because of competition for licenses and budgeting constraints, but I think that a bit of a rewind is in order there too! Netflix killed video stores first, and they’ve been killing various competition by taking on a massive debt load, which has let them eclipse any efforts at mounting a credible competitor in Canada and let them absolutely hose Canadians on subscription rates relative to the level of content other countries get.
Owning physical copies of movies goes beyond attachment to dead media though, because licenses to streaming services lapse and a lot of classic movies never end up there. I used to work at a video store and let me tell you that aspect of it represents a massive cultural loss and is speeding up the devaluing of film as a medium relative to television at an alarming rate.
Megan: I rely on the library for classic film now, because I’m so put off on filling my space with physical media, and it’s working out well for me so far.
CP Hoffman: Between Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, the American market is already saturated with general-interest streaming sites, which is part of why CBS All Access has been such a tough sell. Any new services have to offer something genuinely unique, such as a curated collection around a common theme. I can see a Disney streaming service doing well because it would be tightly focused and on-brand. Services focused on Marvel or DC comics-based media could also do well, though they have a tougher sell on the original content front (as Kayleigh points out, you can only rewatch Captain America: Civil War so many times before you just buy the Blu-ray). But, honestly, I suspect a lot of these specialty services are going to end up as things people subscribe to for a month to binge the new show, then cancel.
Mel Perez: My cable is folded into my rent. I don’t have a choice on whether or not to have it. When considering streaming services, it comes down to what are you offering for me. I feel that services like Netflix and Hulu offer enough variety in their content to support the added price. I want to watch Star Trek: Discovery. It’s the black female led science fiction show I’ve been asking for. However, one show doesn’t justify signing up for CBS All Access. I’ll essentially be paying $6 for each episode and that doesn’t make financial sense to me. The Disney service is another story. Thanks to their vault nonsense and their usually high prices, I only own one Disney film. I welcome the opportunity to watch their movies whenever I want, wherever I want. Throwing in the Marvel and Star Wars properties sweetens the pot. If the price isn’t too high, I can see myself paying for that. I think it will have enough old content with new projects on the way to justify the added price. That being said, I still wish they worked out some kind of deal with Netflix. The new DC streaming service is something I’m also considering. I have been waiting on this next season of Young Justice for years. Add in Titans and the service starts to look appealing. Now my bank account may vehemently disagree with me, but I at least want to investigate how much it will be before writing the whole thing off.
As the streaming landscape becomes both more diversified and more siloed, I can foresee us replicating those old $200 cable bills with $200 streaming bills. What general and speciality streaming services do you pay for? And what’s your absolute ceiling?
Rosie: The only specialty streaming service I pay for is Shudder. I got the free trial, which I really enjoyed as it had a wide range of genre flicks and loads of foreign / indie movies which I’ve found really hard to find out here. After the free trial they offered me 6 months for $20 in total, and that’s definitely my kind of price range. In the UK I’d never had cable or satellite tv so all the options here are still pretty overwhelming to me. In our house we use a streaming service called Sling for our TV which runs us $20 a month, and the only other service we pay for on top of that is Shudder which is a couple of dollars a month, but that does rotate. If there’s a certain streaming service we want we’ll just cancel whatever one we’re using and subscribe to the new one until we’ve watched what we want. $30 a month would probably my ceiling for now. Anything more seems expensive and not particularly worth it for the amount of TV we actually watch.
Megan: I subscribed to Crunchyroll long enough to watch Yuri!!! ON ICE without ads or grainy video, but once that show wrapped, I went back to my standby of just Netflix. I do also have Amazon Prime, I guess. I say “I guess” because I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and watched a anything on Prime—I got Prime for same and two-day deliveries and Amazon threw in its streaming service as a perk. But Prime isn’t the only content option open to me that I ignore. I have so many cable channels available to me that I have never even watched. My basic cable package is folded into my condo maintenance fees and is non-negotiable. That makes its value obscure to me. You’d think that would have the effect of raising my streaming services ceiling, but instead I find myself reluctant to commit. Don’t I have enough, as it is? Wouldn’t adding a streaming service just be more wasted money? I think I’d place my ceiling at $20 a month.
Emma: I have a similar rotating model that Rosie uses, and right now I’m not paying directly for anything because there’s nothing that offers me anything I’m particularly interested in. My college tuition includes a very expansive streaming movie service so between that and the alternatives Megan mentioned, I stay fed I guess. I think I’m just going to try to condition myself to not need Netflix originals because they’re the only thing there that holds any interest for me and I think they’re absolute vampires. I’ve grown to hate them immensely. I would absolutely pay for Hulu Plus and the CBS one because I watch both Star Trek: Discovery and The Good Fight.
Kayleigh: Between my fiance and I and our shared passwords, we have four services: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and Crunchyroll, and when we move in together, at least one of them is probably gone. Filmstruck is the one streaming site I’d say probably does a public service by making so many classic, foreign, and independent films available online, but it’s not really made for casual “Filmstruck and chill” viewing, and if I’m not in the mood for The Seven Samurai or The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, I’d worry that money was going to waste. Prime has been surprisingly valuable for cult movie deep dives, like Dario Argento giallo flicks or spaghetti westerns. Netflix and Hulu Plus are mostly for catching up with or binging on shows, as their movie selections are pretty dire. My personal cutoff is around $30 for streaming; my fiance is really the only one who watches Crunchyroll, so that’s probably our most vulnerable streaming service right now. (Sorry, hon.)
My parents are confirmed Anglophiles and have Acorn TV and BritBox alongside Netflix and their super huge 900+ channel cable package, so I don’t even want to think about how much they’re paying for content they don’t watch.
CP: I subscribe to three or four services on a regular basis—Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, and I suppose technically Amazon Prime (though I mostly use that for shipping)—but I do occasionally subscribe to another for a month or so to watch whatever exclusive show they’ve got before cancelling. (Most recently was Showtime to watch Twin Peaks.) That adds up to about $50 a month, which is probably the highest I’m willing to go, though I might be able to be convinced by a well-curated specialty streaming service that’s under $10, but only if it genuinely has a lot of stuff I want to watch.
Mel: I pay for Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime. While Amazon Prime has allowed me to have my endless rewatches of Doctor Who and Pride and Prejudice, the streaming service wasn’t the reason I signed up for it. I temporarily had a subscription to Crunchyroll to watch Yuri!!! ON ICE but I didn’t pay for it so that probably doesn’t count. While I occasionally think about dropping Hulu or Netflix, I can’t see myself living without either. How else will I binge all my shows? And Hulu allows me to live without the added cost of a DVR. If I had the freedom to drop my cable, I would subscribe to Sling and my ceiling would be a little higher for added channels and subscriptions. I love Game of Thrones but I can’t justify a $14.99 a month subscription. I can’t justify subscriptions to Starz or Showtime either though I like shows on both channels. This is why there is so much signing up for free trials under multiple emails. It’s a more legal way of getting to watch the content without torrenting it.
With so many channels offering streaming services and with speciality services like Shudder and Crunchyroll doing a tidy business, it’s becoming easier to legally watch international film and television. But there are still boundaries. Where do you live and what streaming services are available there? Are you jealous of other people’s streaming situations?
Rosie: We live in the US, so I feel like we have a lot more paid streaming services than I’d ever come across in the UK. The biggest one here that isn’t available many other places is probably Hulu. Netflix is really the only big streaming service in the UK. But what I miss the most about the UK are the free streaming services from channels like the BBC, Film 4 and Channel 4. A lot of the programming there was just of such a high quality and these free streaming services included decades of shows, documentaries and original movies which were really nice to be able to access and had so much more content than their equivalent services here.
Megan: What I wouldn’t give to have access to that library, Rosie! Canadian channels have also moved to make much of their content available for free online and through streaming services. I’m grateful for how easy it is to watch old CBC shows, or even licensed US shows through CTV and Space, but lord am I jealous of BBC iPlayer. Of course, it’s easy enough to find a way around the geo-block that keeps it from me … if I wanted to…
I find myself anti-jealous of Americans, though. Smug? Maybe I’m just straight up smug. Hulu doesn’t exist here, so I don’t have the dilemma of splitting my small pool of streaming dollars between two big services. Similarly, many of the single-source platforms are region-locked with no Canadian equivalent. Star Trek Discovery, a show so many Americans have grudgingly paid for CBS All Access in order to see, airs on basic cable channel Space in Canada. The one benefit of being such a tiny market, I guess, is that these platforms can’t find the viewer numbers to take off.
Kayleigh: I’m in the US and it’s easy to feel like we have access to all the films and shows and #content we could ever want, but honestly that just means the market is glutted with mediocre crap like the Crackle-funded Joe Dirt 2 (who asked for this, and why) or Netflix teaming up with Max Landis for the blighted Bright. If there was a better way to curate our streaming libraries, I’d be for it.
CP: I’d argue streaming services offer the illusion of availability, while leaving some rather significant gaps. It’s amazing how many classic TV shows and movies are just not available anywhere. And while streaming makes some international content more available, rights issues might keep the most popular stuff off of streaming sites (or, in some cases, scattered across half a dozen different sites). I definitely share Megan’s jealousy of the BBC iPlayer.
Emma: I think my position is pretty clear, by now. One thing that’s really become clear to me over the last couple years is that my interests diverge from most Canadians in a pretty spectacular way that ends up being pretty punishing if I want to stick to legal ways to watch stuff. FX and Showtime tend to hold a lot of my interest, which would be a big win for me if I could get my paws on Hulu Plus, for example. Or Facebook Watch. I had to drop out of a joint review of the WWE Mixed Match Challenge because I couldn’t even get that!
I’m the weird outlier that actually likes two shows on the CBS service and is more interested in The Assassination of Gianni Versace and Snowfall than, like, Game of Thrones. The one common denominator I can trace in Canada is the CW. Everyone watches Riverdale plus one of the superhero shows, iZombie, or Jane the Virgin.
CP is dead on about the illusion of options though, especially where movies are concerned. I can’t even get Filmstruck here, so my Criterion collection only expands when they have those yearly flash sales. Just over a decade ago when I was writing for a video game website that dabbled in comics, music, and film, Blockbuster offered me a free account when they launched a mail service to match the original Netflix, but had to recind it when I told them where I actually was. It’s a never ending nightmare.
Mel: I also would like to have access to BBC iPlayer and believe me I’ve tried to get it over the years. Sadly, no success. There are so many streaming services, it’s hard to keep track of all of them. And with services like Netflix, it’s easy to get lost in everything they have to offer. I agree with CP on about the illusion of options. For a lot of American shows, you have options. DramaFever and Hulu are there to fill my cravings for Asian dramas and telenovelas (though Hulu could add a lot more in that department). I would like to see more Caribbean shows and movies that aren’t critically acclaimed arthouse films. I want to watch Haitian romcoms in a way that doesn’t involve borrowing a VHS tape from my grandmother. I want to get into Nollywood movies without paying for a strange service I’ve never heard of. If I had extra money lying around, I would also love to subscribe to Filmstruck + the Criterion Channel.