Monday, August 14, 2017

Crossing the stream(ing service)s

This is probably gonna come off as one of those old man "get off my lawn" rants, but I've been thinking a lot about the cost of streaming services. I've had Netflix since before it WAS a streaming service. I've been an Amazon Prime subscriber for about three years now, but that was mostly for the free shipping and until recently they've never had any original programming that enticed me.

Hulu's been a thing, but until this year I never felt any pressing need to subscribe. As I'd never purchased a service JUST for the original programming, there wasn't motivation to start now. The fact that no real Hulu show had broken into the zeitgeist also lessened any urgency I might have felt.

This year felt like a real sea change, brought about by two factors: The Handmaid's Tale and the explosion of other streaming services. I want to be clear here - I think Netflix did the heavy lifting of legitimizing original content on streaming services, but when you already have that service for unrelated reasons, you don't really feel the shift as much. It still felt like the game was: Netflix - and then everyone else.

Let's take stock of the major players in that "everyone else," and their subscription fees:

Here are the monthly fees for the more notable streaming services:

Netflix - $7.99 (no HD), $9.99 HD, $11.99 HDX
Amazon - $8.99
Hulu - $7.99
YouTube Red - $9.99
HBO Now - $15
Showtime - $10.99
Starz - $8.99
CBS All Access - $5.99, $9.99 no ads
FX - $5.99
AMC Premiere - $4.99

The days of Netflix being a good one-stop shop for a deep library of content are numbered. As each of these networks and more launch their own services, they'll likely be taking back their content from other sites. It's the only way to add value to their product. Are you prepared to pay all of this and more a month?

Let's put the library aside for a while and focus on the value of original content. This is a list of all the Netflix shows which I watched in the past 12 months that I can expect another season of within the next 12 months or so:

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Master of None
13 Reasons Why
Stranger Things
Grace & Frankie
House of Cards
One Day at a Time

That's nine shows right there. You can also add the next season of Arrested Development to that for AT LEAST 10 originals that I'll watch. Marvel also typically has 2 shows in a 12 month cycle. This past year I skipped Iron Fist, didn't finish Luke Cage and plan on watching The Defenders. Odds are I'll watch at least one of whatever they offer, so let's bump the total to 11. My wife watched Fuller House, so adding that gives us an even dozen original shows in the next year.

Or we could use last year as a baseline. These are the one-off seasons that I watched in addition to the shows in the last list:

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life
MST3K: The Return
The Seekers

So that supports the notion of about a dozen original series a year. At $9.99/month I feel pretty good about that value even before you account for binge-watching any of the licensed library, or the many Netflix documentaries and acquired features, of which there are a lot. Even with some of the licenses rotating out now and then, overall I feel really good about paying ten bucks a month for access.

CBS All-Access has two tiers. $5.99 a month for limited commercial interruption and $9.99 a month for no ads. They also don't follow the Netflix model of dropping all the new episodes in a season at once. This is important because if you want to see each new episode in a 13 episode season as it comes out, you MUST subscribe for four months. If you're paying for no ads, that means that new season is costing you $40, assuming that's the only thing drawing you to the service during those months.

By next year, they will have TWO original shows: The Good Fight and Star Trek: Discovery.

I've been a Star Trek fan since I was ten. I own most of TOS on blu, all of TNG on blu and all of DS9 on DVD, along with at least half of the films on blu, DVD or both. I've watched every new season as it's come out since 1991. Hell, I even own a ton of the novels and behind the scenes books. I'm laying all this out to make it clear that I am fairly representative of the audience that CBS is chasing when they used the Star Trek IP to launch this service.

I will not be subscribing to CBS All-Access. There are 15 episodes in the season, so we're talking about four months of subscription. At the cheap rate, that's $24 for one show. The economics of that don't work out for me, as that's how much the bluray will probably be. I'd rather just wait for the physical copy and buy something I'd actually own.

When a service's exclusive originals are so sparse, it falls to the library to be even more valuable. I can see the case being made, "We're the home for ALL the Star Trek archive!" You might see the problem brewing though - long-time Trek fans are collectors. Like me, they probably already OWN most of those hours of television in some kind of physical format, so there's no incentive there to subscribe for that. The service also includes all of CBS's current programming (99% of which I don't watch), and older CBS/Paramount shows like Cheers, CSI, MacGyver, and so on. For some people, maybe that's enough to get their fee. (I doubt it, but I want to put the possibility out.)

I'll also allow that for new fans who come into the Trek tent with Discovery, it's not a bad idea to have the entire rest of the franchise at their fingertips to binge. Having said that, with only two new shows, the odds of total TREK virgins buying CBS All Access and sampling Discovery seems pretty low.

And this is just the beginning. FX announced this week they're starting their own streaming service, featuring their catalog at $5.99/month and there's AMC Premiere for $4.99/month. Of course, for now they don't have any original programming that will be exclusive to those services, so the incentive to buy that to watch, say, Better Call Saul is rather low. (At least until that's the only streaming service where the entire series is available.) As cable declines the cost of these a la carte services will become more important. I don't know how keen I am to pay $6/month per basic cable channel, essentially. There's a certain point where that cost would easily exceed the cable bill total for all those bundled channels and more.

But it's inevitable.

I'm curious how some of you feel about this. Which streaming channels are essential and what is your calculus for the value of a monthly fee?


  1. The best things about streaming services is the ability to subscribe and cancel at a moments notice. No long, uncooperative phone calls with the cable company. I subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, Acorn, Amazon, and Britbox. Not all at once and only when I wish to watch something.

    I can see the existing media companies (CBS) try to take steps to counter the subscribe, binge, and cancel viewing habits.

  2. This trend is at risk of becoming a tragedy of the commons.

  3. Does this remind you of United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., 334 US 131 (1948)?

    The industry has changed a lot, but would you consider it a case of vertical integration that could potentially lead to a similar situation?

    1. VERY interesting comparison to draw. I remember this case from my History of Film class, but for those who need a primer, go here.

      In this case, the Supreme Court held that it was a violation of antitrust laws for the studios to own the theaters that exhibited their product. Imagine today going to a movie theater that ONLY showed Warner Bros films, or Paramount and so on. Is the existence of a streaming service directly analogous?

      The world is a different place than it was during US v. Paramount. in 1948, theaters were the ONLY manner of exhibition for studio and independent product. Thus, the practice of studios crowding out non-studio fare had a much bigger impact for those other producers and distributors. Today, streaming is just ONE platform among many and so long as platforms like Netflix continue to acquire and distribute content not produced in-house, a key part of the government argument against the studios in 1948 would seem to not apply.

      That's not even getting into the fact that this case would probably be heard by a Supreme Court more sympathetic to the larger corporations.

      So from an academic standpoint, it's interesting to note the parallels. As a practical matter of law, I'd be shocked to see a similar judgment applied.

  4. And those are the major streaming platforms, your bill may increase even more if you're into niche content like Anime (crunchyroll), indies (Fandor), opera (The Metropolitan) etc.

    Maybe if streaming companies could strike deals between to offer some kind of packages, paying Netflix or other provider a little more (no more than $3) to get access to additional libraries, like CBS, FX, AMC instead of paying full price. Something similar to basic cable and premium channels (e.g. HBO). Of course, with the ability to easily upgrade and downgrade.

  5. Wow! We must be twin sons of different mothers! Your watch list is eerily similar to my own.

    I hadn't done the actual number crunching, but I couldn't agree with your analysis more. The current CBS pricing model just doesn't make it worth my while to subscribe. I also currently subscribe to Netflix and Amazon. I thought about adding Hulu but couldn't justify it even though "A Handmaid's Tale" made me consider it.

    Truth be told, with the new material being provided by both Amazon and Netflix, there is already more content than I can possibly watch (that I'm actually interested in). Both platforms have created some really good entertainment especially in the last year.

    For now, I'm staying on the sidelines (though I've been an avid fan of Star Trek since the early days of TOS).