A Plague of Streaming

Netflix started in 1997, selling and renting DVDs by mail. The service was a godsend, especially in America’s hinterlands. For several years it seemed as if you could get almost any film you wanted, delivered to your door, back when HBO was limited and expensive, Blockbuster stores already felt stale, and Redbox was just a gleam in the McDonald’s Corporation’s eye.

Netflix introduced its video-streaming service in 2007 and now has 139 million paid subscribers, everywhere on the globe except in some Axis of Evil countries and mainland China. “Netflix is 15% of the total downstream volume of traffic across the entire internet,” says the Global Internet Phenomena Report of October 2018. (Downstream traffic means data sent from a provider to a customer and includes web browsing and social media.)

But the problem with Netflix’s success, for the consumer, is twofold: They inspired a plague of other streaming services, so content is spread around among them. And that drove Netflix to develop new and proprietary content, much of it banal beyond belief.

The glut pours out of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Now, Starz, FX, Epix, Showtime, Disney, AT&T, Apple, CBS All Access—in fact, there are at least 110 streaming services. To get the shows you really want, you likely have to sign up for several services—the average US subscriber pays for three—each with its own subscription fee. I subscribe to Netflix, which has the first season of Get Shorty that I enjoyed, but the other season is still only on Epix. The forthcoming Catch-22 adaptation, a George Clooney project I would like to see, will be on Hulu.

Americans already pay $2.1 billion per month for streaming, and I do not intend to add to it. In the industry there is unease as audiences continue to splinter. And while there has been an 85-percent increase in the number of on-demand programs since 2011, this flatlined the last couple of years, with 487 in 2017 and 495 in 2018.

John Landgraf, CEO of 21st Century Fox Inc.’s FX Networks, said as far back as 2016, “We are ballooning into oversupply, and that balloon will eventually deflate,” Landgraf said. “I continue to believe there is a greater supply of TV than can be produced profitably.”

The market will eventually correct for the glut, but maybe not advantageously for consumers. Netflix is raising its fees, its largest increase ever, in part because they may have spent more than $12 billion for content in 2018, while “each Netflix user brought in just 25 cents per month.” Prime Video is a “loss leader” for Amazon, and “Hulu loses as much as $1.5 billion every year.”

And the model may encourage banality, as David Sims says at The Atlantic, producing more movies like Bird Box, “a competent, sometimes gripping survival thriller that skimps on plot specifics [and has] nondescript characters and tinny, perfunctory dialogue. [I]t’s a perfect piece of entertainment to have on in the background, a project centered on a huge star (Bullock) doing typically solid work. That summary may sound uninspiring, but it could also be the blueprint for a new age of blockbusters.”

(It has been hard to know what constitutes success for films on streaming services, since Netflix and other providers hide their numbers, and there are no theatrical ticket sales to measure, or gross-to-budget revenues revealed.)

In the meantime, the need to pay multiple times to get something decent to watch has increased piracy by BitTorrent.

I remember one of my professors saying he looked forward to retirement, when he would put on his jammies and watch Bergman until the end came. (The classic film channel FilmStruck is recently defunct, but Criterion, which was part of its offerings, remains, for a fee). Despite the glut of available video now, anyone with broader interests might feel discouraged at being able to find and pay for all they might want to watch.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.