Everything old is new again, especially when it comes to distribution.
So let’s say you start with Netflix, because everyone has Netflix, and you’re not going to pass on another season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 or Stranger Things. That’s $9.99 a month out of the gate. And then maybe you add FilmStruck, because who wouldn’t want to watch all those TCM and Criterion Collection titles? That’s another $10.99. Finally, let’s throw in another niche streaming service for some of that specific content that the broader services may not provide. Maybe you’d like to scratch your horror itch with Shudder ($4.99), catch up on every season of Star Trek on CBS All Access ($5.99), or finally get around to watching The Wire on HBOGo ($14.99). And of course, none of this even touches on the bigger Netflix competitors like Amazon Prime or the international platforms not yet available in the United States (DisneyLife). There’s a lot going on in the streaming world these days.
The proliferation – or fracturing – of streaming services has been a question on the minds of countless audience members for years now, but despite this, yesterday’s announcement that Warner Bros. would be launching its own streaming platform for DC adaptations seemed to be a bridge too far for some. Mere months after Warner Bros. created a dedicated streaming service for its backlog of animated shows, the studio has now promised to launch its latest streaming platform with Titans, a live-action adaptation of the Teen Titans series from DC Comics. Now fans can’t even hope to discover all Warner Bros. movies and shows in a single place; even their animated series will be split between the superheroes and the non-superheroes. And so what was once fresh and now – pay a single rate! watch a bunch of stuff! – is now in danger of following the same distribution models that have busted, boomed, and busted again.
Look at the old model. In the past, mergers and acquisitions provided studios with new titles or connected them to audiences they were previously unable to reach. When Disney bought Miramax in 1993, for example, pundits noted that it allowed Disney entry into “niche markets it could not reach through its own films.” Conversely, more recent television purchases – such as MGM’s acquisition of Epix or the more recent purchase of Starz by Lionsgate – have given studios a direct conduit to audiences for their properties. The more content studios can dump into that conduit, the better. “Scale has never been more important,” Viacom vice chair Shari Redstone told The Hollywood Reporter last December, noting that consumers, advertisers, and dealmakers all preferred to engage in “one-stop shopping” over chasing down a variety of titles across a handful of channels or VOD services.
And as major studios have dedicated themselves to scale, smaller streaming services have suffered the consequences. Last August, for example, The Wrap published a piece arguing against the volume of streaming services currently available to consumers. According to that piece, as some of the more niche platforms struggle to maintain audience interest, they may once more seek out buyers or partners to help share the load; in other words, they may usher in a new era of mergers and acquisitions. Here’s what The Wrap sees in our future:
At a certain point, streaming services that are intriguing but not sufficient alone could become stronger together. And the longer they continue to struggle in an uphill battle to bring on new customers in an increasingly crowded space – and Wall Street takes notice – there could be more of an incentive to team up. Joining forces could also allow for offerings that include the content of several existing providers at a price point lower than subscribing independently.
That will probably never be a platform like Netflix – they’re too deeply invested in original content these days to ever allow themselves to be bought out – but there are niche sites that could see themselves struggling to carve out a space for themselves. Vinegar Syndrome’s Exploitation.TV, for example, describes itself as the internet’s “largest and ever-growing collection of (s)exploitation, cult, underground and other under-appreciated oddities,” with 80% of its titles not available anywhere else online, but even that promise of exclusivity may not be enough to justify another $7.00 a month that you’re already devoting to another platform. Sure, there are fans out there who don’t have to think twice about Vinegar Syndrome’s lineup, but your typical consumer? They’re going to go for the buzzy sure thing, and Vinegar’s Sexy Timetrip Ninjas is a tough sell when compared to another season of House of Cards.
So someone with some money and a desire to access a new audience purchases Exploitation.TV’s catalogue, and then someone with even more money purchases them, and suddenly we’re looking at the same corporate buyout of Hollywood that everyone complained about in decades past, only this time it’s taking place entirely online. A few niche providers – people who tend to operate less for the money and more for the art – will hang in there, but audiences will find themselves either paying a slew of monthly subscription fees to get what they want or a few exorbitant rates offered by the major studios. And we’re right back where we started, only this time, we can make those decisions with the flick of a button rather than an arduous call to our local cable provider. Is this progress? Sure. But those who are hoping for a single-payer system for entertainment are bound to be disappointed. The streaming game is better than ever, but it’s also bigger than ever. The bigger the fish, the bigger the predators, and soon the water will only be big enough for a select few.