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Pondering the universe


Video streaming

A journey from relaxation to frustration to is it worth it?

When Netflix was the only streaming site, it was a simple matter of selecting from a surfeit of options of what to spend the next couple of hours watching. No more!

Supposedly, competition thrives in a vacuum and so a myriad of the existing production houses, and some tech companies wanting other ways to suck money out of people, decided that they should keep as much of the possible revenue to themselves and keep all their content for their exclusive video channels.

So where there was one, there is now too many. We are now faced with having to trawl through several sites to find something useful to watch. And, if we are fortunate enough to have a lot of discretionary income, we have to be signed up for multiple providers simultaneously, taking a modest monthly layout to a contender in the family budget to food.

Alternatively, if we are prepared to forego wanting everything when we want it, we can just subscribe to one or two providers each month and watch the new shows that have been released since the last time we subscribed. Round-robbining through providers in this way lowers our monthly costs, but at the expense of limiting our options.

Unfortunately, covid severely curtailed the scheduling of many movies and programs, so that each provider had less content available at launch than they probably would have liked. The downside of this for us is that for each of us, the sort of new content we would watch may not be enough to keep us going for even a month. Also during this time, we have watched much of suppliers' back-catalogs, thereby being more dependent upon new content in the wanted genres being available next time we subscribe to a provider.

Between the putting off of subscribing to all providers and their reduced content catalogues, we might have come to question the value of some providers, leading to us dispensing with ever watching some at all. Sometimes getting less of the cake is better than getting none of it at all. The studios have potentially competed themselves out of sustained profits, just because they thought their content was indispensable.

Fortunately, many studios are either not exclusively providing their own content or not interested in doing direct streaming, perhaps because they realise they don't have enough content to sustain themselves that way. These are the studios whose content fills out the offerings of the many streamers that would otherwise have rather threadbare catalogues.

Many studios have jumped on the streaming bandwagon, and while it has normally taken decades for industries to get to the time when they need a shakeout to pare out the unprofitable companies, video streaming may hit that wall much more quickly, just because the short-comings of having too many providers is already becoming apparent, even when many are still preparing to go solo.

While the internet may seem like it allows anybody to get online, success is still predicated upon being useful enough to enough people. While we need food, and so enough resources have to be allocated to produce what we need, video streaming is a nice to have, and so is not really the priority to dominate our household consumption, leaving the zealous studios to fight over scraps, especially when growing wealth inequality is reducing discretionary spending.

For companies like Amazon Prime, Disney+ and Apple, they can afford to make a loss on video because they have other areas of their business that they can use video as a loss-leader to entice people to take up their other services. For those companies like Netflix that have streaming as their sole income, they cannot afford to do such loss-leading, making them even less competitive. Many like Acorn now offer subscriptions through third-parties like Prime. They have offered one week free as enticements, but often they don't have enough new content to last even that week.

Perhaps we need to get back to the studios feeding into streaming distribution networks, rather than theatres, splitting the industry back into its traditional layers through which they have much more experience in reliably making money. And that would serve us better because we can get back to watching the content, rather than spending our time trawling multiple sites.

However, the real problem is that there is a real dearth of content overall. $20-100m mid-range movies are just not being made in the numbers they used to. These are the ones that couples may have watched together. So we now have only indie and blockbusters. Indie movies are a rather variable lot, but the new breed of blockbusters are lots of screen action with rather weak stories and dialogue, some of which are one-trick ponies or just don't make sense in their own paradigm. It may be because of the actors' strike, but it may be years until video production matches our expectations, if ever.

One aspect of video sites that having multiple providers has highlighted is the dramatic difference in the apps themselves, and this can bias how people access some providers. For example, Acorn doesn't allow multiple users and has clunky operational aspects, whereas Prime is a lot more user-friendly. In this way, lack of focus upon their own app's user interface is likely to push people to other providers, reducing their cut of the revenue. In an increasingly competitive market, offerings have to be first grade to keep viewers interested.

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