by David Newhoff, 16/9/19
About ten minutes after cable and satellite TV were available, and we all got RF remotes in our hands, the small-screen viewing experience grew an extra psychological dimension—the low-grade anxiety that there may be something better playing on another channel than whatever we were watching. Thus was born the time-sucking activity called channel-surfing years before Mark Zuckerberg gave us the Facebook newsfeed.
Now that millions worldwide view programming through streaming services, we no longer channel-surf in the traditional sense because shows are available on demand. Instead, we binge-watch, consuming 24-hours of programming in a couple of days, and we have exchanged the surfing ritual for the mincing scroll through pages and pages of digital posters to decide what to watch next before coming to the conclusion “there is nothing.” Of course, the contemporary reality is not that there is nothing to watch, but rather that there is way too much.
Both the binging habit and the high rate of production occurring right now can make viewers feel as though there is not enough time to see it all; and this is not illusion. There is not enough time to see it all. Concurrently, not every household has the money—or is willing to spend the money—to subscribe to every streaming platform available, especially when the number of platforms continues to increase and to segment the market.
It is not surprising, therefore, that some viewers feel that if they subscribe to two or three platforms, that they have “done their bit for Hollywood” and will justify pirating some content belonging to one of the platforms to which they do not subscribe.
Of course, the market doesn’t work that way. The producers of filmed entertainment, sporting events, news programs, et al are not part of some monolithic organisation sharing a pot of revenue like waiters pooling their tips. The subscription you pay to HBO does not cover the salary of the set designer for the show produced for Amazon Prime. In fact, neither does the Amazon subscription, but more on that below.
It was inevitable that the major motion picture studios would pursue the path carved out by Netflix—and followed by Amazon and Hulu—and launch their own platforms (e.g. Disney+) to distribute the material in their own catalogs. The good news/bad news of migrating to a streaming market for consumers is that we are currently the beneficiaries of massive investments in more diverse programming as each producer/platform vies for our patronage; but the titles we may be interested in are scattered across more platforms than we are willing, or able, to pay for.
The irony here is that, as viewers, we often find ourselves wishing that streaming were more like the cable model—one subscription to a single distributor for access to multiple channels supplied by multiple producers. This is one of the dichotomies of the digital age: we know that monopolies are fundamentally bad for free societies, but we have been conditioned to expect the convenient, all-access pass that only monopolies (or pirates) can provide.
While there is evidence to indicate that most consumers are not dedicated to piracy – that the best antidote to illegal access is continued expansion of an affordable, legal market – one immutable fact remains that no legal model can wholly compete with a pirate model. Pirates do not pay any of the people who produce the work. Stealing will always be cheaper than actual production. So, if what the consumer expects is access to everything for next to nothing, there is no legitimate industry in the world that can meet this demand.
At the same time, our conditioning can obscure any appreciation for the fact that we actually have access to legal and low-cost options that never existed in the pre-streaming market. If one subscribes to Netflix and Hulu, for instance, but wants to see that new show on HBO, it is possible to buy the pilot as a trial for about two dollars (U.S.), and then buy the whole season if desired. Alternatively, consumers are free to trade Subscription A for Subscription B for a few months to in order to change up their menu of options. Nothing even close to this kind of flexibility or these price points existed in the cable-subscription and VHS-rental days.
In the late 80s to early 90s, at the peak of the video rental trade, if a household rented just one movie per week, this was, on average, slightly more expensive than a monthly Netflix subscription is today—and that’s without factoring for inflation, time spent going to the store, or the inevitable late fees. Compare this to a single subscription that allows several family members to watch different programming simultaneously, and the cost-per-view is literally down to pennies. But this, to a certain extent, is part of the problem. It is a well-recognised psychological phenomenon that as prices come down, many consumers will counterintuitively expect more for the bargain they are already getting.
A lot of viewers may say that the aforementioned two dollars an episode is too high a price to pay, but to what extent is this opinion the result of conditioning rather than actual math? Perhaps the calculation is not necessarily whether two dollars a night for ten nights of entertainment is good value, but whether twenty dollars to binge a whole season in two nights is perceived as too costly because we know we’ll be looking for something new by night three? How much is perceived value driven by the fact that there is so much on-demand material being produced that it stirs that age-old anxiety that we must see all of it right now or be left in the cultural desert to wither?
Money aside, if one feels the need to subscribe to some material, rent some material, and pirate some material, this may be a sign that one should slow down for health reasons alone. Media gluttony has been identified in a joint European-American study as a cause of sleep disorders and increased fatigue, and as critic Bryan Reesman notes is a related article for NBC News, “Buzz does not always equal quality. The fear of Missing Out and keeping up with the Twitter Joneses can lead you astray; pay attention to what you enjoy and crave instead.”
To be sure, one force driving over-consumption is the fact that the platform/producers are on a bit of a binge themselves right now. They are spending billions in debt capital to attract market-share in this relatively new programming environment. This is what I meant above when I said that the subscription fees do not truly cover the cost of the current volume of production—all of which boasts much higher production values than anything like the small-screen programming of the past.
In this regard, it is almost quaint that the internet industry likes to say that the legacy producers are slow or reluctant to innovate. Really? While Silicon Valley has certainly demonstrated its talent for innovating our private lives into their billion-dollar valuations, I would argue that the filmed-entertainment industry has actually adapted rather adroitly to the dynamic home-viewing market while increasing production values and still delivering products people actually enjoy.
But this volume will almost certainly slow down. Producers cannot continue to churn out material at a loss indefinitely; and as production strategies change, it seems likely that distribution structures will change as well. In the meantime, both the health experts and the critics recommend reinvigorating personal discernment, setting aside limited time for the programs that truly matter to us, and perhaps breaking some of the binge-watching habit. And in that context, viewers might ask themselves how much piracy is really a response to an unmet need rather than a response to unchecked conditioning.