As the outside world remains frozen in time due to COVID-19, the internet is busier than ever. Our shared experiences in social distancing prove just how important virtual spaces are to our culture and how we connect with each other. As society tries its best to transition to working, learning, and communicating from home, streaming services emerge as an essential part of our connected lives. Netflix and Hulu are more than just convenient alternatives to live TV or movie theaters. They represent a shift in the entertainment world that could give consumers and filmmakers more representation and greater freedom of choice.
The “streaming wars” is the term that describes the current state of the media industry. With Netflix’s continued success and the number of “cord-cutters” rising every year, major networks and tech companies are racing to stake their claims in the growing world of online entertainment. Consumers display an increasing demand for instant, unlimited content on any device, and traditional cable giants like Comcast are forced to either keep with the times or lose the next generation of customers.
Contenders in the streaming wars approach the battle with unique motives and strategies. Netflix, for example, has been racking up enormous debt over the years as it throws millions into both original content and highly sought-after entities like The Office (which accounts for around seven percent of all Netflix viewership). Monolithic media conglomerates like Disney favor consolidation to make their marks. Buying up Marvel, Star Wars, FOX, and Pixar gave Disney+ the attractive assets it needed to garner 28 million subscribers within its first few months of release.
As the handful of media corporations that dominate the industry continue merging, swallowing smaller fishes, and expanding into online content, the market for streaming services gets more and more crowded. Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, and upcoming services like NBCUniversal’s Peacock and ViacomCBS’ untitled platform all offer unique content selections and pricing options, forcing customers to make tough decisions on who to give their money to.
This all seems to be leading to a time when, like with cable TV, households will subscribe to a package of streaming services that most closely fits their preferences. Some wonder whether consumers have really gained anything if in the end they will just be replacing their cable package with a streaming package. However, this pessimistic view doesn’t take into account several important new differences. First, the nature of the technology behind online streaming allows more choice and representation than cable TV ever did. As RHS alum Emmanuel Tobe, a communications major at Elon University, argues, the streaming wars may actually put power back in the consumer’s hands.
“This is the most valuable consumers have ever been,” said Tobe, who interned with Fox last summer. Instead of just tracking viewership numbers through the singular stream of a TV channel, the nature of streaming services means that consumer choices and preferences matter even more. “Since companies can now track who’s viewing what, they can target and cater to minority voices that went unheard in the past,” said Tobe.
This leads to greater diversity in content and representation. To reach the widest subscriber base possible, companies hold their original and licensed content to an extremely high standard and opt for a diverse selection instead of the one-size-fits-all approach of blockbuster film and TV. Now, people can find content that appeals to underrepresented cultures and niche tastes that were largely ignored by mass media in the past.
Another area where the streaming wars have the potential to have a positive impact is on creative content producers. In the filmmaking world, the streaming wars have massive implications. Another RHS alum, Tristain Asuncion, now studies film at UNC School of the Arts. He is excited for the career prospects arising from the current industry climate.
“There’s an unprecedented amount of movies and shows being made,” said Asuncion. “This means they’re going to need a lot of writers, editors, assistants, et cetera.”
For an industry that is notoriously hard to break into, this is a good sign, even if there remains a lot of uncertainty. “A lot of content gets cut early on,” said Asuncion. “Entry level workers are getting paid less, because there’s no guarantee the project they work on will come into fruition.”
Still, when streaming services are scrambling to lock down well-known talent in contracts for original content, the increased demand presents smaller productions and up-and-coming filmmakers with great opportunities to get their start in the industry. Netflix and Amazon Prime, for example, are well known for buying distribution rights from indie producers. For example, Amazon Prime’s partnership with independent film studio A24 has helped bring films like Lady Bird and Midsommar to wide audiences. “It’s the best way right now to gain recognition, and hopefully get hired for bigger projects in the future,” said Asuncion.
By granting consumers the freedom to choose what to watch, the real victor of the streaming wars won’t be a media conglomerate or an underdog tech startup. It’ll be the consumers whose preferences were ignored in the past, and the aspiring filmmakers who want to shake up the status quo. Here is a chance for the internet to stay true to its promise of being a platform where individuals can get their voices heard. If people vote with their money and viewership, we may see a rise in fresh and original content, and increased representation in the media industry. If not, we’ll keep rebinging The Office and mediocre superhero sequels.