For years, the entertainment industry has been locked in a battle it calls “the streaming wars,” in which tech companies — Netflix, Amazon and many smaller players — work tirelessly to sell you subscription services filled with old TV shows improved by the glow of nostalgia. Across the field of battle, the companies that own the legal rights to the shows try to see how vigorously they can gouge Netflix for the privilege of airing reruns of "The A-Team."
Well, the streaming wars are over, and the loser is who it was always going to be: You.
For a brief moment, Netflix was a glorious buffet of TV shows from 30 years ago, many of them owned by different Lovecraftian entertainment combines. The old Ron Perlman/Linda Hamilton “Beauty and the Beast” (CBS, which recently announced a merger with Viacom), “The Office” (NBC, owned by cable behemoth Comcast, this site’s parent company), “Futurama” (Fox, now owned by Disney), “Modern Family” (ABC, Disney again) — all of these and more were available to couch potatoes across this great land.
None of those shows except “The Office” remain on the service, and that series will leave Netflix at the end of next year.
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In exchange, consumers will be offered an intimidating number of individual, new, conglomerate-owned streaming services, which, if viewers pay for all of them, will amount to even more than they used to spend on cable, with the minor added convenience of being allowed to select the show or movie they’d prefer to watch rather than channel surfing to see what’s on. (Of course, you can’t flip away from the show you’re watching on demand when it goes to commercial, either, so you could say you’re paying for the option of watching the show of your choice with compulsory ad viewership.)
Not coincidentally, it’s much harder to buy these shows on disc than it was a few years ago, when the DVD boom of the early aughts saw everything of any remote cultural significance (down to and including “The Beverly Hillbillies”) crisply transferred to permanent media. But as technology has advanced — blu-ray, 4K UHD — television reruns and even some films have declined to keep pace; Fox, which owns “The Simpsons,” even said publicly that it would stop committing the show to physical media, much to the chagrin of the show’s own producers and Simpsons obsessives who loved the commentary tracks. But it is much less lucrative for Fox (now Disney) to simply sell you your favorite old show than it is to collect rent on it every month.
You’re also paying a monthly fee to a local company — often owned by one of these IP leviathans — to enable your internet connection, something that wasn’t required of consumers who bought cable subscriptions. So when all of this rolls out, in the United States, you’ll be paying an average of $67.69 a month for the web, about $6 for CBS, $7 for Disney+ — $13 if you want ESPN and Hulu, too — $13 for Netflix’s most popular plan, a reported $16 for the upcoming WarnerMedia service, which will incorporate the company’s HBO shows alongside its other sundry assets (HBO, Cinemax, The CW), and an as-yet-unknown fee for NBC’s own service, Peacock. (Let’s guess $9.)
That’s about $125 a month, quite a bit more than the average cable TV bill of about $107 — and without any of the optional bells and whistles, such as Apple TV+, Amazon Prime or the more expensive “ad-free” version of CBS. And it leaves out some popular networks that don’t have standalone streaming services, like AMC, and some that do, like The Food Network. (Yes, The Food Network has a streaming service: $6.99 a month)
Plus, these prices are all but guaranteed to rise. Your cable provider used to negotiate on your behalf with entertainment companies, using the collective authority of its hundreds of thousands (or, more recently, tens of millions) of subscribers as a bargaining chip. You, the individual, can’t really ask Disney to drop two percent from its subscription fee this year, so the cycle we’re likely to see is a familiar one: Streaming services will try to undersell each other at first, until the market stabilizes; then they will slowly raise prices until consumers start dropping the less-popular services; then the companies will probably consolidate further.
A few years ago, whenever cable operators and networks came to an impasse in their negotiations, the parties would occasionally let a contract run out and a big cable operator — Comcast or AT&T, for example — would stop carrying a popular network until the dispute could be resolved. The standoffs never went in favor of the cable operators in the court of public opinion: AMC could run ads featuring characters from “The Walking Dead” denouncing Dish Network or Charter, and the public mostly knew the name of their cable companies from the exorbitant bills they were getting every month.
The same kind of marketing fights for public goodwill are happening now, with Batman and Wile E. Coyote facing off for precious subscriber dollars with Jim from “The Office” in another corner and The Incredible Hulk in a third. It’s very convenient for these companies to make corporate mascots out of valuable and beloved works of art by people such as Chuck Jones and Jack Kirby, because it helps to obscure who they really are and what they really do: They’re the owners, not the builders.
Randall Stephenson, the chairman and CEO of AT&T which owns WarnerMedia, has worked tirelessly to destroy not merely net neutrality regulations on his industry, but publicly owned networks that offer better services at faster speeds than commercial providers in rural Appalachia. (Adding insult to injury, Stephenson has regularly called for toothless “net neutrality laws” that would not affect consumer predation by companies like his in the slightest.) This guy is Superman’s landlord.
Entertainment megacompanies increasingly control your access to the internet, and they hold a great deal of American culture hostage, as well. The most immediate effect on the consumer is the frustratingly spotty availability of some of the most important entries in the history of film, television and comics. But the less remarked-on, more significant, problem is that such consolidation allows these companies to edit their own histories — to memory-hole work that might offend contemporary sensibilities or reflect badly on their shareholders’ values, and to pretend that entertainment overlords have always been with us when, in fact, they are a comparatively new phenomenon.
Every company with a streaming slate to promote is taking to Twitter to talk it up; as you try to decide which selections will be the most interesting and fun, look for the voices of the companies themselves in their omissions as well as their inclusions. It will help you to remember that you’re not actually doing business with Luke Skywalker but the corporate board that bought the rights to his visage in order to discard his vision.