A Guide to Streaming Services and Their Impact on the World of Entertainment
Online streaming services emerged in the early 2000s and increased the accessibility to media content by leaps and bounds in just a few years. As a result, Americans now watch around 5 hours a day of media on average. This is not a new trend. Americans have always been fans of the boob tube and, since the introduction of streaming, we cannot get enough of our favorite television shows and films. Viewers now choose to “binge” online, watching whole seasons of TV series or trilogies of films in 1 day. To be a loyal fan no longer means tuning in at the regularly scheduled time every week for your favorite program and viewing one 30- to 60-minute episode. It now means on release day, you cancel plans and binge-watch the entire season well into the wee hours of the morning. Work or no work, obligations be dammed. If you want to avoid spoilers for your favorite TV show or long-awaited movie, you have to practically fall off the grid until you can catch up with the binge watchers who need to discuss the show immediately. For an activity meant for leisure, being an entertainment fan has become somewhat exhausting these days.
Streaming gives us many options for access. And with increased options come a new slew of responsibilities and challenges. The sharp transition from cable/network and physical media to streaming in the last 10 years has transformed the entertainment world drastically. It will be years before we will understand the impact of streaming. In the meantime, what is a viewer to do? Well, examine the options to indulge of course, and perhaps consider the implications for the future of media consumption. To start, let’s examine the “Big Three” of the streaming platform world: Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. As of June 2016, these three platforms had an amount of users equal to DVRs and are projected to surpass them in the next few years (“Netflix, Hulu, and Their Peers Are Now in as Many Homes as DVR,” Andrew Meola, June 28, 2016). These three platforms are usually utilized together by the same user groups.
Often referred to as the company “that helped put Blockbuster out of business,” Netflix began offering DVDs by mail in 1998, and, in 2007, the company ventured into video on-
demand services. For the next 10 years, Netflix streaming services morphed into the most utilized feature of Netflix. Netflix offers a variety of television series, classic and contemporary films, children’s programming, and original programming such as Orange Is the New Black and the hit of last summer, Stranger Things. It also offers a strong catalog of programming in other languages such as the Spanish TV series Celia and the Danish drama Borgen.
Netflix is accessible through any smart device or computer with internet access. In general, smartphone viewing is the highest usage device for the service, with users at 191 million per month (“The Average American Watches So Much TV It’s Almost a Full Time Job,” John Lynch, June 28, 2016). Netflix makes access extremely easy and fun. User profiles, which had a brief stint back in 2008, were reintroduced in 2013 to allow one subscription to support up to five separate profiles. These profiles save viewers’ watch histories and let them curate special lists through the rating system. Netflix recommends certain titles based on user viewing history and ratings. The more a user interacts with the interface, the better or more specific the recommendations. Netflix also expanded its services while keeping the price relatively low. Standard streaming plans usually run anywhere from $8–$12 a month, with the DVD delivery service costing extra.
So, with a platform as user- and price-friendly as it is, who are the right users for Netflix? Everyone. The variety of programming means Netflix truly has something for everyone and a lot of it. Its original programming is Netflix’s strongest feature. It pushes the envelope when it comes to original films such as Ava Duvernay’s The 13th and the animated series BoJack Horseman. Netflix originals are often praised for their inclusiveness and diversity, something unheard of until recent years in entertainment. However, the monthly lists of what’s leaving and coming to streaming is a bit imbalanced, leaning more in the direction of lower-quality, non-Netflix original acquisitions. To remedy this imbalance, a user could subscribe to another service of the Big Three, Hulu, that offers a very strong catalog of current movies and recently aired network TV/cable series.
In 2006, executives from Fox, Disney, and others decided to invest in their own streaming platform. Hulu began offering streaming services in 2008. In 2011 as its userbase grew, so did the service, adding original content and larger viewing catalogs. Currently, Hulu offers television series in “real time” (the latest episode of the series is always available). This way, you never miss out on your favorite show. This feature gives Hulu an edge over the other streaming platforms and has been its selling point since the service debuted. Hulu is taking the idea of up-to-date availability a step further by piloting a live TV feature that is set for later this year (“This Is the New Hulu Experience With Live TV,” Chris Welch, Jan. 7, 2017). Real-time content is a major draw for Hulu users.
Hulu also saved several network TV series that would otherwise have been cancelled due to low ratings. One of these series is The Mindy Project. The show has built a strong following since Hulu started to stream new episodes exclusively on its platform. The platform that was once strong for just current TV series has now blossomed into a service adapting to its growing userbase by offering a variety of services. Like Netflix, it also keeps its membership fee low—around $8 monthly for the standard plan.
The last of the Big Three streaming platforms embodies a little bit of its counterparts and offers its own twist. Founded in 1994, Amazon is the largest internet-based retailer in the world. Originally selling books, Amazon began to sell DVDs and digital media and still does on Amazon Instant, but the service eventually evolved into Amazon Prime. Amazon Prime differs from our other two services in that is not solely for streaming. Prime gives members free shipping on products purchased from Amazon Retailer and access to streaming content on Amazon. Prime is important because while some content is available for purchase through Amazon Instant to stream, there is exclusive content only accessible to a Prime membership such as original programing and new film releases.
Membership fee sets Prime apart from the other services. The membership seems costly because it is paid in a lump sum. Prime costs users $99 annually, but monthly it’s about $8.25, so in actuality, there’s only a slight difference. Users have access to free and prompt shipping on all products, original and non-original content, newly released movies, and a library of music comparable to Spotify. It is possible that all your entertainment and consumer needs could be met with this single membership. Prime can be seen as a combination of cable and network television, an advantage in the streaming age when both network and cable channels are battling with streaming platforms for viewership.
Cable networks such as HBO and Showtime threw their hats in the online streaming arena to increase their viewership base. HBO GO (the streaming application of HBO) had so many users in 2014, HBO decided to offer a standalone subscription service in 2015, renaming it HBO NOW. HBO NOW mirrors HBO in content. Most movies and original HBO series are available to stream. It proved to be a good call. Usage grew exponentially, and HBO CEO Richard Plepler issued a statement saying that HBO encouraged password sharing among family and friends (“HBO Doesn’t Care that You Are Sharing Your HBO Password,” Matthew Lynley, Jan. 16, 2014). Showtime, Starz, and Cinemax offer similar services as well, in addition to their cable channels. If networks want to survive, they must adapt and find some kind of streaming platform to offer content in addition to their channels. Even libraries have adopted the streaming trend to ensure survival.
Libraries added streaming services to their collections in 2013. These services work in a variety of ways, offering books, magazines, movies, television, and music online within a library card’s reach. Some of these companies are Midwest Tape, Library Ideas, the Hoopla streaming service, and OverDrive. Instead of a subscription fee charged to the patron or user, most models allow libraries to pay for a certain number of circulations per title with the option to renew once the circ number is fulfilled. Streaming services have helped improve circulation numbers, but it is still a question as to how well physical collections will be circulated (“More Vendors Help Libraries Stream Video,” Matt Enis, July 2, 2013). Library collections accessible from home help libraries keep up with community and market needs in terms of media consumption.
There are reservations about how online streaming will affect library physical collections. In fact, this is an issue that goes beyond library collections. With such a quick shift from film to digital film and now digital streaming, we are struggling to maintain control and access to complete catalogs of media. Culturally valuable titles are lost in format shifts for future generations. It happened when nitrate was replaced with acetate film, on until the present day, with analog to digital film. Every time we shift, we lose titles in this shift (“With 35mm Dead, Will Classic Movies Ever Look the Same Again?” Daniel Eagan, Nov. 22, 2012). Some films never made it to streaming because they were lost in the digital format shift. Streaming catalogs are never complete due to this issue, nor are copyright and licensing agreements.
Unlike the dearly departed video store, impermanence is the nature of catalogs for online streaming services. A decade ago, we knew we would probably be able to find a copy of a film at the video store to buy or rent. Streaming is different. Every month, we see new content become available on streaming platforms and a fresh crop of material leaving streaming platforms as well. Unless these companies are extremely rich, it is not possible for them to keep a complete catalog available to users comparable to analog collections while maintaining their current pricing model. For the convenience of streaming, there’s a price to pay: Older or unpopular titles become difficult to access through content leaving a platform or when not even making it to streaming to begin with due to a lack of popularity. There is some hope though. The Paley Center for Media is fully dedicated to preserving television history and is digitizing and preserving current and past content (paleycenter.org/collection). And there is still a market for physical DVDs and Blu-rays (“Blu-ray Struggles in the Streaming Age,” Chris Morris).
Numbers are falling for sales, however. Forty-four percent of U.S. families have a Blu-ray player in their homes, which proves that while Americans are adopting streaming quickly, they still want their Blu-rays and DVDs. As of right now, there is a place for both forms of entertainment, and the strongest catalogs will reflect both physical and digital assets.
We will never get back those days at the video store picking up the latest releases, gathering around the TV set for the weekly program, or being able to avoid spoilers for favorite TV shows by simply ignoring office small talk for the day. We are now in the age of “Netflix and Chill,” binging on TV series in a single day, and watching the same films at home that are currently in theaters. Streaming puts the entertainment world at our fingertips—or our smartphones—which is revolutionary. As consumers, we control content more than ever. TV networks, cable companies, and even libraries adopt streaming services to compete for our business. TV is experiencing a Renaissance because of the creative freedom streaming services allow and because we consumers demand more diversity in our films and TV series. So while entertainment has certainly entered a new, exciting era, let’s not forget and instead appreciate the road that got us here by picking up a Blu-ray and a pizza a few times a month for old time’s sake.
In between binge watching the latest Netflix original and The Office (American version) for the 100th time, Carly Lamphere (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a reference librarian who’s constantly striving to find time to schedule binge reading sessions into a 24-hour period as well.