The first question plaguing omnivorous, content-hungry humans with a spare hour or two is this: What should I watch? In recent years, a second question has come to dominate our evening streaming rituals: How do I watch it? Drenching your eyeballs in sweet television can be surprisingly tricky, requiring some amount of research to determine which streaming platform has whatever you want to watch and, crucially, whether you pay for it already. Netflix and Amazon Prime Video and Hulu are still sometimes not enough to watch the most popular shows, especially if you want to see Idris Elba attempt to outfox plane hijackers (you’ll need Apple TV+ for that).
Most evenings, I find myself stuck in this phase, during which time I am likely to cycle through something resembling the five stages of grief. There’s Denial (I swear I had a Paramount+ account); Anger (I cannot believe I have to pay for Paramount+); Bargaining (I promise I will cancel my subscription after the one-week Paramount+ trial period ends); Depression (I cannot believe I didn’t remember to cancel Paramount+ after the trial period ended); and Acceptance (Let’s just head to Netflix and watch Suits).
You, me, all of us, we live in a time of abundance. Streaming is a modern marvel that allows us to watch obscure documentaries, reality shows, Con Air, and more videos than any old Blockbuster could hope to stock. Yet the act of consuming content has never felt more frustrating than it does today. Not only has the landscape fractured into endless streaming platforms; the user experience on each one has degraded. Ads are everywhere, and thirsty streaming services are looking to juice engagement metrics with questionable features. Last month, Variety reported that Warner Bros. Discovery has plans to integrate CNN alerts for breaking news into its popular streaming service, Max—disturbing your episode of Succession. Maybe worst of all, it’s getting more expensive. For the first time this fall, the monthly price for a bundle of the top streaming services ($87) is expected to exceed the price of an average cable package ($83).
We are living in a streaming paradox. As both an entertainment business model and a consumer experience, streaming has become a victim of its own success. It is a paradigm shift that is beloved for giving us more choice than ever before, while also making it harder than ever to actually enjoy that abundance.
At first, streaming felt revolutionary, even seductive. Netflix debuted its service in 2007, right in the middle of my time at college. This introduction to bingeing TV episodes is a moment in time forever commemorated by a not-so-gentle decline in my grade point average from freshman to sophomore year. The proposition was simple: pay a reasonable monthly fee for a single destination of inexhaustible entertainment. For a while, Netflix, like any good tech product, simply worked—on your laptop, your phone, even a stranger’s TV at an Airbnb rental.
Naturally, Netflix’s runaway success kicked off a streaming arms race. Studios poured billions into building tech products, and tech companies poured billions into becoming production studios. In 2014, Netflix became the first streaming platform to be nominated for an Academy Award. Soon after, platforms and studios entered expensive bidding wars over new titles and funded more shows and movies than ever before in attempts to acquire new sign-ups. Executives felt they had no choice but to adapt to the on-demand subscription model, all while confessing that the business of streaming seemed shaky.
Now we are living through the contraction. The simple truth is that it is incredibly expensive to produce and distribute content at Netflix scale and without a head start. According to The Wall Street Journal, the traditional entertainment companies, such as Disney and Warner Bros., that have spun up streaming businesses to compete with Netflix and its chief rivals have “reported losses of more than $20 billion combined since early 2020.” Streaming platforms are dealing with subscription fatigue: Only so many people are willing to pay for so many platforms.
In response, major streaming services across the board have raised prices, while Netflix has cracked down on password sharing. That’s to say nothing of the content itself, the production of which is slowing down and, according to dissatisfied viewers, appears less ambitious. Complex bundle tiers are beginning to emerge. Interested in Disney+? That’ll be $8 dollars a month. Unless you want it ad-free, then it’s $11 a month. How about Hulu? That’s $8 a month or $80 a year if you’re willing to put up with ads, or $15 a month without ads. But what if I told you that you could have Disney+ and Hulu together? That’ll cost you $10 a month with ads; an ad-free version will run you $20 a month. Want to add ESPN+ to the bundle? No problem; just add $3 a month. Or $10, if you don’t want those pesky commercials. Got it?
Although the streaming arms race has unlocked more studio back catalogs and resulted in more original content, actually accessing all the options means shelling out more money. The most famous instance of this is when NBCUniversal decided to launch its own streaming platform, Peacock, and stopped licensing The Office to Netflix. The decision cost NBCUniversal $500 million, and required Netflix subscribers to fork up another $12 a month to continue streaming the hit sitcom. Cutthroat studios may behave as if streaming is a zero-sum game, but for most consumers, it’s not. Multiple acquaintances of mine have been reduced to once-unthinkable practices, like keeping spreadsheets to track how much money they’re spending on all their different streaming subscriptions.
Not that cable was better and we should return to a time before Tubi (or Mubi, Crackle, Popcornflix, Vudu, and Crunchyroll). But for all its shortcomings, cable made sense in a way that the modern streaming environment does not. In a podcast with my colleague Derek Thompson, the media analyst Julia Alexander recently described cable as a “beautiful, socialistic almost, experiment.” Our current streaming landscape may offer consumers the à la carte experience that cord-cutters once clamored for, but there’s a Hobbesian quality to it all. For the studios, writers, and actors themselves, the streaming model is mostly untenable, taking away the money that Hollywood’s creative people used to make off reruns, among other things. It’s possible that the promise of streaming—and the precarity it introduced—may kneecap the entire film and TV industry for years to come.
If what has happened to streaming feels familiar, that’s because it is. Occasionally, as the writer Cory Doctorow has argued, tech platforms offer a service that’s genuinely helpful or unique, and subsidize the cost for users in order to hook them. Once users are dependent, the companies “abuse” them, squeezing out revenue by either jacking up prices or surveilling users and selling the data, which is part of a process he calls “enshittification.” Maybe you’ve noticed that Google Search isn’t as helpful as it once was. But there is another side of enshittification, too. Sometimes, a new service emerges, offering an idealized, likely heavily subsidized version of itself—so good, in fact, that it is adopted quickly and then relentlessly copied by competitors to the point that it becomes economically unsustainable. Think MoviePass.
Streaming appears to be a mix of the two. It is a genuine technological achievement that ushered in an embarrassment of riches. Like MoviePass, the earliest iterations felt almost too good to be true, combining great value with true utility. The model was beloved, but also copied to the point of absurdity. In the long run and in times of nonzero interest rates, it’s entirely possible that the model is unprofitable. It is also a story of scale-chasing that leads to irrational business decisions, lighting piles of cash on fire, and, ultimately, providing users with slowly degrading or bewildering products.
What is left is a cognitive dissonance that comes along with our streaming rituals—the feeling of being presented with infinite choice while also experiencing a vague sense of loss. Perhaps this is because people like myself are unable to understand how good we have it. But there is something about our current streaming paradox that also speaks to the feeling of living a life mediated by Silicon Valley. Perhaps the lesson is simply that infinite choice is glorious in theory, but in practice, it is undesirable and only able to exist undergirded by fractured, bureaucratic, and algorithmic systems. It’s a notion both timeless and distinctly modern: A fundamental experience of being alive on the internet in 2023 is getting everything you asked for and realizing that the end product is not what it seems.