Netflix, Amazon and Hulu agree: The future of television is … television.
Netflix on Monday announced it had renewed its contract with Disney to stream back seasons of current shows and the full runs of older series from ABC, the Disney channel and associated networks. Shortly after, Amazon let the world know it had snagged essentially the same Disney-licensed content for its Prime streaming service.
So if you’re looking to catch up on LOST or Phineas and Ferb, you’ve got options.
Disney’s twin deals with Netflix and Amazon are a classic instance of what Felix Salmon identified as two companies sharing a nonrival good. Disney’s delighted, because it managed to sell the same hard-to-syndicate shows twice. Meanwhile, Amazon doesn’t care if it has the same content as Netflix. In fact, that’s what Amazon wants right now: to have the same content as Netflix, so it can be seen as a credible alternative. (That, in turn, will sell more Kindle Fire tablets, raising the uncomfortable question of whether a loss leader for a loss leader doesn’t turn out to accidentally rip a hole in Space|Time.)
And for this kind of high-quality but not necessarily must-have programming, Netflix doesn’t mind sharing. In fact, this is what Netflix wants right now: to maintain the strength of its wider catalog on the cheap so it can save its money for a handful of premium exclusives (or near-exclusives) on movies and top-shelf shows like Mad Men.
It also makes customers happy. Seriously: Blockbuster movies make for great one-off meals, but the back catalog is the video streamer’s comfort food. Viewers love snacking on old favorites when there’s nothing better on and binging on shows or seasons they missed during their first run.
It’s one of the few things that is an order of magnitude easier on a digital service like Netflix than actually popping in a DVD or managing a folder full of torrented movie files: The service perfectly maintains your place in the series, no matter what device you’re using, and you can just hit “play next episode” over and over again. Or you can easily scan for a rewatchable favorite. (Readers with kids know this is particularly useful.)
Full seasons of old television shows perfectly suit the pseudo-ownership viewers have with streaming video. You might keep DVD box sets of some of your favorite series, but you’re not going to buy the complete run of Cheers just to see what the fuss was about. At the same time, you’re unlikely to wait to bittorrent the entire thing or see every episode in syndication, either. It offers a service above and beyond what you can get with a cable subscription or internet broadband alone, for which a broad base of viewer are happy to pay a small sum.
Finally, unlike broadcast TV, it’s no real problem if content doubles up between services. What matters most is that you can reach it easily and don’t have to keep track of which show comes from where. Just as viewers will suffer with (but would rather not have to) keeping three or four different boxes plugged into their TV sets, they will suffer with but would rather not have to switch between three or four different services just to find something to put on TV. With Xbox, Microsoft is experimenting with doing content-driven rather than app- or service-driven search: As digital video channels proliferate, this kind of smart frontend management will become increasingly necessary.
Meanwhile, the various digital channels are sorting out for themselves their own identities within the new ecology. Netflix, Amazon (and to a certain extent, Hulu Plus) are gobbling up the library content, while Hulu Plus (and for many shows, Hulu Regular) solidifies its place as the best one-stop shop for next-day (or next-week) consumption of current shows.
Last week, Hulu announced a new licensing deal with the CW, bringing its catalog up to five of the six broadcast networks. (CBS, a partial owner of the CW, is the only holdout.) Hulu’s counting on its current-season shows to differentiate itself from Netflix and Amazon, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it begins to license more back catalog content, too, as it tries to remake itself as something more than a web portal for its network equity partners.
And with its Hulu acquisition hopes dashed, Google is trying a different tack entirely with YouTube: committing itself to a wide range of brand-new, web-native series in the hopes that a handful might go viral or capture some devoted addicts. Either way, it’s got plenty of new content to sell ads against, and a beachhead on mobile devices that other video services lack.
I love this paragraph from YouTube’s Robert Kyncl, positioning web video as the post-cable evolution of television:
Wonderful things happen when cool technology meets great entertainment. Cable television expanded our viewing possibilities from just a handful of channels to hundreds, and brought us some of the most defining media experiences of the last few decades — think MTV, ESPN and CNN. Today, the web is bringing us entertainment from an even wider range of talented producers, and many of the defining channels of the next generation are being born, and watched, on YouTube.
Google is betting that the future of television is something structurally chaotic and decentered like the web, yet objectively tamed and portalized like Facebook or Google+. Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are betting that the future is structurally closer to classic cable, even as it objectively remaps our consumption in subtle but surprising ways.
On the Hulu blog, a commenter summarized what I think the broad appeal of streaming TV services is to viewers — even those with cable, even those who could torrent the same shows: “YOU CAN ONLY TIVO SO MANY SHOWS.”
Not only is manual file management is a drag, it doesn’t work for content discovery. Nothing does quite like flipping the channel.