The streaming platform landscape has become an unwieldy, unfriendly, frustrating behemoth. Long gone are the days when Netflix was the only game in town and they were releasing one innovative production after another. The proliferation of providers means that nowadays viewers are confronted with a paralysing overabundance of options. As a viewer, I feel a bit like the guy on the Titanic who said: ‘I ordered ice, but this is ridiculous.’
Most households can’t afford to simultaneously maintain subscriptions to all the available international and local streaming platforms. But even if you do have enough disposable income, there aren’t enough hours in the day to watch everything that’s on offer. Plus you end up being driven to mediocrity by the sunk cost fallacy: I pay for a subscription to streamer so-and-so, and even though there’s nothing on it that I really want to watch, I’ll pick the least unattractive option, to justify the money I’m spending.
And then there’s the frustration of not being able to view certain series or films because of regional copyright restrictions. You read about an amazing new film on a streamer you’re subscribed to, but then… oops, sorry this content isn’t available in your region. What?! Or not being able to subscribe to services (e.g., Hulu) in the first place because they are financed by advertising and therefore limit their services to the US.
True story: I once bought a gift card with my local credit card through an Icelandic website so I could subscribe to Hulu for a month through a VPN to watch a new season of The Handmaid’s Tale. Talk about a crime passionnel!
Not to mention the elitist exclusivity of Apple TV+, which you can only watch if you own an Apple device (which most people in the world don’t, because they’re prohibitively expensive).
There are ways around this conundrum, though. Although password sharing is becoming trickier, it’s still a way of spreading the financial burden. I recently heard of the following local cartel: a friend and their neighbours decided to each subscribe to just a few platforms and then share all their passwords with each other. That way you have access to multiple streamers, while only paying for two or three. The streamers don’t (yet) identify specific IP addresses, but rather local servers, so adjacent properties look the same to their algorithms. You can be sure that won’t last, though.
Another option is streamer-hopping. The key here is deciding in advance what series or movies you want to watch on any given platform. So, for example, you subscribe to Disney+ for a month or two (about the same price as two cinema tickets) to watch two seasons of The Bear. Then you cancel and do the same for Netflix to indulge in some Adam Sandler or to binge the latest season of Black Mirror, after which you move on to HBO to catch The Flight Attendant or Hacks. The trouble with this approach is that it’s really time-consuming. You have to do your research online and deliberately select what you’re going to watch next month. We’ve become so used to the illusion of spontaneity known as ‘browsing’, that just thinking about this option is exhausting.
Another true story, as an analogy: I once tried tracking the price of certain staples at different supermarkets. It nearly drove me insane. Prices constantly fluctuate, different brands use different measures (which is more, 500 grams of passata or 550 ml? Anyone?), cheaper fresh produce is sometimes – but not always – inferior quality, etc., etc. I don’t think I’m being the tinfoil hat guy if I say that this is confusion by design.
I secretly fantasise about a quiet and clearly structured solution, something resembling a public library. You know you can never read all the books on the shelves, but that’s okay because you pay one subscription fee and then you get to choose what to read. With or without assistance from a helpful librarian. Imagine having just one streaming platform for one fee, where you could choose what suits your taste from everything that’s on offer on all the platforms all over the world!
Ultimately, we all know it’s all about the business model. Profit margins. Shareholders. As more and more streamers compete for a finite number of subscribers, they scrimp on budgets to protect their bottom line. Not only are customers being fleeced, but there’s also less money to pay artists, creators, actors and crews to produce the content (which is why screenwriters and actors are still on strike at the time of writing).
The entire model is heaving and creaking under its own weight, like a kind of Howl’s Moving Castle. Something has to give (e.g., recently, Swedish newcomer Viaplay announced it was cancelling a number of new series in advanced stages of development). In the interim, everyone who can’t afford the decadence of subscribing to all available channels, will have to continue making frustrating choices and tackling the algorithmically perpetuated fear of missing out.