Whereas televisions were considered the most important piece of furniture just a mere 30 years ago, now all they do is gather dust in a corner as more and more people turn to online streaming. Online streaming – also called streaming television, or simply streaming – is the digital distribution of television content, such as TV shows or films, which has by now taken over the world.
Nowadays, increasingly fewer people own a TV in their homes, or subscribe to cable or satellite television, as now you can kick back with a movie on your laptop or your phone. With just a few simple clicks, you can watch whatever you want whenever you want wherever you want, without being limited by the bounds of ‘what’s on air right now’ (i.e. terrestrial television), or having to buy each movie we want to see in order to watch them in the comfort of our own living rooms. Thanks to online streaming, the ball seems to be in our court, as the choice of what we view (and when and where we view it) appears to be completely up to us users. We think we’re free because we are free of our cable bill… but are we really?
If you’re currently looking for an online streaming service, you are only spoilt for choice – you have Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max, and a few hundreds more. Yet, the popularization of such platforms happened over time, as in the beginning there were only a few that started this powerhouse of an industry. One name in particular always stuck out from the rest, so much so that it became known as the leading service in the streaming revolution – Netflix. So, let’s see how it got to become such a powerful frontliner in the game.
Netflix was first launched in April 1998 as the world’s first online DVD rental service, finding itself in competition with Blockbuster Video, a VHS tape rental store. Despite a rocky beginning, Netflix went on to become a force in the entertainment market in less than a decade, since as soon as 2007 they had already delivered 1 billion DVDs via postal services. However, the CEOs of the company were starting to notice how the digital revolution was taking over the world, so that same year they launched an online subscription service for streaming movies. That move proved to be incredibly successful, since in just three years Netflix controlled the entire market segment of online video supply. After going digital, the service’s popularity skyrocketed, and others began to understand what all the fuss was about. Other platforms were launched in the last few years of the 2010s, such as Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, thus truly beginning the Age of Streaming.
By now, online streaming services are writing history, as there are over 200 different platforms out there with hundreds of millions of active users. But what exactly makes streaming so wildly popular?
Streaming for the Win
It’s not difficult to grasp why increasingly more people are turning to online streaming with each passing day, so let’s start with the most obvious advantages of streaming.
Television offers only a limited range of content, and it’s always bound by the limits of ‘what’s on air right now’. Let’s say that you want to watch an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but uh-oh… Friends is on the air right now! As a consumer, the best you can do is switch channels and hope they’re airing the show you want to see somewhere else, but you cannot control the TV schedule. Whereas, with online streaming, you do have that control – you can freely choose which movies or series you want to see when you want to see them, and be in charge of your TV schedule. And that’s not all – online streaming allows you to skip and jump around in whatever you’re currently watching. Imagine that you’re watching an extremely dull and boring scene or episode, and you want to skip to a more enticing part – well, with streaming you can do that! Furthermore, platforms recommend content based on your activity via an algorithm that enables them to offer personalized suggestions to users. No more having nothing to watch – with these services, you’re only spoilt for choice.
Lastly, these platforms adapt and cater to each user’s media-watching pattern, in a way that traditional television just cannot. If you want to binge ten movies or watch five seasons of a show in one day, you can do that! And if you want to start a film or episode and then pause it, just pick up from where you left off a day, a week, or even one year after… You can do that too! No matter if you’re a binge-watcher or you prefer to savor it and take your time, online streaming caters to you.
And the best part about all of this is that it is all for the same price. Whether you watch three movies or sixty, your monthly fee doesn’t change. That sounds like a bargain, doesn’t it? Well, you know how the saying goes – all that shimmers is not gold…
The Boom of Streaming Services
A huge dent in the system has been occurring in the last few years, when streaming reached its very peak. During the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone was stuck at home – movie theatres were no longer an option, so entertainment production companies had to quickly find another way to distribute their content out to the public. Hence – online streaming came in handy! Lots of companies thus began producing their own content and distributing it by themselves as well, creating their own platforms (i.e., vertical integration). It’s good to note that a few services had already been doing that for a few years, as Netflix has been releasing Netflix Originals since 2013, beginning with the drama series House of Cards.
Yet, during the pandemic, more entertainment conglomerates began to notice what a bargain it was to both produce and distribute content, without having to go through a middle-man. Thus, we had the boom of streaming services – companies began creating their own platforms, in order to monopolize their own content. For instance, The Walt Disney Company recently launched their own streaming site called Disney+, which hosts all Disney and Marvel movies and series to date. To do so, they removed all the Disney content that was previously available on other streaming platforms, in order to have complete control over their products. The move proved to be successful, as Disney+ currently accounts for over 115 million active users. Hence, other companies decided to follow their footsteps, and distribute their content via their own newly launched platforms.
The More is Not the Merrier – Going Back to Piracy?
Yet, here lies the problem. As content begins to be fragmented across platforms, users are now facing a big decision, between paying for multiple subscriptions or going back to illegal piracy.
Think about it for a second – a major advantage of online streaming was the vastity of movies and shows that were available to the user all in one place. Whereas, as content is now disseminated across multiple sites, you need multiple subscriptions to access something you could find all in one place just a few years back. For instance, if you wish to watch Stranger Things, Avengers: End Game and The Office you would already need three different subscriptions. But are you willing to pay that much money? Would you be willing to pay €9.99-14.99 for Netflix, and then add another €10 for Hulu, €5.99 for Disney+, €15 for HBO Max, €10 for Prime Video, €10 for NBC’s streaming thing and €5.99 for Apple TV+? I’d venture a guess that no, you would not.
Ergo, illegal piracy comes into play. In B.N. (Before Netflix) years, illegally pirating movies and shows was a widely spread option, as people were either not willing to pay so much money to buy DVDs or VHS tapes, or wanted to watch something that was not available through their cable TV subscription. So, they would turn to websites on the internet that allowed them to either stream the content online or torrent it onto their computer – all for free.
In the last few years, the industry saw a drop in the numbers of people using illegal piracy websites, mostly thanks to the availability of online platforms such as Netflix, which are cheap, offer a variety of content, and don’t annoy you with those ads and pop-ups. However, as the amount of offered content is decreasing, prices are not lowering, and people are turning back to the old trick in order to not have to pay more money, but still watch whatever they want.
Looking Over the Horizon
Hence, the question – is the Age of Streaming coming to an end? Truth be told, the jury’s still out on this one, but I’m going to take the leap and say that it’s not likely. Yes, I do believe that several of these online services will not see their future revenues soaring and flying, as they don’t offer much high-quality original content and rely on nostalgia bait to lure in users, thus chances are people will not find subscribing to them worth it, and will just pirate what they wanted to see. Nevertheless, I think that a few platforms – namely, Netflix and Disney+ – will do just fine, since their self-produced movies and shows are top-quality, and people are more likely to want to open their wallets for them.
To be completely honest, I’m not yet sure what the future has in store for the streaming industry. Perhaps, some of the smaller platforms will give in and join one of the bigger streaming powerhouses, and we will once again have all the content back in one place. Or maybe one genius company will create a subscription bundle including all services for a reasonable price, and call it a day. But one thing is for sure – the sun has not yet set upon the Age of Streaming.