Here’s a New Year’s resolution for you. It will not be easy to keep, but let’s all give it a try anyway, OK? Here it is: I resolve to spend LESS money on streaming services in 2021 than I did on cable five years ago.
This will be every bit as hard a resolution to keep as any diet plan you might be considering. Because just as the food companies have one goal — to make you buy as much calorically dense, highly addictive “food” as possible — streaming services will be working harder than ever in 2021 to get you to spend as much on their “content” as you did when you were an all-in cable customer.
The newest streamer on the block is Discovery+ from the company that started our obsession with nature programs back in 1982. This streamer will consolidate content from Discovery and all the other brands it owns, including TLC, HGTV, Food Network, Travel, Animal Planet, Oprah’s OWN, and more.
Discovery+ also marks the debut, in a way, of the long-anticipated Magnolia Network from home-improvement personalities Chip and Joanna Gaines. The cable channel’s launch is still a couple of months away (it will replace DIY Network on your cable grid, if you still have it), but that’s the beauty of a streaming channel. You don’t have to fill it with 24 hours of programming every day the way you do a conventional TV channel. A couple of branded hours — some Fixer Upper reruns, maybe a tour of Chip and Joanna’s New Waco — and you’re good.
This was the lesson that Discovery executives seem to have learned from watching other streaming channels launch last year. Their original plan was to just Oprah-fy its cable holdings: You (Discovery) get a streaming channel! And you (HGTV) get a streaming channel! And … OK, enough of that, my point is that the folks at Discovery saw what was working — simplicity and size. Streaming is like that lady in the Walmart ad I wrote up in my 2020 review. She is at Walmart. There is a table display of sweat pants. She rakes all the sweat pants into her shopping cart. Because that’s what you do at Walmart.
Discovery thought people would appreciate having one streaming channel for each of their cable channels. No! They want one great big unwieldly shopping cart of stuff at a low price. That’s why I’m not surprised or irritated in the least that all the big streamers are using plus signs, Disney+, AppleTV+, Discovery+, Paramount+ … If you confuse, you lose (he said, archly bending his neck in HBO Max’s direction). The plus is shorthand for “big shopping cart full of stuff.” And it’s working.
And that portends some changes in the streaming world. There are over 200 services operating right now, and two-thirds of American households use at least one of them. Some are free and ad-supported, but at least half are attempts by traditional cable brands to charge a monthly fee for their service. These smaller streaming brands cannot last. They are too hard to find, and even at $4.99 per month they're hard to justify.
For years we were told that customers wanted “a la carte cable,” and for years the cable industry answered them, in effect, “You can’t have a la carte cable, because the business isn’t structured that way.” What they really meant was: “We can’t run a cable company without offering ESPN, and ESPN knows it, so they charge us a ton of money, and we pass that on to you.” That model, as I noted recently, is completely falling apart. But it doesn’t mean that people want “a la carte cable.” They still like their giant heaping bundles of TV. They still like flipping through endless choices with their remote. (I can help with that.)
Now, this all sounds like what happened in the music business a few years ago, when downloading became streaming. It’s like that, but actually I think the better comparison is to the publishing industry, because books are big operations just like TV shows are. I left the daily TV beat a few years ago to publish books, and while that’s not a career move I’d recommend to others, I did learn an important lesson that applies here: No matter how niche you think you are, there’s a large and very hungry caterpillar competing with you for the same audience. Niche streaming sounds like a good idea, as does “a la carte cable,” but the realities of the media business are not much different from the realities of the farming business: “Get big or get out,” as Earl Butz liked to say.
I also don’t share the opinion of other TV critics that Netflix has embraced a business model based on ladeling out nonstop helpings of mediocrity. I think that’s looking at it totally the wrong way. Rather, television finally has accumulated the resources to match the publishing industry’s prodigious output — publish high, publish low, publish in the middle. (YouTube is the self-published ebook market.)
Much as print dominated western culture and thought for generations, video is moving into a similarly epochal phase of dominance. And Netflix isn’t alone. As recent announcements from Disney and WarnerMedia show, TV is now a business for a public with Doordash-sized appetites for variety and volume. ViacomCBS is reportedly polishing itself up for a sale to one of the few media giants bigger than itself, which means Amazon Prime Video or Apple or maybe even Netflix is about to get even fatter.
And that inevitably means one thing: your streaming bill is going to go higher … and higher. So do this now, before you forget. Locate an old cable bill, or a checkbook register from 2015. Look at how much you spent on cable. Now add up your internet provider bill, your TV provider bill, your Netflix, your Disney+/Hulu/ESPN bundle, and all the rest. Don’t forget all those movies you bought on Amazon and iTunes. And don’t forget, Disney+’s price is going up in March. Now just say to yourself, “I will NOT overspend on TV this month … I will NOT …” You can do it!
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.