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2021 Was the Year Streaming Put a Fork in Pay TV

But there are challenges ahead as the Big 9 streamers prepare to flood viewers with even more TV.
  • Illustration: studiostoks
    Illustration: studiostoks

    2021 got off to an inauspicious start for Chip and Joanna Gaines. The HGTV couple who restore homes and hope in millions of viewers’ lives are the brightest stars in the universe of reality and factual shows known as Discovery Networks. At the beginning of 2020, Discovery announced that the Gaineses would be getting their very own branded lifestyle cable channel. It would be called Magnolia Network, and it was coming to cable that summer.

    And then the pandemic took a sledgehammer to those plans. The cable channel was put on hold. Everyone waited. And then, on January 4, 2021, the First Couple of Waco did a Texas two-step over to streaming. That was the day Discovery+ launched, and among the numerous brands loaded into reality’s biggest streamer was what was being called a “preview” version of Magnolia Network. “The cart and the horse have definitely been reversed,” Chip Gaines said at the time.

    Magnolia Network is launching next month on cable, but who cares? The paradigm has shifted. Thanks in large part to the pandemic, we've moved dramatically closer to fulfilling the prediction of Anthony Wood, creator of the Roku box, that everyone will be streaming TV by the end of the decade. Within weeks of the global lockdown, Netflix added 26 million subscribers worldwide (and all of them, it seems, were watching Tiger King). Hulu soared from 28.5 million U.S. subscriptions to 36.6 million.

    The question in 2021 was, would they keep their subscriptions — all of their subscriptions? These days there's more than just three big streamers. It's now the Big 9 with the additions of Disney+, Apple TV+, Peacock, HBO Max, and the two that came online this year, Discovery+ and Paramount+.

    As vaccines arrived and people ventured outside to restaurants and movie theaters, industry forecasters predicted that cash-strapped consumers would drop some or all of their extra subscriptions. Instead, they held onto streaming and continued cutting the cord. A study conducted in April found just 58 percent of U.S. households had traditional cable or satellite. That's down from 88 percent just nine years earlier. And, for the first time ever, more Americans reported watching Streaming TV than traditional Pay TV in their homes.

    What happened? Quite simply, Streaming TV got bigger, and better, in 2021, and a hunkered-down world noticed. For years streaming was defined by just three brands: Netflix, Hulu and Prime Video. They were regarded, rightly, as add-ons to a traditional Pay TV subscription. But starting in late 2019, when Disney+ made its astounding debut, we went from a Big 3 to a Big 9. This sudden spurt in premium streamers transformed the TV landscape. These newer streamers were backed by Hollywood, not Big Tech. They offered the same shows that had been showing on cable and satellite channels, but now here they were all at once: on demand, searchable, findable and watchable with just a few clicks of the remote. In the aggregate it just seemed like so much more than Pay TV. To have so much variety and volume at one's command was liberating. And even if you got all nine streamers, it oftentimes cost less than what consumers had been paying.

    And yet, like everything else in the pandemic year, there was something exhausting about it, too. TV critics, who had long ago abandoned any hope of seeing every new show out there, began hearing from readers who felt overwhelmed by all the shows being recommended. This viewer's sad complaint to his Facebook friends is all too typical: “I just finished Game of Thrones, and now I’m left with nothing to watch. I have HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime.” In 2021, the tyranny of choice became real for millions.

    As the pandemic wore down, people were pressed for time again. “In urgent need of a short series recommendation please!” one Twitter user asked his friends. Culture outlets like The New York Times, which recommends several hours’ worth of TV every single day, also feel obliged to include picks for viewers who only have an hour to spare.

    In some ways, viewer habits hadn’t changed that much. Short on time and long on alternatives, they continue gravitating to water-cooler shows. Looking over the Top 10 lists published weekly by various outlets, including Netflix, Nielsen and Reelgood, the same few shows are found bobbing at the top of the pool of hundreds of new releases. Other highly touted series like The Irregulars were shown the guillotine mere weeks after their episodes dropped.

    The pandemic’s second year also saw the emergence of a kind of nostalgic hankering among viewers for at least one aspect of the old Pay TV experience: channel-surfing. Ad-supported services like PlutoTV, Tubi and Peacock saw viewership spikes driven by their throwback “live” channels format. Live channels, which are mostly 24/7 loops of themed programming with some live news, are arranged like a Cable TV program guide, so one can just "lean back" and click. It's proven so popular that PlutoTV's parent just announced a batch of lean-back channels for its premium service, Paramount+. People who bought Internet-connected Smart TVs in 2021 found that lean-back channels could be add side-by-side with regular TV channels, allowing them to enjoy a viewing experience from about 1975 — pointing a single clicker at a screen, no cables, no set-top boxes — the main difference being that the 2021 viewer enjoys exponentially greater variety and choice.

    With the torrent of revenue generated by all those streaming subscriptions, programming budgets have ballooned. Netflix will spend $20 billion in 2022. Disney will spend $33 billion on content companywide, but much of that will go to Disney+, Hulu and streamer ESPN+. Amazon will spend $12 billion on Prime Video and IMDb TV, its own emerging lean-back streamer. Streaming TV is poised to have its biggest year in 2022, at least on the supply side.

    On the demand side, the audience is still grappling with two big challenges. The first is economic: keeping their monthly streaming bills from rising to what they used to pay for cable or satellite. The second challenge is efficient: finding the shows they want to watch next without a lot of screen navigation and the growing sense that there’s simply too much good TV out there. And the problems are entwined: If people feel they're paying for a lot of shows they don't watch or can't find, they might switch to lean-back channels that cost nothing but the psychic toll sitting through ad breaks. Insofar as the future of TV was streaming, that has arrived. How expansive and ambitious and interesting Streaming TV winds up being, is what we'll continue finding out in 2022.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: 2021 In Review, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, Discovery+, HBO Max, Hulu, IMDb TV, Magnolia Network, Netflix, Paramount+, Peacock, Tubi, Chip Gaines, Joanna Gaines, ESPN+, Nielsen, Pluto TV, Roku, Streaming TV