How Much Is Too Much? The Coming Avalanche in Streaming Entertainment

I’m not sure any of us are prepared for the implications of new entrants Peacock, HBO Max and Quibi

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Sharon Waxman

Sharon Waxman On the Business of Entertainment

The founder and editor of TheWrap’s take on life on the left coast, high culture, low culture and the business of entertainment and media. Waxman writes frequently on the inside doings of Hollywood, and is is also the author of two books, Rebels on the Back Lot and Loot

Brace yourself. What’s coming in the next three to six months is nothing less than all-out war between three new streaming services — Peacock, HBO Max and Quibi — in an entertainment landscape that already has three major players in Netflix, Disney+ and Hulu and more minor players in Amazon, Apple, Starz and CBS All Access. I’m not sure any of us are prepared for the implications of this. The rise of standalone services that silo entertainment into separate, paid ecosystems — where users will have to hunt and peck to find their favorite shows, as well as figure out what new show is worth watching and where — is going to be a doozy. The services haven’t launched yet and already I’m exhausted from reading the flood of new projects being greenlit to feed all these platforms. How many of them will be great? Discrete streaming services that aim to satisfy the full spectrum of entertainment desires of their customers is an impossible task, but one suggested by the broad mandate each has adopted. They are aiming for mass entertainment and need tens of millions of subscribers (at least) to succeed. But the approach is a sharp departure from the one represented by cable for three decades: an all-you-can-eat entertainment menu in one location for a single price. You want a little more? You can pay extra for HBO or Showtime. Now comes technology that was supposed to make all of this passe and way better for consumers — who just want to watch what they want, when they want, on whatever device they want. They need every episode of “Friends” available at all times. They want every “Star Wars” on hand, and every version of “The Lord of the Rings” — including any spin-off animated series. But I’m not sure that’s where we’re headed. (Did you know that “Star Wars” — all except the most recent series — is on Starz and Disney+? I didn’t.) The direct-to-consumer battle changes the streaming landscape significantly, making things even more complicated for the average TV junkie (at least in the short term). Users will have to decide how many streaming services they want to pay for and constantly weigh where they want to invest their time and money. “Friends”  has disappeared off of Netflix, where has it gone? (HBO Max.) Do I really need to pay for CBS All Access to watch the new “Star Trek”? Even the industry’s most critical thinker, FX chief John Landgraf, found himself in an awkward position last week trying to explain the network’s plan to stream on Hulu: “We decided we had to put all the FX linear shows on Hulu, so they were all in one place,” he told TheWrap’s Tim Baysinger. “There’s two shows we can’t do that with, which are ‘Pose’ and ‘American Crime Story.’ But other than that, everything is together.” That’s not confusing at all to fans of “Pose” and “American Crime Story.”
John Landgraf
Landgraf conceded: “I didn’t want this bifurcated experience.” As the streaming companies gather data on consumer habits, technology is likely to limit what people are served up as options. If you watch a lot of true crime, you probably won’t get suggestions for rom-coms. Or animated shorts. Even if you like all of the above. And then there’s the question of whether the overall quality of entertainment will decline based on the engorged pipeline of content. Personally, I’m expecting a lot of mediocrity. The coming cataclysm of streaming recalls the explosive rise of the cable network universe 30 years ago, raised to the nth degree. Over the course of a decade, we went from having basic cable channels to an ecosystem that metastasized into hundreds of cable channels, many of which no one watched. We all paid monthly fees to the cable distribution systems — TimeWarner Cable, Comcast and others — to support about 200 channels, even as we actually watched, according to annual research, no more than 17 of them. Streaming threatens to repeat that experience — but with exponentially more content (and more companies billing us for it). “Probably they won’t all work,” Landgraf the Wise said of the coming onslaught of streaming competitors. “Probably some of them will. I think it’s going to be an overwhelming amount of content for the consumer. I think it’s arguably more content than the consumer needs. You could produce more content than the consumer needs for quite a long period of time. But eventually, there will be some rationalization between what the consumer can actually watch and consume and what’s being made.” But that, dear friends, may take a while.