Saturday 17 August 2019

Pat Stacey: Golden age of streaming is over - as market splinters we'll be paying more for less choice

Friends is one of the series disappearing from Netflix in 2020 as WarnerMedia and other companies launch their own subscription streaming platforms
Friends is one of the series disappearing from Netflix in 2020 as WarnerMedia and other companies launch their own subscription streaming platforms
Friends

Pat Stacey

Remember when we had only five television channels to choose from, RTE 1 and 2, BBC1 and 2, and, depending on which part of the country you were living in, UTV or HTV?

When Channel 4 came along in 1982 and rounded it up to an even six, we thought we had it made. Six channels! We believed we’d ascended to television heaven.

This was particular true of those of us who’d grown up during the bad old aerial-on-the-roof days, when there were just three channels, RTE, BBC1 and UTV/HTV, and the static interference affecting the picture was so bad, it was like peering through a snowstorm some nights.

Still, watching it snow was probably more fun than what the poor sods living in the rural wilderness were stuck with. All they had was RTE to entertain them. No wonder rural families tended to be larger than urban ones. There wasn’t a whole lot on the telly.

But just look at us now. We’re spoiled for choice. Hundreds of satellite channels, many of them offering catch-up facilities, plus streaming services and good old YouTube, which offers loads of old TV shows and films. That’s thousands of hours of television at our fingertips, with more being added every week.

It’s no longer just a case of being able to watch whatever TV you want at home when you want. Now, you can download it to your phone or tablet as well, and carry it with you wherever you go. And it still costs, in the grand scheme of things, comparatively little.

If you’re unscrupulous, don’t want to pay a monthly subscription and couldn’t care less about breaking the law, you can get away with stealing a certain amount of TV through illegal downloading.

Aren’t we lucky? But luck always runs out sooner or later, and in this case, it looks like it’s going to be sooner.

Up to now, Netflix has had things, if not quite all its own way (there’s Amazon Prime, don’t forget), then at least relatively cushy. It’s still the most popular streaming service in the world.

Everybody wants Netflix because Netflix has something for everybody. As well as its original output, including the series that’s wiping the floor with everything else this month, Stranger Things, it has a vast library of material from numerous broadcasters.

The sheer range of stuff on offer, old and newish, is one of the reasons why people take out Netflix subscriptions. Apparently, the most-watched show on Netflix in the US is not one of its originals, but the American version of The Office.

That was produced by NBC. And here’s the bogey: NBC wants it back, so it can show it on its new NBCUniversal streaming platform. Come 2021, The Office will disappear from Netflix. So, in time, will other NBC favourites.

And so will a lot of other shows made by other companies, who are also getting in on the streaming act.

Disney launches its streaming platform Disney+ in November and will be pulling its content off Netflix. “So what,” you might think, “I can live without Disney.”

Read more: More than Marvel - here's what's coming to Disney's new streaming service Disney +

Perhaps you can, but Disney also owns ABC, Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox. When everything made under those banners eventually migrates to Disney+, it’s going to take a huge bite out of Netflix.

WarnerMedia has a streaming platform in the works, so you can kiss goodbye to seeing the likes of Friends, the Harry Potter films and anything from the DC stable on Netflix from next year on. WarnerMedia also owns HBO.

Apple is launching its own streaming platform and has already signed up big names like Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey for big money to make original content. YouTube and Facebook are following suit. Even the BBC and ITV are pooling their archives into a new streaming platform called Britbox.

All of these will cost a monthly subscription. Streaming is set to become very fragmented, and very, very expensive too.

Read more: Can Apple change the face of screening?

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