As more consumers cut the cord and more players get into the streaming game, the entertainment world has divided into ever-smaller niches.
But conglomerates don’t want niches; they want mega-properties with hundreds of millions of subscribers. They should be careful about rebundling, though. We live in an age when identity is intimately tied to cultural consumption. Trying to be everything to all people is a risky strategy in a world that already has Netflix.
The recent history of television looks something like this: Tired of three networks, consumers flocked to cable companies, which bundled together dozens, then hundreds of channels. Between the increasing cost of high-speed internet and the proliferation of streaming subscriptions – Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max, Apple TV Plus, the Criterion Channel, YouTube, Shudder, Paramount Plus, Peacock et al – costs haven’t really gone down all that much. People wind up paying a little less, maybe, but at the cost of having radically fewer choices. What’s interesting about this is how little most folk really seem to mind the trade-off.
Only part of this is economic. A much bigger part has to do with self-conception and identity – people simply don’t want to associate, even tangentially, with channels or products they don’t like.
We’ve seen this for years, on the left and on the right. It was at least part of the argument made both by conservative-minded parents’ groups frustrated by the proliferation of boundary-pushing channels such as FX and by progressives angry at Fox News’s dominance in the cable news ecosystem.
The phenomenon isn’t limited to entertainment, of course. Only last week, The Washington Post reported on Cracker Barrel customers who were angry that plant-based Impossible sausage had been added to the menu.
It’s important to note that the pork sausage Southerners have enjoyed for generations hadn’t been removed from the menu. Customers were merely angry that they had to associate, however indirectly, with something enjoyed by their out-group.
This is at least one reason Warner Bros. Discovery may be making a mistake when it considers plans to merge HBO Max and Discovery Plus into a single streaming service.
Most HBO Max subscribers probably don’t see themselves as “Discovery people”, nor vice versa. After all, HBO remains best represented by the tagline “It’s not TV, it’s HBO”. Discovery Plus, meanwhile, is the absolute lowest common denominator of TV.
In an age of niche entertainment and supreme customisation, people get almost angry when something they don’t want or don’t identify with is forced on them. Think back to the debacle that was U2’s Songs of Innocence, a terrible misstep by Apple and the band that involved putting the album – for free but without warning – on to every iTunes account.
Most customers weren’t happy about getting a gratis surprise. Rather, they saw it as a violation of the sanctity of their music library.
In an age of nichedom, even a gift from the biggest band (or brand) can be an unwelcome intrusion.