Is Disney+ really worth it?
I very vividly remember the day when everybody started talking about Stranger Things. Its high-fidelity homage to eighties sci-fi and horror made it something, ironically, entirely new, and it was all anybody was talking about. Netflix had hits before, but previous successes such as Orange is the New Black and House of Cards failed to achieve that level of universal appreciation. The tone of the conversation around Netflix changed that day, with them moving in the public perception from content providers to content creators. Everyone was eager to see what they’d do next.
Ever since, I think, people have been paying much closer attention to streaming-exclusive television, and by extension streaming itself. Maybe that’s why it’s become such a talking point in years since that streaming is killing the more traditional cable industry. It is certainly true that as of 2017 in the United States, Netflix has more subscribers than the largest cable providers. Bruce Woolley wrote that “Video Killed the Radio Star”, and many are beginning to wonder whether streaming will do to sit-down television what video did to radio. If such a thing is in the future, a closer look at the facts may reveal why.
There are 365 days in a year, or 8,760 hours of content to fill. CableTV.com, in their guide to basic cable packages, lists Optimum Broadcast Basic first on their list of the best cable packages, so let’s assume it represents a fair standard. Its channel count is listed as 45+; assuming an even 50, that means it offers 438,000 hours of content per year. Of course, about a fourth of that will be commercials – at least, that was the average in 2014, but I don’t expect that it’s gone down – so the actual content offered will be closer to 328,500 hours. This value is achieved for $24.99 per month, or $299.88 per year. Comparing to their would-be killers, Netflix does not disclose the exact statistics of what they carry, but a 2015 estimate states that the company carries only 34,739 hours of content, barely over a tenth of what you’d get from a television station, and their catalogue has only shrunk since then. Their $8.99 per-month minimum cost doesn’t quite account for such a disparity. Streaming services seem to be worming their way into the position of broadcast television with far less to offer. What’s different, then, must be in what they’re offering and how it’s being offered.
To speak to the first, I don’t think I need to spend much time discussing how streaming offers a more convenient platform for watching. The vast majority of a cable station’s content is going to be unavailable to you, due to conflicting schedules if nothing else. Yes, modern televisions have been letting you record stuff for decades now, but you can’t record everything, you can’t notice everything, and there’s no guarantee that something that passes you by will ever be on again. More importantly, such recording services serve as just another thing you’re going to have to figure out and fiddle with, and who has time for that these days? Everyone’s too busy to bother with it.
And as for content, for a number of reasons streaming services have been a vacuum for truly quality content. There was a time when Stranger Things was an exception, but these days it’s hard to find a show with that kind of universal appeal which isn’t found on at least one streaming service, even if it does have some presence on traditional channels. One reason for this is that streaming, where it is possible to watch something sequentially in its entirety, rather than waiting for weeks for an entire season to come out, is a far more convenient way of experiencing serialized media. Another is that a streaming service can be considerably less risky than an appearance on a conventional television station, because the value of a show on a streaming service does not decrease. A show, once it’s finished on a network, will do little to bring in further eyes without taking up valuable space that could be used for other shows. The same is not true of streaming shows, where, as syndication is not a concern, one does not have to take precedence over another. It’s the only reason stuff like continuations to twenty-year-old cartoons and puppet-starring passion projects can exist at all.
It’s not hard at all to see why people are moving to streaming. The content transitioned first, and it moved to a place that’s easier to access, especially for those who can’t afford expensive TVs. It would be a mistake, I think, to call this a victory or a defeat on anyone’s part. The question on everybody’s lips is whether or not streaming will not only defeat cable, but replace it. Netflix only acquired a library as large as it did because nobody expected streaming to take off so explosively. A single streaming service for all your needs was never in the cards in the long-term; something like cable was always going to reemerge. All that this is is a change. A change that better matches the busy lifestyle of the modern day, and provides a better platform for certain kinds of content. So while you should celebrate the creators that have found new success in this change, you should not assume that the industry as a whole has now become your friend. The structure behind the content, the same one that was behind the cable industry, has not changed at all.
Peter Tkaczyk is a third-year Writing major who hasn’t seen High School Musical: the Musical: the Series. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art by Contributing Artist, Julia Young.