Brendan Whitt


Blought #37 Cable's Deathbead II: The Streaming Wars

A few years ago I retraced the history of my love of television in Blought #27 Cable’s Deathbed. I talked about my recollection of growing up with cable and how the industry was quickly changing. Now the time has arrived. Cable has somehow survived but in a turn of events I’m sure not many expected.

If you ask the majority of people born after 1980 how they primarily watch television, I’m sure that most if not all will name at least one streaming service. In fact, I wouldn’t even stop at most. It’s pretty much closer to ALL of us watch television through streaming. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of millennials who do subscribe to cable. On the reverse I’m also pretty sure that there are plenty of Gen Xr’s who stream as well as baby boomers. EVERYONE streams television and movies through one service or another. Either they have Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Sling or they simply mooch off of someone else’s account.

I can remember when digital cable became a big thing. It felt like the floodgates had been opened. There was a channel for everyone and everything. ESPN 3 was a regular channel, we had multiple Nickelodeon’s, LOGO broke ground for the LGBT community, we even had quite a few MTV’s. MTV Jams was the 24-hour hip-hop channel. I dare you to find me a Black kid in the hood who didn’t time when the Jam of the Week would come on. I double dare you nigga!

It wasn’t long until TiVo introduced us to DVR. Then right after that was On-Demand, the true predecessor to streaming. That was how I watched new episodes of The Wire. The only cable boxes in the house were in the living room and in my mom’s room. Since she was always in the living room and I wasn’t bold enough to sneak in her room before she went to bed, I just waited until the next day when the new episode would be “on-demand” and then I could watch it. Sounds familiar? It’s also how I would catch up on a new show that I discovered before binging was a buzzword.

Not too long after we had the prehistoric version of Netflix. They started off as the mail-order Blockbuster. That’s how I watched that old 80’s movie Lover Boy starring Patrick Dempsey. My mom would get a few DVD’s in the mail, watch them, then send them back. Netflix was fresh. It felt revolutionary. I remember when 50 Cent’s legendary Cribs episode premiered. It took up the full half-hour. You remember that episode. It was Mike Tyson’s old Connecticut mansion with like 1,000 bedrooms and 973 bathrooms. It was basically the G-Unit compound.

When he got to his home theater it was insane. He had this futuristic looking touch screen remote that controlled everything from the lights to the curtain that concealed the screen. On that ungodly large screen was what seemed like an endless array of movies and TV shows. If felt like he was scrolling the entire catalogue of the world’s movies made up to that point. That’s what Netflix had become by c. 2011.

Soon after we had Hulu. Hulu was different from Netflix. Netflix felt like OnDemand on steroids. Hulu felt like regular TV. The first time I stumbled onto Hulu was in c.2007. By this time YouTube was already the big dog in online content. Channels like Comedy Central and MTV would stream videos and clips of shows on their websites but they would lag a lot and the quality would pixelate or freeze.

This was a time where online content wasn’t new but we didn’t understand how far things would go. Most people still didn’t own smart phones and there was still the rare occasion someone would have dial up. Social media wasn’t even that big of a phenomenon yet Facebook had just expanded into allowing regular people to use their platform, not just Ivy leaguers. MySpace had completely flat lined meaning that we still didn’t think social media would become as integral in our daily lives as it is.

It was rough. YouTube had videos that didn’t struggle to stream. We watched Chocolate Rain, a fat kid pretending to be a Jedi, and a baby panda sneeze billions of times. Beside watching Vevo and PSA’s anointing Jay-Z the king of the Illuminati, YouTube got kind of dry real quick. Hulu was going to be a problem.

Hulu introduced me to Modern Family. I was an undergrad at Cleveland State in 2009 when I was in the Schwartz library waiting for class to start because I got to campus really early. I was messing around on Hulu which I mostly used to watch movie trailers like Avatar. That’s when I stumbled on Modern Family. I had never heard of the show because I never watched network TV outside of sports up until a few years ago. Amazon’s prehistoric beginnings coupled with Hulu’s emergence was priming Amazon for their big come uppance. The company that killed the bookstore and probably the American mall was beginning to be a place to watch and stream content.

When Netflix first came about I think they were underestimated. Reed Hastings and his brainchild really disrupted the entire film and television industry almost over night. Hell, Speilberg even tried to get Netflix movies banned from Oscar contention this year. The model was to basically lease old TV shows and movies that their owners weren’t too concerned about. They had made their money off of those properties and then it was off to the next project. Netflix would upload these properties to their library then charge people to watch them for what seemed like forever.

Hulu was the first actor in pushing back against the growing threat. Hulu was the result of ABC, NBC, and FOX joining together to stream all of their collective properties on one service. It was the same thing Netflix was slowly building up to except that the content was more recent.

Instead of watching three old seasons of the same show we could watch the most recent episodes of a show as well as the older episodes (depending on the show). Amazon was essentially the same thing. You could stream a bunch of movies and shows that they owned or leased the rights to. They just always lagged a bit behind. At this point streaming had established itself as the new way to watch TV and movies. Then something happened in the corner offices throughout New York and Los Angeles. Cable companies started to realize that millions of people were dropping their cable subscriptions.

Cable prices were getting out of hand, bills were shooting up well into the hundreds and the quality of shows were beginning to decline. The chord cutting revolution had begun. We mellenials were either establishing ourselves as adults or just striking out on our own into the adult world. We knew cable was expensive and we also knew about our endless streaming options including YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu. Things got even better when the Roku was introduced as well as Apple TV. Now we didn’t have to watch everything on our laptops and phones. You could plug the device of your choice into your tv like a cable box and stream whatever you had access to. Suddenly everyone had an app for your Roku or Apple tv and eventually the Amazon Firestick. It wasn’t long until Sling came into play. Now you could watch live cable without paying cable prices. This was when the cable juggernauts got nervous. Comcast, CBS Corporation, Viacom, Turner Media and Warner Media among others huddled up in their respective war rooms to devise plans to keep from going extinct.

In business when a company moves in on your turf you have a few options. You can curl up and fold like a little bitch, you can be bullheaded and fight it out, or you can buy them up. That’s where we are now. AT&T having just bought out DirectTV acquired Warner Media and Turner Media companies. AT&T has the best chance of winning what we are now experiencing, “The Streamng Wars”. They’re one of the founders of modern American communications and connectivity. They built many of the literal lines of communication that the country uses. Now they control everything from HBO to Viacom’s properties (MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Turner Sports, etc.) They have the easiest path to distributing their content seeing as how they’re basically built on communications infrastructure.

Disney has pretty much become Tetsuo in Akira. They have absorbed just about every important, valuable, and most recognizable entities in American media. From Marvel to Lucas Film, from the Simpsons to Family Guy, they own a lot. They also control 2/3 of Hulu as well as ESPN. Not to mention the lengthy catalogue of princesses and original movies that Disney already had. Waiting in the wings we have NBC Universal who bought Comcast. Revolution usually leads to War. Our Chord Cutting Revolution has lead us into an all out war with billions of dollars and consumers on the line.

As of right now Disney looks like it has claimed pole position. They own in my opinion the most valuable properties and those mouse ears are as recognizable as the golden arches and the swoosh. AT&T is just as dangerous as they look to be the most technogically focused corporation and service given their history with communications. Comcast Universal lags behind seeing as how they didn’t have any strategies out side of owning The Office. Amazon has become an awards season juggernaut competing with HBO and other premier networks.

In a funny turn of events Netflix seems to be the first sinking ship. With most of their leased content leaving for good they now have to find a way how to truly be a content creation company versus just a disruptor. Guerilla fighters can only do so much before the technology and resources of a more advanced army tips the scale of victory. Netflix is on the verge of succumbing to the same fate that they bestowed upon Blockbuster. The same fate that they ushered in when they began to gain the upper hand on traditional media companies. They could be the first casualty of the war.