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Sound and Vision: Video streaming is changing, and it might not be for the better

OPINION: I’ve written a lot about video streaming services this past year, which shows how much it’s become a fixture in people’s lives. But recent developments suggest we might have hit the ceiling in terms of how good it’s going to get.

There are a few reasons, but what initially sparked this column were the changes happening with HBO Max as it pulled content off the service. It’s not rare for a streaming service to remove content due to the licensing agreements coming to an end, but this felt a very different scenario.

This was Warner Bros. Discovery removing content from its own service, and the reason that’s emerged is cost-saving to avoid paying residuals. David Zaslav is no stranger to taking drastic decisions as he did with Batgirl, but this is not just disappointing for people who enjoyed these shows/films, but a finger in the eye of creatives who worked on them and are now, presumably, no longer in line to receive remuneration. The WGA trade union’s contract with Hollywood studios expires in May 2023, and you can bet streaming is going to dominate the bargaining discussions.

HBO Max logo

The other issue is that streaming services don’t seem to be in the most robust health financially. I’ve held the suspicion that the starting price of video services couldn’t be sustained in the long term – everything eventually goes up, it’s just a case of how much. In reality, I’d have thought studios would prefer to charge more – upwards of $30 / £30 a month for access, similar to what Sky charges or what basic cable costs in the U.S – but how many people would be expected to charge if that was the cost?

Disney lost a reported $3bn across Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu in their last financial report. Apple doesn’t release figures, but the reason given for a recent price rise was that it needed more money to fund future content. Prime Video has always been a loss leader, and Netflix’s 2022 painted a picture of a company scrambling to find more money, whether it’s through price hikes (again) or its own ad-funded tier. Unless more subscribers are being added there’s not much room for growth.

And I’ve felt streaming platforms haven’t helped themselves by not releasing content in the cinema or giving them longer stays. I reckon budget/mid-range titles like Prey would have done good business with a cinema release, particularly at a time when there wasn’t much to see in the cinemas.

I understand why they wouldn’t from a business perspective, but the money gained from a cinema release is additional money to boost the coffers, and might give it a further boost in terms of attention when it eventually lands on the service.

There’s also just an odd relationship between streaming and cinema where people would now just wait for it to arrive on a streaming service instead of watching in the cinema, and that seems to be leading to diminished box office returns, the arena where studios can actually make a return on their investment. It feels as if studios have ended up disrupting themselves.

Content feels much more ephemeral than it before, engaging for a period before disappearing and being replaced by a new wave of content. There has been great stuff – Andor and Severance are two of my favourites this year– but I find the constant churn wearying. There’s so much available but nowhere near enough time to watch them.

And now the UK Government has decided that password streaming is potentially a criminal offence, which seems an inflated reaction and an about-turn from streaming services that were happy to share the love and spread the word to other people.

The landscape of video streaming is changing, but perhaps there should be a moment of pause to see what it’s turning into. Services are trying to squeeze as much as they can from their customers and pricing plans, but they may just find that people don’t think they’re worth the fuss and rising cost.

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