Disney, until a few days ago, seemed to love Netflix. Now, the mouse has declared war, announcing its own streaming service and a streaming service for ESPN to boot. TV fans are left wondering what this means for their favorite shows, their favorite networks, and, of course, their wallets. The short answer is TV’s about to get much more crowded, possibly more expensive, and ironically harder to watch.
First, expect every last channel you’ve shown even a slight interest in to try and get you to sign up for a streaming service. Disney is late to the party, in that sense. NBC launched the comedy focus Seeso, anime fans have Crunchyroll, and CBS is trying to get an audience for its CBS All Access service with Star Trek Discovery and The Good Wife‘s spin-off The Good Fight. More services are on the horizon, and it’s likely this land grab is nowhere near done.
The good news is that if you decide to dump cable and just pick a handful of streaming services, you’ll probably save money. True, replicating your cable package in individual streaming services would be ungodly expensive, but most of us don’t want to do that in the first place. In 2014, Nielsen found that the average American household got a staggering 189 channels, but that the number of channels people actually watched was just 17.
That said, as streaming services rise and fall, we’re going to have to chase our favorite shows around the digital dial. Sony’s Crackle, for example, had one show that caught attention: Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. They lost it to Netflix. Yahoo! paid for a sixth season of Community; when its streaming service went under, that season hopped to Hulu. Older shows are even worse: Futurama‘s new seasons are on Netflix, but the rest is at Hulu.
In turn, this will lead to Peak TV just getting, well, peakier (or the supply will continue to peak, production values will likely suffer). Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have absolutely no intention of letting a bunch of upstarts eat their lunch, and they’re already fairly well situated; they win Oscars, they deliver buzzy shows everyone talks about, and they have deep libraries. So, as they spend for more TV, the upstarts will in turn spend even more on their shows, and as more arrive with other shows, there’s just going to be more and more TV to watch.
Unfortunately, in the battle for eyeballs and precious subscriber dollars, your favorite show may still get screwed. Community is an excellent case in point. After five years of being beloved on NBC, the show got a sixth season on Yahoo!’s streaming service. Surely this was a coup for Yahoo!, as it got the internet’s favorite show. But the enthusiasm for Community promptly collapsed; people were still watching, they just stopped caring.
In the end, that might be the most fundamental change: You might be one of the few fans in your circle of your favorite show or even service. TV has, for most of its history, been a culturally uniting force. Millions of Americans sat down and tuned into the same shows. Everybody really was talking about Friends or Seinfeld, because there were so few options back then. As we’ve gotten more choice, and as more streaming services appear to cater to narrower tastes, we’re splitting into tinier and tinier audiences. So, perhaps the biggest change you should expect as a TV fan is that you will likely get a show that feels like it was made just for you. Unless that show is very mainstream or very cheap to make, treasure it while it lasts — TV has never been an easy industry, and the looming streaming wars promise to make it much harder for shows to survive.