When You Can’t Afford to Subscribe to Everything
Consumers face tough choices in an era of abundant, quality pay-content.
When I was kid, I deeply envied my friends whose families had cable-television. Like many people my age (and older), I grew up in a house with a huge antenna on the roof that picked up the free-broadcast stuff. For the Dalys, this was a grand total of six channels: the big-three networks, two PBS channels, and a local Denver channel.
But unlike with many people my age, the situation didn’t change over the years. That antenna, and those six channels, were my family’s entire television menu until I went off to college.
It’s not as if we weren’t big television watchers. We very much were (as readers of my books could probably guess). My parents just happened to be (and still are) very frugal, so they — for many years — avoided media content that wasn’t free. They had a Denver Post subscription, and would buy a bargain-bin audio-cassette tape of old country songs on rare occasion, but that was about it.
So, while my friends were carrying on about all the cool stuff they were seeing on MTV, I was doing my best to brag up my Friday Night Videos chops. Those who had premium movie-channels — on top of their cable plans — were at a whole other level. Going into their houses felt like entering Buckingham Palace. HBO, Showtime, and the rest were for filthy rich folks, as far as I was concerned.
Times have changed. Pay-television is now baseline television. The notion of premium movie-channels as a status symbol is laughable. Likewise for all the video-streaming services out there.
I mean, no one hears that you have a Netflix subscription, and thinks to themself, “Wow, I wonder what kind of salary that guy’s pulling down?”
From a socioeconomic perspective, today’s streaming entertainment doesn’t feel all that different than renting cassettes and DVDs from Blockbuster years ago. For the average individual, it’s an affordable practice… as long as you don’t get carried away with it.
But it’s becoming easier and easier to get carried away. With the growing number of streaming channels, many of which are producing an extraordinary amount of high-quality content (that’s used to rationalize rising subscription costs), the average consumer is realizing that they simply can’t subscribe to everything they want.
Now, I fully recognize that this is a first-world problem. Deciding on which stream-services, if any, a household can afford isn’t exactly a consequential, life-changing decision. Just like being without cable-television until I was nearly 20 put me at no real social, intellectual, or behavioral disadvantage, no one’s life is going to be led astray by streaming-entertainment limitations.
The much more significant challenge lies with the streaming companies themselves. Because most consumers recognize that they have to be selective in which services they subscribe to, these organizations are under intense pressure to stand out among the others.
For a long time, Netflix stood alone on this mountain. Beyond offering immediate access to a huge library of movies and television shows, they conditioned subscribers on full, ad-free seasons of original television series — series that are dropped all at once for viewers to watch addictively or at their leisure. Netflix became so successful with it that lots of production and distribution companies followed suit. They adopted the model, producing their own original material, and securing exclusive streaming rights for shows, movies, and franchises that they — in some cases — already owned.
Now, in addition to Netflix, there’s Apple TV, Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, Paramount+, Peacock, and a long list of others. All have their unique pulls, but they’re also all suffering from an over-saturated streaming-video market.
Netflix, for example, still remains profitable, but it’s been losing subscribers for some time and its stock is about half the value of what it was a year ago.
Disney+ is gaining subscribers, but as the Los Angeles Times recently reported:
Disney’s direct-to-consumer division, which also includes Hulu and ESPN+, on Tuesday reported an operating loss of nearly $1.5 billion, more than doubling its loss of $630 million during the same quarter a year earlier.
Other streaming divisions are dealing with similar competitive growing pains, again because there’s only so much media that consumers are willing to pay for.
And it’s not just streaming. The news-media is struggling under comparable conditions. A few decades back, newspapers and news-magazines began sharing more and more of their content online… for free. It was rationalized through online advertising. The problem was that, with the popularity of the Internet, consumers grew accustomed to not paying for such content. So, paid print-subscriptions began to fade, and news organizations very much felt the pinch.
Over the years, these same organizations have tried to compensate for the losses through heavier online advertising, but a lot of advertisers have shied away from news sites, finding that social-media and search-engine advertising is much more effective. With the continuing decline in revenue, news orgs have shifted back to the paid-subscription model, now for their online content. Paywalls have become prominent, and it’s been a battle to ween news consumers back over to a paid-subscription mindset... especially in an environment when a lot of people’s appetite for quality-journalism has been replaced with a hunger for the empty partisan calories provided by 24/7 cable-news networks (that are already included with people’s basic-cable plans).
Contrary to popular opinion, there is a good selection of quality news-reporting and commentary out there. You just have to look for it, and most of it costs money. As with streaming-entertainment, it’s up to news consumers to pick and choose which of it, if any, they want to pay for.
It’s not an easy decision. Like many people, I grew accustomed to getting my news free, or virtually free as part of my cable offering. But these days, the “free” stuff, I’m sorry to say, is mostly garbage — often entertaining garbage, but garbage nonetheless. So, I pay certain online news organizations to receive content that I trust, find value in, and whose reporters and commentators I believe should be directly supported for their work. It’s a model I’ve adopted as a consumer, and have participated in as a part-time commentator myself. And, as with streaming-entertainment, there are more choices available all the time… which, again, makes the revenue model that much more difficult for news and commentary producers.
I’m not sure what the ultimate answer is for streaming-entertainment and quality news services (beyond putting out the best product they can), but for consumers, it ultimately comes down to prioritizing subscriptions by the ones that provide the most bang for the buck.
For me, in the arena of streaming-entertainment, library-size isn’t really a factor. If I want to watch any given feature film on-demand, odds are that I can get it, one way or another, through my cable provider. I’m more interested in original and exclusive content.
I think, as a whole, Apple TV may be leading the pack right now when it comes to quality programming; they’ve been putting out some great original series, including For All Mankind, Ted Lasso, Severance, Bad Sisters, and The Mosquito Coast. Netflix is still delivering too with some of streaming’s most addictive and engrossing shows in recent years, like Stranger Things, Squid Game, and Dahmer. And you certainly can’t discount Disney+, the place to go for anything Star Wars or Marvel related, including several very well-done original series.
As far as news-media subscriptions, my top one (as I’ve probably stated a few times in this newsletter) is The Dispatch. In my opinion, it’s the best overall news and news-commentary source on the web. And if I wasn’t already a contributor to the website, and didn’t get the content for free, I’d also subscribe to Bernard Goldberg’s Substack, since I’m always interested in his thoughts. I’ll throw out one more, fairly obscure but high-quality offering. I follow a very sharp and research-driven media-critic on Twitter, who goes by the handle, AGHamilton29. He puts out a weekly report on Patreon, where he does a fantastic, even-handed job of holding people in the news media accountable for spreading misinformation, and in some cases outright falsehoods; it’s always a good read.
Again, what’s great in all of this, for consumers, is just how many choices we have. Deciding between them is the hard part (which is a good problem to have). My only concern is how sustainable the model is from a business perspective.
Hopefully, the market will figure it out.
Which streaming services and news organizations (or individuals) do you subscribe to? Let me know in an email, or in the comment section below.
Obligatory Dog Shot
That can’t be comfortable.
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I’ve written a bit before about my fondness for the 2007 horror flick, 30 Days of Night. Though the film is far from perfect, it offered a smart and unique take on the vampire genre, and featured perhaps the most brutal and sadistic demons of the night I’ve ever seen in cinema.
Perhaps an underrated element of the film is its eerie and sometimes heart-pumping original score by Brian Reitzell, which I’m not sure I would have ever sought out, nor even imagined it was on vinyl, had I not come across a used copy at a record store on my trip to Miami last month. Maybe it was calling to me with its hypnotic-vampire-eyes.
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