Sometimes people will clamor for the good old days. Reminiscing about how great and simple things were years ago, soaking in all the possible nostalgia. It reminds me of a term that was used in the TV show How I Met Your Mother: Graduation Goggles. In the show, the term is used to describe a bad relationship that is about to end. As the end draws near, a seed of doubt enters the mind and thoughts of the good times persist. The analogy to graduating is that of graduating from high school. Where in the time of graduation, knowing the prospect of likely never seeing most of the classmates around you again, you as a human being get sentimental. And then say how much you will miss these days, when in actuality they were awkward years that were filled with anxiety, bullying, and a warped social popularity hierarchy. It is only fitting that a sitcom that did well in the traditional and binge TV era can make such a great analogy into the state of how we watch TV today.
It would appear that we are now reminiscing over how cable TV used to be before every single network known to man had their own subscription service, with their own app on every single platform that delivers content to our screens. I remember a not too distant past in which people would complain about their Comcast or satellite bills being too high and coming up with a conclusion. More than half the channels that the cable provider offered on the base package that has gone up and up over the years are channels that go unwatched. The solution to this was a simple one: what if we as consumers only paid for the channels that we wanted? At the time this was something that was so radical. Fast forward to today, and this is the future that we live in. Every single channel that was on cable a few years ago, is now available with a streaming service that can be accessed with a monthly subscription. Yet it would appear that the future we have asked for is not the future that we actually like. To the point where I have seen some people yearn for the ways of the “good old days”.
So what happened? What happened to the dream of cord cutting? Is this not what we all wanted? That is a multi-layered situation that requires some deeper thought. Like all solutions gone wrong, there was a problem that caused this phenomenon to occur. And that problem was the greed of the traditional cable companies. As time went on, customers seemed to want more and more content. Cable companies saw this, and capitalized on this by offering deceiving long term contracts for cable subscriptions with all kinds of fees and hidden charges that made no one happy. This is where the frustration of unused channels came from. Many people looked at their $100 a month cable bill and thought that they really only watched 5 channels and how nice it would be to pay for them individually.
As the Millennial generation started to get older and enter the workforce back in 2007, the idea of these legacy cable packages started to get stale. A new idea was eventually born. Why not just have the internet and watch Netflix all the time? The idea was simple enough, the internet was booming and that allowed for news to be delivered through websites as opposed to cable shows with a bunch of commercials. Most of everyone’s favorite shows were on Netflix at the time. It was a perfect concept. And this concept caught on like wildfire. I remember as I was in my 20’s, seeing more and more people go this route and forego the traditional cable TV trappings. When this started to happen, more people were only getting internet from their service providers. While this hurt the Xfinity’s of the world, it really hurt the channels that were on cable. They were hemorrhaging customers left and right with more and more of this younger generation going towards the Netflix route. So what did they do? Join the party and make their own streaming services.
This is where the market became flooded with options. Seeing the opportunity to reach the younger generations, every network that made exclusive content has now come out with a streaming service. And if that wasn’t enough there are now streaming live TV options as well. It has created a bit of an overload in terms of options for people just looking for a simple TV solution. There is a paradox. We crave simplicity in all of this, yet at the same time have a fear of missing out when a show is trending on Twitter and it has to be watched so that we’re in the loop.
Looking at the sheer onslaught of “must have” services it can be understood why going the old route would be appealing to some people. There are staples like Netflix and Hulu. But if there is a great new HBO show, well you have to have HBO Now for that. Same goes for Showtime. ESPN+ for sports fans is a must. Disney+ is a must for fans of classic Disney, Marvel, or Star Wars which is basically everyone at this point. Then there are the singular channel subscriptions such as CBS All Access, FX, etc. The a la carte concept of $5 here and $5 there has really added up. It is this avalanche of options that has really shown how networks and cable companies really don’t understand the purpose of cord cutting.
The benefit of these apps is that there are no real long term contracts of any sort, pick up and drop services whenever it is convenient. But where these companies really miss the mark is the reason why people cut the cord in the first place. Many buy into the false idea that it was strictly a money saving tactic. While that was a factor, it was not the only factor. The real factor is choice. The appeal of Netflix was that it had a mix of a little bit of original content with a lot of shows and movies that people wanted to watch. It did not have absolutely everything that we wanted to watch, but it had enough. And that was the key really, just enough good content to keep everyone satisfied.
There has always been an issue with the cord cutter strategy however. Two categories have always eluded the category that kept live TV afloat all these years. Those two categories are live sports and politics (especially around election season). These are staples of Americana that we cannot seem to let go of. The answer has been twofold from content providers. The introduction of streaming live TV services (such as Sling and YouTube TV) and dedicated streaming services for the channels that provide this content (like ESPN+). The need for this has deluded many companies into thinking that the consumer wants more content.
As a result of this misconception, there have been exclusives placed on shows from a particular network. The appeal of just one show is not enough to sway a long term subscription unfortunately, and as a result a lot of these services never really take off the way that shareholders hope that they will. Not every show has the magnitude of a Game of Thrones to dedicate millions of viewers to an app solely for that show. So as a result, these standalone apps are existing on the strength of having tie ins to live cable services whether those are traditional or streaming. As a result, yet again the average consumer has had to adapt.
The newest form of adaptation has been through the phenomenon of password sharing. It has been memed into oblivion, but everyone is using someone’s password for something. This of course is not what the streaming services want, as it limits the pull of revenue coming for this newfound stream of income. Through this never ending tug of war between content providers and content consumers, a divide that has been created.
Companies such as Netflix and Hulu, which were once unique in the way that they delivered content to differentiate themselves have now become cogs in the wheel. In many aspects, it goes back to HBO envy. What had begun as services that were something of an archive for the shows and movies of yesteryear, have now become internet versions of premium cable networks. The reason for this is quite clearly the fact that just having the archives doesn’t accrue new subscribers. What interests new potential customers is original content. Shows like Orange is the New Black, Narcos, and the Handmaid’s Tale keep the current subscribers interested in remaining with the service while at the same time keeping the flow of new customers coming in.
There is an unintended consequence of this change and that consequence is the loss of the older content that brought people on to the service to begin with. To put it simply, companies like Netflix and Hulu can only maintain a certain amount of content at a given time. That is the ultimate dilemma where the goal is the continued growth of the subscriber base, yet by removing what made them popular a large portion of the original base is alienated. Consider the public outcry whenever a show like Friends or The Office is announced to be released from a streaming service, there is nothing but complaints and threats of losing subscribers.
In many ways these companies find themselves in between a rock and a hard place so to speak. This is because they operate in a space that requires so much diversity and options yet customers have continued to demand an all in one solution. It is a fool’s errand to ever expect a company to fulfill these unrealistic expectations. The shift in strategy from these streaming services is indicative of the folly of appeasing such a wide audience of people. The criticism will always be there, as there will always be a subset of people that are not satisfied.
In the end, these companies are experiencing the turnaround in preferences from the populous. There is always a resurgence in a trend after a certain amount of time. We as a collective society have gone through the emotions of the traditional cable system. As we progressed onto something new, we have put on our Graduation Goggles. And now the old way seems simpler and representative of when TV was more exciting with appointment based watching. As a result, the content deliverers are stuck in the middle trying to balance profitability with nostalgia. The realization that we all must come to in this regard is that the viewing public doesn’t really know what it wants, especially when it claims to know what it wants. Happy viewing, who knows how we watch will look like in 5 years.