We’ve been living in a golden age of entertainment for the last half-decade. With the growth of streaming services, we now have more TV and cinema in our homes than ever before. Keeping up with every new product from Netflix, HBO Max, Disney Plus, and others has been a joy — and sometimes a pain. But, in recent months, we’ve witnessed a shift in how many of these sites operate, and it’s evident that the excess of the content we’ve enjoyed for the low cost of a monthly subscription is going to come to an end. Some of us may experience the anguish of it more acutely than others.
It was a different environment before streaming changed the landscape of Hollywood. It may take years for writers to become showrunners, and the number of plum roles for a new star was limited. There was a lot of reality TV, especially on cable, but scripted television was limited to a few networks. The proprietors of those channels were in a fierce fight for your attention, creating prestige show after prestige show to capture it. There was a Golden Age of television from 1999, with the launch of The Sopranos, through the mid-2010s.
Then came the streaming battles, and it was a blast. It was yet another wonderful era. Netflix began pouring money into Hollywood in an attempt to amass a cache of enormous hits to compete with the likes of Disney, Warner Brothers, and MGM, which owned the majority of the biggest properties. While Netflix has struggled to develop large franchises outside of Stranger Things, Bridgerton, and The Witcher (all of which are based on very successful book series), it has been churning out a lot of content, effectively throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks.
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And it seemed like everyone else did as well. The opposing streamers all had their content strategy centred on things like Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and whatever cowboy shenanigans Taylor Sheridan gets up to, but they were also prepared to innovate in ways that were unusual before the streaming wars.
That experimentation was especially beneficial to marginalised groups. Because when TV and film distribution channels were confined to a few timeslots on cable and in cinemas, Hollywood was conservative — only investing in films and TV that would appeal to the broadest audience, which meant film and TV was highly male-oriented, very white, and very, very straight.
The streaming battles freed up more distribution channels, which meant more action series with female leads, comedies that didn’t require a white dude or a big-name comedian to anchor them, and dramas with a happy ending and a gay title character. We often like to gauge diversity in entertainment by “firsts,” and we’ve had more firsts in the last few years than in the previous dozen.
However, the extraordinary period in which there was so much scripted content available that Hollywood suffered a showrunner deficit is coming to an end. While the streaming wars aren’t over, there is a lull in the action, and streamers are all altering their strategies. They spent a lot of money on content in the hopes of gaining subscribers, but now that competition has increased, it’s no longer possible to merely push interesting shows into our throats with little programming plan beyond “sounds neat.”
Before streaming, it was rather usual for TV shows to be abruptly cancelled, with entire seasons shelved.
There were only so many slots on TV, and TV stations would rather air an old rerun than the final episode of a little-watched show if it meant they could sell more expensive commercials against that rerun.
There is infinite shelf space in the streaming world, which theoretically means that it doesn’t matter how many people view something that has already been commissioned and created as long as someone watches it. This is why a pre-Zaslav HBO Max had no qualms about showing suddenly ending shows like Swamp Thing and that ’90s Flash series.
The Writers Guild of America, Directors Guild of America, and Screen Actors Guild will all sign new contracts with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers in 2023, and streaming residuals will be a prominent topic of debate.
To keep up with the escalating costs of developing and maintaining content on these platforms (and, to be clear, I am all for compensating creators fairly for their work), streamers will want to sell their viewership against advertising, which is now available on every major streaming site.
That means that the next round of this streaming conflict will not be about securing your long-term subscription with extremely amazing programming aimed at smaller audiences. It will be about reaching as large an audience as possible to secure ad eyeballs. This means that the renaissance that has appealed to smaller sectors of the population will come to an end, and what remains will only become more expensive.
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