Crossing the Streams: Tracking the future on your tv…

The Disney+ train pulls in this week, but in a busy marketplace, could 2020 see stations leaving the platforms?

Some people will remember the ‘good old days’ when you could count the number of available channels to watch on one hand. Over the last several decades that number has significantly increased and though the main networks continue to exist, it’s probably no longer true to say they dominate the ratings. In the US most customers have CBS, ABC, NBCFOX and the CW as their main primetime defaults, with the UK having the BBC1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 available for all. But ask the audience about their viewing habits and in an age of wide-screen, smart tvs, internet, wireless and VOD (video-on-demand) – not to mention old-fashioned DVDs and downloadable content –  it’s more than likely they also subscribe to something beyond the very basics.


But the sheer breadth of choice available now or in the immediate future could be problematic in itself. It’s relatively easy to pick one add-on to your viewing pleasure, but there will likely be something on another platform that you’ll miss. Though different international territories do separate deals (for instance Star Trek: Discovery is on CBS All Access in the US and on Netflix in all other regions,Watchmen is on HBO – or Sky Atlantic in the UK) you won’t get, say, Lucifer anywhere other than Netflix. Once you spend between $5.99 and $15.99 on one service, do you really want to pick up another service for just a handful of shows? How many people do you know who have BOTH Hulu and Netflix and even if they do, are they genuinely thinking of forking over more money for Disney+ without dropping something else?  After all, Netflix could arguably still be the ‘big one’ to beat – offering a slate of new films with big stars as well as familiar shows and collections. Hulu is no slouch either and while both have put up their costs in recent times, most people consider them value for money.

So newer streaming platforms and packages have to launch with a flurry and a flourish, finding that unique angle or something they think the audience won’t want to miss out on. Some stick to a safer ‘catch-up’ remit, but for those wanting a wider perspective and bigger piece of the potential pie, there’s a road full of both opportunities and pot-holes.

Apple TV+ launched at the start of this month with a raft of shows including, SEE and For All Mankind, and though the reviews have been middling, they’ve grabbed some attention in the short term. Far stronger,  Disney+ (launched this week in the US and in a surprisingly delayed March 2020 for the UK) has almost a clear-run on Disney‘s impressively deep back-catalogue but is selling itself just as much on notable new material such as the first ongoing live-action series set in the Star Wars universe,  The Mandalorian and a wave of Marvel-related product over the next two years (including The Falcon and Winter-Soldier, WandaVision, Hawkeye and Loki). There’s no denying  from all of the above factors that the Disney+ platform could immediately be a main player.

Amazon have been clever in not just their content but on delivery. Anyone subscribing to Amazon Prime (with its two-day or less shipping) also gets copied in to subscription tv service which boasts the likes of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, The Man in the High Castle, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Bosch, Sneaky Pete and Breathe as well as a range of films.  That’s a decent line-up for any service, in and of itself, but when you consider that it’s largely a ‘bonus’ for loyal customers, it’s certainly a tempting addition to a home theatre set-up even if you have tv subscriptions elsewhere…

CBS All Access has Star Trek content as its major hook – firstly with Star Trek: Discovery, which will broadcast its third season early in 2020 alongside the launch of Star Trek: Picard with Patrick Stewart reprising the iconic role. There’s more Trek to come with the animated Below Decks later in 2020, a new run for The Twilight Zone and a new version of Stephen King’s The Stand.  Some fans grumbled about having to pay a subscription fee for their dose of Trek and for a while it looked like numbers could be problematic, but the service seems to be doing okay as a sideline for CBS rather than a huge major player. In that sense, it may well be around for a while.  Peacock may serve the same purpose for NBC. New shows there look set to include another Battlestar Galactica reboot (or spin-off, depending on the rumours), Dr. Death (starring Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater) and Brave New World (with Demi Moore) as well as a range of classic NBC/Universal programming reruns…

HBO MAX got the official press treatment earlier this month with a massive sales-pitch involving what they’ll be offering customers, when and for how much. It was a huge info-dump with some long-expected news formalised (it will launch in February 2020) and with a few surprises in there as well. Amid existing HBO material, new entries will include  a Grease spinoff series entitled Rydell High, a Green Lantern series from Greg Berlanti, a new Gossip Girl, Americanah starring Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o as well as the much-anticipated Dune: Sisterhood. There will also be new documentaries and movies from the likes of Ridley Scott, Steven Soderbergh, and Ava DuVernay.

At the moment the choice is wide, but the cost too accumulative to stay as it is. What’s almost guaranteed to happen is some consolidation or co-operation between the services. That’s made easier when you note that some are owned by the same parent company… for instance there are already plans so that you’ll be able to get a hulu/Disney+/ESPN package in the US for $12.99 (saving $5.00 on the individual pricing but without the ad-free option) and that’s around the same price as you pay for Netflix as a standalone. Even if you’re not a sports-fan, that’s an attractive package. That being said, with less than a week to go before the arrival of Disney+, it was mixed news: on one hand Amazon Fire TV‘s announced they’d reached a deal to include the option to subscribe to Disney+ on their system but elsewhere interested pre-existing subscribers to ESPN and hulu were getting baffled responses from their providers who had no idea how the packages would work – not a reassuring situation, especially if you want to launch big.

If the platforms can’t find big enough hooks or other-ways to make a profit, there will be casualties. It’s an adapt or die philosophy. In the adapt category: This week, in the UK, it was announced that the BBC’s iPlayer platform (essentially letting viewers catch-up on shows they’ve missed) would be extending its co-operation with the Sky-Q app to bring a wider selection of content in a ‘technology partnership’ from both.  Bob Shennan, the BBC group managing director said in a statement that: “This agreement shows how the BBC and Sky can work together to give audiences the very best experience and support a strong UK media industry, and we look forward to continuing this relationship.” Also adapting to the climate, NBC‘s Peacock may also launch with a free-to-all version supported by ads/commercials with the fuller, paid-for version dispensing with them.

However, these solutions won’t work for everyone.  SONY already announced the demise of their PlayStation Vue which will cease in January. Their statement/obituary read:  “We set the bar high and sought to innovate an established industry by delivering a modern TV experience. Unfortunately, the highly competitive Pay TV industry, with expensive content and network deals, has been slower to change than we expected. Because of this, we have decided to remain focused on our core gaming business.”

Another side-issue is the problem of piracy. It’s already hugely-tempting for people to (illegally) download individual product that they’re not willing to spend for as part of a package or who are geo-locked out. (It’s naïve to think that with no advance-screeners and the international broadcast delays to The Mandalorian, the show won’t set records for illegal downloads outside the US within hours of its 9:00am debut). It’s a massive problem already but hard to stop. Even more than films, most tv shows end up on torrent sites within minutes of broadcast which might expand the fan-base but hits the show’s revenue and ratings. That might be less of a problem for say, the Game of Thrones finale, already guaranteed top-ratings, but can severely hurt lesser or newer shows yet to build up a subscription-base to fund them. Various programs aimed at both illegal torrents and inappropriate password sharing for platforms are being launched, but it’s doubtful how successful such initiatives will be when there are almost-instant workarounds that require very little tech-savvy for those with perfectly legal VPNs (Virtual Private Networks). Knowing this is a reality may actually be a factor in speeding up platforms offering more attractive/affordable packages from the outset.

At the moment, there’s no easy answer as to what platform you should subscribe to – it largely depends on where your tastes lie (for instance, you may want the formidable sports packages or you may not care less about who scored for whom and when unless it involves dragons or aliens). But given the potential outlay needed to reach your  pitch-perfect, ideal schedule and choices, it could be wiser to stick with what you have for the moment, to wait and see what the lay of the land is throughout 2020. It’s not unreasonable to think that a year from now, that landscape may look quite different, either by a pragmatic d’accord between the giants which works to the benefit of the consumer or with the remnants of a video-on-demand bloody battlefield where only the strongest survive to compete for your wallet… and the cycle begins again.

DVDs were once the cutting-edge of entertainment, just like VHS before them. Now the frontier is defined by streaming – and like the gold rush, success is all about planning where the riches lie and how to get to them, or them to you. The train is leaving the platform, or possibly the stations are leaving the platforms… either way, that new frontier awaits…