For the past several years, the UK premium streaming market has been relatively simple. The only real contenders were Netflix, Amazon, and to an extent Now TV. There are and have been other smaller services available, but none of them have ever really had the same sort of reach or mainstream appeal. In the US things were essentially the same, but with Now TV swapped around for Hulu - a service that's popular, but not quite as popular as the other two.
But as many of you will already have noticed, more and more companies have decided they want in on the streaming business. They've seen how well the others have done, offering new and original content that ditches the traditional broadcast model, and they want their share of the cash. It's got to the point where Netflix has admitted it's been pushing so hard on original content because it knows other rights holders can – and do – pull content away from them once agreements end.
This isn't exactly news, but very recently it's become apparent that more and more big names are trying to establish themselves in the streaming market by launching a streaming service with exclusive content. Each service has its own monthly or annual fee so watching everything means subscribing to them all, much like you'd have to pay outlandish sums of money for channel bundles from a TV provider like Sky or Virgin. Most people will have signed up to Netflix or Amazon Prime to avoid that, because they offered a wide range of easily accessible content for a relatively low price.
While increased competition is supposed to be a good thing, from a consumer perspective at least, it feels like we're close to the point where the benefits of streaming will peak. If everyone has their own streaming platform, hiding all their content behind a paywall, how long until we end up right where we started? How long before we end up at a point where people can't afford to watch everything they want to watch, defeating the purpose of unlimited-access streaming altogether?
Right now, things are relatively quiet on the streaming front. In the US and UK both Netflix and Amazon still reign supreme, but times are changing. Over in the US in particular, we're set to see a number of big companies launch their own services or try to send viewers to existing services with the lure of original content. CBS is a great example of this, noting that the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery led to a record number of sign-ups to its All Access service. Even though it wasn't the first original programme to hit the service (that would be The Good Wife spin-off The Good Fight) it was one of the biggest examples of how original content could bring in streaming revenue without dealing with a third party.
CBS seems to have realised how important such a big franchise like Star Trek is to both the network and All Access. You could imagine people would sign up just so they could watch Star Trek then immediately cancel during the inter-season hiatus. So it's no surprise that CBS TV Studios president David Stapf said he's already laying the groundwork to ensure there's "a Star Trek something on all the time on All Access.”
We also have to consider that Disney has been working on its own streaming service for some time, and currently has plans to fill it with large amounts of content based on its ever-expanding brand portfolio. Star Wars in particular has been instrumental in this, with Jon Favreau's live-action series and the Clone Wars revival due to hit the service after it launches next year. That's on top of the fact Disney is set to end up with a 60% stake in Hulu following the $71 billion takeover of 21st Century Fox - a deal that now has approval of Disney, US regulators, and Fox's shareholders.
DC Universe has just launched too, with a range of original shows based on the comics - including the long-awaited third season of Young Justice. While DC Universe will have more, including access to digital comics, it's yet another subscription to add to the list. Then we have constant rumours that other big tech companies want in on streaming as well. Apple is one name that comes up quite regularly, as is Facebook, though the former's plans seem to be noticeably more ambitious. It's also easy to forget that Google has already launched its own premium streaming services in the form of YouTube Red/Premium, and while it's still relatively new (especially here in the UK) it's already received critical acclaim for its programming - especially Karate Kid sequel series Cobra Kai.
And this is my point. Trying to capitalise on streaming is great for the rights holders, since they can use their big franchises to lure in subscribers who are, in theory, willing to pay to see the next chapter of the story. But that's not good for people, who have a limited income. If Star Trek is at CBS, DC properties are on DC Universe, Star Wars and Marvel are locked into Disney's ecosystem, while Netflix and Amazon keep pumping out their own respective popular original programming, and other broadcasters follow suit, it'll get to the point where nobody can afford to access everything. Not legally, at any rate.
That's also not to mention the fact that some streaming services are walling off a really specific kind of content. Stargate Command, for instance, is the only place to go to watch any part of the Stargate franchise. It would be baffling to pay £X every month for access, when we know there isn't going to be a huge increase in content anytime soon. Thankfully, in this case, Stargate Command has been very self aware. It's possible to pay a single one-time payment for lifetime access, and a payment that's cheaper than buying everything separately. But that's not to say everyone else will be so self aware. We've heard about dedicated streaming services for the back catalogues of both Led Zeppelin and Prince, and while it's been suggested that there will be new content to share the fact is only the most dedicated fans will even think about forking out money each month.
At the moment subscribing to streaming services is still relatively cheap. A whole year of both Netflix and Amazon Prime will cost you a minimum of £150.88 (£12.57 a month) and at most £215.76 (£17.98 a month). Add Now TV's Entertainment (£7.99), Kids (£3.99), and Cinema (£9.99) passes, and you're looking at a monthly cost between £34.54 and £39.95.
All of those options together are only slightly more expensive than Sky Q's base package, which costs £20 a month for 18 months and £25 a month thereafter. That jumps to £40/£48 a month if you add Sky Cinema, Kids, and Boxsets. Similarly Virgin TV's base package is £26 a month, and £47 if you want Sky Cinema included, while BT's website only seems to offer a basic TV bundled with broadband at a cost of £40 a month. If you suddenly start having to factor in a bunch of other streaming services, then cord cutting starts to become a lot less appealing - especially if you want the sports channels that cost a fortune and are a much greater hassle if you're ditching the regular TV services.
Yes, in theory there's more to enjoy when you bundle Netflix et al with Now TV, but the point remains the same. As said before one of the perks of streaming is having a lower monthly bill, and if you're going to have to start combining services and paying more than a regular TV subscription then it's going to seem much less appealing. Admittedly, however, we have it quite good here in the UK.
TV costs are much lower than over in the States, where cable companies have a tendency to charge a lot more. For instance, DirectTV's basic package is advertised as $35 a month (plus tax) on a 24 month contract but the small print suggests the price increases $78 a month in the second year. In those cases $18 a month for Amazon Prime and Netflix is a drop in the water. Even the hassle of using multiple streaming services is better if you're saving that much money by ditching cable TV.
Speaking of hassle, streaming's getting to the point where everything forces you to log in before you're allowed to watch stuff. It's understandable when you have services that are being paid for, simply to prevent unauthorised access, but even the free channels force you to sign up and login each time you try and watch a programme. As far as I could tell, of the 'free' channels that have dedicated catchup services, the only one that didn't have a login page was My5. BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All4, and UKTVPlay all make you log in the majority of the time, and it's incredibly annoying.
If we end up with an increasingly fractured streaming infrastructure, it's going to be extra frustrating to have to log back into a service for the millionth time just because you want to watch the latest episode of one of your favourite programmes.
Logically there would have to be a point where it becomes impossible to sustain. People are going to think with their wallets, and if they're going to subscribe to a streaming service they're going to pick the ones with the most value and the best content. That's going to be a boon for companies like Netflix, which already has a loyal customer base, Amazon for the Prime bundle, and for big companies like Disney that seems to own the rights to damn near every hot property out there. If anyone is watching the other content from other providers, chances are they won't be paying for it.
Services like Netflix have often been considered ways of tackling piracy, because they offer easy and affordable access to a wide range of content people can watch however and whenever they like. The research remains fairly inconclusive on their piracy-busting effectiveness, with different studies saying different things and results generally varying on a country-by-country basis. That said, multiple studies have found that pirates often cite cost and lack of availability as reasons why they end up accessing content illegally. Furthermore, those same studies have found significant numbers of pirates do pay for at least one premium service. It's not going to be such a huge leap for those people to increase their swashbuckling activities, should they find interesting content they can't access, and can't justify paying extra for.
So when the content starts costing more, and becomes more of a pain to access, it's logical to expect people to increase the amount of content they pirate. In fact, one report has already made claims this has started. In part because of the number of original shows that are being walled off behind multiple subscriptions, and the fact many of those shows end up with poorer international distribution. If this gets any worse, assuming that report is accurate, suddenly the streaming services aren't quite the moneymaker rights holders may have expected and they start ramping up their existing anti-piracy operations. Hypothetically speaking anyway. We're still in the early stages at the moment, and only time will tell if the streaming bubble that's been forming the past several years will burst.