Television On A Tightrope – Is the streaming era in trouble?

Television On A Tightrope – Is the streaming era in trouble?

It is no secret that we are now in the Age of Streaming. From films and TV shows, to music and even books, physical media have lost nearly all meaning  as streaming platforms are the “new normal” way to consume content. And a better way too, since accessing all the media you want with just one simple click without being shackled by a lousy television schedule is far easier and more practical. At first glance anyway.

As of recently, more and more people are looking at the state of the media industry and beginning to see flaws in streaming. particularly in relation to TV shows. Many series are dropping like flies, with wild cancellations all round, while prices are steadily increasing and the faint whisper of ads on the horizon too. Some may be questioning whether cutting the cable cord was really such a bargain. 

The bloodbath of TV shows

Cancellations are an inevitable part of the package in the entertainment industry. Sometimes a show doesn’t quite hit the mark for the audience and does not perform as well as the studio had hoped, so the network decides to pull the plug – it happens! Unfortunately, the number of shows getting the axe after a mere one or two seasons seems to have multiplied out of proportion in recent times. It has almost become a full-fledged bloodbath. 

Over 100 titles came to an end in 2022, more often abruptly and unwillingly than otherwise. And more often than not, for (seemingly) no good reason at all. Highly regarded shows like Warrior Nun and The Baby-Sitters Club (both Netflix productions) were cancelled without notice, much to the dismay of the fans and the series’ creators. The culprit appears to be the low viewership rate of the shows, but as many pointed out, neither title received enough support and promo from the network to be able to stack up staggering numbers.

In fact, the most plausible reason behind the cancellation of these shows is that it was merely a cost-cutting attempt from Netflix, despite their new co-CEO claiming that they’ve never cancelled a successful show. After all, it’s much cheaper for a network to cancel, rather than holding on to it and having to pay residuals to its creators even if the series is not performing well.

Needless to say, TV creators and writers are enraged and feel quite a bit threatened by the recent trend – having to clock into work each morning not knowing whether the material you’re pouring blood, sweat and tears into is going to see another day, cannot be a great feeling. And given the monopsony that has been created in the streaming industry, this anxiety among creators will have several negative repercussions on the content being produced.

If creators of TV series feel anxious while working, they might be less inclined to even work in the first place – meaning there might be less available content for us to watch. 

Additionally, the impending doom of a show being scrapped all of a sudden is beginning to affect the shows themselves – or better yet, the quality of the storylines therein. Before the Streaming Era, a series usually had a few years to grow into itself (unless it was aired on Fox Network) and pick up an audience along the way – shows are not extended the same courtesy right now.

Given that titles can get sacked without any given notice just because they don’t immediately perform amazingly well, series that are not mega-hits right off the bat are in rough waters. This means that creators are forced to speed up the story’s pace and try to cram as many events into one season because they don’t know whether there is going to be a next one. That’s how you end up with overcrowded episodes where a million storylines are unravelling at once, and not one does so with enough depth.

The more is not the merrier 

Aside from having to live with the fear of networks cancelling all of a sudden, TV shows now have another bump on their road – the decreasing number of episodes per season. Just a few years ago, shows had an average of 22 episodes per season – now, it’s a miracle if one surpasses the 10-episode mark. However, this is due to the differences between cable TV and streaming. 

The 22-episode run was the norm for decades because it was what suited cable television. The schedule was built around the periods during which viewers tended to watch less regular programming (i.e., summer and holiday breaks), hence it usually spanned the 22-week period from October to May. Plus, as the real money-maker for cable networks at the time was ad revenue, series were mainly used as a way to keep viewers glued to the TV all year round, so they needed to go on for quite a lot of episodes.

The season format on streaming platforms is different because their audience and the way networks can make money through them has changed. Viewers who watch shows via streaming favour binge-watching, so they naturally prefer series that are easily consumable in a short amount of time. And as streaming platforms do not earn money through ad breaks but by making sure they continue to gain subscribers, networks don’t need to worry about producing a lot of episodes to fill the time between commercials and can solely focus on content quality.

While longer runs have the tendency to reiterate concepts throughout episodes, shorter seasons are more likely to contain a focused and plot-driven story. Supposedly, this means that the creators only ought to think about the quality of the material, since they don’t have to spread out the story over many hours to please the network. And that is actually much easier for them – ask any showrunner working in cable television and they will tell you how dreadful it is to churn out 22 quality episodes per year.

Ergo, it may seem that shorter seasons benefit both the series’ creators and their viewers – work will be easier for the former, while the latter will have access to more quality content. 

But while that is true on paper, it is not always the case. The main issue is that shorter runs can keep viewers from truly knowing the characters, and no amount of good writing can make up for not spending enough time with them. Even if the actual runtime of a season is as long as it would be if it had more parts, the natural pauses between episodes give the audience the illusion of a longer journey. And if each episode is built so that it contains a beginning, a middle, and an end, having fewer of them means that there can be fewer character arcs per season. Thus, there’s less room for character development and to have full-fleshed storylines, as everything is bound to feel overly condensed. 

Sure, having fewer episodes per season can be a good fit for action-packed shows such as Stranger Things (Netflix), but they are not such a good match for  other series. Take the second season of Bridgerton (Netflix) for instance. While the season encountered its fair share of roadblocks throughout its run, the fact that there are not enough episodes is likely its biggest drawback.

With only 8 chapters, its storylines feel both overwhelming and underdeveloped, as the writers were trying to fit too much in too little space, while also forgoing the emotional pathos of the narratives. The romance between Anthony and Kate – the focal point of the season – suffered the most because of this, since the few episodes did not provide viewers with enough foundations to root for their love story. Even if the writing and production were great, it never made up for the fact that there was not enough for the audience to chew on to truly align themselves with the characters.

Nevertheless, there are various titles who genuinely thrive with their shorter seasons – the mistake that is being made right now in the Streaming Era is assuming that it holds true for every show.

Deciding on the season length should come after careful consideration of the series’ overarching plot and the storylines it wants to convey, as it can be quite a powerful tool when used right. Adopting a default for the sake of the bottom line will likely give a show more pitfalls than it should face. Sure, one may argue that even before streaming took over, the industry had a standard season length (i.e., 22 episodes) – however, having too much information about a character ultimately trumps not having enough. Sometimes, less is not more, and TV shows give us a great example of that. 

The battle of streaming platforms 

Even aside from the content and its inherent quality, streaming platforms have another, bigger problem standing in front of them – streaming platforms themselves.

Streaming services were created as the better, easier alternative to cable subscriptions, where users were limited to using just one device (the television) to watch shows, which were controlled by the TV schedule. On the other hand, streaming platforms have enabled users to view whatever they want, whenever and wherever they wish to do so. Unfortunately, services seem to be going through a bit of an existential crisis, as they change the very features that made them appealing in the first place.

The number of different services available to users is going up at a dangerous pace and – since they all offer different catalogues – content is now fragmented across a myriad of platforms. If that wasn’t enough, the catalogue changes and differs from country to country. For example, in some European countries, K-dramas drop on the platform weeks after their initial run. And because of this, users now need multiple pricey subscriptions to access something they could find all in one place just a few years back. 

If you want to watch Stranger Things, Avengers: End Game, Euphoria and The Rings of Power, you would need four different subscriptions. This means you’d need to pay $15.99 for Netflix, another $10.99 for Disney+, $15.99 for HBO and then $14.99 for Prime Video. But would you do that? I think you would not…

As if that weren’t enough, services are now beginning to attack the ‘whenever’ and ‘wherever’ parts of the deal. Just a few days ago, Netflix unveiled their new policy (which they have now retracted) to try and counter password sharing with non-paying users.

As streaming platforms are becoming more and more hostile towards their own users, illegal piracy is seeing a resurgence. Before Netflix, illegally pirating movies and shows was a widely spread option, as the practice allowed individuals to watch anything they wanted for free. With the rise of legal streaming platforms in the last few years, the industry saw a dramatic drop in the numbers of people using these websites. However, customers are now growing annoyed with the attitude of these services – ergo, increasingly more people are turning back to the old tricks…

Cable strikes back

And this really begs the question: “is the Age of Streaming coming to an end?” It’s fair to say it’s not but the cracks are definitely there, and casualties will undoubtedly occur in the next few years.

While streaming as a concept is not likely to go anywhere since nowadays everything is only becoming increasingly digitized (and not vice versa), the number of users who are unsatisfied with streaming services is increasing as well. And it’s not only members of the audience who are unhappy with the current situation – TV creators are showing discontent too, criticizing the industry for limiting creativity, offering painfully low wages, and hindering diversity behind the camera. Basically – everybody is losing out right now.

In order to at least combat the current smorgasbord of platforms, a few visionaries have dared to suggest that there should be a service bundling all the content offered by the various providers, all for an easy monthly subscription plan and… yep, we’re talking about cable

And that is precisely where the streaming industry appears to be heading (at least at the moment). It seems unlikely that there’s going to be some kind of ‘television renaissance’ or a complete abandonment of online services,  but a return to a cable-facsimile in digital format could well be in the cards.

Users want the ability to curate their own content and watch it however they want, but they also prefer having it all available on just one platform, instead of having it scattered across multiple ones. 

Ergo, streaming services need to ask themselves whether they’d rather fight back by joining forces and creating something users would actually enjoy, or give in and end up a shell of a company, just like the thing they were born to replace – Blockbusters Video. As the saying goes, ‘Time is a flat circle’. The question is, how long until the circle of streaming platforms comes to an end?

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