The morning after she gave birth last month, Lindsay Katai was in the hospital’s postpartum room with her new baby when her fiance stumbled on some bad news on Twitter. “ ‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘They removed “Infinity Train” from HBO Max.’ ”
The critically acclaimed animated show she had worked on extensively was simply deleted, thrown into a black hole of corporate cost-saving measures, along with several titles on HBO Max. The company, she added, even scrubbed every mention of the show from its social media accounts.
“It’s hard because it used to be your show would air and it could go away forever, regardless if it was on cable or network. … But we thought we were protected from that because of streaming. That was always sort of the consolation — we’re not getting paid as much. We’re not getting residuals. But at least we’ll be accessible for a long time to come. And lo and behold, that’s not the case anymore,” Katai said. “It’s a purely bottom-line-driven decision-making process that’s all about maximizing profits over any kind of artistic voice.”
“I don’t feel great about being a writer right now,” she added. “I don’t feel great about being in the industry right now.”
Streaming television is going through an existential crisis, involving the people who make it and the viewers who watch it. Its revolutionary zeal has naturally faded, as that initial wave of near limitless expansion, boundless creative opportunities and vast archival choices crashes ashore, after a spate of megamergers and a drop in new subscribers.
Just when streaming has finally attracted more viewers than cable or broadcast TV, its major players are engaged in a long-predicted war for subscribers, who are becoming all too aware of rising subscription prices and, both subtly and directly, a change in what programs get made and how long they stick around. Commercials could soon become more common, and services may be bundled (for one low monthly price!), already triggering visions of a future that recalls the dark days of cable.
The list of seismic rumblings in recent weeks is long, as chronicled in the Hollywood Reporter, Variety and elsewhere: Warner Bros. Discovery is cutting shows from its archives and unfinished movies from HBO Max as it prepares to merge it with its sister streaming service Discovery Plus, having promised its shareholders a $3 billion cut in costs. Faced with a plunging stock price and worrisome subscriber loss, Netflix plans to add an advertising-supported model for a lower price and may crack down on password sharing. Disney Plus, Hulu and ESPN Plus, which can all be subscribed to in a cable-esque bundle, are raising prices after taking a more than $1 billion hit in the fiscal third quarter. Meanwhile, Amazon Prime just debuted the most expensive show ever made — a Lord of the Rings drama — in hopes to gain ground in a crowded market.
“The streaming services are moving more toward becoming more similar to the broadcast networks and cable networks that existed before,” said Tim Doyle, a TV writer and producer who has been in the industry for more than three decades. “They’ve suddenly come up with this great idea that if you put in advertising, you can make money selling the ads! So they’re basically just kind of retreating back to the things that are familiar.”
The fear of having your show or movie deleted on an executive’s whim — a growing reality for many, including Katai — is compounded by the fact that in the post-DVD digital age, viewers may never be able to access the shows again. Showrunners might not even have physical copies of their own work. And that’s not the only downside for creators.
For Doyle, who works primarily on sitcoms, one drawback to the streaming wars is that “It hasn’t been very good for comedy. … The first thing these business guys who are running everything now have run away from is comedy, because it’s harder. You can’t manufacture another comedy the way you can manufacture another Dick Wolf show about sexy firemen or paramedics or cops in Chicago. Those kinds of shows are kind of paint-by-numbers. You can basically recycle the scripts every year.” Plus, he added, most of these streaming services want to appeal to a global market, and comedy doesn’t tend to translate successfully across cultures.
Doyle thinks the quality of streaming shows — comedies and dramas alike — is destined to decline, particularly as these companies need to find a way to cut costs and increase profits.
“The emphasis in the streaming services has been on this premium product. There’s an episode of ‘The Mandalorian’ that [cost millions of dollars] to make. You can’t compare that with an episode of ‘NCIS’ in terms of its budget, in terms of its spectacle,” Doyle said. But if most services are losing money, it stands to reason these sorts of budgets aren’t sustainable. “I suspect that some of the shows are going to get [worse].”
The anxieties that creators associate with working in the streaming revolution have been portrayed in the TV shows themselves. The most recent season of HBO’s dark dramedy “Barry” features a subplot in which Sally (Sarah Goldberg), strikes critical gold (a 98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) with a semi-autobiographical TV series called “Joplin,” that she creates and stars in for a fictional streaming powerhouse called BanShe.
No sooner has Sally’s show premiered (minor spoiler ahead) than BanShe’s in-house algorithm decides it’s not a success. The show is canceled 12 hours after its premiere and its episodes are scrubbed from the database. The storyline served as a cutting commentary on the present state of the industry.
And it borrows from reality. On the Ringer’s “The Prestige TV Podcast,” “Barry” co-creator Bill Hader said he had a friend who is woefully familiar with Sally’s experience. The day his friend’s show premiered on Netflix, “he texted me a picture, like, ‘We’re on the homepage!’ ” Hader said. A day or two later, Hader fired up Netflix and couldn’t find the show. “That was the first time I heard, ‘Yeah, apparently the algorithm didn’t like it.’ ”
During Hader’s press junkets for the show, an interviewer criticized the storyline as “ ‘a little too broad, capital-S satire-type thing,’ ” he said. “And I was like, ‘But it happened! It’s happening!’ ”
Comedian Adam Conover, who has created shows for both cable and streaming services — “Adam Ruins Everything” for cable’s TruTV and “The G Word with Adam Conover” on Netflix — worries that “where the industry is going is something potentially worse than cable. That’s my fear. I think we’re moving there quickly.”
“The early promise of the streaming years was a fantasy and/or a lie. And we’re moving into an entertainment industry that is much worse for everyone. Everyone, including the shareholders of these companies,” Conover said. “The only people who are going to be profiting whatsoever are the very few CEOs at the top who make the deals happen, but everybody else is losing out.”
In the revolutionary rush toward streaming TV, much of the old business ways fell aside. Creators, who could once aim for syndication and rebroadcasting fees, “are being paid far less. Far, far less,” Conover observed. The same is true for writers, producers, production crews and animators. And, given that seasons of television tend to be shorter on these services, there’s less work. Headline-grabbing megadeals are rare, but they still feed an illusion that streaming networks “are just as big as those old broadcast networks were in the ’90s, except that they pay a fraction of what the creators used to be paid,” Conover said.
When he pitched “Adam Ruins Everything,” during what now seems like cable’s last hurrah in the mid-2010s, “I pitched probably a dozen different places,” he said. “I’m still pitching TV for a living, but now when I go to pitch it, there’s only [a few] places you can go. That’s the monopsony in action.”
The monopsony, Conover said. That’s when a company dominates the buying market for a particular industry. If you sell salami, and there is only one sandwich shop around to buy it, that’s a monopsony. Think of a monopoly, but the other way around. “If there’s less competition for my services, then I can’t get a bidding war going with two companies that want to buy my show.”
Early on, creators were drawn to streaming because of the freedoms it offered, which could arguably lead to more interesting, less predictable shows and films. Netflix, in particular, was famous for not giving notes to its creators.
But one industry veteran who has worked in both streaming and network television and agreed to speak with The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to avoid career repercussions, said most services now give “a ton of notes … because they’re risk-averse.”
“My observation is that they’re all trying to develop what I would say is less interesting television,” the creator said. “They all want more networky stuff. The irony to me, and to many, is that networks have destroyed themselves with really bland, cookie-cutting programing over the years and people turned them off more and more. Then streaming came along, especially Netflix, with really interesting stuff. And now I think streaming and Netflix have decided they want their stuff to look more like network. I think in their minds, they think it makes it more accessible. But I think for the audiences, it makes it less interesting.”
Streaming networks also tended to foster diversity, said Erin Hanna, a University of Oregon cinema studies professor. “With the explosion of production, you had more content being produced, so there were more opportunities for creators of color, for queer stories to be told. Groups who have long been marginalized on television, in particular, but in film too were getting to tell new stories and having more of that kind of content available.”
Now those opportunities seem to be in peril, she said, citing Netflix’s controversial 2019 cancellation of “One Day at a Time,” a sitcom following a multigenerational Cuban American family. She also cited a Daily Beast report that stated in the recent HBO Max reshuffling, “as many as 13 people of color previously in charge of developing shows like ‘The Gordita Chronicles’ and the Spanish-language docuseries ‘Menudo: Forever Young’ have been let go, likely influencing the types of shows and movies that are greenlit moving forward,” which resulted in “barely any non-white people left in the upper ranks of content.” (In response to the story, the company highlighted several shows “led by diverse characters” and told the Daily Beast in a statement, “HBO and HBO Max have always shown a commitment to diverse programming and storytellers, and always will.”)
The result is “less diversity in front of and behind the camera,” Hanna said. “There’s kind of a swing back.”
As for viewers? They’re also sensing some of the bloom has come off the streaming rose, for a litany of reasons: There are too many shows, but not enough good ones, and you never know if your favorites will disappear. Prices keep creeping up. With so many services and the broadband requirements to use them, it’s not much cheaper than cable, and the reward is a sometimes fuzzy picture and low frame rates — now complete with ads. And let’s not even dive into the fact that different streaming services work better on different pieces of hardware, be it Roku, PlayStation, Amazon Fire Stick, a smart TV …
The list goes on, which may be why digital piracy is seeing a resurgence. More than 350,000 new members have joined the subreddit r/piracy, an anonymous message board, since January 2021. “Pirating is a must these days,” reads one post.
Will Hare, a 33-year-old marketing professional in Durham, N.C., enjoyed the prestige shows several services put out in the beginning of the streaming boom, such as Netflix’s “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black” and Amazon Prime’s “Transparent.” So much that he didn’t mind the small price hikes over the years.
But when the pandemic hit and he found himself spending his newly found free time digging deeper into their libraries, an awful lot of what he discovered was, well, “crap.” Then Netflix, to which he’d subscribed since its DVD-by-mail days, defended comedians Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais who were under fire for making jokes about the LGBTQ community. The price hikes suddenly didn’t feel so small.
Finally, Hare said, “I did the math and realized I’m paying the equivalent of a cable subscription now for all these services that I’m just not using anymore.” He began canceling them — even the one he still has faith in, Apple TV Plus, because he had watched everything on its menu that interested him. Now, he and his husband are more mindful of their subscriptions, only keeping ones they’re actively using. They can always resubscribe to a service, after all, if a show comes along that interests them.
Others, though, still embrace both the variety and sheer amount of content on these services — and carefully curate them to save money. “Is there too much content? Sure, but not all content is for everyone and while my son and I share some services, I cut mine down to six services totaling around $56 a month. I was paying over a $100 a month for my package on satellite and I only watched like 24 channels. It just wasn’t worth it,” said Albuquerque resident Donna Jonas, 69, via email. “I like the ability to curate my own content and watch it when I want.”
It’s as if the journey brought viewers all the way back around to wishing for some kind of service that would bundle all of the content providers together under one easy, monthly plan something like … oh, dear, we’re talking about cable. As a character on a prestige 2014 television drama that, last we checked, was still available on its parent streaming network once said: “Time is a flat circle.”
Jeremy Taylor, a 42-year-old Republic, Mo., IT worker, spent years attempting to find the perfect streaming setup. But he’s run into a curious problem: Different devices work better with different streaming services. Apple TV might be better for Apple’s streaming service, while Roku might work better with Hulu. He’s ended up with so many pieces of hardware and their accompanying remotes that “I feel like my wife wants to kill me.”
Like Hare, he doesn’t find his smorgasbord of services cheaper than cable or satellite, and as a big sports fan, he sometimes finds the latter more useful. Finally, he said, there’s just way too much content to choose from.
“It’s almost like an oversaturation at this point,” Taylor said. “You used to spend time scrolling through 750 channels to find the one thing you want to watch. Now you’re scrolling through thousands of pieces of content on 12 devices to do the same thing. At some point you just decide it’s not worth it and do something other than watch TV.”