The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Great Rebundling is coming. It’s a bad idea.

The Disney Plus website on a laptop computer. (Gabby Jones/Bloomberg)
4 min

As more consumers cut the cord and more players get into the streaming game, the entertainment world has divided into ever-smaller niches. But conglomerates don’t want niches; they want mega-properties with hundreds of millions of subscribers. They should be careful about rebundling, though. We live in an age when identity is intimately tied to cultural consumption. Trying to be everything to all people is a risky strategy in a world that already has Netflix.

The recent history of television looks something like this: Tired of three networks, consumers flocked to cable companies, which bundled together dozens, then hundreds of channels. But most customers came to realize they watched only a handful of these channels. They grew frustrated, demanding to know why they were paying for things they weren’t using. So the Great Unbundling began: People could get individual channels via streaming or cheaper packages on YouTube and pay only for what they wanted to watch.

Between the increasing cost of high-speed internet and the proliferation of streaming subscriptions — Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, HBO Max, Apple TV Plus, the Criterion Channel, YouTube, Shudder, Paramount Plus, Peacock, etc. — costs haven’t really gone down all that much. People wind up paying a little less, maybe, but at the cost of having radically fewer choices. What’s interesting about this is how little most folks really seem to mind the trade-off.

Only part of this is economic. A much bigger part has to do with self-conception and identity: People simply don’t want to associate, even tangentially, with channels or products they don’t like.

We’ve seen this for years, on the left and on the right. It was at least part of the argument made both by conservative-minded parents groups frustrated by the proliferation of boundary-pushing channels such as FX and by progressives angry at Fox News’s dominance in the cable news ecosystem. People, they said, shouldn’t be forced to support channels or programs they find offensive. That these channels didn’t cost consumers very much doesn’t really matter. Their objections were ideological — a signal against the coarsening of the culture or the degradation of the discourse.

The phenomenon isn’t limited to entertainment, of course. Just last week, The Post reported on Cracker Barrel customers who were angry that plant-based Impossible sausage had been added to the menu. It’s important to note that the pork sausage Southerners have enjoyed for generations hadn’t been removed from the menu. Customers were merely angry that they had to associate, however indirectly, with something enjoyed by their out-group.

Megan McArdle: Cracker Barrel leaders understand an often-forgotten truth of the internet

This is at least one reason Warner Bros. Discovery may be making a mistake when it considers plans to merge HBO Max and Discovery Plus into a single streaming service. Most HBO Max subscribers probably don’t see themselves as “Discovery people,” nor vice versa. After all, HBO remains best represented by the tagline “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” Discovery Plus, meanwhile, is the absolute lowest common denominator of TV: cheap reality programming on HGTV and the Food Network combined with reruns on A&E and whatever TLC, formerly known as The Learning Channel, has evolved into.

HBO Max and Discovery Plus can coexist on the same home screen. (My family’s Apple TV is proof of that.) Even packaging both together as a deal — similar to the one that Disney offers to subscribers of Disney Plus, Hulu and ESPN Plus — makes sense as something people can opt in to. But merging them into one, and only one, location makes less sense, just as merging the Disney-owned trio into one app would make less sense for families who only want the animated Bluey or millennials who only want FX on Hulu.

In an age of niche entertainment and supreme customization, people get almost angry when something they don’t want or don’t identify with is forced upon them. Think back to one of the foundational lessons of this age: the debacle that was U2’s “Songs of Innocence,” a terrible misstep by Apple and the Irish rock group that involved putting the album — for free but without warning— onto every iTunes account.

Most customers weren’t happy about getting a gratis surprise. Rather, they saw it as a violation of the sanctity of their music library, the purest and most private distillation of their own tastes. If you weren’t a “U2 person,” this was almost an act of aggression on the part of Apple and Bono, one that lingers in the collective memory.

In an age of niche-dom, even a gift from the biggest band (or brand) can be an unwelcome intrusion. Entertainment conglomerates seem to be forgetting that as they move closer to making people pay for properties they don’t identify with.

The Great Rebundling is just over the horizon, and I can’t help but feel it’s a mistake.