What Streaming Services Mean for the Future of Television

Consumers will watch more content with more diverse voices, but probably won’t save any money by eschewing cable, according to a Tufts media professor
A television displaying Disney+ shows. A glut of streaming services means that consumers will watch more content with more diverse voices, but probably won’t save any money, according to Tasha Oren, associate professor of media and technology at Tufts University.
“Boomers watch cable," said Tasha Oren, associate professor of media and technology at Tufts. "Millennials are cord cutters,” who are watching Disney+ and other streaming services à la carte. Credit: Disney Plus
December 12, 2019

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With the frenzy around the recent launch of Disney+, it’s clear that streaming services have forever altered the media landscape. They’ve changed how we watch television, how we pay for it, and how we think of it, said Tasha Oren, an associate professor of film and media studies at Tufts University.

It’s a competitive industry in which subscription-based streaming services like Hulu, Netflix, Apple TV, and Amazon Prime aren’t just competing with each other, but against cable, broadcast, and satellite television, too—for viewers, dollars, and the most compelling content.

“Television isn’t an appliance. It's not the box in the corner,” Oren said. “It's long-form storytelling where stories are told not in one complete chunk, like a film, but in episodes. Often, it's a story that needs a long time to develop, where characters actually change, or audience memory is invoked.”

Tufts Now recently spoke with Oren on what the glut of streaming services means for the future of television and for consumers.

Tufts Now: We’re seeing a trend of media companies launching their own streaming services, such as Disney+, HBO Now, and ESPN+. NBC Peacock is reportedly coming soon. How will this à-la-carte approach to television affect consumers and the industry?  

Tasha Oren: I think cable is going to suffer, because the main reason people still watch a lot of cable is for live shows such as news and sports. Once there is a way to unbundle that, once these services figure out how to include live sports and live news, then basic cable's in trouble, and like we’re seeing with network, individual channels/content will migrate to streaming options.

But the bigger thing that's happening is a walled-garden retrenchment of a lot of owned properties. You're going to start seeing a lot of closed and branded ecosystems. Like Disney+, other large conglomerates are going to show you only what they own (in the case of Disney, Marvel films and Disney productions). And like it, others will be using their properties to create new shows within the same story universes that they already own. We're going to see more of that with CBS, too, and more and more television is going to get rebranded in this way.

Netflix has been preparing for that. Netflix used to be a platform where you saw television from a lot of different networks that gave you a real feel of what’s out there. Now many of those companies are pulling their rights back from Netflix so they can create their own streaming services. If you go on the Netflix home page, they're not just pushing you personalized content, they're pushing original Netflix shows. Because they know most of what they don’t own, will be going.

The Directors Guild of America recently released a study which found that half of all television episodes in the 2018-2019 television season were directed by women or people of color. This is up from 21 percent five years ago. Did streaming services play a role? Do more TV streaming services mean more opportunities for diverse voices?

On the one hand, when there is so much more demand for content, yes, more people have a chance. We are also, as a culture and as viewers, much more attuned to the notion that representation is important. I think the industry in general is working harder to not only attract more diverse viewers, but also make it noticeable that they are including much more diverse life experiences, actors and writers—we’re also seeing a lot more body types. And all of that is great.

However, I'm not yet seeing the same kind of diversity in the board room for these streaming companies. When we talk about diversity, it's very easy to just talk about who's in front of the camera. Actual diversity of the business includes people at the very top.

Social media outlets are entering the streaming arena: Instagram has IGTV, Snapchat has Snap Originals, Facebook has Facebook Watch. Are these disruptors in the streaming industry?

They're not quite there yet, but I think it’s actually a very good thing. Social media makes it possible for smaller talents to grow in a grassroots way and become something that a big streaming network would notice and pick up.

HBO is mining small social media stars and giving them television shows. Think about Issa Rae’s Insecure or High Maintenance—those kinds of shows started small, online. I think we’re going to see more social media stars get bigger with bigger audiences, and streaming services plucking new talent and giving them a national platform.  

A growing number of consumers have been cutting the cord with cable, opting to pay the lower price for streaming services. Do you think the price for streaming content will continue to be reasonably attractive?

It’s getting harder and harder for people to justify paying for cable. Why pay almost $200 for cable if all you really want is an Internet provider so you can watch your shows online? We know from studies that it’s an aging market. Boomers watch cable. Millennials are cord cutters.

Still, I’m not entirely sure that viewers are going to end up winners by buying streaming services à la carte. It seems to me that if an industry got you to pay $200 a month for content once, they’ll figure out a way to get you to pay $200 a month for content again.

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.

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