May 31, 2024

Dreams of cord-cutting and low-cost video streaming services were overblown? Is the era of chaos and nostalgia for cable upon us?

Trend Analysis
Szymon Karbowski
Dreams of cord-cutting and low-cost video streaming services were overblown? Is the era of chaos and nostalgia for cable upon us?

As many of us remember, streaming video services were supposed to let us watch what we wanted, when we wanted, and be a pretty affordable option. What's striking is that over the past few years, streaming has become expensive. It has done the impossible: made people miss good old-fashioned cable bundles.

Now bundles are back. Last week, Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery announced that they will offer a streaming bundle of Disney+, Hulu and Max starting this summer. Comcast said on Tuesday that it will launch its own streaming bundle next month: Peacock, Apple TV+ and Netflix. The bundle, called StreamSaver, will only be available to Comcast broadband, mobile and TV customers. Some smaller mini-bundles already exist, but not for the masses. In the recent past, the streaming wars have seen companies adopt an 'every man for himself' strategy. Now the former combatants are looking for ways to cooperate, and some have already formed two blocs.

It's not cable, but it's not cable either. These bundles bring to an end a whole era of streaming, with its unsatisfactory free-for-all of services. This new era may be better than the one that preceded it, but to be honest, the dream of streaming as a cheaper, better version of cable is dead? In the past, that dream actually existed for a while. When Netflix launched its streaming service in 2007, it pretty much dominated the market without much serious competition. You could basically watch anything, with no ads, for less than $10 a month, which was a really good deal.

By the end of the 2010s, all the big legacy entertainment companies were trying to get in on the action. "For much of the past four years, the entertainment industry has been spending like drunken sailors to fight the first salvos of the streaming wars," wrote media industry analyst Michael Nathanson in November.

Many would agree that the current streaming landscape is somewhat difficult to navigate. There are so many of them: Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu, Peacock, Paramount, AMC+ and many, many more. Watching entertainment now means wading through an array of streaming services, and it's expensive for viewers. But it hasn't brought the kind of profits companies had hoped for. Last year, Disney, Comcast and Paramount collectively lost billions of dollars on streaming. Making and licensing shows and movies is obviously not cheap.

People aren't willing to pay for so many streaming subscriptions, especially now that life in the Western world has become more financially challenging. Even when the new services have managed to attract subscribers, they haven't been able to keep them. Streaming services have tried to recoup their losses by raising prices, creating ad tiers and cracking down on password sharing.

Going it alone hasn't worked, so now they're teaming up. Neither mega-bundle has announced details of its cost, but Comcast's StreamSaver will be sold at a "significantly reduced price" compared to subscribing to all three services individually, the company's CEO Brian Roberts said during this week's announcement. Packaged together and sold at a discount, each streaming service will make less per subscription, but perhaps together they will be more competitive and retain more of their subscribers.

These bundles are probably a good thing for subscribers. There's a reason why so many people rejoiced at the prospect of cutting the cord. Cable had its strength - simplicity. Keeping track of all your accounts, all your passwords, all your payments and where you can watch what you want is a bit confusing. On top of that, you have to pay for the premium tier if you want to watch a particular show or film - not easy or convenient. If you can consolidate three separate subscriptions into one cheaper one, as the new deals seem to allow some people to do, that's a win.

The new bundles don't exactly restore order and sanity. The array of overlapping options is confusing in itself. In addition to the Disney+/Hulu/Max bundle, there is also a Disney+/Hulu/ESPN+ bundle that does not include Max. But if you really want to watch sports, you'll probably go for the ESPN/Fox/Warner Bros. Discovery bundle, called Venu Sports. And if you're a Verizon myPlan customer, you can subscribe to a Netflix/Max bundle - even though these two services are part of opposing three-service bundles, as announced in the last two weeks. To make matters worse, some of the bundles are bundles themselves. Disney owns Hulu and ESPN. Warner Bros. Discovery owns CNN and Max. Bundles are bundling with bundles, an interesting situation to say the least.

With the new bundles, the streamers are trying to strike a balance between the total consolidation of cable and the total chaos of streaming. This new balance may well be superior to the status quo, but the trade-off between having things in one place and paying for things you don't need will remain. As long as that's the case, we'll never be completely satisfied. But at least it's progress. Simplification is a good thing, and joining forces may also allow companies to offer better content and make more inventive and interesting productions.

I'm curious to see how customers will appreciate the "wireless cable" change in the streaming market. With the right balance of cost and appeal, it could work.

#SzymonKarbowski #StreamVX #videostreaming #Disney #WarnerBrosDicovery #Hulu #Max #Comcast #Peacock #AppleTV #Netflix #ESPN #CNN #AmazonPrimeVideo

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