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Pop culture unites us as Americans. Will streaming services change that?

Listen to this episode of Today, Explained, Vox’s daily explainer podcast, to find out.

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We’re on the precipice of the “streaming apocalypse.” That’s what Vox critic-at-large Emily VanDerWerff calls the current television landscape. In addition to traditional cable, we’ve also got streaming players like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, HBO Now, and CBS All Access. And more platforms are either coming or already here: Apple TV+ launched in early November, Disney+ arrives today, HBO Max is coming in May 2020, and Peacock from NBC Universal will arrive in April of next year.

“It’s definitely a situation where everybody is getting their horses in their own stable, and then they’re granting you access to come and look at the horses,” Emily said on this episode of Today, Explained.

So, why are all of these new streaming services popping up?

You’ve got all of these sort of companies that are realizing the value of their catalog titles, because if you look at viewership on Netflix, most viewership on Netflix is still these shows that became popular on traditional television, ran for hundreds upon hundreds of episodes, and they all are owned by other companies. NBC owns The Office. Warner Media owns Friends. Disney owns Grey’s Anatomy. CBS owns Cheers, Frasier, some of those shows.

All of these shows are owned by other companies. And those other companies are like, “Hey, look at all this money Netflix is making. And also, if Netflix gets so big that we’re reliant on it as our distribution system, we’re in essence reliant on it to show other people our programing, that’s an existential threat to us.”

Listen to Today, Explained for VanDerWerff’s breakdown of what you can expect from each of the new streaming services and how much they’ll cost, in addition to what this all means for the future of entertainment. Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

Subscribe to Today, Explained wherever you get your podcasts, including: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and ART19.

Sean Rameswaram

We have all these new streaming services as well as a bunch of old ones. Netflix. HBO. Hulu. Amazon. Peacock. Apple. Disney. Counter. Table. Chair. Whatever. Who’s going to win these streaming wars?

Emily VanDerWerff

I don’t know. I think that a lot of people assume Netflix will be No. 1 forever because Netflix is No. 1 right now. But ... you remember Dr. Strange in the Marvel film Infinity War? At the end of that movie, he’s kind of going through all of the scenarios, and he plucks out the one where the Avengers win. That’s kind of what’s happening to Netflix right now. The number of scenarios they have in which they could win keeps getting a little bit smaller with every year because they have all of these outside pressures.

Sean Rameswaram

Wait, you think Netflix could actually lose in all of this?

Emily VanDerWerff

Yeah. In a post-net neutrality world, your internet service provider can charge you more money to watch Netflix. HBO Max is connected to an internet service provider. It’s connected to the AT&T companies UVerse and DirecTV in a post-net neutrality world. You maybe won’t have to pay extra to watch HBO Max if you’re an AT&T subscriber, that gives HBO Max a leg up over Netflix. This is a kind of part of the reason I’m bullish on Peacock because Peacock is connected to Comcast, which is one of the largest cable companies in the world, and in a post-net neutrality world, who wins is a question less of who has the best content or who has the best interface or anything like that, it is so much more a question of what you can watch and what part of the country you live in.

Sean Rameswaram

So that’s a big strike against Netflix because without net neutrality, the platforms connected to cable and internet providers will have a head start, will do better. Can we stick with the baseball analogy? Is there a strike two?

Emily VanDerWerff

Strike two against them is now they’ve lost The Office, they’ve lost Friends, so the casual subscribers, they’re like, “I’m actually going to subscribe to this instead because it has what I like.” So, they lose a bunch of those subscribers.

Sean Rameswaram

Okay, strike two is they’re losing their biggest shows. Dare I ask, sitting here in the District of Champions, home of the Washington Nationals, for a strike three?

Emily VanDerWerff

The third thing is they’re in tremendous amounts of debt. At a certain point that debt comes calling. And they have to find a way to make up that debt. They start charging more for subscriptions, which drives more people away, which makes them have to charge more for subscriptions, which drives more people away. And they’re also paying a premium on top of what they’re paying for Netflix to their ISP to be able to watch Netflix.

Probably all of these things won’t happen. Probably it’ll be, you know, one or two of them. But if all of them happen and Netflix gets caught in a spiral where it becomes more and more expensive and people are like, “I have other options now, I’m gonna watch one of those.” And at that point, you know, Netflix starts to look pretty reasonable as something that like an Apple might acquire. I don’t think this will actually happen, but that it is not out of the realm of possibility, which is not a thing I would have said even two years ago.

Sean Rameswaram

Even if it was a long shot, the Avengers did win in the end, so sticking with your analogy here, where the Avengers are Netflix, is there a possible future where Netflix can win?

Emily VanDerWerff

Netflix could absolutely win. There is a scenario in which they have become so synonymous with streaming, where people are like, “We’re gonna just Netflix something tonight,” like, where that becomes so synonymous in the way that Google has become synonymous with search that they just can’t be defeated.

One of the other solutions is Netflix is big enough, maybe they buy some studio’s catalog. You’ve got the Sony Pictures catalog and the Paramount catalog are both just sort of dangling out there for anybody who might want to buy them, because both of those companies are kind of financially struggling. So, maybe Netflix buys that. Maybe that’s their solution to the content problem. Because, again, I don’t think they’re going anywhere. But I do think that they’re kind of stuck in this place where they have to navigate a bunch of possible futures and many of them end catastrophically.

Sean Rameswaram

I wonder, when we talk about all of these different services and how people will pick and choose from them, how will that affect our monoculture or further kill it or affect our culture as a whole?

Emily VanDerWerff

I’m worried about this. Pop culture is one of the things that unites us as Americans and a lot of our pop culture is bad. But the fact that a whole bunch of people watch The Masked Singer every week or that everybody watched the Game of Thrones finale, I love that aspect of our pop culture and I really worry about it going away. And people have treated it as an inevitability for a long time. And I never have because there’s always something, there’s always something that comes along, whether it’s the Marvel movies, whether it’s, you know, Taylor Swift, whether it’s Beyonce … there are always these things that cross over and hit big. And I worry about a world in which that doesn’t happen.

I worry about a world in which the things that become the monoculture are actually very small and very specific to certain niche cultures. And I worry that that further stratifies society. I don’t see an easy way out of that one, either. And if I think about it at the same time, the natural default state of humanity is having several small regional cultures that don’t add up to a monoculture but that are sort of in conversation with each other. And maybe we’re just getting back to that. Maybe the 20th century when we had this monoculture was a blip and maybe we’re returning to our natural state and maybe I should just be okay with it.

Listen to the full episode and subscribe to Today, Explained wherever you get your podcasts, including: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and ART19.

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