The Golden Age The days of streaming are gone. To be clear, this isn’t a commentary on the quality of the shows and films on streaming service. Rather, it’s a collective sigh let out in response to the news today that Netflix is launching its long-rumored ad-supported service on November 1, a hasty move that will beat the launch of Disney+’s own ad-supported service by roughly a month. Reading this, you will see that streaming is more terrestrial-like than ever.
Over the past few years, as media companies have merged and consolidated their “brands” and services, it soon became evident that consumers were facing a world where the Big Three of TV—NBC, CBS, ABC—would just be replaced by a new Big Three. Perhaps it was Netflix and HBO Max or Disney+. Or maybe Amazon Prime and Hulu. While streaming companies are in a fierce battle for supremacy, the fact is that most people access their content through a variety of streams. All that is old and new again are the legacy channels that have created their own platforms like Paramount+ and Peacock.
We are not seeing the future we dreamed of. When players like Netflix came on the scene, their claim to fame was that they were “disruptors,” here to shake up Hollywood by giving people what they wanted when they wanted it. Consumers rallied around a cry to “cut the cord” and leave cable packages behind forever to watch prestige TV over the internet. It worked. Streaming exploded. As competition grew and viewers realized that they spent almost the same amount on streaming and internet subscriptions than they did for cable, they demanded more affordable options. The only way to do that—a tale as old as time—was for their offerings to be subsidized by advertisers.
Over the past year, as Netflix’s stock price and subscriber numbers have shrunk, it’s raced to develop an ad-supported model in pursuit of users and revenue. During a call with reporters today announcing the new $6.99-per-month plan, Netflix chief operating officer Greg Peters noted: “We built Basic with Ads in six months.” When it launches—first in Canada and Mexico, with the US, UK, and other regions coming later in the month—it will beat Disney+’s December 8 launch of its ad-supported model for $7.99 per month. During the call, Peters said the company wasn’t “anchoring” its launch time or price around the competition, but the timing does indicate a big shift, a beginning of the end for streaming as viewers know it.
This is self-fulfilling prophecy. Back in July, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings predicted the demise of linear TV in the “next five to 10 years.” What he didn’t say was that Netflix and other streamers would just emerge in its place. The deals are a little different—the ads on streaming are fewer than on network TV; network TV is free—but with each one, streaming looks a little more like the television of 50 years ago. (See also: Starting in 2023, Netflix will be tracked by Nielsen—a huge move for a company that has closely guarded its viewership numbers.) Linear TV might be ending, but its replacement isn’t much more than meets the eye.