Pando

It's a golden age of streaming. But what happens when the gold starts to run out?

By Kevin Kelleher , written on September 19, 2017

From The Showbiz Desk

Sunday night's Emmys underscored something that's grown increasingly apparent in the past few years: to be successful in video is to be over the top.

Hulu, aka the little Netflix-wannabe that could, took home four primetime Emmys, including the top award for best drama. Netflix won four Emmys for three different shows. HBO won ten, a bigger haul than anyone,else, including top awards for comedy and miniseries. Throw in the creative Emmys and these three garnered a collective 59 awards.

Awards like the Emmys are about more than taking home a trophy. They bring networks and companies into the center of the conversation, providing them returns in that most valuable of the Internet era's commodities: attention. They offer a subjective gut-check on who is making an impact, and who is becoming irrelevant.

In that sense, the Emmys illustrate how much things have changed. Five years ago, to watch Emmy winners and nominees you'd have had to own a cable box or a TV antenna. Netflix, which was born over the top, won its first Emmy in 2015. Hulu followed this year. The networks that have yet to jump over the top have fallen back, while those, like HBO, that have most successfully done so have maintained their mojo.

But the ever-changing world of video continues to evolve. In the past couple of months, all of the major players have been tweaking or shifting their strategies in ways that may once again rearrange the pecking order of media providers. And the deciding factor is likely to the same one that put Netflix and HBO on top: their ability to spend on streaming programming.

The ubiquity of mobile devices and the higher bandwidth has rendered the cable box either unnecessary or secondary in the past few years. That opened up an opportunity for Netflix, which was soon followed by Amazon Studios and Hulu and which inspired cable stalwarts like HBO, Showtime and Starz to bring their original programming to an online, on-demand model.

The problem is, attracting all that online attention costs an obscene amount of money. This year, Netflix will spend $6 billion, much of it on licensing and increasingly more of it on its home-grown programs. HBO and Hulu will each spend around $2.5 billion on programming and Amazon Studios will spend around $4.5 billion.  

This has led to a lot of handwringing about peak TV in the past year or so. As the first two episodes of The Deuce suggests, however, the quality of top programs is far from peaking. Instead, what's shaking things up is the good-old law of supply and demand. Demand for streaming video will keep growing but mostly overseas. In the US, demand will grow more slowly, and perhaps nowhere near enough to keep up with the mushrooming supply.

Last month, reports emerged that Apple would spend $1 billion on original content. (If it's anything like Planet of the Apps, that peak-TV argument may yet hold some water.) This month, we learned Facebook might spend a similar amount on original shows. Snapchat, along with Facebook, is working with older networks like ABC, NBC and BBC to create yet more original content for its platform.

The video glut these companies have created doesn't even include the 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, all those pivots to video, and the as-yet unhatched startups founded by entrepreneurs who once read that Mark Zuckerberg said video is the future. The future no longer belongs simply to video but, as with any digital glut, to the companies that can do the best job of filtering it in a useful way.

In the meantime, the rush to invest in video programming is encountering some speed bumps. Amazon Studios, which won zero primetime Emmys on Sunday and two creative arts Emmys this year, canceled several of its series this month, including one that debuted only two weeks earlier and another that it had previously renewed for a second season. The move came amid reports that Jeff Bezos is hunting for his very own Game of Thrones.

Netflix also signaled last week that it's ready to apply the brakes if necessary. “In the future, we might be at a point where we might start seeing more budget constraints,” CFO David Wells told investors, noting that it all depends on how fast its revenue keeps growing. Wells also indicated that Netflix had room to raise its monthly fee without hurting subscriber demand.

Will Netflix soon cost more? If so, it would be better acting sooner than later. The free ride many HBO Go subscribers have in piggybacking on a friend's subscription can't last forever. More significantly, Disney is making plans to pull all its content inside its own paywall. CBS, FX, AMC and others are doing or planning the same. Netflix will soon be competing against multiple providers for subscriber loyalties.

Even if attention for online video hasn't reached its limits, consumers will soon be picking and choosing which providers they are paying to watch. The skinny part of the skinny bundle means that some video providers won't have the resources needed to maintain billion-dollar programming budgets. And that suggests that what seems like a modest scaling back today could turn into a full-on shakeout in time.

Even the strongest players could feel financial pressure. In the way cable watchers used to channel surf, online consumers will start provider surfing: Signing up for HBO just long enough to watch Game of Thrones, then canceling to sign up for Netflix just in time for Stranger Things, then hopping over to Hulu for the next season of The Handmaid's Tale, and so on. If that happens, the easy money that all these companies have enjoyed from digital subscriptions may dry up some. This is already happening in my home, and with others I know.

Whatever the outcome, there is bound to be a kind of reckoning not just for the companies like Netflix that got in early on the digital video land grab, but for the Johnny-come-latelies who are now crowding in as well. The winners may not be the pure play upstarts either. Hulu, after all, is backed by stodgy incumbents like NBCUniversal, Disney and Fox Entertainment. Amazon Studios, meanwhile, has deep resources but for now is struggling to translate them into must-see programming.

The golden age of television is far from over. But it's starting to look the gold that drove it isn't as mighty as it used to be.