Familiarity with Streaming Breeds Contempt
Plus: a sci-fi assignment!
One of my more heretical opinions is that for as much as folks loved to complain about cable—about the awful customer service; about how expensive it was; about being forced to get 80 channels when you really only wanted five or six—it was actually a pretty great deal for most customers and cable networks alike.
For cable networks, a broad customer base combined with regular monthly affiliate fees meant that pretty much any channel could take a crack at something like The Shield or Mad Men or Breaking Bad, which led to the so-called new golden age of television. For customers, you had your five or six go-to channels, yes, but you also had constant access to lots of channels you only wanted to watch once or twice a year, as well as live news during emergencies, etc. What I always warned people when they pushed for unbundling—the ability to just pay for what they wanted—is that there would likely wind up being fewer channels and we’ll wind up paying the same amount to access them.
And then we’d all wind up even crankier.
Allow me to suggest a new poll by Puck and The Quorum shows that we’re seeing precisely that crankiness start to kick in. The two companies have been tracking the “Net Promoter Score” (a 0-100 metric invented by consulting firm Bain years ago measuring, essentially, how positive consumers feel about a brand: a great score is above 80; a decent score is above 50) for the major streaming companies. Six months ago, Netflix had the highest NPS at 49, which is already a mildly worrying sign. Most were in the 30s or 20s.
I don’t want to be a completely negative Nancy, so let’s start with some good news for the streaming companies: familiarity with the services ticked up or virtually held steady almost across the board! (The only service to see a notable dip was Max, which makes sense given the whole HBO Max/Max/Discovery+ thing over the last half year.) More people are now familiar with Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Disney+ than in January.
Here is the very, very bad news: Despite that, NPS scores decreased.
All of them.
Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Paramount+ were each down 13 percent. HBO Max/Max held the best, down just three percent. Disney+? Down five percent. Hulu down 11 percent. Peacock plummeted from 26 percent to 12 percent. Apple lost five percent.
This is a bloodbath. The important question is “Why?” I dunno, maybe it’s because the streamers are pulling shows (David Herrin of The Quorum told Puck’s Matt Belloni that 45 percent of those polled had noticed shows go missing) and they’re charging more for less and they’re forcing advertisements onto people who are already paying for the service that they’d grown accustomed to watching ad-free. But I don’t blame the streamers for this. (Well. Not entirely, anyway.) The real root cause here is that people spent years clamoring for the option to just pay for what they wanted only to realize they wanted lots of stuff and then to grow vexed when they had to start paying full freight. Streaming as it exists now is a money-losing proposition for everyone other than Netflix. For streaming to work as a business model, the streamers have to cut costs or charge more or, likely, do both. Which, unsurprisingly, annoys customers.
We’re in the process of killing linear cable only to replace it with something worse. Great work, everyone. Applause all around.
The cable bundle is a bit like a weekly magazine: sure, there were reporters you didn’t read every week—maybe some writers you actively skipped because you didn’t care for their style or the subjects they wrote about—but the total package of editorials and short reported pieces and long-form features and a crackerjack culture section kept you subscribing. And then newsletters came along and at first it was cool to send Andrew Sullivan five bucks or Matt Yglesias five bucks. But soon those five-dollar subs added up. You wound up spending way more than the cost of your Atlantic subscription—where they both used to blog—on just two writers. You were spending more and getting less.
This is a long way of saying that one of the things I love about The Bulwark is that it’s the best of all worlds: the newsletter model filled with individual personalities at the scale of a magazine-size staff. If you don’t read JVL or Charlieevery day you’ll probably love Joe Perticone’s crack Capitol Hill reporting; you may not listen to my podcasts, like today’s great Across the Movie Aisle episode on R-rated comedies, every week, but I’ll bet you’ll dig TNB or differ with Mona or comment on The Next Level. God help you if you’re one of those sickos who isn’t fascinated by The Focus Group, for my money the most educational of our political offerings. If you haven’t checked out Will Saletan’s magisterial series on the decline and fall of Lindsey Graham, you can read or listen to it.
Apologies for running through the greatest hits, but my point is, there’s a ton to choose from even if you don’t want every single offering and it’s all just $10 a month ($8.33/month if you sign up for a year!). I’m biased, but I think we’re one of the best deals on Substack because we’re a bundle, a recreation of that magazine ideal. No matter your interests, you’ll find someone or something you love, and probably more than one.
All of which is to say that if you haven’t taken advantage of our free month offer, you really should. Again: it’s the best deal in town. You won’t regret it.
Only one link this week: Warner Bros. officially delayed the release of Dune: Part Two as a result of the ongoing actors strike, which would dampen the ability of stars Zendaya and Timothée Chalamet to promote the film. As I wrote in The Atlantic a few weeks back, seeing the wave of delays hit the American release calendar reminds me of nothing so much as the spring and summer of 2020, when news of movie theaters shuttering started spreading from China to Eastern Europe to Western Europe to New York and Los Angeles. Theater closures meant movies started falling off of the calendar as release dates kept getting pushed back.
What we’re seeing here as the strikes stretch on is nothing less than COVID redux, albeit one that is entirely self-inflicted by an industry that had finally regained some theatrical momentum thanks to Barbenheimmer. Theaters are going to be left with fewer movies to show, which means that some screens are going to shutter forever, which means that fewer movies will play in the future, which means there will be less money to go around for everyone, studio head and lowly writer and mid-level star alike. This is a disaster, and it’s one that could have—should have—been avoided.
Assigned Viewing: Elysium (Hulu)
I threw this on a couple of nights ago because it was directed by Neill Blomkamp, whose Gran Turismo I reviewed this week. It’s a fairly silly movie but an entertaining one, nevertheless: Blomkamp has a wonderful eye for set design and a uniquely grimy near-future sensibility. By no means perfect (I still am not entirely sure what accent Jodie Foster is attempting), there’s a lot of neat stuff to look at, and that goes a long way for a sci-fi action picture. I remain fascinated by Blomkamp’s compelling portraits of sprawling dystopia.