Return of the Ads
Plus: A surrealist classic, assigned!
So much streaming news these past few weeks. Warner Bros. Discovery canceling movies and rejiggering priorities! Netflix losing subs in North America but losing fewer than projected so people think it’s a win! Disney+ “surpassing” Netflix in terms of overall subscribers, kinda, if you squint real hard. It’s one reason I was so thrilled to have Julia Alexander of Parrot Analytics on The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood this week, to not only discuss all that but also so she could help explain how streamers make their decisions on what to keep and what to cancel. I really hope you give it a listen:
But buried in all this news was a little tidbit worth teasing out. Sean McNulty highlighted it in his morning roundup newsletter for The Ankler, but I think it’s worth dwelling on for a moment: “#FunFact: 2/3rds of HULU subscribers take the Ad-Supported version,making for roughly a 27 Million to 15 Million split.” This is roughly in keeping with what Hulu has reported about use of the service for years now; I remember being shocked back in 2019 when I heard that 70 percent of Hulu users had the ad-supported plan.
I guess it makes sense: the ad-free version is roughly twice as expensive, and not everyone is privileged enough to have money to burn on streaming services like your humble narrator. (All those new IRS agents are going to have a field day when I have to explain to them that, yes, my Criterion Channel sub really is for work, I swear, just look at the assigned viewing in this very email!)
But still: we live in an era in which advertising seems like less and less of a good option for media companies. McNulty himself has been keeping track of this in his newsletter, highlighting advertising growth slowdown at WSJ and Barron’s, advertising drops at AMC networks, advertising drops at Paramount, etc. In a recession, ad sales are always on the chopping block for companies looking to tighten the belt a little. But on top of that there is a continued belief that advertising really just doesn’t work on TV or in newspapers: it’s too hard to target customers and it’s easy to feel like you’re throwing money away.
Here’s the thing: advertising makes sense as a tradeoff between producers and consumers as the price to pay for listening to or watching or reading something for free. If you listen to a podcast and you don’t want to pay for an ad-free version, you get ads. Fair deal. If you want to read Buzzfeed, you get ads or sponsored content. If you want to watch network TV and you don’t have a DVR to zip through them after the fact, you get ads. One of the most annoying things about cable—one of the things I remember hearing about from parents as a betrayal, in a way—is that you’re not only paying for the privilege to watch, you’re also paying for the ads you get while paying for the privilege to watch.
This is one of the reasons streaming was so appealing, at least at first. Netflix is just $10 a month and you get all this ad-free stuff! HBO Max: no ads! Disney+: ad-free! But ads are coming or have come to all those services in some form. Hulu has always been ad-supported, and people either don’t care because they’re not actually watching the service (tons of people have Hulu bundled with a cable or phone package or as part of the Disney+ bundle) or because they don’t mind having the pee breaks (that’s what a pause button is for, savages!) or because they want to save some money (fine, reasonable).
But ads are coming back because streamers have more info about our consumption habits than the cable companies or networks ever did, so the ads are more valuable than ever. Plus, there’s no skipping ads via DVR when you’re streaming on Hulu et al. You get the targeting of a Google or a Facebook with the willingly captive audience of a TV channel. All of which is to say that it feels like we’re returning to the world of basic cable. Not only do the streamers want people to pay for the service, they also want people to put up with ads for the privilege.
The future, man. It’s great!
On next week’s episode of The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood, I’m interviewing Brian Gewirtz, who was a writer at the WWE for a decade or so. We had a great chat about the evolution of wrestling through the 1990s to the 2010s, a period encompassing the Monday night wars, WWE’s dominance, and the rise of social media as a factor in how storylines play out. I really want to encourage folks to pick up his new book, There’s Just One Problem: True Tales from the Former, One-Time, 7th Most Powerful Person in WWE. It’s out on Tuesday, so you should preorder it today to ensure that you get it on your doorstep the day it drops. If you’re of a certain age (say, mine) and enjoyed professional wrestling in your younger years, you’ll find the book incredibly informative and entertaining and, occasionally, a little moving.
Speaking of cable and the future not being so great: In the Washington Post, I wrote about how we lived through an age of unbundling and are about to live through an age of rebundling. Past is prologue, all that is old is new, etc. (Link should be unlocked, so it shouldn’t cost you a free click if you don’t subscribe. I don’t think. I don’t quite understand how WaPo’s “gift links” system works.)
This week I reviewed Bodies Bodies Bodies, which is a delightful satire of Gen Z sensibilities and sensitivities wrapped up in a bloody thriller. It’s on about 1,000 screens this weekend, so it’s probably playing near you. Check it out if you get a chance!
Breaking news I was working on this newsletter: Salman Rushdie has been stabbed at a speech and is being flown to a hospital. Prayers up, etc. But this news reminds that that there are few people on this planet I respect less than the PEN America members who signed onto a letter criticizing PEN America for giving the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo an award following the slaughter of its staff by Islamic radicals. Anyone who would kill an artist for their art is an enemy of the enlightenment … and any artist who fails to support artists murdered for practicing their art is a quisling and a moral idiot.
On a personal note, just want to wish Bulwark contributor Bill Ryan a speedy recovery. Follow him on Twitter and send well-wishes!
Assigned Viewing: The Exterminating Angel (The Criterion Channel)
In my review of Bodies Bodies Bodies, I referenced Luis Buñuel’s classic surrealist work The Exterminating Angel. In part because it too is a comedy of manners, of a kind, but also because it too is a horror story about the hell of other people. They are, obviously, very different movies—Bodies is more frenetic; Angel a bit more languid—but they both expertly pick apart the foolishness of a subset of society in an enclosed setting.