Why No Streaming Service Will Ever Be PerfectS

Hulu Plus. Amazon Prime. Netflix. Redbox. In an ideal world, any one of these would someday become an all-encompassing streaming service. One subscription, one price, one ticket out of the cable's iron grasp. That's never been the case, of course. But as exclusive content deals keep piling up, it's increasingly clear that it never will be.

Want to cut the cord? That's great. But what's waiting for you could soon be nearly as bad.

Streaming services have always been fractured, but at least there were some clear lines of demarcation. Broadly speaking, if you wanted (most) TV shows on delay, you'd plunk your money into Hulu Plus. Movies more your thing? Netflix, right this way. Prefer a budget-friendly middle ground that comes with free shipping? Amazon Prime's a click away. Each addressed a specific need.

That's changing. Ten days ago, Amazon announced that it had nabbed exclusive Downton Abbey rights for Amazon Prime Instant Video, sentencing Netflix subscribers to a Granthamless eternity. Today, the company piled on, becoming the only streaming service to get its mitts on CBS's new Stephen King-inspired Under the Dome. Not only that, but it'll give subscribers in-season access to the series. It's quite a coup.

CBS doesn't play nice with Hulu because—unlike ABC, Fox, and NBC—it's not an owner. It's a competitor. It's clear now that it intends to stay that way. IfUnder the Dome is a successful test run? Expect other CBS favorites (if, uh, you have one) to land in an Amazon silo as well. And that's troubling if you've been hoping for one streaming service to rule them all. We're not consolidating. We're fragmenting.

Yes, offerings have always differed across the two platforms. And yes, we're just talking about two programs for now, only one of which has a definite built-in audience. But as competition for streaming eyeballs becomes more competitive, exclusive deals for individual shows will become the norm. Which means you'll either have to sign up for three, four separate services to fully replace your cable subscription, or live without some of your favorite shows.

And that's just existing programs. As Netflix and Amazon both push hard into original content—House of Cards being the first of many attempts on both sides to find a breakout show—they'll eventually hit pay dirt. If the next Sopranos or Mad Men-level phenomenon ends up as a Netflix exclusive, you'd subscribe. Remember: Netflix wants to be the next HBO. So does Amazon. So will Redbox. So will whoever else comes along with a big enough checkbook and enough bandwidth.

Having something no one else does is good business, absolutely. But that doesn't mean it's good for you. Eventually, Netflix and Amazon and Redbox and Hulu aren't just going to replace the channels you pay for now. They'll be channels in and of themselves, a handful of monthly bills instead of one consolidated offering. You can cut all the cords you want; soon, you'll just be trading them in for new ones.