It certainly seems like the world of streaming video entered a new epoch recently. Last week, Comcast finally handed the reigns of Hulu over to Disney, which means the company will have not only the impending Disney+ streaming service but also a live TV service that competes with the big cable companies. Then, the very same day, we saw a genuinely awful outcome of AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner, when CEO Randall Stephenson announced that Friends and other WarnerMedia-owned shows would be pulled from Netflix to run exclusively on the company’s forthcoming streaming platform. Apple reminded us of its foray into streaming with the release of the new Apple TV app, which will support TV+ later this year, and cable channel IFC announced it’s own streaming service for a monthly fee of $6. Look at all those content fiefdoms.
As these companies snatch hold of rights and create their new exclusive content, they’re cordoning off their empires and demanding you to either ignore some of the most talked about TV shows and films available or pay your way into their services. Either way, it’s a dark future for the streamer.
Now you might think “well I can just not subscribe!” or maybe “I don’t need to revisit Friends or the enormous catalog of classic films Warner now owns.” And that’s very true.
But for many, that’s not realistic. People naturally want to be included in conversations. The internet has only bolstered the water cooler imperative of keeping up with mass culture events like Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones.
Disney recognizes this. The company now owns the rights to some of the largest franchises in the business and is slowly pulling them form all other competing streaming platforms to force people to watch them on Disney+. Want to watch a Marvel movie or Star Wars? What about X-Men? Got a hankering for those blue Avatar people? Need to check out Frozen, Moana, The Incredibles, or Aladdin? You’ll have to cough up cash for Disney+. And you’ll be paying Disney for the privilege of watching ESPN too. It owns that, not to mention A&E, ABC, History Channel, a big chunk of Vice, FX, and even Lifetime. As we said before, Disney now owns Hulu outright, too—AT&T sold its share last month, and Comcast agreed to relinquish its share last week.
Whenever a company consolidates large portions of a commodity that everyone wants, the first concern that comes to mind is cost. Streaming could get a whole lot more expensive. Remember how cheap Netflix was when it was just a dinky little add-on to the disc subscription service? But over the years it’s crept up. It’s now double the price it was five years ago. Disney, with its now enormous catalog of content (a catalog far more extensive and potentially more lucrative than Netflix’s), has already spread subscriptions across three different services, Hulu, ESPN, and soon Disney+. After it hooks you on Disney+ for $7 a month later this year, it could very easily start increasing the price. (No one at Disney has said as much to date.)
It’s a tactic that has served TV providers well for some time. Lure them in with introductory prices, get them addicted to the service provided, and then raise the price. Sure you could shut off the never-ending stream of Moana, but will you?
As irritating and expensive as Disney’s streaming monopoly will be, it’s the company’s dominance over culture that feels the most terrifying. So far this year, Disney has dominated roughly 35-percent of the American box office sales, according to Box Office Mojo. Combined with Warner Bros., that number jumps to about half of the U.S. box office.
Very few companies are producing a large percentage of what we watch, and as they consolidate the means of distribution via the internet, it’s beginning to feel like they’ve got too much power—it ends badly. And we know that because this isn’t the first time a few companies have controlled both the production and distribution of huge amounts of entertainment.
Back in the 1940s, you had a similar system, in some respects. “Basically the studios financed the movies, produced them themselves at their own companies and then they also owned some movie theaters,” Karina Longworth, a Hollywood historian and host of You Must Remember This, told me.
This meant they could give sweetheart distribution deals to their own theaters while gouging competitors, and it meant if you wanted to be in the business of making movies, you also probably had to be in the business of building theaters all across the United States.
According to Longworth, the U.S. government perceived that vertical integration of the entertainment business as a monopoly. Following a series of anti-trust actions and negotiations in the 1930s and 1940s, the studios ended up divesting themselves of their control over theaters.
According to Longworth, the effect wasn’t immediately felt by consumers in any kind of financial way, but it had huge ramifications for the film industry, and for the kind of voices that were prioritized in movies. “There was, for all intents and purposes, no such thing as independent film that got any kind of distribution until the 1950s.”
No indie film meant every single movie being made was dictated, to some degree, by a very small group of people at the very top of these studios. And while the people running studios can lift up and amplify a wide variety of voices and experiences, that’s not always practically the case. Black cinema wasn’t embraced by the big studios, nor was queer cinema. Films featuring people from other countries weren’t common. And thanks to the draconian nature of the Hays code and its enforcers (collectively working as the precursor to the frequently as awful MPAA) there was a broad swath of subject matter the big studios wouldn’t touch. You couldn’t even make a film decrying Nazism until right before the U.S. entered World War II.
Filmmakers getting out of the exhibiting game changed things dramatically. And those studios getting back into the exhibiting game, via the streaming, could change things too.
It’s not clear just how Disney’s new direct to consumer strategy will affect what kinds of content it makes. A cynic might be tempted to read far too much into recent developments as an indication of what the company’s plans are. Disney wanted to create its own streaming service, so the Marvel shows at Netflix all got canceled. Instead of a bulletproof black man taking on a corrupt Blue Lives Matter world (Luke Cage), and a victim of sexual assault learning to overcome her PTSD (Jessica Jones), you’ll be getting Disney+ shows like the one about soldiers traveling the world fighting bad guys, the one about a time-traveling trickster Norse god, and one about a lady in love with a robot who has been dead since 2018. Maybe they’ll be good and challenging, and all of my hand-wringing will be for proven wrong. Who knows.
What we do know is that Disney is inescapable and thanks to its streaming holdings, its iron grip on our attention and our entertainment dollars has never been stronger.