Breaking Through the Clutter
Now in his second year at Bradley University, Dr. Cory Barker is an assistant professor of journalism in the Department of Communication. He holds a PhD in communication and culture from Indiana University, an M.A. in popular culture from Bowling Green State University, and a B.A. in journalism from Indiana University.
Dr. Barker’s research interests focus on the intersections between “old” and “new” media, including how television networks and film studios utilize social media in their promotional and production processes and how the Silicon Valley ethos has made its way to Hollywood through companies like Netflix, Facebook and Twitter. He is the co-editor of three books: The Age of Netflix (2017), Arrow and Superhero Television (2017) and Mapping Smallville (2014). His work has also appeared in From Networks to Netflix: A Guide to Changing Channels, Television and New Media, and Transformative Works and Cultures. Outside of academia, Dr. Barker works as a culture writer and critic, where his writing has appeared in TV Guide, Vox, The A.V. Club and TV.com.
How are streaming services and social media impacting television in 2020? What are the most significant trends for the consumer?
The impact of streaming services is immense. Cord cutting continues to grow across the nation. More media conglomerates are plotting their respective competitors to Netflix. Media industry strategy—including film and sports— is increasingly oriented toward content for streaming platforms, with “older” distribution channels viewed as secondary or expected to keep diminishing in importance. This has been building for the last decade, but now we’ve reached a kind of tipping point with the number of competing services and exclusive original content.
For consumers, then, the major trend is decision anxiety and cost consideration. It’s essentially as expensive now to subscribe to three, four or five streaming platforms as it is to pay for cable. Media conglomerates are taking back their owned content as opposed to licensing it to Netflix or Hulu—Friends and The Office are two notable examples of shows popular on Netflix that have left the platform to head to proprietary services. Likewise, because these platforms have to create enough original/exclusive content to attract subscribers, there are simply too many options for people to watch. There are fewer shows breaking through the clutter to reach some kind of saturation point on social media, for instance. People are in their own little silos, watching at different times, and perhaps not having as much conversation about the same content as before.
What are the implications for local TV stations and local programming?
Amid these broader changes, local TV news is doing very well. Traditional ratings are down, but ad revenue and retransmission fees are up. The allure of live television (including local news and sports) is bigger than ever because of the underlying assumption that it’s the only thing people watch “traditional” TV for in 2020. However, local stations aren’t always part of the streaming bundles like Hulu Live, YouTube TV, Sling, etc.—there’s something lost there. The local news viewer is still pretty old, relatively speaking. Anecdotally, one would think that increased cord cutting and streaming will eventually erode local TV much farther than we’ve seen thus far.
Given that a la carte streaming can be even more expensive than a cable package, do you think the pendulum will eventually shift back toward consolidation?
To an extent, this bundling process is already happening within certain media conglomerates. Disney offers a Disney+/ESPN+/Hulu bundle, for instance. The new WarnerMedia streaming platform—the horribly-named HBO Max—will be available to HBO subscribers and discounted for AT&T internet subscribers (I think… it’s been a confusing rollout). Comcast’s streaming service, Peacock, is free for Comcast subscribers. But that still leaves a lot of room for further consolidation, including Netflix, Apple, and all the traditional networks and cable channels out there.
The challenge is that, right now, each mega-corporation isn’t motivated to collaborate. Executives are convinced their platform will be successful enough with paying customers (or those getting discounts) that it won’t be worth joining up with a competing mega-corp. Until then, they hope to extract whatever dollars they can from consumers. Scarily, given the current regulatory environment, the most likely scenario is that we get closer to a “streaming bundle” because some of these companies buy each other. There are constant rumors about Apple buying Netflix, or Disney buying Netflix, and in the short term, that might be more likely than a unifying bundle. We’ll get there eventually.
How are new streaming platforms from the likes of Disney, Comcast and TimeWarner impacting Netflix and other market leaders?
Right now, they aren’t. Netflix had an enormous head start. In the last part of 2019, both Disney and Apple unveiled their long-gestating competitors to mixed results. Disney+ has a healthy subscriber base, and its Star Wars show The Mandalorian captured the zeitgeist and social media chatter in effective ways, but there aren’t many original offerings available yet. While the Marvel TV series and more Star Wars stuff is on the way, the delay between the platform’s release and some of that content is pretty shocking. Disney can get away with that more than most because of its immense library—particularly with parents—but it’s still been a slow-ish rollout.
Apple’s TV experiment is, essentially, a disaster. It spent billions on original programming that very few people have seemed to watch. The subscription only includes the half-dozen or so originals currently available and no library content. Convincing consumers, in this environment, that they should pay five or six bucks monthly for a handful of shows is a tough proposition.
WarnerMedia has the best chance given its existing portfolio of content (including HBO) and all the hype it will receive at launch, thanks to the just-announced Friends reunion special. But even then, Netflix has become the absolute default for streamers, even if most of its original content isn’t good and so much of its library content has disappeared. Inertia goes a long way. And as these other companies hop in with their streaming platforms, Netflix will be above the fray, focusing on global expansion. It is increasingly less concerned about the U.S. and more focused on pushing out regional competitors in other countries. That isn’t talked about nearly as much as it should be.
What about the promise of “interactive” TV, in which users interact directly with programming? What is being explored in this area?
The utopian dream of interactive TV experiences has diminished significantly. Last decade, networks tried to construct partially interactive experiences through “second screen” apps and chatter on Twitter, as part of a last gasp for traditional TV as time-delayed streaming really took off. Those things still exist here and there. The biggest movement in this realm has probably been Netflix’s experiment with the dystopian sci-fi series Black Mirror—its late-2018 Bandersnatch film featured “choose your own adventure” style interactivity. Netflix collected a lot of user data related to the film and will surely do something similar in the future as a result. But as the Bandersnatch example illustrates, the interactive content strategy is mostly in place for promotional and research purposes. The interactivity is always programmed and controlled by the platforms people are interacting with.
What is the allure of live programming in a world where most everyone watches on-demand or via streaming?
In the industry’s mind, HUGELY alluring. Networks are paying ever-larger sums of money for live sports rights. Regional sports networks (RSNs) are consistently stuck in the middle of negotiations between licensers and distributors/platforms because they’re perceived to be so lucrative. The broadcast networks keep pushing for more live “event-style” programming like musicals, reality shows and award shows. This year, primary debates and election coverage are part of that as well. Yet, outside of the NFL and college football, ratings for annual live events generally go down each year. But somehow that convinces networks and advertisers that they’re still valuable—because ratings for non-live content are going down even more. It’s a bizarre manifestation of media corporation logic: they believe live programming is hugely important, and therefore it continues to be. So even if people are watching less of it, we’ll keep seeing more live events trying to bring people to the television.
As the medium continues to evolve, will “traditional TV” even exist in a few years?
It would take a lot to completely eliminate traditional TV as we know it. The technology may change, but the underlying organizational structure of networks, channels and programming guides will not disappear. Speaking for myself as an example, I subscribe to YouTube TV but still utilize it to watch local TV, the broadcast networks and a pretty familiar programming guide. Similarly, so many of the emergent streaming platforms are owned by traditional media companies invested in that structure that are marketing familiarity and nostalgia to consumers. In that regard, we will probably only get more embedded into ecosystems owned by Comcast, WarnerMedia, Apple and so on. PM