Business

Streaming Exclusives Will Drive Users Back To Piracy And The Industry Is Largely Oblivious

As you probably have noticed, there’s a growing tide of streaming video services popping up to feed users who want a cheaper, more flexible alternative to traditional cable. By and large this has been a very good thing. It’s finally driving some competition for bumbling apathetic giants like Comcast, forcing them to at least make a feeble effort to improve customer service. It also reflects a belated admission by the broadcast industry that you need to compete with piracy(instead of say, suing the entire planet and hoping it goes away) by offering users access to cheaper, flexible viewing options.

But the gold rush into streaming has come with a few downsides. Studies have suggested that every broadcaster on the planet will likely have their own streaming service by 2022. In a bid to drive more subscribers to their service, said broadcasters are increasingly developing their own content, or striking their own content exclusivity deals, and then locking that content in an exclusivity silo. For example, if you want to watch Star Trek: Discovery, you need to shell out $6 a month for CBS All Access. Can’t miss House of Cards? You’ll need Netflix. Bosch? Amazon Prime. The Handmaid’s Tale? Hulu.

Again, on its face this impulse makes perfect sense: you want the kind of content that drives users to your platform. And at first it wasn’t all that noticeable, because there were only a handful of services. Even if you subscribed to four of them, you still probably were saving money over your traditional cable bill.

The problem is, as more and more companies jump into the streaming market, users are being forced to subscribe to an ocean of discordant services to get access for the content they’re looking for. As users are forced to pony up more and more cash for more and more services, it’s going to start defeating the purpose of ditching over-priced, traditional cable. But instead of going back to cable, back in March we noted how users are just as likely to consider piracy.

And of course that’s already starting to happen, with BitTorrent usage seeing some modest but notable bumps, especially overseas. It’s minor now, but if you’ve paid attention to several decades of piracy precedent, it’s not hard to predict the outcome of this rush to cordon off everything into far too many exclusivity silos. Disney, for example, is preparing to pull all of its best content off of Netflix (Star Wars, Pixar, Marvel) and make it exclusive to its own streaming platform. In the wake of its acquisition of Time Warner, AT&T is contemplating doing the same thing with old episodes of shows like Friends. You may have noticed a trend:

“Before Netflix got into the Original series game, it made a name for itself by licensing content from other distributors like Warner Bros. TV, Paramount Television, and NBC Universal Television. Licensing deals are great for fans who don’t have cable or are looking to discover new series in full, but now that streaming is king, distributors and production companies have realized that they can make more money by consolidating their content on a single streaming service — hence why Disney, WarnerMedia, DC, and other media companies are creating their own platforms with original content.”

You’d be pretty hard pressed to find many people in the streaming or broadcast sector who realize the pitfalls of this gold rush toward streaming exclusivity, even after all of the painful piracy and gatekeeper lessons learned thus far. After all, most industry executives are right that having must-watch exclusive content is necessary to drive subscriber adoption, and that developing original content in house is a better financial proposition than skyrocketing broadcast licensing costs. But few have paused, taken a step back, and considered how the rush to exclusivity at scale could come back to bite the sector at large.

That’s thanks, in part, to the weird aversion among most journalists and analysts to even mention piracy in their reports or stories. Most reporters and analysts see even mentioning piracy as some kind of bizarre cardinal sin that implies they somehow advocate for the behavior. This tendency to ignore the elephant in the room is a major reason the industry has such a hard time learning that you have to compete with piracy, not engage in idiotic, counter-productive and often harmful attempts to “cure” it with legislation, lawyers, or an endless parade of terrible ideas.

The old adage that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it will likely hold true here. If the current trend holds, by 2022 consumers will be forced to subscribe to an absolute universe of $10 to $15 per month services just to get all the content they’re looking for, on the presumption the average household has an unlimited amount of disposable income.

If history is any indication, it will take another year or two for the industry to identify and admit this exclusivity parade is driving users back to piracy. At that point, they’ll probably burn through a rotating crop of “solutions” (like waging war on password sharing), before coming to this central conclusion: that licensing your content to a sensible but not overwhelming crop of companies actually good at the technical and customer service aspects of streaming (like, Netflix) — instead of everybody and their mother launching their own streaming product — wasn’t such a terrible idea after all.