Recently, having sat through yet another episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (2010-19) on Netflix with my four-year-old daughter, I felt moved to tell her about my own childhood experience of watching TV. In Britain in the 1980s, I explained, there were only four channels, and kids’s shows were broadcast for only a few short hours a day. Even worse, or perhaps even better, this programming was liable to be suspended whenever there was a major national event: a royal wedding, say, or (and this is the example that still haunts me) Pope John Paul II’s five-day, interminably televised trip to the UK in 1982. My daughter, for whom parental say-so is the only barrier to instant, 24/7 access to Netflix’s vast content library, looked at me agog. Finally, after some thought, she announced: ‘I hope that silly Pope never comes here again!’
In the streaming age, My Little Pony fans need not fear that a Pontiff’s visit will disrupt their viewing. Nevertheless, those who get their dose of equine camaraderie through Netflix might feel anxious that the series will soon migrate to one of the new generation of TV subscription services. After all, in North America two of the provider’s most popular shows – the US version of The Office (2005-13) and the white-folk-in-mild-peril sitcom Friends (1994-2004) – have recently been clawed back by their owners NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia, to bolster those companies’s own on-demand platforms Peacock and HBO MAX, which will launch in April and May this year, respectively. This follows Disney pulling its content from Netflix, and relocating it to its Disney+ service, which immediately amassed some 10 million subscribers when it went live in the US in November 2019. Their library includes the House of Mouse’s own animated movies, Marvel’s ‘Cinematic Universe’, the Star Wars productions, the complete Pixar catalogue, National Geographic documentaries and pretty much anything made by 20th Century Fox.
Further competition for paying viewers is provided by (deep breath) Amazon Prime Video, the recently launched Apple+, the BBC and ITV’s imminent Britbox platform and YouTube Premium, not forgetting those just about living fossils, cable and satellite tv. The age in which Netflix – still the market leader with some 158 million account holders globally – operated as something close to the default provider of subscription-based televisual entertainment has come to an end. Paywalls are going up everywhere, intellectual property is being jealously hoarded and the long-predicted streaming wars are finally on. Viewers will need to develop new behaviour, even a new vocabulary: Peacock and chill?
If the back catalogue is one weapon in the streaming wars, another is original content: witness Netflix’s move into classy, awards-focused filmmaking with Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018), Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (2019) and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019). Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the current arms race is the further elevation of the TV showrunner. Like a football team announcing the signing of a star striker, Amazon recently publicized an exclusive contract with Fleabag’s (2016-19) runner Phoebe Waller-Bridge, echoing HBO MAX’s deal with Lost’s (2004-10) J.J. Abrams, and Netflix’s recruitment of Games of Thrones’ (2011-19) David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. It’s a mark of the shifting cultural landscape that such figures – unknown to casual viewers for much of television history, bar the odd auteur-ish outlier such as Dennis Potter or David Simon – are now considered marquee names in their own right.
Should even greater brand recognition be needed, there is always recourse to the classics. Last year, Amazon paid the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien US$250 million for the rights to produce a multi-season TV show based on material from his Middle Earth books that is explicitly not covered in either The Hobbit (1937) or The Lord of the Rings (1954-55). That Tolkien’s posthumously published The Silmarillion (1977) and Unfinished Tales (1980) are essentially unreadable seems not to have given Amazon pause.
Far more interesting than the question of which platform will win the streaming wars is what effect the Balkanisation of on-demand will have on our shared imaginary. Attempts to lock paying viewers into an ecology of fictions (demonstrated most readily by Disney+’s corralling of the Marvel and Star Wars universes, whose stories play out across a large number of interrelated movies and TV shows) also, of course, involve locking non-paying viewers out. Some might argue that culture always has a price of admission, whether that’s the purchase of a cinema ticket or the pittance of a nation’s tax revenue that funds its museums, but it’s hard not to feel that the streaming wars represent the final stamping out of television as a kind of (already long-guttering) communal campfire. If so, the consequences may not be entirely negative. Can, say, the all-conquering Marvel franchise continue to attract mainstream movie-goers when parsing the latest cinematic installment demands familiarity with the paywalled Disney+’s associated output, or will audiences tack towards blockbuster films that exhibit those fine Aristotelian virtues, a beginning, middle and end?
Perhaps what this new era will inaugurate is a return to the widespread illegal torrenting of television and movies, a practice that dwindled sharply with the arrival of Netflix’s original offer of cheap, sort-of-comprehensive content on demand. Or maybe viewers will rediscover the pleasures of network TV. Last December, a Christmas episode of the cozily sentimental BBC sitcom Gavin and Stacey (2007-19) was watched by a quarter of the UK population, the largest figure for a scripted show in a decade, with the majority viewing it at the time of broadcast. The campfire’s embers, it seems, still occasionally glow.
Main image: The Mandalorian, 2019. Courtesy: Disney +