Drama Behind the Streams

by Jason Ocker

Right now the best drama on television isn’t happening on the screen. Nor even behind the scenes. More like behind the streams.

If you’ve read this blog at all, you know that we’re a little obsessed with how content is being delivered into our homes. In this particular case, entertainment media. Today we have telecoms, cable companies, original content creators both small and large, channels, device makers, and over-the-top players all trying to serve you the movies and television shows you want in a way you/they want and in a way you’re willing to pay to maximize profits for shareholders.

And lately, the drama’s getting real good.

To recap the last few seasons, we now have access to pretty much any television show or movie ever made right in our home. Of course, all the content is scattered across a slew of players, each with different business models and levels of clout in the entertainment environment. Cable companies and large media conglomerates offer great, high-quality accessibility to content, but charge enormous amounts and bundle it all together with a lot of unwanted content. Internet players are changing the game, but have limited content or provide bad experiences accessing the content. And that doesn’t even count how you’re accessing that content, whether it’s through your video game system or a set-top box or your mobile device (that’s a whole different topic).

The two new plot twists include Netflix, ever the innovator but always handicapped by bad relationships with the major content providers, and Redbox, a surprisingly relevant stalwart created by McDonalds and sold to Coinstar that relies on a much more older model of physical media combined with automated access and low prices.

Netflix has begun launching a salvo directly at service providers by publically outing the best and worst providers for streaming their media catalog. You can see the comparisons here. Netflix, whose business model relies on a network distribution channel that it doesn’t own and whose owners don’t quite like how much unmonetized bandwidth is being eaten by this one service, is always the underdog in these fights. As a result, it’s a pretty awesome thing to see a company people generally like going up against companies that people generally dislike.

Of course, with limited options on which Internet service providers customers can access in their homes, I’m not sure how effective this tactic will be in any practical sense.

That is, unless Google, the highest rated and most geographically limited network provider on the planet according to that page, wants to expand its Fiber program on a large scale and take on the entrenched interests.

Netflix has also begun releasing original programming this year in a bid to remedy its biggest flaw, that of its limited media pool. And it has apparently past the first test: Can it create programming on a quality level with Big Media. Apparently, if House of Cards is any indication, they can. Other series that are coming out include Hemlock Grove (an Eli Roth-created show about werewolves starring Famke Janssen) and then of course, the highly anticipated Arrested Development.

More interesting than this, though, is the original way Netflix is releasing its new shows…the entire season all at once. Besides directly addressing the preferred way people consume entertainment these days, it’s also just a great strategy of stealing eyeballs from other entertainment outlets.

I mean, if I’m binging on House of Cards, that’s 13 hours of not watching anybody else’s ads, er, programming. And 13 hours is a huge chunk of the average television watcher’s weekly allotment. The mathematics of that can be argued, of course, since 13 hours is tiny part of a year’s allotment, but if Netflix puts out enough shows, it can definitely revolutionize television watching just like it did with movie watching.

Meanwhile, Redbox is getting into the same original content game, no doubt spurred both by the success of Netflix and the desire to not be constrained by other companies’s content. So how does a red refrigerator that dispenses physical discs compete in today’s digital, hyper-connected world?

By teaming up with one of those hyperconnectors, of course. In this case, Verizon. They’re joining mismatched forces for new content as part of the Redbox Instant Service that the company plans on rolling out soon.

Although, if you look at the last paragraph of the Redbox/Verizon article, the future might already be foretold. So far, in its three original shows, the per-episode cost of making the Netflix original programming was far more than it costs your average network. That can be streamlined with effort and experience, of course, but that is the big shadow behind it all. Can a company with a lower-priced product regularly get back its money on high-quality original content creation, or do you have to be a multi-media conglomerate to do that with success?

One day they’re going to make a television show about all this. And I want to know who’ll be the one left standing to deliver it to us.

Photo credit: Walt Jabsco, Flickr

Jason writes. Tells stories. Develops strategies. He oversees a wide range of creative and technical projects. He’s also an award-winning author of half a dozen books and has been featured on or in CNN, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The New York Times, and TIME.

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