The things we lost in the streaming wars

We all have to walk through the past to get to the future. Please indulge an old man for a moment.

We need to start with the iPod and Netflix. Netflix happened first in 1997 which happened to be the year I graduated high school. The original company, for those of you who don’t know, delivered these things called DVDs by mail.

What that meant, functionally, is that nearly every, single DVD was suddenly available to anyone, anywhere in the world. I have always lived in small to medium towns with small to medium DVD rental stores. Movie Gallery I miss you. But now, I could see the movies Roger Ebert was writing about.

I’m gonna mention two, Twilight Samurai and Hard Boiled.

Hard Boiled is one of the greatest action movies ever made. Director John Woo invented a new action style of incredible movement mixed with gunfire. If you were an American you had never seen anything like it before.

It came out in 1992. I’m fairly certain that even though I was aware of it I never could get a copy of it until Netflix in 1997 and forward.

Twilight Samurai was a 2001 flick and is child of the Akira Kurasawa school of samurai films. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert for you on samurai films but most of the time Kurosawa’s characters were very close to actual human beings and their sword fights were messy affairs of real people trying very hard to hurt their opponent without getting cut or stabbed.

They are movies about people, extraordinary people, perhaps but even with the action there is also real drama and heart at play. Twilight Samurai is one of the best of these kinds of movies from the 2000s.

So, here’s what happened next. The iPod came out in 2001

Here was a typical weekend for me before the iPod came out. I would get paid, then I would go to a bookstore, the CD/DVD story and spend a not inconsiderable portion of that paycheck. I also went to the comic book store (and still do) but lets ignore that for now.

When the iPod came out and I eventually could afford one, the lightbulb went off.

“Oh, we are definitely not going to be buying CDs or DVDs anymore,” I thought.

The summer I got an iPod was a great summer. I had a massive CD collection that I was burning to a hard drive and putting on an iPod. FYE would give me cash for those old CDs — which I no longer needed — and I could then spend that cash on dates, movies in the theater, and gas for my green Ford Ranger.

That was fine dining indeed.

Next, Netflix starts to get on board with streaming television and movies, we get Hulu and Apple eventually cracks Hollywood and you can buy all the shows and films you want, digitally, at a reasonable price.

For the purposes of this article, I’m ignoring that the internet was always a place where you could illegally get whatever you wanted. Without going too deep into the weeds on this I want to say that as a writer I’m sympathetic to anyone (writers, musicians, directors, assistants, and a host of others) whose livelihoods depend on people paying for the things they create.

But by the late 2000s you could see the future and the future was that for a reasonable amount of money, you would be able to buy anything you wanted or subscribe to a service and get anything you wanted. And it would all be in “the cloud” waiting on you.

And the very first thing all of us were going to do? Kill our cable bill.

Ben Thompson, a brilliant business writer who founded Stratechery, wrote about this several times over the last decade. And what he wrote was constantly confounding to me.

His writing is much deeper and more insightful than this but if I can boil it down it was this:

  1. The cable bundle is a great deal for consumers, companies, and creators.
  2. Killing the cable bundle is going to lead to a worse and more expensive outcome for everybody.

It turns out he was correct. I don’t think he had to be correct but he ended up being correct. It’s important to note — which is what I think is missed in these conversations — the future we live in now is not what those of us who believed in streaming and ending cable thought it was going to be.

At the time we were paying $50 or less for internet and another $100 for cable. A little more than that for cable with premium channels like HBO. What we thought or foolishly believed was going to happen (and to be fair did happen for a lot of people) was that consumers would be able to get everything they wanted with $50 for the internet and another $10 for Netflix.

Anyone with an MBA is pointing and laughing at me right now but I promise you a lot of us believed this.

What actually happened was that the cable companies with no fear that the US Government would regulate them in any way just raised the price of the internet to the point where it no longer mattered if you had cable or not. They were going to get their $100 or more regardless.

Then, every entertainment company in the world (except Sony, God bless you) determined that they needed their own streaming services.

Here are the things I am currently subscribed to; AppleTV+, Disney+, Peacock, Amazon Prime, Paramount, HBO, Netflix, Hulu, MUBI, and Showtime.

I think I also have an ESPN+ account because it is bundled with Disney and Hulu. I also am seriously considering an MLBTV subscription because I want to watch the Braves.

To be clear, some of these are free trials (MUBI) that will run out. Others I got temporarily for one or two things and will probably cancel sooner rather than later.

So the price is more or less the same as what we had before. If you get everything it’s substantially more expensive but who really will get everything?

I am that dad in his forties who probably would have for the extra channels and the TIVO if Cable were my only option but there are limits.

But what sticks in my craw is how in some cases, we’ve gotten a much worse outcome, is than what we envisioned.

To be fair, there are a lot of cool and unique television and movies out there. Some of it is being created just for nerdy dad’s like me. Paramount+ gives us Star Trek, Disney delivers Star Wars and Marvel and even Peacock, yes Peacock, managed to deliver a unique mystery show that old school tv mystery fans (like my mom) will love in Poker Face.

But I am struck by two things. First, it remains a real hassle to keep all of this straight. I dearly miss my cable-provided TiVo clone. That box knew what I wanted and I had one place to go to watch what I wanted.

I’m an old man and I forget things. More than once I watched the first or second episode of a show and then weeks or months later realized that I had not gone back and finished it. Apple’s television box has an interface that wants to help me but, I have kids and a wife, so the interface is constantly clunked up with their stuff, and some streamers like Netflix don’t want to play along.

I use an app called Reelgood that usually helps me keep track of these things and reminds me when a new season of a show begins. I can’t tell you how many shows suddenly reappear, and I had no idea they were coming back.

Here’s my second issue: How many great television and movies are simply gone? You can’t legally stream Hard Boiled or Twilight Samurai. As a streaming customer, I expect that might happen from time to time. But, I also can’t buy either movie digitally. At least, not that I have found so far.

Here’s two more: To Live and Die in LA and Dracula: The Series. To Live and Die in LA was a pretty big action movie in the 1980s. I’ve never seen it. I want to and … nope.

Dracula: The Series was a syndicated show from 1990 when I was 12. It was, essentially, The Lost Boys tv show. It was also European and only ran for 21 episodes. I really want to, for a bit, go back to that show and see if some of the unique dialogue that I recall was real, or just something I dreamed up.

And, in a world with near-infinite servers bringing us an unlimited cloud, the answer is: Nope. At least not legally.

When nearly every major entertainment company in the world has a streaming service and the two or three biggest and most successful technology companies promise to sell digital television and movies and I still can’t legally buy the things I want to watch something is wrong.

This future is a promise unfulfilled.

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