Earlier this week, I finally bit the bullet and shelled out for Shudder, an over-the-top subscription service designed to cater to genre cinema enthusiasts. My early impressions are very positive, and mostly consist of gleeful recognitions that, “hold up, I can watch that on this thing?” With my partner in town this week, I figured now would be as good a time as any to break in the service. Thus far, we’ve enjoyed the hell out of quiet evenings spent watching genre films about teenage mermaids and Takashi Miike films (I can safely assure you Audition is not a great film to fall asleep in front of).
I was not the only person to partake in a new streaming service this week. On Tuesday, Disney+ officially went live, meaning countless charter subscribers got to experience the first hand pleasures of server failures, login difficulties, and discovering how badly they butchered the aspect ratio for classic episodes of The Simpsons. Mixed is probably a good way to describe early reviews, the general frustrations of those who have to do this for living being woven into those who happily purchased the service knowing full well that it’s exactly the product they want.
It’s not exactly fair to equivocally compare my early Shudder impressions with the day one gripes about Disney+. Shudder has had years of development at this point, while Disney’s much ballyhooed service is in its infant stages. Complaints about server problems and slow loading times are frustrating, but ultimately the reality for a world that somehow still hasn’t figured out how to estimate the expected traffic with any measure of accuracy.
But the varying experiences have offered me some insight into a question we don’t actually ask very often: what should a streaming service actually do? So often streaming is only discussed in connection to its supposed ability to kill theatrical distribution, or in its utility as the medium of the future, or even how it’s going to alter our understandings of content forever. What should the general purpose of streaming be, is a bit of a common sense conception that rarely, if ever, gets discussed.
Thus, I’m going to try and offer a broad enough understanding of what I believe streaming services should offer their clientele. I must admit that I am a little biased in some respects, so I’m going to try and avoid passing normative judgements as much as I can. I am, however, going to attempt to pick and analyze some of the general trends that I believe have worked very well. On the flip side, I’m going to similarly pick and analyze those that I believe are detrimental to consumers. So what should a streaming service actually do?
1.) A Streaming Service Should Emphasize The Quality of Its Content Above Other Priorities
This is a bit of a no-brainer, but it’s also one that seems to be getting lost by the wayside as we move ever closer to every company adopting a model that I’m terming the “Costco-content style model,” in which volume is the key over quality. In year one, Disney+ aims to have over thirty new original shows, a rate of about one new program every twelve days. Apple’s streaming service will probably offer an equal rate of content but the early offerings aren’t promising. Every time I see a film at a Cineplex, I’m bombarded with advertising for some new Prime Video show that I’ve never heard of. We’re slowly drifting away from quality towards quantity.
The biggest culprit of this shift is arguably Netflix, whose advertising model now seems to be “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.” That which does gets a heavy boost; think Birdbox last Christmas, which actually got some promotion from a company infamous for its gleeful hoarding of content. If something doesn’t make an impact, it’s relegated to being buried someone in the thumbnail catacombs. Try finding I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House without using the search function, if you can.
The emphasis on quantity over quality hurts consumers. I cannot count the number of times that I’ve started a show, only to lose interest around the second or third episode. This problem bleeds into the more traditionally cinematic content as well. Anyone remember watching Wine Country earlier this year? How about any of those Adam Sandler films on Netflix? A streaming service should be about the quality of the content, not merely the breadth of it.
2.) A Streaming Service Should Offer the Ability to Discover New Voices
Streaming services are uniquely positioned to offer users access to content by diverse and new voices in ways that the traditional theatrical model is currently not positioned to. Two services that seem to have this at the forefront of their exhibition strategy are The Criterion Channel and MUBI, both of which are art-house services with a limited engagement model. Thus far, Criterion has committed to at least one full retrospective of a female filmmaker. MUBI’s 30-day engagement model allows it to take offer a platform for otherwise impossible to see features and shorts, an example of which, is one of the best new discoveries I’ve made this year: Jon Wang’s From Its Mouth Came a River of High-End Residential Appliances, a devastating essay short about the limiting natures of identity that we cannot break free from.
Streaming services are uniquely positioned to provide a platform for voices that otherwise would struggle to obtain them. In a utopian world, a streaming platform acts as a jumping off point for those who really need it; first time filmmakers who are just trying to reach the largest audience they can. Some make a point of promoting unique voices. The aforementioned services of Criterion and MUBI seem to have this at the forefront of their marketing and exhibition strategies.
But some do not, like Disney+ that leans on the selling point of having most of the vault now on a streaming platform. The frustrating reality of Disney+ is that as curatorial service, the platform will offer very little diversity. If Disney’s plan is to merely offer the Disney films of old in addition to whatever new content they’re claiming is life-altering, then I cannot see the service offering that much in the way of discovery. While there’s nothing wrong with having a very popular back catalog of films at audiences finger tips, ultimately discovery of new content and new voices should be the goal, not re-discovery.
Sure we could make the argument that something more mainstream like Apple+ with its soft launch of a handful of a shows is exactly what we’re talking about, but it’s hit the marketplace in such a slight way that it’s almost already been forgotten in a streaming landscape that is moving so fast you could blink and be left feeling irrelevant only days after launch.
3.) A Streaming Service Should Offer Content Because It’s Good, and Not Because It’s “Mandatory.”
In the lead-up to the release of Disney+, the promotional press made sure to emphasize the “necessity” of the content above all else. Most irritating was Kevin Feige’s assertions that one would need to watch some of the Disney+ MCU shows in order to understanding the upcoming Dr. Strange film.
Maybe he’s right. I certainly do not have the ability to make a judgment upon such a proclamation at the moment, as do very few of us. It is doubtful that Feige speaks the truth here though. I imagine that I’ll be able to pick up on the necessary information through the use of context clues. Agents of SHIELD struggled when it was connected to the MCU, but thrived when it slowly divorced itself and become about a different kind of story as opposed to being forty-two minutes of Universe references and feels like a bit of an over-sell for a service that has already had a record number of subscribers sign up.
What this ultimately suggests is that such content isn’t being designed with implicit quality in mind, but rather, the ways in which it can be promoted as a necessity. The Mandalorian, a series set within the Star Wars universe was the day one story of the service. You had to purchase Disney+ from its inception if you wanted to be in the loop. Early reviews suggest the series is merely fine (although the boss loved it).
I have no qualms with the existence of The Mandalorian. Nor do I have qualms with it being a discussion point. I do have one question though: wouldn’t it be better if everyone was talking about how good the show was, instead of discussing the smaller universe connected details? If there is one thing I wish would change about streaming platforms, it is this: the must-see content becomes must-see again. I will not watch eleven hours of something, just so I can instantaneously understand a cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, but there’s an audience that will and I can live with that, but eventually even they’ll get tired of it as well (I hope).
You can only coast on the novelty of having an entire back catalog in one place for so long. At some point, the content has to offer meaningful engagement for those who wish to purchase its services, and if not, the unsubscribe button is merely a click away. Therein lies the precariousness of streaming services. When I unsubscribe, I’m not coming back. To make those decisions, I suggest we all really try and discern what these services are actually doing, and how close that matches to what we ideally want.