Streaming Media Shakes Up Entertainment Industry

Andy Monserud

Illustration by Emma Rust

As an incoming first-year, I’ve been presented with plenty of distractions in these first few weeks, but most of them seem to be on the decline. The initial scramble for new social circles and interests has calmed down, and the first-year class as a whole seems to have had our fill of vomiting outside Jewett bathrooms for a while. But now I have to deal with a new threat to my well-being: a Netflix subscription. Why go to fraternity parties when I could catch up on “Breaking Bad?”  Streaming is a blessing and a curse to the bored college student, and as the entertainment industry catches up with technology, the future of online streaming is hazy.

For the past 20 years, film, television, film and music publishers have spent millions of dollars trying to secure their content from piracy, usually by making it less accessible. This has included putting DRM software on CDs and DVDs, lobbying for stricter copyright enforcement and saddling digital pirates with fines of millions of dollars and sometimes jail time. But in the last few years, dot-com startup giants like Netflix, Hulu, Pandora and Spotify have popularized a more user-friendly approach to producing revenue on media: giving the people what they want. Streaming media allows for ad revenue and encourages –– often requires –– users to pay subscription fees.

So far it seems to be working.  Netflix and Hulu released several original web series available to paying members this year. The fourth season of defunct Fox cult-favorite “Arrested Development” drew a crowd by sheer force of name-dropping, and Netflix originals “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black” benefited from high-density web publicity and critical acclaim in both online and traditional press. All three of these series were nominated for Emmy awards this year, and “House of Cards” director David Fincher, best known for his films “Fight Club,” “The Social Network” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” went home with the award for Outstanding Director for a Drama Series. This marks the first time any online series garnered that kind of recognition from industry brass. Change has surely come.

But with any change comes some danger. If the new trend of online original series continues, will media stay as accessible as it is for long? Will broadcast and cable networks move toward a similar format? If so, will the move make programming easier or harder to access? And what will this do to quality? I hate to ask rhetorical questions, but there really are no answers at this point. If the industry continues its move toward consolidation, giving shows to one or two streaming services (predominantly Netflix, with Hulu and Apple’s iTunes TV service nipping at the edges) that service will have something of a monopoly, allowing them to raise prices and potentially leading to a decline in product quality. On the other hand, nobody wants it to decentralize. The potential for monopoly is scary, but scouring the Internet to find an episode of “Community” only to discover more security hoops to jump through is also a pain. Effective regulation could aid the system, but only time will tell what kind of regulation will work.

It’s unlikely that television as we know it will go away. More and more shows will become available for streaming, certainly, and in order to survive, cable and broadcast networks will need to consolidate their streaming locations. It’s far too inconvenient to go on Netflix or Hulu, find that the show you’re looking for is not there and embark on a Google-powered scouring of the Internet to find a streaming location that will ask for a cable provider passcode that you don’t have.

And here’s more good news: With any luck, we’ll see an improvement in content. If on-demand online viewing becomes the primary way to consume TV and movies, it stands to reason that those TV programs and films will have to get better. Nobody seeks out “Maury” reruns to watch for hours at a time. And over the past few years, television has gotten more ambitious; new series like “Game of Thrones,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” have sprawling concepts, longer, more in-depth episodes and loyal fan bases, largely thanks to streaming. Hopefully this trend will only continue in the future.

Journalistic convention dictates that I end this column with a call to action. There’s very little that we as Whitman students can do about this other than to call the attention of our elected representatives to the problem. So in place of that call to action, I suggest a call away from inaction. It’s time for me –– and, probably, you –– to turn off the computer and go outside.