Streaming bubble ready to burst

Photo by Casey Gomez

When driving down Augusta’s busiest road, motorists will often pass the ruins of an important historical monument. The vacant building is still in good condition, and the blue awning that stretches the length of its facade still glows in the night. Though no signage remains, the shape of a giant torn movie ticket tells travelers that this building bears the same significance as the Roman Colosseum or the Pyramids of Giza. They’re driving past an abandoned Blockbuster Video.

I pity the people that never knew the unbridled joy of choosing a movie from Blockbuster’s seemingly endless shelves. Thanks to Blockbuster, boring Friday nights were easily remedied by a short trip in mom’s Honda Odyssey. Once I got my hands on a Playstation 2, I learned that I could even rent video games from Blockbuster and avoid the steep $60 price tag for games I wasn’t completely sold on. Blockbuster Video was a cultural staple of the early 2000’s, and even earlier I’d imagine.

Before my neighborhood rental place became the historical site that it is today, Blockbuster CEO John Antioco made one of the biggest gaffes in business history. Antioco was given the chance to purchase Netflix for $50 million dollars in 2000, back when Netflix was mailing DVDs. Blockbuster turned down the deal. I’m sure you can figure out the rest — hint: nobody has ever asked Suzie in Cloudman to come Blockbuster and chill.

Today, Netflix has a market cap of over $150 billion. It helped usher in digital streaming technology, which has largely overtaken physical media as our viewing platform of choice. Rather than pay for each individual movie or TV show, we can pay a flat monthly rate to watch whatever we want, whenever we want. And if Netflix doesn’t have what we want, we can still rent digital copies from services like Amazon, Apple or YouTube.

Then Hulu threw its hat in the ring. And Amazon. And YouTube. And Facebook, for some reason. Disney is considering its own streaming service. Warner Media just announced its own streaming service. It’s no surprise that companies would want to ride the coattails of Netflix’s success, but it’s important to look at how that affects consumers.

For the sake of this example, let’s assume each service charges a flat monthly rate of $10. Three years ago, most people were satisfied with using Netflix as their sole streaming platform. But with Hulu jumping in and providing a different set of content — some that was taken off of Netflix, like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia — many people chose to double up. That’s $20 a month. Then Amazon came along, and although a Prime subscription gives you several benefits outside of streaming, it is further stratifying the content that’s available. Now we are at $30 a month. Did you like being able to watch Thor: Ragnarok and Infinity War on Netflix? Well prepare to start dishing out $40 a month, because Disney — who owns Marvel, Fox and several other major content producers — will almost certainly follow suit and create its own service, removing its content from sites like Netflix in the process. 

Droves of people have decided to cancel their cable subscription for the cheaper, more flexible world of online streaming. An irony of this, however, is that once more and more companies start their own paid streaming services, it will begin looking like a more expensive and convoluted version of a cable subscription, only modular, decentralized and on-demand.

With the increasing saturation of the streaming market, it’s hard to be certain whether or not your favorite content will always be available to you. Sure, Netflix Originals like Bird Box aren’t going anywhere, but outside content could go away at a moment’s notice. Unless you’re willing to dish out $40+ dollars a month on streaming services, chances are you won’t see it again. In the case of TV, this may be a necessary evil; It’s probably too expensive to go out and buy physical versions of your favorite shows.

But with movies, the streaming model may soon become problematic. I shouldn’t need to pay a monthly tithe just to watch movies. With film, consumers are at the mercy of whichever service pays to have the rights. There’s no way to consistently know where you can stream a movie. And once every production and distribution company has its own streaming service to pay for, we will all be in trouble.

I can find a Blu-Ray or DVD copy of virtually any movie I want for less than $10. I’ve made it a habit to splurge on a physical copy of every movie I want to watch as a way of future-proofing against the inevitable streaming bubble bursting. This means I watch less movies — I’m not going to pay for a $5 copy of Hotel Transylvania — but it gives me the peace of mind that my favorite content will always be at my fingertips. If my internet goes down, I can still watch Baby Driver. No matter who Warner Brothers sells the rights to, I can still watch Blade Runner.

My argument is definitely not without flaws, especially when it comes to streaming television. There is also no way to purchase and store anywhere close to the amount of movies available to stream. But my reasoning holds weight: the digital streaming landscape is about to become a battleground, and consumers will ultimately make up the bulk of the casualties. The age of Blockbuster may be gone, but physical media still holds a value that digital streaming will never be able to emulate.