On The Digital Life this week, we discuss the latest salvos in the streaming video wars as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and YouTube Red duke it out.
On YouTube Red, the show Cobra Kai is full of GenX nostalgic goodness. But is that enough for a service to compete with the likes of Netflix and Hulu? And will it attract new subscribers in a crowded marketplace for streaming video? Netflix may have some original content programming problems of its own. Does data really give you a better show? Or does every television series wind up feeling the same—the plots washed out imitations? When it comes to video streaming, what’s more important, content or platform? And how does this all shake out? Join us as we discuss.
Jon: Welcome to episode 258 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.
Dirk: Greetings listeners.
Jon: For our podcast this week, we’re going to examine the latest salvos in the streaming wars as the number of streaming services continues to multiply. This year in 2018, we have a number of new offerings and offerings that are on the way. Of course the Disney ESPN behemoth is gonna be offering their new streaming service, and YouTube Red is starting to enter the fray with some new programming as well. Not to mention the offerings from Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, of course.
So let’s kick off this discussion with an examination of YouTube Red, which is sort of the premium brand of the ever so popular YouTube, owned by Google Alphabet there, and you get sort of ad-free viewing as well as some premium shows if you subscribe to YouTube Red.
Dirk, there’s a new show that has gotten some positive critical attention, Cobra Kai. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about that, and how you see YouTube’s original programming?
Dirk: Yeah, so specifically to Cobra Kai, this is show that’s basically picking up where the old 1984 movie the Karate Kid left off. Karate Kid has had a number of sequels and reboots and things going on, but this series basically ignores all of those and returns back to sort of the classic show. This is a show I wasn’t super excited for, but a friend of mine was, and so I agreed to kind of watch it because he was watching it, and actually really enjoyed it, I found it very entertaining.
To some people it was a little shocking, it was like I can’t believe they’re televising this in 2018, with some of the specific things that were going on. That notwithstanding, I think what it was trying to do it was well done and entertaining. It wasn’t a piece of high art.
Specific to this conversation, it did lead me to the first time signing up for YouTube Red, so that I can watch this program. It was a ten-episode season, the first two episodes were free, and the last eight were behind the paywall. Of course, as soon as I finished the series I unsubscribed from the service whilst still under the demo deal, so I didn’t have to pay anything in the end. Which gets to your other question about YouTube Red as a streaming service. For me, there’s not a whole lot there.
In the past, the closest I’ve come to subscribing to YouTube Red has been around my tablet use, specifically if I’m using Netflix or Hulu or other things I can keep them running in a little box on the screen and go use another app, so I can use my tablet screen, I can multitask with a show running and doing something else. Which for me is about the way it goes, because I get bored stiff watching a movie or television show. I hate to say it anymore at this point in my life.
With YouTube though, I can’t do that. You can only do it if you subscribe to YouTube Red, then they unlock the functionality for that kind of multitasking. So I’ve sort of thought about maybe I should subscribe, dot dot dot, for that only, but certainly not for the content.
For me, content wise YouTube Red is similar to HBO. I’m not a regular HBO subscriber. When Game of Thrones comes on, I subscribe for … I’ll even make it as little as possible, so I’ll kind of wait until the first episode, the first week is almost done or something, then I’ll subscribe, watch the first, watch the second, watch til the end, try to make it so it only overlaps to two or three months, whatever the minimum would be. For me at this point YouTube Red is certainly in that bucket, as opposed to the Netflix Hulu bucket, which are just always subscribe to, no real thought about unsubscribing, either for my and my wife’s use or our children’s use or some combination therein.
Yeah, steaming is getting more crowded, it’s getting more expensive. At first, cord cutting seemed like a great deal. We went from a hundred-something dollar cable TV bill to a $12 Netflix membership. Every few months it just gets worse and worse, a death by a thousand paper cuts. Before long at this rate, we’re gonna be back to a hundred-something dollar bill to unlock the content we want to see.
Jon: This is a very interesting conversation about the business models of streaming services, because you don’t have … Well, you do have an aggregator insofar as Netflix is an aggregator of shows that come from different content providers, but you kind of need an aggregator of all of those streaming services, as well, so you can have it all in one spot. Because frankly I don’t care all that much about the chrome around the viewing experience, other than it’s nice that Netflix has decent chrome, and it shows up when I need it to and goes away. I do like some of the X ray special facts that you can get on shows if you’re watching them on Amazon, you can learn more about the cast sort of in real time, and it has interesting facts about the production of the show. As you were mentioning, Dirk, sometimes it is nice to have other options if the show is not moving along as quickly as you might like. I do like that aspect, and I suppose that that’s great that Amazon has that little added functionality.
But the bottom line is it’s sort of a commoditized pause, play, fast forward whatever. This has been around since the VCR, and we kind of get it.
Dirk: What’s a VCR, Jon?
Jon: Yes, we won’t explain what a VCR is, because that will make us look really old. I think the business models are still so much in flux, or it feels like that whoever’s putting these together is not really accommodating the people who like yourself are gonna turn HBO on just for Game of Thrones, which is exactly the same thing that I do, because I want the shows that I want and I’m kind of disinterested in the rest of the offerings.
Additionally, it’s interesting that the competition for premium content is spreading across multiple players now, and archive-able content, like the Disney ESPN whatever their streaming service is, that’s sort of another factor in there to make it even more confusing. Then you have classic movie content, and pretty much everything you can imagine can be streamed. Whoever can figure out how to make this as simple as possible for viewers, it has some potential to win out in the long run.
Right now, it just feels like utter complete and utter chaos to me, even though there is some great new content being created. There’s one piece of it I find particularly difficult to get my head around, and that’s this homogenization of content. Dirk, I think you had a followup comment on my rant, there.
Dirk: Yeah. Two things. One is it’s a long time before it shakes out, unfortunately. We have more and more players and more and more players who are doing it badly in one way or the other. You can break it down into two categories essentially. There’s content creation, and there’s content marketing and distribution. Companies like HBO have nailed content creation. I’m sure if I was an HBO subscriber, I would find more shows beyond Game of Thrones in their current releases interesting and worth my time of watching. HBO over the years has a track record for good content.
There’s other platforms, then, like YouTube, that are fantastic on the distribution and marketing, but on the creation they’re pretty questionable. One of the downsides of subscribing for YouTube Red for a week or whatever the timeframe was was they started spamming me with messages trying to get me to watch other programs that they were offering. Those programs didn’t look particularly good, to be honest with you. They looked bad, in fact. Either they weren’t well done, or they weren’t from an editorial perspective not appropriate for me and my interests and who I am. I have very little faith that the content that they’re creating as all these streaming services are spinning up their own studios is gonna be for me.
I wanna say one other thing, but before I forget I wanna make sure you come back and talk about some of the criticisms you have for the content creation side of it, from some studios like Netflix.
But for me the second part of it is while it’s gonna take a long time for this to shake out, for me personally there already is a winner, and the winner is Amazon. The reason why Amazon is the winner is that it has a broad range of free streamed products through Prime, and it’s the go-to place if I can’t get something anywhere else. What I mean by that is there’s some small number of shows that we typically watch, those we’re subscribed to on Hulu or Netflix or whatever the service is. Beyond that, if I’m watching something on my own, it’s almost always something from the past that I’m remembering. I’m like boy, it’d be fun to watch Rear Window, or it’d be fun to watch the Hunt for Red October, or whatever that might be. But who the hell knows where that’s at?
What I’ve learned is that there’s a website called Just Watch, at JustWatch.com, and you go there, you type in the name, and it shows you where it’s at. More and more, the things that I consider good that are older are not streaming for free anywhere. If something’s not streaming for free anywhere, unless you’re gonna download it illegally there’s really only one place to go, and that’s Amazon. If you go to Amazon, it has almost everything, and you can either rent or buy it, boom, right there, and have it. For me, Amazon’s the clear winner because I now have invested, I mean I don’t know how many years I’ve been buying videos there, but let’s call it a few, I’ve invested hundreds of dollars in buying different movies I like at Amazon. Those are now stored there, they’re movies that I’m gonna want to come back to at different times, and Amazon has become that content grab [inaudible 00:11:57] for things I like that I know are going to be there. I don’t have to go to Just Watch, I don’t have to be frustrated that nobody is streaming it. There it is.
Amazon is bringing the good parts of other services, like Netflix, original programming, some is good, most is not, lot’s of re-streaming stuff, some is good most is not, but some of it is good, and worthwhile, and on top of it is that rental purchase layer that nobody else has. I think for Amazon to be beaten in this space it’s gonna take somebody like Disney or a massive organization because Amazon controls this crucial part of it.
Jon: I tend to agree with that take on it. I think I myself have a similar pattern in that a number of movies that I’ve bought over time now reside in my Amazon account, which in the past when I bought a DVD or a Blu Ray, I knew where it was physically in the house, in a stack somewhere. Now that repository it’s not quite as comforting that it’s sitting on Amazon’s servers, but it will do. At least I can locate it, as opposed to just sort of wondering where the heck that show I paid for is now.
Let’s talk a little bit about the original content creation part of streaming, and how Netflix has really made a reputation for itself by knowing its users very deeply based on what you’re watching, you may like these other shows or movies, then based on that data we can make some new shows for you as well. This is true of Netflix, it’s probably true of all the streaming content providers in one way or another.
I think what I’m starting to see as I watch more and more shows on Netflix is I’m starting to see some of the gaps in what sounds like a really delicious recipe for delivering content direct to me as a viewer. I think there are some significant gaps there, and I’ll give you an example. Because Netflix has a global audience now, I don’t know how many hundreds of millions of subscribers they have, but it’s significant, it means that anything they buy now, anything they develop, anything that they’re trying to get an audience for, it pays for them to develop shows that will appeal across the globe. That’s probably stating the obvious, but you don’t want it to just premiere well in the US, you also want it to do well in the UK, and India, Africa, wherever else Netflix is streaming.
The problem starts when you’re looking for this set of shows that appeals to a lot of folks. For me, that tends to fall into the scifi category. I watch tons of scifi, and I’ve noticed recently I’m watching a show now I believe that it’s originally a Scandinavian show, I could be wrong about that, it’s called Rain, and it’s your typical post-apocalyptic survival scenario. In this case, the thing that wipes out humanity is a virus contained in the raindrops that are eliminating many people, and there’s survivors struggling to make it. Those shows abound. The Walking Dead is an example of that, movies, the Hunger Games or Maze Runner, the list just goes on and on for survivors of post-apocalyptic scenarios, and I think there’s only so many plot lines you can explore.
Maybe there are some astonishing original plot lines that a very astute writer could come up with, but that’s probably not the easiest thing to do in quick turnaround television environment. Instead, you can mine a show that already exists for those plot lines, and you know that foolish Jon is going to watch this show, pay the monthly subscription to Netflix, sit down on a Friday night and binge watch four of these. I realized I’d seen this darn show before, it was just called the Walking Dead season 3. I think the problem with that is now I get into shows and I get five, the premise sounds kind of interesting, how are they gonna tackle this, I get five shows in and I’m just abandoning, I’m just dropping these shows by the wayside. I have enough interest that’s piqued for me to watch a few episodes, and I have so many abandoned shows on Netflix that the Continue Watching segment there is just filled with shows that I thought had promise and then just bored me to tears like four episodes in.
Dirk: Part of it is age. We’ve seen a lot of stuff in our long lives, Jon. You can only tell so many different stories in so many different ways. We’ve seen a lot of stuff. It makes it harder for things to be novel, unique, and interesting. Do you think it’s part of it, maybe?
Jon: I don’t think so.
Jon: Because I think this is a problem based on my watching data. I’ll tell you why. If you know everything that I’ve watched in the past, it may be great for you to recommend a movie or a show that has similarities, that has not been tailored to me, per se, but has similarities with things that I like. Instead of tailoring a show to a particular audience, you’re instead making something that has already resonated with that audience, and now it’s just a recommendation. If you enjoyed this particular book, you might like this other particular book. That book was not tailored to your data. It was written and it happens to appeal to the same demographic, but it has a certain amount of original, we’ll use original in quotes, like creative input in there that makes it new to you.
I’m not saying that these plot writers are going out and crunching the numbers and saying for everybody who watched the Walking Dead we’re gonna make this show that is basically the Walking Dead Light, and they’ll watch it. But it’s starting to feel that way. It is really evident, it’s this insidious formula that is creeping in and making everything milquetoast, and in the worst way because you feel like this is your moment to relax and hear an interesting story and be surprised, and hear a new tale, and so it’s all that much more disappointing when the thing that should be tailored to you, that dessert you thought you would like or the meal that you thought would be fantastic, turns out just to be completely blasé, and makes you that much more disappointed.
I may be wrong in attributing this entirely to the data-fication, or sort of the analytics driven what I see as shows and plot lines and things like that, but I’ve really never encountered this before in my life. You’re right, it could be I’ve just seen too many, too many scifi shows for my own good.
Dirk: [crosstalk 00:20:52] new stories to tell, right?
Jon: Back to HBO, you were saying you thought they’d conquered a bit in the content creation area, and I would agree as well. There are a number of HBO shows that have really surprised me. There is no formula necessarily that would have generated the first couple seasons of Game of Thrones, for me. There is no formula that would have you could say it’s a more realistic take on the fantasy world ala Lord of the Rings, but you still do not get, you do not get to Game of Thrones by way of what came before it. It really does feel like its own thing. Rightfully so, it has some tremendous fan base now.
Dirk: It has decades of world building behind it. One thing I’m not qualified to have insight about is how robust is the creation process for all these shows that Netflix and these other networks are cranking out. I don’t know, but you have to think it’s not the decades that George R. Martin had into Game of Thrones, and that attention to detail, that craft, that time to build something really special that had been already validated with a large fan base prior to coming onto a television platform is a big part of it.
The streaming services offering original content, a lot more of it seems like tissue paper. It doesn’t seem like it has that gravitas, that sort of architecture behind it. Even if you think about Netflix, Netflix’s biggest hit I think still today is the political show, Kevin Spacey.
Jon: House of Cards.
Dirk: House of Cards. That’s not original. House of Cards was a British miniseries, and became a British series, and was sort of a rehash of that, probably improvement to it having seen both of them frankly. Yeah, they’re just sort of scrambling for ideas for something that will be marketable and enjoyable. Maybe they’re not investing enough to make sure that they’re really great, with few exceptions such as House of Cards.
Jon: Yeah. I think the overlay of how much control exists over top of the content creation layer, so I think that could play a part in this. If you’re talking about a show where the creator has the ability to go out and make the show as they intended it, versus having it be influenced by let’s just say on the opposite end of it executive control or lots of data and analytics, not saying any of that’s bad per se, but I wonder if we’re beginning to see Netflix become the victim of its own success.
Dirk: You’re opening up a different thread. What is the difference between executive control and data and analytics? Executive control in television is an old story. You go back twenty years, Seinfeld was making fun of executive control and influence in terms of the making of that show, and that we could go back to probably the beginning of television, not just the twenty plus years that Seinfeld was on. Executive control, the producer side versus the creator side, that’s a tale as old as the medium. The question is what is the impact of data and analytics before the fact. After the fact, again, that’s an old story, but to what degree is data and analytics the thing that is similar to AB testing on the web, determining what should be made even before its made? I don’t know.
Maybe it is to blame for why a lot of the new content is being churned out feels like puppy mill stuff, as opposed to really hardy old traditional full bred stuff.
Jon: Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to this show you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to the DigitaLife.com, that’s just one L in the DigitaLife, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find the Digital Life on iTunes, Sound Cloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play, and if you’d like to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter at Jon Follett, that’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T, and of course the whole show is brought to you by Go Invo, a studio designing the future of healthcare emerging technologies, which you can check out at GoInvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O dot com.
Dirk: You can follow me on Twitter at D Knemeyer, and thanks so much for listening.
Jon: So that’s it for episode 258 of the Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.