Streaming Services

2022, Mar 27    

It's no surprise to most that streaming services are everywhere, with the subscription model being the new norm for content distribution (and more things in life). That said, the ever-increasing fragmentation and cost of services is frustrating more people on a daily basis, and leaves some questioning if this is the tipping point for a significant increase in piracy (and history repeating).

During my childhood it was common to tape songs from the radio so you could listen to them later because for some there wasn't the money to purchase tapes or CD's from a shop in your local town, and you did what you could (regardless of the morality of it). The same was true for recording your favourite TV show or movie on your VCR (or Betamax, yes, I was around for that) and I still recall the Amstrad 'double-decker' VCR which really only had one purpose.

Fast-forward to my teenage years and we get into digital downloads using a mix of services, which frankly were about as sketchy/illegal as you could get at the time. Napster, Kazaa, WinMX, all of the old-time favourites to download barely-audible MP3 files (by the standards of today) to burn to a CD or load on your mobile phone (if you could afford one). The same statement as before is true, that for those barely getting by the prospect of free music to take your mind off your daily life is bliss, even with the questionable legality/morality.

Then comes university, and as the use of the aforementioned services starts to be cracked down on and slowly fade there are new services that start to rise. BitTorrent, DC++, and Usenet all increase in popularity due to their speed and higher-quality content (especially with two of the three being free, and the many piracy groups getting a foothold). With most students being on a shoe-string budget (and typically preferring to spend their money on alcohol rather than CD's and DVD's) it's no surprise that student halls become file-sharing nirvana for most.

Of course during this period there are TV (and eventually movie) streaming services like Sky who for many years have had a monopoly in this area, especially due to their switch to digital signals in a time where home broadband was a pipe dream and DVB couldn't get close to the quality that Sky Digital could provide (no different now at time of writing).

Travel further through the years and we get to the rise of the mainstream audio streaming services, with Spotify and Apple Music being seen as the two largest players in this market (sorry Tidal, you still aren't there yet) and a new revenue model for artists (and if the figures and occasional news articles are to be believed, not a great one). Online TV/movie streaming services start to emerge, leveraging your internet connection instead of a dish on the side of your house or cable TV (if you were in an area that supported it). Netflix in, Blockbuster out...

So with all of the above, why write this article? Everyone knows that streaming services have existed for some time now and that there is plenty of choice to cover what most people want to listen to / watch, so what's the issue? Well, from where I sit as I write this there are two fundamental (and intertwined) issues, specifically fragmentation and cost.

Over the last 10 years it's easy to follow that with the low cost and low fragmentation of streaming services (both audio and video) there has been a gradual drop in piracy. Most households have been able to pay for a streaming service to keep family members entertained (where terrestrial TV hasn't cut it), or borrow the credentials from a friend to achieve the same goal. With a wide range of content and the flexibility of choice it has worked out well for most, and that has become the dynamic that most are happy with.

Now, the number of streaming services available feels like it increases every month, and content seemingly being removed more frequently than before, the situation isn't as rosy. Producing studios are now after their piece of the proverbial pie and in some cases are starting their own streaming service (look at Paramount as a good example of this). Content that was once on one streaming service are suddenly nowhere to be found, or picked up by another in the hope of increasing their customer base. This leaves most needing multiple services to receive their usual content fix.

Then there is cost, which for most has been on a steady increase and shows little sign of plateauing. Take a look at this common list of services (correct at time of writing):

  • Sky TV (£26 basic cost, plus £6 for HD/£11 for Ultra HD, £19 for Cinema)
  • Netflix (£15.99 for Ultra HD)
  • YouTube Premium (£11.99)
  • Amazon Prime Video (£7.99 as part of a Prime membership)
  • NowTV (£9.99 for entertainment, £9.99 for cinema, and £5 for 1080p video)
  • Disney Plus (£7.99)
  • Apple TV (£4.99)
  • Paramount Plus (not yet available in the UK)
If you want to watch shows that cross a few of these services you can see that the cost raises from something the average family can manage each month to something a lot more consideration (and potential sacrifices) to afford. Is it any wonder that the old staple of piracy is starting to make a comeback?

From the piracy perspective things are significantly easier than they once were, with VPN services being advertised in a lot of places and most of them seemingly honouring the "we don't log anything" motto. Kodi boxes are easy to get hold of and provide access to a wide range of content (albeit with some interesting security implications if you use them on your home network), and BitTorrent/Usenet haven't gone anywhere, and the services to wrap around these with automatic downloads of your favourite shows makes them even easier to use.

So where do things go from here? The problem with this ever-increasing fragmentation and increase in cost is that more people will be pushed to the alternative. I suspect that people are already trying to migrate to lower-cost streaming services to see if they can get by using those, however I consider that an act of stemming the tide rather than a solution as they aren't likely to be "good enough" in the long-term (a favourite show is a favourite after all).

At some point everyone will know someone who has saved ££ per month by some form of piracy, and as inflation rises and the world becomes a dimmer shade of grey due to ongoing events, people will question how to get their distraction/fix without compromising the lifestyle they desire. When you can order a device like a Kodi box that has built-in support for a VPN of your choice and provides a large range of content for free, its a tempting proposition to most.

Alternatives? At the top end of the scale you have what Sky are currently doing, specifically bundling Netflix as standard with the packages. They can afford to do this given their cost, but it is restricted to those with a higher monthly budget. At the lower end there might be mergers between different streaming services while not substantially increasing the cost, however that seems unlikely in the short-term given the current financial model.

There is also the possibility of a wider movement back to the pre-subscription model, whereby content is purchased outright and lent to family/friends as required. This requires a larger switch back to physical media, especially given the relatively recent news article regarding Apple removing content from their library that a user had paid for, with a view that purchasing it doesn't mean you will have the content for life, only until the content provider chooses to remove it. With this in mind, a mix of physical copies and local streaming technologies/software such as Plex make for a very tempting proposition.

For now, time will show what the streaming providers choose to do given the current situation, and what direction people in.