Media studies professor comments on changes ahead with streaming media

Photo of Eleanor Patterson

Eleanor Patterson, an assistant professor of media studies in the Department of Communication and Journalism in the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University, discusses the changing landscape of streaming media, a topic that was recently in the spotlight with this Associated Press article.

Patterson has been researching the television industries and broadcasting history, with a specific interest in technology, distribution and audience engagement since 2008. Her award-winning research has been published in numerous academic journals, and she teaches a range of courses related to broadcasting, convergence culture and the future of media.

With greater segmentation of media offerings as more streaming video services become available, how might this affect people’s streaming video viewing habits?
Streaming options do not just affect people’s use of streaming services – they impact the entire television ecosystem, including the legacy industries like the networks, cable channels, multi-system operators (like DirectTV and Comcast) and even film studios. Segmentation in streaming is being driven by several factors - a desire to build audiences through niche marketing (streaming services based upon genre or identity) as well as recognition by legacy industries of the market potential of OTT (over-the-top – standalone services offered directly to streaming services). For instance, CBS resisted licensing programs in its television production library for a long time because Viacom had calculated that the profits from terrestrial broadcast and traditional syndication were too valuable to be threatened by the lower prices for streaming licensing, that they feared would take away their other audiences. However, in 2014 they launched their own OTT service and now produce content only available to CBS All Access subscribers, which uses the premium cable model to encourage subscription of their original programming. Disney is building their own OTT service set to launch this year called Disney+, and as we go forward we will see more legacy companies, tech platforms (like YouTube – which launched YouTube Red) as well as small services experiment with OTT streaming services.

How will this effect audiences? Well, be prepared for ever shifting copyright licensing of film and legacy television, as well as shifting options, as many streaming services will fail and their content libraries will be reconfigured or re-licensed elsewhere. Shows and films that are not originals will always be up for renegotiated licensing fees, and will move from one streaming platform to another, either for more money or if their rights holder decides to enter the OTT game. We should also recognize the growth of sell-through options like Amazon Video, Vudu, iTunes, etc. as some cable channels attempt to control access to original productions by not making them available to a streaming service library, attempting to force audiences to either watch when they broadcast, DVR or buy the season outright. Many commercials today are made to be recognizable through DVR fast forward technology. And both network and cable studios are collaborating with social media services like Twitter to sync ads for users live tweeting broadcasts, to develop content that encourages live tweeting (what is called connected viewing in the industry) and so we already see this shaping audience habits, as well as producers’ work to make television “tweet” worthy. Let us not forget that the most lucrative ad money is still in terrestrial TV, although there is ample advertising going on in Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Original programs via product placement.
In these conditions, I think audience viewing will continue to be diversified between apps on television, cable and then digital antennas, where audiences receive network TV and PBS for free. Keep in mind that the free channels still have the largest share of viewers overall. However, audiences are going to have to do more of the work to find where and when their content is available, and perhaps even keep track of it as programs migrate from one service to another. Shows geared for deep, loyal engaged viewing are going to be more and more produced, where quality of audience member engagement over quantity is valued (think Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead).

How has Netflix changed popular culture, and do you anticipate the emergence of more streaming services having a further effect on society?
 Well, Netflix is itself a historical manifestation that was influenced by the emergence of the home video market and the growth of the internet in the 1990s. It did not just emerge out of the void and change our culture, it is a product of our culture and of trends already in motion since at least the 1970s, when Betamax and the VCR gave home viewers more control over their viewing habits and content choices. By the late 1990s, the film studios had realized they were making more money in the secondary home video market than via theatrical releases, which in turn, played a part in the development of DVDs, which was Netflix’s first business model as a mail-order catalog for a DVD exchange program. Netflix’s move into streaming occurred after iTunes and P2P piracy demonstrated audience desire (as well as technological capability) for streaming video content, while several other media companies were also experimenting with ways to monetize online digital tools (NBC, ABC and FOX were all trying to find ways to migrate their ad-supported model onto digital interfaces in 2007; NewsCorp originally bought MySpace, in part, to host FOX television shows online; and while they experimented individually as Netflix was beginning to offer streaming options, these three networks’ decided to become partners in Hulu which began development in 2007 and launched in 2008, not long after Netflix began its streaming service.)
Netflix has influenced our media cultures in several key ways, one, by setting the price point expectations for a streaming service, and also, by driving for global distribution of its service. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is focused on two primary objectives, greater original programming that distinguish Netflix subscriptions from competitors and transnational expansion, and these objectives are tied to each other, as more and more “original” content is being made to appeal to transnational audiences, and Netflix is hustling to both offer universally appealing originals and content libraries tailored to the taste of specific regions as well as what titles are available in different areas. Not all Netflix originals are actually original.  Some content branded original in some countries is actually just licensed from producers in another country. I think Netflix has been a success as the most recognized streaming service, brand wise, and this has lent to its position as the leading subscription service in the U.S. But its heavy investment in original content as it desires to control its library has put its balance sheets in the red, and it is possible that could eventually find this model unsustainable. And Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube Red and all the other OTT services are using this model of creating original programming to create brand distinction.  However, let us remember that cable channels were the first television companies to do this to encourage subscription. I do think streaming has impacted viewers’ expectations that all content should be readily available and on demand. However, I think one significant shift that this has created is a lack of communal viewing, a sense of being overwhelmed by choice and a reliance on algorithm curation (viewing recommendations on the home screen of the OTT) and more of an investment in live television programming like sports, awards shows, “live musicals” and more that legacy television programmers used to get viewers to continue to subscribe to cable or satellite services. Streaming services are also changing how we think of ratings and how audiences get counted now, as these services do not need to project statistical numbers but can reflect how many viewers are actually watching, how they rewatch, stop or go between programs, although these figures are proprietary and will only reflect each service’s data.

Streaming services have taken a hit on cable companies in recent years. With more streaming services becoming available, do you think this will further the diminishing influence of cable companies/channels?
Most MSOs like Direct TV and Comcast are now offering their own streaming services packaged with subscriptions in order to defray the competition of Netflix and other OTT options. I think we’re going to see more hybridity in this realm, as Hulu is now offering a live viewing cable-like option, and many cable producers, like CNN or FX, are requiring a cable login for their apps or online viewing. Also, DirectTV was bought by AT&T (an ISP) and Comcast is both a cable and ISP provider. And so I think we’re going to see Internet Service Providers do their best to undermine competition and make bundled cable/satellite an attractive option for audiences. I would not be surprised to see Verizon enter the television field more aggressively.  It has been experimenting with its own OTT  programming; Twitter has been experimenting with livestreaming; and I would not be surprised to see if Netflix enters into a live online programming option similar to a cable bundle. So, cable will never disappear, like network TV, rather, what we think of as “cable” or as “television” just becoming reconfigured within digital technologies. Keep in mind that ongoing viewing or instant play is modeled on television’s ongoing flow of content distribution model.

What other trends are you seeing on the horizon with regard to media viewing habits?
I already mentioned this, but integration with social media – either as a companion or within the platform itself. This is being driven, in part, by opportunities for ad revenue in coordinated social media campaigns and as a way to retain the older model of live viewing. Also, there could be greater competition for copyright, and OTT services built around established libraries, which will attempt to force audiences into more ala carte subscriptions to multiple services. I could see the development of a database that brings together all of your subscriptions in one interface through every device, which would make it easier to search for and view media right away. And there could be greater nvestment in sports and live programming by legacy media companies, but also, on that front, more investment or conglomeration with new media providers.


Last Updated: January 11, 2019