Opinion & Analysis: Megan Nolan offers her take on an announcement set to shake up the streaming industry, and its potential implications for our viewing habits...
In March this year, Disney completed a massive $71.3 billion deal in which it acquired the vast majority of 20th Century Fox. There were several important and intriguing results to the merger, like Marvel owning the rights to some of its canon characters like X-Men again after selling to Fox in the 90's, or like the fact that Disney now owns three different animation companies (Disney Animation, Pixar, and the acquisition of Blue Sky Studios) all producing content aimed at the same audiences.
But the most important outcome is one that is soon to come into effect with the launch of the streaming service Disney Plus, one which provides a vivid indication of how homogenous mass entertainment is becoming and will go on becoming. The Disney merger heralded a new age of monopolisation, where fewer and fewer studios will be responsible for what’s on offer, where just a few dozen men, many of whom do not have a background in entertainment but in maximising profit, decide what we will watch. It was the second time this year we saw giant players in the industry being subsumed by large corporations, with telephone company AT&T buying Time Warner inc.
What it all means in practice is that our choices as viewers are narrowing. The disappearance of Fox is the first time since the dissolution of the debt-ridden MGM that a major Hollywood studio has ceased to exist, and is proof that there seems to be nothing preventing an increasingly monopolised set up. This is not only frightening in and of itself, and for employees of independent studios, but for all of us service-users. We’re now facing into a potential situation where the quality of entertainment declines and we are also paying much much more to access it.
It’s been said that we are about to enter the "long winter of streaming wars". Netflix has had the advantage over competitors of getting there first, and still has an enormous subscriber base, but their projections are becoming outdated. Shares plunged 12 percent recently after it achieved only half of a projected 5 million new subscribers between April and June. In the same time, its rival Hulu gained twice as many. Amazon Prime is investing increasingly in original content. The newly AT&T owned Warner are launching a subscription service which will incorporate prestige TV from HBO. And now Disney Plus will launch and soon have full ownership of its media and that of Fox, meaning that shows like How I Met Your Mother and The Simpsons will be available on demand- and, crucially, only on their service. More even than producing great original content, it’s shows like these which will end up being crucial to consumer choices. Friends and the US version of The Office are the most watched shows on Netflix. Shows with a lot of episodes, low viewer investment required and stand-alone plots are gold for these services. The Simpsons will be a highly prized commodity.
In a recent Guardian interview with Francis Ford Coppola, the great director said:
"The story of Hollywood has to do with who owns it," he says. "In the old days, it was owned by these characters like Sam Goldwyn, Darryl Zanuck and Jack Warner, who were just as vulgar and abusive as Harvey Weinstein. I don’t pardon it, it was terrible how they were, but the difference was that the owners loved movies. Today, the owners of the film business are very many steps removed. They’re pretty much telecom companies who borrowed an enormous amount of money to be able to buy Universal or CBS, so all they care about is servicing their loan."
Disney now owns about 40% of the entire global entertainment industry. In order to dominate the home entertainment market which Netflix has until now had a hold on, it will rely on stalwarts like The Simpsons, superhero movies, and their perennially beloved animations to secure subscriptions. It will, in other words, play safe as it knows how. Netflix, for all its inadequacies and shoddiness, at least throws occasional curveballs out too, and I fear that we are only heading toward more generic, more sanitised, more white-noise media, existing mainly to be put on in the background while we do something else.