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Opinion: Everybody loses in the streaming wars

'We can’t afford to erode what little cultural connective tissue we have left'
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The proliferation of streaming services is contributing to the erosion of society's cultural common ground.

Netflix. Crave. Disney+. Amazon Prime Video. Apple TV+. Peacock. Paramount+. Crunchyroll. Hulu. 

The list of streaming services competing for your attention is as lengthy as it has ever been, with major entertainment conglomerates consolidating their intellectual property as they try to stake their claim in an increasingly crowded streaming landscape. 

The plethora of streaming platforms creates the illusion of infinite choice, with a seemingly endless array of TV and movie titles available to watch right at your fingertips. But the truth is, most streaming services’ offerings these days pale in comparison to the brick-and-mortar rental stores of old. 

Let’s take Netflix, for instance, still the undisputed king of streaming, with 221 million subscribers: according to justwatch.com, the service currently counts 3,765 movie titles in the U.S. In its heyday in the late ’80s, a Blockbuster superstore would typically stock about 6,500 films—with the added bonus of being staffed by a team of geeks that could recommend a movie that suits you, instead of banking on a soulless algorithm to get it right. And sure, you could, like many of us already do, sign up for multiple services and presumably gain access to the same number of films or more that Blockbuster once did, but then you’re looking at shelling out even more money per month on entertainment, which is already proving too much for some users, if Netflix’s stagnant subscription numbers are any indication. (The streaming giant lost more than a million subscribers in the first two quarters of 2022, after years of amassing new users. One way Netflix plans to stem that tide is through its new, cheaper, ad-supported service, which seems to defeat the purpose of cutting the cable cord in the first place.) 

I first wrote about this topic in 2019, and although I do sometimes veer into old-man-yelling-at-clouds territory, this isn’t another missive about the good ole’ days of physical media (although as a print journalist with a passion for radio, I do seem to have a thing for dying mediums). It’s hard to deny the sheer convenience of streaming from thousands of titles at the click of a button, even if that selection is shrinking by the day. 

What concerns me above all else is how streaming is contributing to an already fractured entertainment landscape that leaves us with far fewer cultural touchpoints than we used to have. And in an age in which we tend to spend far more time focused on the rifts that divide us than the threads that tie us together, this is no small thing. 

Beyond sheer entertainment, the arts play an integral role in developing bonds and strengthening social cohesion, particularly as our society becomes increasingly fragmented along economic, political and cultural lines. What’s more is they help us interpret and understand ourselves and our society. Just think about any of the decidedly local arts events you’ve attended over the years, whether it’s the long-running Chairlift Revue (and its spiritual descendant, Laugh Out LIVE!), the 72-Hour Filmmaker Challenge, or cherished, sports-focused contests like Deep Summer and Deep Winter: at their best, they pluck from Whistler’s distinct culture and reflect it back, telling you something valuable about the place we call home. In an incredibly young town that is constantly welcoming new faces into the fold, these kinds of cultural connections are all the more essential. 

Even the pro sports arena, which had largely resisted the move to streaming due to technological and financial barriers, has become the new battleground for streaming services desperate to capitalize on the golden goose that is live programming. This year, Amazon will stream regular season NFL games—15 in all—for the first time, and is reportedly in a bidding war with Apple over NFL Sunday Ticket, while YouTube will continue its deal to stream select NBA and MLB games exclusively on its premium service. Meanwhile, industry analysts predict Disney is likely to spin off ESPN+ into its own separate streaming platform rather than offering it solely through its Disney Bundle.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence this continued splintering seems to coincide with a growing anti-intellectualism in Western society. The public wants—or, at least, it’s told it wants—art that is long on style and short on substance, painted in broad strokes, with clearly defined heroes and villains, and simple, satisfying conclusions that aren’t going to make us think too hard when the lights come back on.

The streaming wars should worry us out of more than mere inconvenience or escalating entertainment costs. In a time when the ties that bind us are as disparate as ever, we can’t afford to erode what little cultural connective tissue we have left.