Barnhart: 2021 was the year streaming put a fork in pay TV

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Overwhelmed by Peak TV? Aaron Barnhart is your guide to the good, the big, and the skippable. Subscribe to get all of his Primetimer reviews.

2021 has not been a good start for Chip and Joanna Gaines. The HGTV couple who restore homes and hope in the lives of millions of viewers are the brightest stars in the world of reality and factual shows known as Discovery Networks. In early 2020, Discovery announced that the Gaines would be getting their own branded lifestyle cable channel, called Magnolia Network, which is set to debut this summer.

The pandemic has crushed these plans. The cable channel has been suspended. Everyone waited. And then, on January 4, 2021, Waco’s first couple took a step forward in Texas to streaming. It was Discovery + launch day, and among the many brands loaded into reality’s biggest streamer was what was called a “preview” version of Magnolia Network. “The cart and the horse have definitely been reversed,” Chip Gaines said at the time.

Magnolia Network will launch on cable next month, but who cares? The paradigm has changed. Thanks in large part to the pandemic, we’ve come a long way towards making Roku Box creator Anthony Wood’s prediction that everyone will be streaming TV by the end of the decade. Weeks after the global lockdown, Netflix added 26 million subscribers worldwide (and all of them, it seems, were watching King Tiger). Hulu has gone from 28.5 million subscriptions in the United States to 36.6 million.

The question in 2021 was whether they would keep their subscriptions? all of their subscriptions? These days, there aren’t just three big streamers. It’s now the Big 9 with the additions of Disney +, Apple TV +, Peacock, HBO Max and the two that went live this year, Discovery + and Paramount +.

As vaccines arrived and people ventured outside to restaurants and movie theaters, industry forecasters predicted cash-strapped consumers would give up some or all of their extra subscriptions. Instead, they hooked up to the streaming and continued to cut the cord. A study in April found that only 58% of American homes had traditional cable or satellite. That’s down from 88% just nine years earlier. And, for the first time, more Americans reported streaming TV than traditional pay TV in their homes.

What happened? Quite simply, Streaming TV was bigger and better than ever in 2021. When streaming was defined by just three brands – Netflix, Hulu and Prime Video – they were rightly viewed as additions to a traditional subscription to pay television. But from late 2019, when Disney + made its amazing debut, the growth of premium streamers appears to have had a transformative effect on viewers. These new streamers (which were backed by Hollywood, not Big Tech) offered the same shows available on Pay TV, but all at the same time: on-demand, searchable, findable, and watchable with just a few clicks of the remote. All in all, it seemed so Following than pay TV, and often costs much less.

Having so much variety and volume at all times was liberating – and, like everything else during the pandemic year, exhausting. TV critics, who had long given up hope of seeing every new show, began to hear from readers who felt overwhelmed by all of the recommended shows. “I have just finished Game of thrones, and now I have nothing more to look at. I have HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, ”one Facebook viewer wrote.

Others turned to their friends on social media, asking them for choices that were good and didn’t require a week of frenzy. “Urgent need for a short series recommendation please!” a Twitter user asked his friends. Cultural outings like The New York Times, which now recommended several hours of television per day, felt compelled to include choices for viewers who only had an hour to spare.

In some ways, viewing habits hadn’t changed that much. Short and long on the alternatives, they continued to gravitate towards water cooler shows. Netflix, Nielsen, and Reelgood all released Top 10 lists which confirmed, through various metrics, that only a few shows out of the pool of hundreds of new releases were generating a buzz. High-profile series like The Irregulars were guillotined only a few weeks after the fall of their episodes.

The second year of the pandemic also saw the emergence of a sort of nostalgia among viewers for at least one aspect of the old pay-TV experience: channel browsing. Advertising-supported services like PlutoTV, Tubi, and Peacock offered familiar ‘live’ channels (mostly 24/7 thematic programming loops, with some live information) curated like a TV program guide by cable. This “backward” alternative has proven to be so popular that PlutoTV’s parent company has announced a batch of background channels for its premium service, Paramount +. The newest internet-connected smart TVs run apps from all streaming services and seamlessly integrate recessed channels, meaning a viewer today can look a lot like their 1975 counterpart – pointing just one click on a screen, without the need for cables or set-top boxes – except that the 2021 viewer enjoys exponential variety and choice.

With the torrent of revenue generated from all these streaming subscriptions, programming budgets have exploded. Netflix will spend $ 20 billion in 2022. Disney will spend $ 33 billion on company-wide content, but much of it will go to Disney +, Hulu, and streamer ESPN +. Amazon will spend $ 12 billion on Prime Video and IMDb TV, its own emerging streamer. Streaming TV is set to experience its biggest year in 2022, at least on the supply side.

On the demand side, the public is still grappling with two major challenges. The first is economical: prevent their monthly streaming bills from reaching what they previously paid for cable or satellite. The second challenge is effective: finding the shows they want to watch next without a lot of on-screen navigation and the growing feeling that there is just too much many good tv there. And the problems are related: If people feel like they’re paying for a lot of shows they don’t watch or can’t find, they might switch to streamlined channels that cost nothing more than the psychic toll caused by commercials. Since the future of television was streaming, it happened. How expansive, ambitious, and interesting is how expansive, ambitious, and interesting streaming TV is, that’s what we’ll continue to find out in 2022.

Aaron Barnhart has been writing on television since 1994, including 15 years as a television critic for the Kansas City Star.

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