I'm excited about the coming future of entertainment. The trouble is it's both incredibly complicated and not quite what I wanted.
It's Officially a Trend that entertainment companies are fencing their programming in web gardens. Walt Disney said this week that it would create at least two internet video subscription services, for ESPN and for films from Disney and Pixar. People who want to watch the coming "Star Trek" television series will need to subscribe to a $6-a-month video service from CBS. And the hundreds of video streaming services available in Roku's television app store include at least two subscription services for British television lovers (BritBox and Acorn TV).
It's easy to imagine we'll soon have to sign up for dozens of video services -- with separate passwords, billing accounts and user interfaces. Choice is great. We wanted to tailor our leisure time rather than forking over $100 a month for a mishmash of cable TV channels we mostly didn't watch.
But the growing complexity makes me long for the simple days of the early 2010s when we paid one company --usually the local cable TV provider -- for a collection of channels. Maybe it's time to fall in love with the "bundle" again, or at least one with a 21st century twist. And the company with the pole position here is Amazon. Yes, them again.
I've been stunned by reports of how successful Amazon has been at funneling people using its Prime Video service into other online video services. BTIG Research analyst Rich Greenfield has estimated half of subscribers to the HBO Now streaming video subscription are coming through Amazon. Tens of millions of people are paying for Prime. And although not of all of them use Amazon's Netflix-like video service, many do. That gives Amazon a built-in audience to pitch add-ons like HBO or Acorn TV.
All this programming in one bill. It's like ... cable TV. Roku, Apple, Comcast and others are also trying to become hubs of multiple Web video options, and Disney is positioning ESPN to combine many internet video sporting events.
The boom in streaming TV options is progress, but creating new bundles with the old compromises isn't ideal. For one thing, most Americans buy their home internet service from the local cable company. That gives the cable TV companies control over a crucial access point to the buffet of internet video services. They can make it prohibitively expensive to buy internet without other cable services, and many people have few choices of providers and pay a lot for subpar service. That is a barrier to a web-dependent future of entertainment. Maybe Amazon can shake this up by offering wireless or broadband service as part of Prime.
Right now I pay for a small number of TV channels and broadband service from my local cable company, plus I have Prime Video and a subscription to DirecTV's online-only Sunday Ticket service for football games. I also download from Amazon or iTunes a handful of movies or TV seasons that aren't included in my other video subscriptions. (Yes, I am crazy.)
I'm happy to have more programming at my fingertips, but this is a poor proxy for the entertainment dream. The TV lover's Platonic ideal is to pay for only what we want. I'd like to see HBO's "Insecure," Rhett & Link's YouTube talk show, Cincinnati Bengals games and the latest "Star Wars" movie whenever I want and without going broke. I know the dream is tough given the business realities of entertainment companies. For now I'll settle for this new migraine-inducing world of bundles.
A version of this column originally appeared in Bloomberg's Fully Charged technology newsletter. You can sign up here.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
It's not easy to survive as a streaming video service. NBC said on Wednesday that it would shut down Seeso, its comedy-focused subscription video service.
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