Streaming services have dramatically transformed the media landscape, allowing consumers unparalleled access to vast libraries of content. However, the streaming landscape has become far more crowded in the past few years.
This increase in competition has created many challenges for streaming services and resulted in many services recently reporting losses of both subscribers and profits.
As part of recent challenges, multiple services have removed TV and film from their libraries – in many cases, meaning they are gone forever, inaccessible to any fan.
This has sparked debates and raised questions about consumers’ access to content and the future positioning of streaming within the broader media landscape.
Content removal: for the consumer experience or just a tax write-off?
One of the key changes we have seen by streaming services is the removal of content from their libraries. While changes to a streaming service’s content library is not new, it has become a bigger talking point recently in the context of profit loses.
Previously, content has been usually removed from streaming services due to licensing agreements. This removal means that the particular television series and films are no longer available to view on that streaming service, but may reemerge on another streaming service as the licensing shifts.
But the more recent content removal discussion raises questions associated with streaming services – and their overarching corporations – wanting to save money. This can be done through the removal of content, which the corporation can write off as losses.
This not only impacts consumer access, but also impacts actors, writers, directors and other creatives involved in the production. This is due to the fact that if the profits are less, then the residual payments (fees paid when TV shows and films are broadcast) made to the creatives involved in the production are also lowered.
The removal of content is not particular to any streaming service. Hulu wiped shows such as Alaska Daily and The Company You Keep from its service after they were cancelled following a single season.
Programs that were removed after being cancelled on Disney+ have included Big Shot, Diary of a Future President, Just Beyond, The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, The Mysterious Benedict Society, The World According to Jeff Goldblum, Turner & Hooch and Willow.
What needs to be considered with many of these is that they are “originals”, meaning they were created by Disney for Disney. The removal of original content from streaming services, in most instances, means they will not be accessible to viewers anywhere.
As part of the removal of programs, Disney recently reported it would take a US$1.5 billion write-down from the axed content. More content is expected to disappear in upcoming quarters, which could also include original content.
Has the streaming bubble burst?
In late 2022, many streaming services reported both subscriber and financial losses. For Netflix, this was the first time it had reported a loss of subscribers.
It was reported Netflix lost 200,000 subscribers worldwide, the complete opposite of Wall Street’s expectation that the service would add 2.5 million subscribers. This is despite still making a profit in that period.
But Netflix was not alone in the shedding of subscribers. Disney+ lost 2.4 million subscribers in the final quarter of 2022. This was only exacerbated by the loss of 3.8 million subscribers to its Disney+ Hotstar streaming services (the Disney+ service offered in India and parts of Southeast Asia).
Warner Bros Discovery also reported a financial loss of US$217 million across its streaming services.
The impact on viewers and creators
The removal of TV and films from streaming penalises creators financially, but it also removes their means to use past work “as a calling card to help land future gigs”.
Eliza Skinner, head writer for Earth to Ned, which was removed from Disney+, says they were not aware of the decision until seeing it reported in an article. Skinner also noting that she doesn’t own a physical copy of the show, making it even more difficult to use the program for future work.
There appears to be a recent shift in content licensing across streaming services. HBO has just signed a deal with Netflix, that has seen Issa Rae’s Insecure launch on Netflix. Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Six Feet Under and Ballers will also be available on Netflix as part of the deal.
This is a significant shift in the previous approach by streaming services to create “originals” as a way to increase subscriptions. This new approach, could result in content being available across multiple streaming services and/or other subscription television.
Too many chefs in the production kitchen
The Independent Film & TV Alliance says there are a myriad of third-party contractual relationships and licenses which need to be negotiated and put in place when it comes to streaming rights.
The alliance also notes that “distributors are licensed exclusively for their country, language and release platform”. This results in major national distributors taking all rights for their country. This can result in content being available in countries at different times and across varying platforms.
For television series, licensing and agreements can become extremely complicated when multiple studios are involved across multiple seasons.
Arrested Development is a prime example of the interwoven complexities. Disney’s 20th Television unit owned the underlying rights and produced seasons one to three, with Netflix producing the last two seasons. This resulted in the first three seasons streaming on Disney’s Hulu service, while Netlfix had all five on its service.
Netflix announced this year that it would be removing all five seasons of the TV series due to licensing issues.
This is further complicated if you look at this from an Australian perspective. When season five premiered internationally on Netflix, it premiered on Foxtel in Australia. This was due to a “first run” agreement Foxtel had signed many years prior to Netflix’s involvement.
Will there be resurgence of physical media?
Thankfully if you are an Arrested Development fan, you can purchase DVDs for seasons one to four in Australia. That is, if you can find a store that sells physical media – Kmart removed the sale of physical media more than five years ago.
But for much of the new content being produced, physical media are not available. This means consumers will not be able to access the content once it has been removed from a streaming service.
But for all the content only going to streaming platforms, there must be a plan associated with archiving it and allowing consumer access. Already much of our film and television programs have been lost in the past – for example prior to 1947 there was no way to properly record a live television broadcast.
There is a perception that digital lasts forever and therefore is easily archived. But are we seeing history repeat itself? Will original streaming content follow a similar path to old film and television content and be lost forever?