The United States of Streaming
Gone are the days of Cable: the age of streaming services has ushered in the desire for personable, varied content. Where will we go from here?
Senior year: George Washington University, Washington DC, 2020 - The first thing I noticed moving in to my pre-furnished apartment was this large television that took up an entire wall of my bedroom. At the time I thought that it was way too big to be practical in any way, but it had proven its worth during this cold, pandemic-stricken winter more than I could have ever imagined.
Indoor gatherings came to a halt and the choices of how to spend a Friday night or those lengthy gaps of free time in the day grew limited. That television became more than just a tool for displaying images. Between fighting off the dreary winter weather and that sense of boredom, isolation, and urge to find novelty and comfort during a year filled with anything but, TV streaming provided me with the ability to escape into a world of endless stories.
I scrolled through #FreeBritney trending on Twitter at the time, simultaneously engaged in the documentary Framing Britney that released soon after. Alone in bed on a Tuesday night, I could stay up late binging old Disney classics or modern thrillers. It's not like I had to wake up and attend a lecture early the next morning. On Thursday nights - which, when you're a college student was the new Friday night - clubs and bars just weren't an option. Masking up between sips of beer in constant fear of those around us (pre-vaccine).
Instead, friends would come over and we'd sit on my bed watching Pineapple Express or Hitchhiker's Guide or Dazed and Confused or any other mind-bending film to accompany the potent joint being passed between us. Sunday mornings were dedicated to pancakes, bacon, and the latest episode of Saturday Night Live. And when the hour and a half was up, and there were no new weekly shows to catch up on, I'd retreat under my covers, turn off the lights, and flip mindlessly through the ever-growing movie and TV selections on Netflix. HBO Max. Hulu. Amazon Prime. It was all so overwhelming. And yet, the seemingly infinite choices of what to stream and when felt empowering during a year where I - the world - was trapped.
Roku: A Very Brief History of Streaming
So, what exactly is Roku? A Roku? Is it a noun? An adjective? Uber became a verb once it gained popularity. We are propelling into the future. Anyway - before 2020, I had never really heard the word. Fairly quickly, it became part of my everyday vernacular, along with nearly 78 percent of the US population who had turned to streaming services for their entertainment needs. These systems are easy to navigate and offer access to the best shows and movies ever made. By January 2021 - nearly a year after lockdown began - there were 51.2 million active accounts. As of 2023 - two years later - there are over 70 million.
Developed in 2008, Roku is considered one of the first brands of hardware digital media players, which offers access to endless content from a variety of online services and subscription-based channels. In September of 2020, Roku released the ninth generation of its software which boasted faster compression and delivery technologies to adhere to a world being conducted solely online (in 2023, it's matured to 11.5). The innovation. The speediness. This has made the ability to stream content and shows that much more efficient.
Ask the Users: How often do you normally watch TV? What device do you use? Where are you watching from?*
“I typically watch TV at night, but also have it on in the mornings when I do my makeup or am getting ready. I usually watch on the television, but sometimes I’ll use my laptop.” – Savannah Hanley, 21 (Washington, DC)
“Normally we watch TV at night, around 8pm. We use our cable box mostly for now, but have Disney+ and PBS apps for our daughter.” – Stacy Wolffe, 36 (New York)
“I watch TV after dinner in my bed until I fall asleep, or when I’m drawing and working on art.” – Mary Langseder, 21 (Delaware)
“I stream from any device – TVs in my home, the bedroom, or my Ipad.” – Ilene, 56 (Florida)
*Answers collected in 2021.
The Streaming Space Race
It’s not just Roku that had rapidly seeped into homes and apartments in those months following lockdown; the industry itself was - and continues to be - in constant competition with itself and similar companies. There are choices to be made everywhere: will Roku support my desired content, or would Apple TV be better for me? Amazon Fire just released its own services - will I get more from them for my money?
The pandemic, in part, had resulted in a major shift from traditional cable to these contemporary services. A study from Future of TV showed that more than 27 percent of U.S. cable subscribers are planned to end their subscriptions by the end of the 2021. This is nearly twice the amount of people who cut their subscriptions in 2020. A steady increase since then, in 2022, a cumulative total of 55 million users cut ties with their cable.
It's meta, kind of. But when I imagine the past, and the rise of cable in the 1950s and 60s, I am reminded of the characters in I Love Lucy gathered around a family room TV, laughing along to an artificial track or live audience. Or those scenes from the 1980s rom-coms, when young couples would go on a dates to the movie theatre. The two would reach for the popcorn at the same time while a movie that mirrored their own lives played on a large screen before them. Of course, there was on "Netflix and chill" then; the theater was a collective experience.
Heck, the 1983 finale of M*A*S*H garnered the largest audience to date; 105.9 million people across the United States paused what they were doing to experience the 2.5 hour long ending to a fictional war story that got them through the turbulent 70s. 105.9 million people. Nearly half the US population at the time. Where were you when JFK was shot? Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell? Where did you watch the season finale of M*A*S*H?
It's changing. The pandemic ushered in a new age of pretty much everything; the "new normal" became the new world and we are just now coming out the other side. While there has since been a steeper rise in movie-going as theatrical releases return, we were spoiled for so long. Movies last the usual two to three months on the big screen before being bought by one of the many streaming services. Right to your home. We'll wait it out; no need to go out and watch the movie if I can do it from the comfort of my bed and wall-size TV. Maybe that's the new big screen?
The cable to streaming pipeline meant less weekly releases and more season drops; 6, 8, 10 episodes at one time to watch (binge) at your leisure. In 2020, Business Insider reported that 60 percent of consumers cited live sports as the reason for keeping a cable subscription. Just nine months later, only 30 percent of respondents chose to keep the subscription. When ESPN offers live coverage on channels like Disney+ or Hulu, for example, the need for cable becomes obsolete.
Subscribers to Roku, Apple TV, or Amazon Fire are no longer constrained to prime time hours. We've conquered the 24-hour day; time is an individually lived experience as is the ways we utilize it. Ironically, HBO Max is now dominating the weekly-release method. Since the late 70s, and reaching it's golden age in the late 90s, HBO served as the premier pay-per-view platform. Individualized content just for you, for a small price outside that of Cable, of course. Revolutionary. But as for the rest of the services - with some exceptions - it's a game of, how quick can I watch this show before encountering spoilers online?
What’s your go-to streaming service?*
“I don’t really have a go-to streaming service… I’ll usually hop between Netflix and Hulu, but sometimes my xfinity account comes in clutch.” – Casey Waggatt, 21 (Massachusetts)
“Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix… I think we are subscribed to most of the services!” – Andrea Davis, 56 (New York)
“My go to streaming services are Netflix and HBO, but more recently I’ve only been using HBO.” – Lauren Kelly, 21 (California)
“I am the worst, if we use streaming services it’s usually only Netflix.” – Stacy Wolffe, 36 (New York)
“Lately I’ve been using Hulu and Amazon Prime… Netflix has been slacking lately… I also use HBO and Disney+, they’re making new stuff now.” – Rafael Rodriguez, 21 (Washington, DC)
*Answers collected in 2021
The Illusion of Choice
Just as with cable, however, the nature of streaming service decision-making comes down to the same reasoning: will I get the most content for this deal? In the same report from Business Wire, more than half of respondents said they are "unwilling to spend more than $20 per month on streaming subscriptions," and five times more likely to prefer "free or low-cost streaming with ads". Thankfully, the prices have not changed too drastically by 2023. Except for Netflix, but they are digging their own grave right next to cable.
I'm in that apartment in DC during my senior year in the midst of the pandemic and nothing to do and now where to go. Friends gathered around the television; iCarly is on Paramount+? The Nickelodeon show had been rebooted following it's six-season run from 2007-2012. It's one of countless reboots of childhood favorites. Oh, the nostalgia. Oh no to the growing up and getting older. As we watched, we reminisced on that one episode, when Spencer's birthday gift to Carly, a gummy bear lamp, caught fire and so did her bedroom. We searched a bit, and found that this was the season four premiere. Her new room was so cool, we all wanted it as kids. Paramount+ didn't carry the original at the time, and Netflix didn't stream any of the later seasons. Why do they do that? That 90s Show, a reboot of the 2000s That 70s Show, had a similar issue in 2023. If we get a reboot we want the original on the same platform! When we found the episode through the Roku search function, it was only available for purchase on Amazon Prime. “It’s only 99 cents! That’s definitely worth the joy I’ll get out of watching!” my friend shouted to us, eager to watch the episode we had been reminiscing upon for the last ten minutes. Streaming is that simple, easy, and accessible.
I could watch episodes of Love Island, the islanders finding love in real time. I could rewatch the last season of Netflix’s Bridgerton before the upcoming one releases.I could rent Interstellar on Amazon Prime and ponder life and love and time and space with a joint in my hand and tears rolling down my eyes. The emotional safety of my a private viewing experience. The age of streaming services have ushered in the need for personable, varied content. With this, users can find movies or shows that fit their moods at any moment.
What are you watching and why did you pick that?*
“I’m watching Modern Family right now, I wanted a light hearted, coming of age show.” – Kate Larkin, 21 (New Jersey)
“I am watching the Durrells in Corfu, a friend recommended it to me. I usually watch movies or shows about true stories, a lot of times about the Holocaust.” – Bella Davis, 81 (New York)
“Grey’s Anatomy. I’ve seen it so many times before, so I know every single line and what’s going to happen next. That definitely provides me with some stability in my life right now.” – Casey Waggatt, 21 (Massachusetts)
“We just started watching Yellowstone for the third time because we loved the characters and the story.” – Katie Davis, 58 (Tennessee)
“I’m watching Gilmore Girls right now. Partly because it’s from the same writer as Marvelous Maisel which I loved, but also because I’m kind of dating a boy whose last name is Gilmore so I feel like I’m Gilmore’s Girl.” – Lena Geller, 22 (North Carolina)
“My husband and I are watching Lupin right now. We picked it because it’s good for male and female audiences.” – Wendy Buffone, 56 (New York)
*Answers collected in 2021
Streaming services became an effective antidote for grappling with the (ongoing) pandemic. Whether it be the comfort of knowing there will always be something to watch despite there not being anything to do, or the thrill of finally cancelling that cable subscription for better channels and subscription deals. This new way of watching television and movies is not going away. This is not a rampant trend that will pass with time, but rather over time streaming services will make their way into households across the US, providing more content and modes of viewing than ever before.
So, first there’s the choice of what media player to use, be it the Roku, Amazon Fire, or Apple TV. Then comes the daunting task of subscribing to the channels that are streaming, and if I tried to account for all of them here I wouldn’t be able to complete the list as more and more services are created each day. It’s a case of doom scrolling with no end, only in this case it feels like streaming fatigue and I often can’t keep up with all the new releases.
But I need the stories. We need the stories. To entertain us. To comfort our minds, still recovering from days and months and years of chaos and uncertainty. Even simpler; sometimes it's easier to watch the plots of familiar fictional characters propel forward while ours remain stagnant. It's almost like we are living alongside them. Maybe even learn from them, too.
And in a century - maybe less - it might go the way of cable and get replaced with something even more advanced, entirely new. And we will continue to progress and change and the present will become tradition as we move forward. There's a metaphor for the country somewhere in there, I think.
What Are My Streaming Options?
I've mentioned the endless options of streaming, and the countless ways to find content. But where exactly do I go for my favorite shows, movies, awards, and live coverage? Prices and packages vary across companies, and more streaming options arise as the craze continues. Here are just some of the options and benefits of services. All descriptions are from PCMag. *
Netflix's large collection of TV shows and movies, including critically acclaimed originals, make it one of the best video streaming services to date, despite its high cost.
Price: $8.99/month , $17.99 Premium
Hulu is a dependable option for streaming new and classic shows as well as live TV on nearly every platform. It's a top choice among video streaming services.
Price: starts at $5.99
HBO Max offers an impressive on-demand library and its apps support the latest video streaming features, including multiple profiles and offline downloads. It’s pricey, however.
Amazon Prime Video hosts lots of prestige content for streaming and also supports impressive technical capabilities such as 4K HDR streaming and offline downloads.
Price: $12.99/month , $119/year
Peacock presents popular NBC network shows along with a worthwhile collection of movies to stream. Although it lacks some top NBC shows and some expected features, its capable free tier earns it an Editors' Choice distinction.
Price: $4.99/month (Free for basic content)
Today, Philo offers a package of top-rated television channels for just $20. Watch live, save unlimited shows to watch later, or browse a huge library of content available on-demand. Philo is available on all your favorite devices and on the web, wherever you are. (Description from Philo.com)
Price: $20/month (Free for basic content)
YouTube TV offers an excellent variety of channels, top-notch DVR features, and great performance. It's a top choice for cord cutters who want to replicate the cable TV experience, provided you are willing to pay its high monthly costs.
Classics and discoveries from around the world, thematically programmed with special features, on a streaming service brought to you by the Criterion Collection. (Description from criterionchannel.com)
Price: $10.99/month , $99.99/year
Tubi is a free and well-designed video streaming service with a large, frequently changing library of movies and some shows. Its resolution limitations and ads are a small price to pay for all the free content it offers.
Price: FREE :)
Disney+ offers an impressive library of high-quality shows and movies in a featured-filled video streaming package, but it needs to expand its content horizons to become an absolute must-have service.
Price: $8/month , $80/year , ESPN+ and Hulu Bundles start at $14/month
FuboTV is a particularly good streaming service for sports fans, but its many news and entertainment channels should appeal to general audiences, too.
Price: Starts at $64.99/month
Kanopy offers a wealth of independent educational and entertainment content for kids and adults alike, all without ads and for free—all you need is a library card. We could do without the monthly streaming limits, though.
Price: FREE :)
** Written in 2021 for Feature Writing (GWU). Updated Feb. 6, 2023.