So, this all seems horrible — and by “this,” I mean the state of streaming in the year of our Zaslav 2023. Seemingly everything around the way we consume media, which is an essential pastime for most human beings, feels completely backward, broken, and to be honest, a little antagonistic. Maybe even a lot antagonistic. When did watching TV and movies become so infuriating, and how do The Streamers, collectively, keep finding new ways to make what should be our culture’s default way of chillaxing even more stressful?
The straw to this camel’s back really feels like the recent announcement that Disney will be pulling a few dozen original shows and movies from Disney+ and Hulu. This list includes family-friendly original comedies like Big Shot and The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers (a surprise Decider fave, BTW), the inventive and bizarre puppet talk show Earth to Ned, and original series starring Kat Dennings (Hulu’s Dollface) and Jeff Goldbum (Disney+’s The World According to Jeff Goldblum). The list of soon-to-be-dusted content also includes the very recent, very high-profile Willow series and — just in time for a new Little Mermaid movie and Pride Month! — Howard, the incredibly moving documentary about queer Disney trailblazer Howard Ashman. That’s just the beginning of the list, BTW. Those are the titles that are particularly baffling to me, as well as former Disney showrunners like Eliza Skinner and frequent Disney actors like Yvette Nicole Brown.
If Disney was the only streaming service disappearing content, or if disappearing content was the only bad behavior practiced by streaming services, maybe the feeling would be more grumbly and less “let me write a thousand words about how angry I am.” But you don’t have to be a Senior Reporter/Producer for an entertainment website to feel this fire. You don’t even have to be a “stan” or a “shipper.” If you subscribed to just one streaming service over the past year, odds are you are pissed off about something that streamer has done. This Disney purge is just the latest in a very long list of top-down WTF-ery perpetuated by the big brains in charge of how we all consume entertainment.
All at once, streaming services are refusing to negotiate with the writers that make their content possible, axing reliable favorites from their libraries, swiftly canceling originals both beloved and/or acclaimed, scrubbing original content from their platforms, shuffling their originals off to broadcast networks and pay cable stations, merging or not merging but definitely rebranding, and clunkily cracking down on password sharing while increasing their prices. So to sum up: streaming services are charging more so you can become attached to originals that are hastily written and will be abruptly canceled before they are either pawned off to another network or service that you may not have or just completely incinerated from memory. And if you’re keeping your subscription alive so you can watch The Office or Cheers on a loop, you’re also out of luck.
What is going on? I know the answer is “CEOs gonna CEO” and it’s not a surprise that out-of-touch executives don’t know what makes their streaming services appealing (R.I.P. HBO Max circa 2020-2021), but it’s hard to figure out exactly what CEOs think streaming services are for. Based on all of these weird decisions, streaming services are not supposed to create enduring original series, nor are they meant to keep a back catalog of their originals for posterity. Having a robust library of classic movies or TV shows isn’t important. They don’t care about keeping their IP in-house if they can make money licensing it out to ad-supported services that are owned by competitors. So if streaming services aren’t meant to create or even keep content, then what is the service for? And what are we paying for? What are we paying more for?
Even more baffling is the fact that when these streaming originals are pruned by their service, they are truly erased from existence. You cannot buy them digitally. You cannot buy them physically. If you love Disney+’s Willow, I really hope you got in a lot of rewatches in the 5 months since it concluded, because you might never see it again. Like, I ferociously loved HBO Max’s Legendary and I just flat-out can’t watch it anymore. Anywhere. I would pay to have a digital copy. I would pay $100 to own a Blu-ray box set of all three seasons, but oh well — ! Please, Warner Bros., don’t take my money. What’s wild to me, though, is that Disney isn’t capitalizing on the marketing tactic they pioneered in the ’80s with the launch of VHS. Why aren’t they putting these originals into the Digital Disney Vault or something? Give fans a chance to buy Y: The Last Man or Mysterious Benedict Society and then toss it into the vault, only to — surprise! — return again in a few years. That’s not the solution, but it’s at least something.
I know us oldies can be like, “Welcome to what TV was like for the first 50 years,” but that doesn’t address the fact that we all kinda thought that we solved this problem. The invention of the DVD made TV on DVD possible, which suddenly made it possible for us to own our favorite TV shows and watch them on our own schedule. That led to streaming which, the presumed — and, it turns out, foolish — promise was that these shows and movies would be available to subscribers in perpetuity. That was more or less true for the first 10 years of streaming! That was definitely the assumed case when it came to shows that the streaming services created for themselves. Now all at once, we’re finding out that truly nothing matters when it comes to streaming — not the writers, not the fans, not the awards, not the stories, not the library, not the brand. The only thing that matters is money, and the people in charge seem to think that we’re all subscribing to these streaming services because we simply like the idea of them and don’t care at all about the quality of service they provide.
Twenty years ago a TV lover’s entertainment center was filled with colorful spines of DVD box sets adorned with logos and character headshots. These box sets were expensive and sometimes unwieldy, but they contained the shows we loved. Then we were tricked into trusting Netflix and other streaming services because they contained these same shows in addition to a seemingly ever-expanding library of shows and movies new and old. We ditched the box sets, we even ditched entertainment centers because we thought this was the future. We were tricked into trusting these streaming services because we wanted to free up shelf space. Now those streaming services feel as empty as our shelves.