Friends got $425 million from HBO Max. The Office got $500 million from NBCUniversal. Netflix just threw at least $500 million at Seinfeld, and less than 24 hours after that deal was announced HBO Max shelled out a figure said to be over a billion to secure streaming rights for The Big Bang Theory. As Vince Lombardo would say, what the hell is going on out here? Why are all the hottest TV shows the ones which will never again make another episode?
To understand that, we must first talk about laundry detergent, psychology, and a man named Alvin Toffler.
The Grocery Store Exercise
Imagine you’re standing in a grocery store aisle looking up at a wall of laundry detergents. You’re not searching for anything fancy. You just want something that will get the job done and, of course, smell good. But should you care if the box says “derived from natural oils”? Moreover, if the box says “high efficiency,” what does that even mean? Ditto for “natural formula.” And can anyone tell you what the hell a “Purex Crystal” is? How do you know if you’re getting the best value?
Enough already! Geesh, when did the laundry detergent game get so complicated? What happened to the days when you had two basic options: powder or liquid? Tide or Downy? And what, in the fuck, is a fabric softener?
As an adult, these are the things you have to figure out, but our brains suck at it. Back in the 1950s, a psychologist named George Miller argued the average person only has the capacity to weigh around seven different choices at any one time. He had the privilege of saying that in an era where the average US supermarket only offered 65 varieties of soaps and detergents. By 1963, the number rose to 200; by 2004, it was up to 360. What was that thing again about 7 choices? Because we’re way, way past that.
We see this proliferation of choice across virtually every sector of the economy. From mobile phones to car parts to entertainment options, everywhere we look we find an oversupply of options. If used the right way, this new era can certainly make things easier on our bank accounts. For example, even though it ultimately cost me a couple of hours of internet research I just saved $150 on a car part by not having to buy directly from the dealer, and I have many relatives who save crazy money buying prescription medications from Canada instead of locally. Still, a lot of the time we’re left standing in the grocery store struggling to pick out the right detergent, and then later that night we sit down to watch Netflix and can’t figure out which show or movie to pick.
Do You Feel Future Shocked Yet?
Alvin Toffler saw this coming. A self-proclaimed “futurist” who correctly predicted the death of the traditional married-at-18-and-for-the-rest-of-your-life union and the destabilizing effect of the post-industrial age on society as well as the rise of personal computers, the internet, and cable TV, he first arrived on the scene in 1970 with his book Future Shock, unofficially co-written with his wife Heidi. In it, they argued that the technological sophistication of the post-industrial world would lead to an unparalleled rise in consumer choices as well as a faster tempo in our day-to-day lives. In short, we’d have even less time to mentally process far more choices than ever before.
The Toffler’s weren’t optimistic about the human brain’s ability to cope with such change, arguing:
“Whether man is prepared to cope with the increased choice of material and cultural wares available to him is, however, a totally different question. For there comes a time when choice, rather than freeing the individual, becomes so complex, difficult and costly, that it turns into its opposite. There comes a time, in short, when choice turns into overchoice and freedom into unfreedom.”Alvin Toffler, Future Shock
About their use of “man” there: remember, it was 1970. However, while the Toffler’s pronoun usage might not have aged well, their general arguments and conclusions ring alarmingly true. How many hours, for example, have you devoted to researching all of your options about some new purchase, striving to cut through marketing bullshit and industry spin, only to pull back and realize that you’ve wasted weeks on picking out the right washing machine? Worse yet, once you get the new washing machine you can’t stop thinking about the runner-up option you passed on – that new Samsung can connect to your phone! – and whether you made the right choice.
This is what happens in the age of overchoice. We’re excited to have so many options, then overwhelmed, then proud of ourselves for cutting through it all and actually making a decision, and, finally, mentally taxed and possibly even regretful about the choice we made.
When we have to go through this same process for every facet of our lives – what to eat for breakfast, which jobs to work, who to date and how to find them, what to buy at the grocery store – the last thing we want is to be stressed out over something as ultimately trivial as finding something good to watch on TV. However, that’s exactly where we find ourselves, with the tried-and-true broadcast networks, hundreds of cable channels – many of which seem to change names and programming platforms every other year – and dozens of streaming services all vying for our eyeballs, that is if we aren’t already watching YouTube, playing games, or mindlessly browsing between multiple social media apps on our phones.
The Age of Peak TV Anxiety
Pop culture fanatics like myself, of course, have never had it better. Freed from the shackles of a video store or the arduous task of tracking down that one obscure whatever, we have the entire history of pop culture at our fingertips. It’s everything we ever wanted, but now we have buyer’s remorse. As former AVClub/Grantland-writer Steven Hyden argued in his book Twilight of the Gods:
“When I became a music fanatic, I fantasized about having access to more music than I could even hear in a lifetime. My very own warehouse full of CDs and vinyl. But now that my boyhood fantasy has become reality in the digital realm, it’s nowhere near as mind-blowing as I imagined it would be. Even for someone my age, streaming music became as normal as listening to the radio with shocking quickness. As for the people who were born in the streaming age, they don’t know what they have. The miraculous is now mundane. ‘Everything’ has always been possible, so it sort of feels like nothing.”Steven Hyden, Twilight of the Gods
Songs at least have the benefit of requiring relatively minute bites of our time, with the average pop song running 3 to 5 minutes long. When you up the ante to 20-minute to hour-long TV shows or feature-length films, the overchoice hits us much harder because then time – how much free time we have, to be more specific – becomes more of a determining factor in our decision.
This is how we live in a world in which Netflix alone produces more content than every other movie studio combined and yet still can’t build truly sizable audiences for any more than just a handful of its shows. In the face of too much, consumers would rather just binge Friends again, which is why Nielsen has regularly reported that Netflix’s two most-watched programs are Friends and The Office. That got a lot of people’s attention, prompting WarnerMedia executives to comment that licensing marquee properties to competitors was no longer a good business model.
So, with Friends and The Office set to soon leave Netflix – domestically, at least – the streaming giant had to make a power move like pulling in Seinfeld, which is nearing the end of its current lucrative deal with Hulu. To stand out, HBO Max clearly felt it needed to not only add Friends but The Big Bang Theory as well. (Since HBO Max and the studio which made the shows – Warner Bros. Television – share a corporate owner this is basically a case of WarnerMedia paying itself for its own shows, thus sacrificing billions in cleaner profit if it had simply stuck with Netflix.)
The Age of the Mega Deal
This isn’t how streaming used to be in the halcyon days of, um, just a few years ago. “Library content” – completed shows which long ago reached syndication and now provide sweet, sweet passive income to all involved – used to be nomadic and often interchangeable depending on contract lengths. It used to be entirely common, for example, to find shows like Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Cheers available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. To the studios, this was no different than selling the shows to syndicated TV stations, like how you used to be able to find old Cosby Show, Home Improvement, or Wings reruns on multiple networks depending on your market. As was true then, it’s just another revenue stream to be exploited.
Not anymore. All that money which used to be had from TV syndication is now shifting to streaming, and since “exclusivity” is the new word the price is going through the roof. As THR noted this morning, “The market for library content has exploded in the past year as media titans Disney, Comcast and Warners all launch streaming services of their own in a bid to better position their respective companies for the future and compete with Netflix, Amazon and upstart Apple.”
Warner and Disney are quickly pulling anything they own away from the competition. Comcast, it was revealed earlier today, plans to launch its own service next year with 15,000 hours of library content, including exclusive holds on Parks and Recreation and The Office and a promise that other library content like 30 Rock, Parenthood, Psych, and Frasier will eventually become exclusive as well. Apple, meanwhile, has opted against playing the game at all, hoping its small roster of originals will help sell more iPhones and iPads. (You get a free year’s subscription with any new product!). Amazon is stuck somewhere in-between.
They all want to stand out, and pricey, star-studded original programming with Emmy/Oscar aspirations is one traditional route they all seem to be pursuing to some degree. IP-dependent reboots and remakes is another insanely popular option. (Comcast just announced its rebooting Battlestar Galactica, Saved by the Bell and Punky Brewster.) However, when there’s too much of everything, that old thing we all used to love endures as products of a time when a monoculture still existed. So, there’s great value for a streaming service to stockpile older shows and movies everyone already knows and loves and doesn’t have to think too hard about before hitting the play button. For HBO Max, that means Friends and Big Bang Theory; for Netflix, now it means Seinfeld.
Netflix saw this coming, of course. By one estimate, Netflix stands to lose at least a fifth of its content hours over the next couple of years as contracts expire and library content disappears. That’s why Ted Sarandos’ original content budget currently rivals the GDP of many mid-sized countries around the world. The streamer has been racing to stock its digital shelves with every conceivable kind of content short of porn.
Netflix is now like Jack Black and Mos Def in that Michel Gondry movie Be Kind Rewind where two video store employees accidentally erase every VHS in the store and then try to tape over them with their homemade reenactments, hoping their primarily geriatric customer base won’t know the difference. The difference is Netflix, with rare exceptions, is not directly remaking movies or shows but instead hastily rushing out similar, algorithm-dictated products.
Can’t get enough of The Office? Once it’s gone, maybe you’ll stick around to watch Greg Daniels and Steve Carell’s new The Office-in-space series Space Force.
Love Friends? Why not try Friends From College! It’s just like Friends, but if the characters were in their 40s and far less likable. Cobie Smulders, Michael Keegan Key, Fred Savage, Nat Faxon, and Billy Eichner are it! Hell, they even put “Friends” in the damn title! (To be clear, don’t watch Friends From College; it’s awful, and Netflix canceled it after 2 seasons.)
Comcast and WarnerMedia are spending over a billion combined on the assumption that thanks to the consumer’s paralyzing fear of overchoice we’d all just rather follow The Office and Friends wherever they go instead of sticking around for cheap imitators. That then means we’ll now have even more choices for streaming services, and, as I previously detailed, any budget-conscious consumer will need to start adding it all up to see what constitutes their own personal best value or best deal. Maybe you’ll cancel Netflix and jump to HBO Max, but then everyone you follow on Twitter will rave about Unbelievable or Dark Crystal.
It’s too much!
Ah, crap. Out of stress, you just pulled a Tribbiani. Oh, that was your favorite shirt and everything. WTF, how are you out of detergent! Better run to the grocery store where at least it’ll be easier….(looks back at the start of the article)…oh, crap, that’s right. Overchoice is everywhere.
Hollywood is literally paying itself and starving Netflix in the hopes that we’ll just follow our old favorites anywhere they go. Does that work for you? Or are you too preoccupied with sorting through all the genuinely new shows to care too much about whether you can binge something you’ve already seen before? Do you like finding older shows you’ve never seen before and don’t like seeing all of them walled off behind exclusive pay walls? Or are you mostly wanting to ask me if I seriously don’t want know what fabric softener is? Spoiler: I do; I was just joking about that. As for everything else, head to the comments to share your thoughts.