The trouble with streaming services: too many people with their hands out

If you don't want to use cable TV or satellite, you still have myriad choices for getting your fix of video content thanks to a plethora of download and streaming services. But the landscape of streaming entertainment is badly fractured because of copyright issues, turf wars and fear, uncertainty and doubt from the companies that control the content. Will it ever change?

Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast - the choices of devices you can connect to your television are increasing every day. Apple TV holds the lead, according to some metrics, but that's not to say that Apple's victory in the space is a forgone conclusion. Quite the opposite, actually: Apple is facing an uphill climb striking distribution deals with the companies that control content.

No white knight this time around

This isn't an industry reeling in chaos from the switch to digital entertainment, as the music industry did in the last decade. While most people were buying music the old fashioned way, on CDs, the music industry saw the writing on the wall - and recognized the billions that were going out the door via services like Napster. Apple was the music industry's white knight - the iTunes Store made it more appealing to many consumers to buy digital music easily instead of downloading pirated content from file sharing services.

No one in Hollywood thinks of Apple as their savior, though some of them are happy to work with Apple while still keeping the company at arm's length. None of the providers of video content want to see one company attain the monolithic control that Apple has as the gatekeeper to the buying public. Instead, they're rolling their own systems. And that's creating a lot of chaos.

Take, for example. It's a joint project between NBCUniversal, Disney-ABC and Fox Broadcasting that streams TV shows, movies and other content. To use the service on your Apple TV, you need to be a Hulu Plus subscriber, which means playing a $7.99 monthly subscription fee. Hulu is accessible through other systems, like the Roku box, as well.

Netflix, Crunchyroll, Major League Baseball - it's all the same story. To access the content, you have to pay extra. Providing services a la carte may work for a certain segment of viewers, but it gets exhausting remembering which services you have a subscription to and how you're being billed for them. And it gets more complicated when you throw something like HBO Go into the mix.

You can watch HBO Go on your Apple TV, as well, getting the latest TV shows, movies and other content on your Apple TV. But access requires a subscription to a cable or satellite service that uses an account verification system supported by the app. Otherwise, you're locked out of that content.

Chaos reigns supreme

It's the control of content that remains an inhibitor to the future growth of cloud-based entertainment. While each media company, acting alone or in congress with others, as in the case of Hulu, is staking their claim to provide the paying public with access to content. Everyone is looking for a piece of that pie.

They seem content, for the moment, to divide up that pie into an ever-dwindling series of slivers. The days of one media company commanding a 77 percent share like CBS did with the finale of MAS*H will never be repeated. At this point, marketshare is measured in single-digit millions of viewers, even among popular network television programs. The market is even smaller for content in the cloud, though it's growing over time as more people want to view material on their own terms.

Apple and other companies producing devices that make this content accessible have little choice but to go along with it - they're not in the content creation business, and never have been. Its their job to provide the tools to produce the content, in some cases, or, in the case of consumer electronics devices, to enjoy the content.

What's more, we've seen the federal government and the courts get in the way of Apple when it tries to take an activist role in content distribution, as it did when it when it struck an agency model arrangement with the five most prominent publishers of ebooks when it introduced its iBookstore and iBooks iOS app. The Department of Justice took Apple to court, claiming the company was guilty of violating antitrust laws by trying to fix the price of content, and they found a judge who agreed.

The message to Apple is clear - make pretty boxes and nice software that let us get the content, but don't worry your pretty little heads about where the content comes from or what we're going to charge people to enjoy it.

Apple still gets to be the gatekeeper for some of it, though. Years after the music publishers finally agreed to let Apple sell its content without employing draconian Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology to restrict its duplication or use elsewhere, video companies still make Apple and other companies that stream content lock down the media using whatever means necessary. And don't even get me started on the quagmire ebooks have become. Each company participating in the ebook market has a different format to support with different restrictions.

Bottom line

Don't expect it to get any easier or any cheaper to view what you want online through any cloud service in the near future. Unless you have possession of the content - individual music files, movies, TV shows or more, or unless you've ripped the content you want to watch, there's going to be someone, somewhere, with their hand out.

Paying for content you want to view is entirely fair. Where the system goes off the rails is when you're getting nickeled and dimed by everyone. I don't want to have to subscribe to a dozen different services to get the content I want to watch. I'm content to let one or two get in if their offerings are compelling, but that's about it. Beyond that, it gets exhausting to keep up.

I can't help but feel that entertainment companies are losing the forest through the trees with their current thinking. A rising tide raises all boats, it is said. But right now, media companies are content to keep as much of that tide dammed up for themselves, and they're missing out on the bigger picture.

Peter Cohen