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
  • Apple taking an activist role in ebooks? That's certainly a rosy view for the unethical conduct they conducted and were found guilty of. As for the rest. Compre now to as it was five years ago. Is it easier or harder to get content online? Now think about the next five years.
  • yeah, kinda glossed over the adjudicated illegality of their behavior didn't they?
  • Roku can add all kinds of streaming apps and games, but it doesn't compare to the beautiful yet simplistic interface of the Apple TV. Nor can it stream music and video from your computer like the Apple TV can. I use my Apple TV all the time with Netflix and Hulu Plus, in addition to streaming over 2TB worth of music and HD movies and videos straight to my TV. My poor Blu-Ray player is sitting there collecting dust, while the Apple TV is an integral part of my household. It was so useful that I bought one for the TV in my room as well, in case I want to finish a movie there. Mobile streaming from an iPhone to your Apple TV in infinitely easier than a Roku. This is obvious, of course, because they are both Apple products, but it is nearly impossible to stream anything to a Roku, even with the app. Even then, you are limited to music only.
  • You can use the Juice channel and the Juice app to stream to a Roku from an Android device and that mimics the iPhone and Apple TV setup, but haven't found a good solution for IOS devices to a Roku like you said. The easiest way I stream to Roku everything I have is to install Plex server on the PC where my iTunes resides and the Plex channel for Roku. It picks up iTunes and all it's playlists and non-DRM content easily. The bonus to that is I can access it on the go on any Android or IOS device as well!
  • Apple could probably use its market power to put together a package of content to offer over Apple TV... (Sadly, it'd probably be a US-only thing. Darned northern border...)
  • The music industry is not entirely perfect, but far better than TV and Movies. For instance not all music publishers are available on all sellers or streaming sites. The big four labels are on most services, but sometimes you have to search around when it comes to independents or music from other countries. Still it's better than the TV & Movie industry for sure. I can't figure out why cable companies haven't tried to save their skins with an app of their own that streams the live TV streams to an app. I know Comcast has their Xfinity Player app that can play on demand stuff, but it seems they could expand their markets with an app for viewing live streams and some kind of package deal. They could potentially open up sales in markets where they have no reach (physical infrastructure). Then they could offer some kind of cloud based DVR type setup to record shows to watch later. Heck, tons of travelers, college students and many more would gladly pay for a well priced subscription and they would be ahead of the game with the likes of Aereo. Make it an add on to existing cable packages at a lower cost and there is even more money to be made. I'd love to have access to my cable TV package while on the go with my tablet. They already have content deals in place and it would be a win situation for the content publishers as well. Just a thought and a dream for a utopian future I suppose.
  • Musc started from a different royalties model than movies/TV. Music had been released everywhere at once (through radio) almost from the start, while movies/TV were distributed through very specific, select channels (ABC, CBS, etc and brick and mortar movie theaters). I think they still cling to that model of needing the cash up front for that first time showing. That was fine when the distribution channels were 3 for TV and just as limited in movie theaters. But now the distribution channels are all muddied and the first run fees are harder to exploit. TV channels are now rolled into incomprehensible packages, similar to the esoteric derivatives that fueled the recession, by the cable and satellite companies. And these service providers act as both theaters and content providers to some extent. The old model is dead but no one has notified the next of kin. Profits are also expected much sooner now than they were 30 years ago in pretty much everything. They are just as scared of losing money as they are of someone else making money.....the pressure of being publicly held today. I think chaos will reign for quite some time. There doesn't seem to be any loud voice of reason and organization over the top of all that micromanaged greed and fear. Too bad this isn't a game of Boggle where you just shack all the dice and start over.
  • Apple was the music industry's white knignt, seriously??? Apple offered a bitter pill, the same one it offered the publishing industry: side with me, sign MFN clauses, give me 30% and I will give you a sales channell. It will never be the same, but you'll survive, barely. Don't take me wrong, Apple is a business, saw an opportunity and acted on it, but in my book that's not being a white knight, that's taking advantage. Funny how Amazon is demonized for having this control over the publishing industry, and Apple is touted as a white knight for having the same control over the music industry. "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" - Oh, poor Apple, after all it was just trying to help by fixing prices and making everything more expensive for everybody so it could get its own foot at the door.
  • "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." Pure editorializing. Nothing more. There's nothing wrong with that by the way. Anyone can express their opinion as they wish. But this type of column needs to be labeled as an editorial opinion so it's easily distinguished from actual news or a tech story of importance to Apple. This isn't either.
  • They aren't missing out on the big picture. Streaming services don't provide the same revenue. Nbc doesn't make anywhere near the same ad revenue off of hulu as it does on The Voice on big NBC. They aren't missing the big picture. The big picture is these services alone don't pay for the network programming even the cheaper crappy reality game shows. Also, they will make even less by seeding control to a single company like an apple. All these companies make used to make money on distribution and a big part of funding tv was the now severely diminished dvd market. There is no right for people to get all their content in one place. If you make content of any kind it comes with the right to control the method of distribution or no distribution at all. If you film a program you pick if it's released on movie, tv, cable tv, pay per view, netflix only straight to dvd or not at all. The public's only choice is to take it or not. If they want their own hulu service you either take it or not. But there's no bucket of money for say NBC or CBS out their if they decide sign onto some services they have no control over when before that was all revenue they got from other distribution channels. This is about money. If they could support their business all joining one service owned by someone else they'd do it but it doesn't work. Not yet. And the problem is to make it work it'd have to be $100 a month if not more, like cable is.
  • I completely disagree with the bottom line. In fact, it shows a very clear misunderstanding of the state of things. As it becomes easier and easier to pirate, it forces legal services to be dirt cheap or free...hence the fact that a person can stream hundreds of hours of hundreds of bands for an entire month and pay just a few bucks (or nothing) instead of the hundreds or thousands that would be spent on the same CDs. The future is ad supported, obviously, because people (also quite obviously) don't want to pay. Spotify doesn't even cost much, but it'll lose out in the end to anything that requires no payment. I use torch music as my main stream agent just for this reason, and I'm a pretty average human being. If people want to make money off it, I suggest they change how contracts are made, but don't think for a second that people will pay if they don't have to.