Something Strange Is Happening To What You Watch
In the century since the major film studios first settled in Hollywood, audiences have never demanded more video than they do today. In 2014, we watched an average of 163 hours of video content per month (17 hours more than in 2007). But despite the proliferation of content, consumption and access, the value of the home entertainment industry is plunging so fast that is has wiped out decades of growth.
The drop is so great that the average home spends less today than they did twenty years ago. In the early 1990s, only 4 in 5 homes had the equipment necessary to watch home video. Today, the average household has nearly a dozen such pieces of equipment, as well as immediate access to tens of thousands of hours of content, and no collection is required.
So if we’re watching more, why is the industry in such deep trouble?
First, the era of the DVD is at an end, replaced by streaming, and of course there’s a huge amount of piracy, but these facts don’t explain what’s going on.
What we’re getting is a new phenomenon that has the studios unnerved. Hollywood is no longer appealing to story-lovers, but why? Everyone loves a story, don’t they? Well, this is where it gets interesting.
Home entertainment has always had a problem; whereas movies are uncoupled from their brand, TV isn’t – you don’t say, ‘That was a terrible Fox film’, but you do remember that the BBC showed something you liked. (In test audiences, people who remember something good on Channel 4 usually name it as a BBC2 show, but that’s the exception). Channels, therefore, lived and died by their content quality. Cable channels subsist on their purchased libraries, usually a handful of quality films bolstered with a roster of duds. On Sky, the best films are hived off to a separate pay-by-movie section, leaving the main subscription channel full of rubbish. But now companies like Netflix have succeeded in removing the stigma of poor content by ‘designing out’ the perceived value of specific titles to the consumer.
What they’s done is very clever, and is becoming a much remarked-upon industry phenomenon; they and services like them are removing the idea that films and TV shows have different levels of quality, so that they appear all the same, grouped differently. When you look up shows on Netflix you find vaguely themed offerings like ‘Adventure’ and ‘Romance’, and it’s hard to find individual items. They sell the idea of ‘entertainment’ in general, an all-you-can-eat buffet, and they’ve discovered something remarkable.
Consumers no longer care. So long as it’s ‘entertainment’ they’ll watch anything they’re in the mood for, so ‘Action’ or ‘Romance’ is enough of a choice to have to make. This is because the proliferation of formats and content is so vast now that no-one keeps track of what’s good or bad anymore, and it’s led to so-called ‘snack viewing’ – and it’s hugely on the rise.
In a world where generic food chains like Giraffe and Iguana offer meals that are neither entirely horrible nor remotely memorable, where clothes for men are faint variations on a suit or jeans, ‘entertainment’ can become something you buy in a set portion regardless of what the portion actually contains. There will always be anomalies, like ‘Breaking Bad’, which feels like a well-constructed novel, or ‘Game Of Thrones’, which originally came from a respected writer even though it’s just a soap opera with extra sex and dragons, but the system Netflix consciously set in motion is really working.
You will not spend time sourcing a Danish thriller made from a book you heard about because you won’t find it easily. There will still be collectors, purists, completists – writers like me and Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw and Paul McAuley who track down rarities (right now I’m trying to find a copy of ‘The Suicide Shop’ in English and having no luck) but we’ll be the geek outsiders.
And in a way, perhaps this has put entertainment in its place. It’s not so terribly important after all, entertainment, it’s just a way to relax, isn’t it?