The loneliness of streaming services

Is the glut of content on Netflix, Amazon, Voot and others making you ill? Are you spending more time surfing than actually watching all those award winning shows and films? Do you long for the days when you could switch on the telly, watch something while pottering around and go off during an ad break? Do you feel like an addict — intense, unflinching involvement in whatever you are watching followed by cold turkey when it is over? These are the existential questions the Khandekar home —representative of the three to five per cent of the 187 million TV homes that are binging online — faces. 

Earlier this year, we bought a smart TV. In May came Netflix and Amazon Prime Video besides a host of other stuff. By June, I had become an addict.

First, it was Downton Abbey (Amazon Prime Video), all six seasons and 52 episodes of about an hour each. This went on through June and part of July. Watching just one episode was unbearable. I would bunk work, come home early, stay up late to watch at least three to four episodes a day. Even while Downton was being consumed voraciously, came Sacred Games. All eight episodes were watched over two working days. And re-watched with the better half. By mid-July, I was way behind schedule on the two books I am doing and on work. So I swore off streaming services; for maybe two days. Till I discovered The Crown, an outstanding show on the British Royal family starting with the marriage of the current Queen Elizabeth in 1947. After the two seasons (20 episodes of an hour each) were over I was bereft. What would I watch now? After hours of surfing I ended up watching many clips of two old favourites — The Graham Norton Show and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, show. And then all seasons of Sherlock back-to-back for the nth time. 

This gluttony followed by the withdrawal symptoms made me go online — to look for how people who have had too much content are feeling. Are they too going around with the glazed eyed look of gamers who can’t seem to live outside of the game? 

In many articles, there is talk about brains and sensibilities fattened by plenty. But much of the research and comment suggests that the overdose of (largely) good content has made super surfers of all of us. There is so much on offer that we spend more time just figuring out what to watch. There is simply too much lean-forward content and no serendipity. Netflix, for instance, recommends shows that matches what you see earlier. You really have to search outside your taste zone to break the algorithm’s hold over you. 

What does it all mean besides tired eyes and minds? 

In 2017 Netflix, now the largest studio in the world, offered its viewers 82 films and 700 new shows either produced or procured. Most studios average about eight to 20 films a year. Close to 280 new shows have been launched across TV channels in India so far in 2018 according to Broadcast Audience Research Council data. And the glut keep growing. About $4.2 billion was spent across TV, OTT and films in 2017 in India, says a Media Partners Asia report released in July this year. These industries made between $12-13 billion in revenues in the same period. As the spend figures keep rising, there will be a shakeout. That is the business implication.

For the prognosis on consumers take a look at the biggest media hit of 2017 — Carvaan, a Bluetooth speaker loaded with 5,000 old songs. Saregama’s answer to the iPod is shaped like an old Murphy radio and is easy to operate. Between April 2017 and March 2018 it sold 387,000 units bringing in roughly half of Saregama’s revenues. Carvaan illustrates the power of something that the obsessed-with-itself online video world should pay attention to — serendipity and the lean-back experience. There is only so much intensity that viewers can expend when they sit down to entertain themselves. There will be a push back or a disruption. However, no algorithm could predict when that will happen. 
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