Ad-supported streaming: there is another Skywalker

With the rise of ads, is there another solution?

“You were the chosen one! It was said that you would destroy the Sith, not join them! Bring balance to the Force, not leave it in darkness!

Bear with me, this isn’t a Star Wars piece but merely the setup. The punchline, in this case, being the cruel joke that is streaming platforms these days. With the fact that not only do we pay to subscribe, but slowly and surely each streamer is increasing the adverts we see as well. And so, an amended version of that Obi-Wan line often pops into my head when I think about streaming platforms: ‘You were supposed to replace ad-supported TV, not become it!’  I made this up, but it comes to me every time I hear news that yet another streamer is going to be introducing or increasing the frequency of ads, in some form or another. The latest being Amazon. As a late Christmas present they emailed all subscribers at the end of December saying they’d be running ads, unless of course, we all paid more — on top of what we already pay, and after they increased their prices in 2022. Unsurprisingly, this angered existing subscribers.

Yet the machine rumbles on. 

And it’s not like Amazon is strapped for cash, but hey ho, all the streamers are introducing ads. There’s no getting away from it. For investors and those that run these services, there’s simply too much money to be made. Indeed, Bank of America predict that Prime Video could make up to $5bn in ad revenues this year. Similarly, about a year ago Apple hired an Advertising Executive to help them get a piece of the pie. But you could argue that Amazon and Apple are late to the party.

Crunchyroll, for example, are further along that path; in terms of their subscribers being used to advertising. So much so, that in March last year they announced they’d be removing free ad-supported streaming for new episodes of shows, effectively forcing people to upgrade to premium. After Sony bought the platform for $1.18bn in 2021, this sort of move is to be expected. The trouble is, if we just look at things from the point of view of business owners and profits, we’re neglecting audiences and subscribers. And it’s pretty fair to suggest that none of them like adverts, particularly when they’re already paying to subscribe. In fact, according to a study by Professor Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick, advertising makes us unhappier. Our well-being and levels of life satisfaction effectively go down with the more ads that we see. His study had no conclusion in terms of what could be done, other than to suggest more regulation. But this got me thinking, if we hate ads yet streamers are increasing them, then this is bad business, is it not? Shouldn’t your aim be to keep customers happy? 

Perhaps it’s because streamers find themselves between a rock and a hard place. In June last year Vulture’s West Coast Editor Josef Adalian wrote a lengthy piece digging into why the streaming model is broken, and why figuring it out is going to be a tough task. As ever, it comes back to money. Creators aren’t getting paid, at least not like they used to. Hence the SAG-AFTRA strike, which lasted nearly four months last year. A key issue for those on strike was pay and residuals, and how streaming business models effectively broke this relationship.

The solution from the studios seems to be this move towards ad-supported content, but perhaps another is right under their noses? 

I am, of course, talking about DVDs. Actors and writers used to get residuals from DVD sales, and studios used to make a lot of money from DVDs — sometimes they even made more money from the DVD release than the original theatrical run. And films and shows would find new legions of fans from the DVD release, and thus the material would get a new lease of life, sometimes years afterwards. However, with the move to streaming the fact that DVDs are still a viable type of media has been forgotten. This type of media was one the public liked a lot (or at least used to), and one that made both studios and creators money. This is something Alex Weprin at The Hollywood Reporter picked up on, in November last year when he argued that the dying DVD business could be headed for a resurrection

With streamers removing shows and films from their services, seemingly without warning (often for cost-cutting and tax write-off reasons), people are starting to realise the value of physical media… in the same way the music industry has, with CD and vinyl sales on the rise. So maybe streamers don’t have to completely give themselves to the dark side of the Force just yet, and could perhaps pump the brakes on making us unhappier with yet more advertising.

Maybe someone could remind them that, with DVDs, a solution that might benefit everyone is sitting right under their noses. They just have to do. As Yoda says ‘Do or do not. There is no try.’

Featured image: Star Wars / Disney

Mike Piggott, Executive Editor at MediaCat Magazine

Mike is Exec. Editor at MediaCat Magazine. He joined in 2021, launched a podcast and began creating interesting marketing industry related content, with monthly themes such as 'Utopias and Dystopias', 'Hope and Kindness' and 'Side Quests'. Before that he was Editor at The Marketing Society (2013-2021), where he created and launched a bi-monthly publication and a podcast. He is also a street photographer, screenwriter, and film and TV blogger. He also once came second in a Creative Review competition to rewrite Trainspotting's famous 'choose life' speech.

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