On today's episode of the 5 Things podcast:
For the first time this summer, viewers watched streaming services like Netflix, YouTube, and Disney+ more than broadcast or cable television. All signs point to streaming to reign at the top of TV for the foreseeable future. What does that mean for the future of TV?
5 Things Sunday host James Brown sat down with USA TODAY's TV critic Kelly Lawler to discuss the current state of TV. In a word, its' "messy" she said. She talks about the rising cost of streaming services and the drop in content as well as the TV trend she calls "mediocre TV" and what that means and more.
For more on the state of TV:
Watch a trailer for Kelly's recommendation, We are Lady Parts on Peacock
If you have a comment about the show or a question or topic you'd like us to discuss, send James Brown an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. You can also leave him a voicemail at 585-484-0339. We might have you on the show.
Hit play on the player above to hear the podcast and follow along with the transcript below. This transcript was automatically generated, and then edited for clarity in its current form. There may be some differences between the audio and the text.
James Brown: Hello, and welcome to Five Things. I'm James Brown. It's Sunday, October 2nd, 2022. Go Bills. Every week we take a question, idea, or concept in go deep. If there's something you'd like us to look into or just want to say hello, you could always email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or at email@example.com. You could also find me anywhere on social media @JamesBrownTV. We also have a voicemail line 585-484-0339. I love reading and listening to all your messages. I'm a media geek and I have been for just about all my life. And just recently, I found out something online that I just can't get enough of. Nielsen, who measures viewership for TV among other things, began releasing something called The Gauge. We'll link to it in the description. Nielsen calls The Gauge a snapshot of TV viewing every month. For a little over a year, the company releases a graphic that looks like a donut, separating all TV viewing into four big pots.
Cable channels like Fox News, or the Discovery Channel, or ESPN are in one big chunk. Broadcast networks, those channels that people can watch for free like CBS, NBC, and ABC, are in their own category, as is streaming, including YouTube, Netflix, Disney Plus, and others. The fourth category is other, that estimates DVR and on-demand viewing. In July, something interesting happened, streaming became king, topping cable for the first time. The same thing happened in August. Who knows how long that will last? But all things points to streaming taking over TV all together. And that left me thinking, what is the state of TV? And how has streaming changed content? So I'm turning to an expert, USA TODAY's TV critic, Kelly Lawler. Kelly Lawler, welcome to 5 Things.
Kelly Lawler: Hi, thank you for having me.
James Brown: Pump to have you on. And I'd like to start by asking you to complete a sentence, if you don't mind. In a word or phrase. The state of TV is...
Kelly Lawler: Messy.
James Brown: Go on.
Kelly Lawler: Like you said, streaming has overtaken cable as more households watch their TV via streaming, then watch their TV via cable. It doesn't mean nobody watches cable or nobody watches broadcast, and that's happened for the first time this year. But at the same time, streaming services and their corporate owners are having an identity crisis. We saw this because Netflix lost subscribers for the first time this year, and HBO Max has been under new corporate ownership, changing its strategy, deleting old shows, canceling movies, and will eventually merge with Discovery Plus because it's under new ownership.
Disney Plus is adding a paid but ad-supported tier for a cheaper price. And new streamers, they're not actually new, but they're probably new to your awareness if you haven't been interested in this before, called AVOD, which stands for Ad-Supported Video on Demand, which just means that you don't pay for them, but they have ads. They're cable ported online as streamers. These are things like the Roku Channel, Tubi, Freevee, they all have kind of funny names, but they're starting to get into the content space in a big way. All this means that we're at a turning point, but it's very hard to predict where we will go from here. And the streamers are getting less expansive and more expensive. Prices are going up all around, and the amount of content available is diminishing after exploding for many years.
James Brown: Let's pick that apart a bit. It seems like you have two categories of streamers. You have the expensive streamers in the cheap or free streamers, and the expensive streamers are in a bit of an identity crisis.
Kelly Lawler: The original business model, which was established by Netflix, was to spend, and to spend, and to spend. They spent billions and billions of dollars on content. More was always better. The idea being that the more content you had, the more people you could entice to subscribe. The metric that streaming services care about is new subscribers and then also retain subscribers because that's where they make their money if they don't have ads.
We hit a point where this bubble burst. There are only so many people on earth with access to the internet and disposable income enough to pay for streaming services, let alone those who want to use that disposable income to pay for streaming services. And that came sooner than I think a lot of people thought. And now everyone is scrambling to update their business models. So that means purchasing less TV shows, making less TV shows. That means introducing paid ad-supported tiers so they have a new revenue stream from advertisements in addition to subscribers, and that means consolidation. And that's what we're seeing with HBO Max and Discovery Plus. I believe in 2023, those services will be merged.
James Brown: Who's doing it best at the moment?
Kelly Lawler: It's hard to tell.
James Brown: However, you want to define that.
Kelly Lawler: Yeah. I mean, if your terms of who makes the best content, I still really love what HBO Max makes. It has really great content across the spectrum, that might change, again, because of the new ownership. In terms of who's probably making the most money right now, Disney Plus is in a very good position after their earnings call this past quarter. In terms of what I turn to the most because of convenience, the number of TV shows that it has that I tend to check in on. I've always been a really big fan of Hulu, although NBC just pulled their content from Hulu so that it will go on Peacock instead their proprietary streaming service. So it's hard. It really depends on personal taste, it depends on what you're willing to pay for. And I think anecdotally, people I know are more willing to cancel than they were a year or two ago. And if Netflix, or Apple, or Paramount Plus debuts a buzzy show that they want to see, they will resubscribe for the amount of time it takes them to watch that show. And then unsubscribe again.
James Brown: It seems like it would be imparted an economic decision to just quickly subscribe and unsubscribe with different services. And we're all so used to these now. There's a lot of them and a lot of different options. And it's not mystifying to get in and get out.
Kelly Lawler: No. And if you purchased a subscription for all of the major streaming services, you could run a tab that is far higher than what you paid for basic cable. So the idea of cord cutting isn't an idea of saving money anymore. And just like all other areas of the economy, inflation is playing a huge role in what people are willing to spend their money on at this moment. In a lot of cases, that money is not being spent on entertainment, or at least not 15 different avenues of entertainment. Maybe one or two.
James Brown: Nielsen considers YouTube with its streaming calculations. Do you consider that television?
Kelly Lawler: YouTube briefly tried to become a streamer in the sense you would think of Netflix. Right now it's a user content created streamer. There are others like TikTok would fall into that, Facebook watch. Basically it's when the company does make money off of people watching streaming video, but it's the users who make it. YouTube very briefly tried to create their own content and they had one very buzzy show, Cobra Kai, which eventually went to Netflix because YouTube decided it wasn't really the business model for them. It's significant in terms of figuring out where people are consuming TV and entertainment to include YouTube in that Nielsen chart. I don't consider it TV in the sense that I'm never going to go on YouTube and critique the video that someone down the block for me created themselves. But it is important in terms of figuring out what is happening in the industry.
James Brown: Is it harder to cover TV now because there are just so many more outlets?
Kelly Lawler: Yes, there are more shows than someone who had my job 30 years ago could have possibly comprehended. There was a time when TV critics would review every single new show that came out in a year because it was possible for one person to watch every single new show that came out in a year. It is no longer possible for one human being to do that. There are simply not enough hours in the day, and that's overwhelming. And it's not just overwhelming for TV critics and television journalists, it's overwhelming for consumers. And what that means is we're lacking a lot of monoculture at the moment.
The height of my career, I would say, was when I covered Game of Thrones in terms of the amount of readers that I interacted with and the amount of work I did on a single show. And it's spinoff. The House of the Dragon is not getting the same ratings it did, and it's not generating nearly the same online discussion that it did. And I mourn that because that is something I love about television is the way that it can bring people together. And while we're empowered by all this choice, and it's led to a lot of really great things, a lot of really great shows, it also is a lonely experience.
James Brown: Yeah, that communal moment, seeing Jon Snow just go to war gets a million white walkers. I don't think it's possible now. Do you?
Kelly Lawler: No, we will never have a show like that again. Amazon spent half a billion dollars on their Lord of the Rings series, which is quite good. I very much enjoy it. And that was their attempt to recreate the Game of Thrones phenomenon. And while I don't know if its metrics are performing to Amazon's standards, again, the metric they care about most is how many people sign up for Amazon Prime and the first show that they watch is The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. People don't release those numbers, it's just they don't have to. So they don't. So I don't know how it's performing for them internally, but I imagine they are a little disappointed by the lack of water cooler moments. A lot of the online discourse had been basically a lot of harassment and hate aimed at the actors of color who are in the series and not a lot of wondering who the villain is or what the big twist is going to be, unfortunately.
James Brown: I know that online reactions are generally driven by strong emotions. I would imagine that's partly why those are the things that are standing out for that show. Is it the quality of the show also affecting why it has it connected along with obviously we're in a different period of time?
Kelly Lawler: Yeah, I think people use social media differently than they did just three years ago, and that's part of the issue. This is my opinion, but people who espouse a lot of hate on the internet tend to be a very loud minority. So you see a lot of volume without a lot of numbers behind it, and it's the story that gets picked up by many news outlets. So that's why that tends to drown out other kinds of chatter. And there are people who are talking about it. I just don't think it is the wave of buzz that Amazon was really hoping for, and it might just never happen again. One thing also is that we are in this weird moment with the COVID-19 pandemic where people are going out and doing more things than they had. And some people say it's over and it's affecting how much time people spend watching television in 2020. People watch more television than they did right now, and that is affecting how they talk about it and how they spend their money on it.
James Brown: Content wise. Comparing it to the height of your career, right? Game of Thrones mania, have you seen the type of show developed now be different than back then, or am I pulling hairs?
Kelly Lawler: Here's the thing, it's the trend that's been happening for years, so it's not like things are so different now than three years ago. It's always been trending towards this, but there's just so much more mediocre TV now than there was five years ago, 10 years ago. And that's because of the volume increase. We're just at the point where streaming services are starting to be choosier about how many in which TV shows they make. But in the drive to create more, more, more, you get more mediocre. That's what rises to the top. Like, you get some really good stuff and you get some really bad stuff, but the vast majority when you just go for volume is mediocre. And that's sad to be because, well, as a writer, it's not particularly exciting to write about something that's just fine. I would much prefer to write about something I love or something that I hate.
And with so much mediocre stuff, really good stuff can get lost. There's this show that I absolutely adore. It's on Peacock, which is not a streaming service that a lot of people have. It's not a streaming service that gets a lot of buzz. And this show is called We Are Lady Parts, and it's a British series sitcom about an all-female Muslim punk rock band in London, and it is just fantastic. It aired last year, and it is so funny, and so heartwarming, and so sweet, and I loved it.
A lot of TV critics loved it, but I don't know a lot of people who found it organically. And that makes me sad because when there's so much more content, there is the ability for diverse voices to be able to tell stories that we've never seen before. I've seen lots of TV shows get remade over and over again. There are a million law and orders, but I've never seen a sitcom about an all-female Muslim punk rock band from London. So that's one of the amazing things about streaming. But then the people who would love it might not get to see it.
James Brown: Kelly Lawler, any famous last words?
Kelly Lawler: Watch We Are Lady Parts on Peacock. It's really good.
James Brown: Kelly, thank you for joining me.
Kelly Lawler: Thank you.
James Brown: If you'd like the show, write us a review on Apple Podcast or wherever you're listening and do me a favor, share it with a friend. What do you think of the show? And how has the rise of streaming impacted how you view TV? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave me a message at 585-484-0339. We might have you on the show. Thanks to Kelly Lawler for joining me. And to Alexis Gustin for her production assistance. Taylor Wilson will be back tomorrow morning. For all of us at USA TODAY, thanks for listening. I'm James Brown, and as always, be well.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Streaming is king: The state of TV with Kelly Lawler