A very expensive show about nothing. Netflix has agreed to pay $500m over five years for the global rights to Seinfeld. Hulu had purchased the same licence in 2015 for just $20m per year. You only get one Netflix in a lifetime and Sony has now had theirs. Or have they? Make that two in a lifetime (and counting): Viacom bought the cable rights to Seinfeld days later. The first was just one of the huge – bordering on crazy – deals presently being done by television conglomerates to create, lock in and archive content to exploit the streaming phenomenon and carve out a sustainable market share. Challenging established names like Netflix and Amazon Prime are several new players including APPLE TV+, DISNEY+, Peacock and HBO MAX. In 2020, AT&T Inc and Comcast Corp will also launch their own channels. Incredibly, more scripted television shows were made in the United States last year – 496 – than ever before. This must be one of the most fascinating capitalist brawls of our time and the fact that it revolves around the dear old tele is surprising – or, rather, would have been prior to the unification of all screens. Nobody doubts the scramble will end in a crash.
The WSJ reports that “Disney is making a land grab for users now and worrying about profits later on.” That struck me as a perfect metaphor. The Oklahoma Territory Land Run of 1889 was literally a race on horseback, foot and wagon wheels for alotments carved out of confiscated Indian territory. If you survived the dash, planted a flag and were registered doing so, you had a ranch. One hundred and thirty years later, TV executives are doing a modern version of the same thing. With that sort of drive comes a commensurate power to disrupt. Much to the annoyance of Australian cinema owners, Martin Scorcese’s The Irishman was financed by Netflix and subscribers won’t have to wait long to watch it at home. The old “90 day window” will become a thing of the past. This is a sequel to Uber versus taxis and it will end the same way. The disruptor wins. But do we?
“… the sheer addiction to entertainment risks sapping both commerce and citizens of ambition for worthier things.”
The fear is that the confiscated territory in this land run is the critical intelligence of populations. The “idiot box” has always had its enemies. I vaguely recall Bob Santamaria denouncing the medium – or at least a lot of the content – as an “open sewer” in your living room. That now reads as a smidgen too severe because there are wonderful and edifying gems to be found. Subscription and streaming mean people can now curate their own TV guide. Apart from so-called ‘show-verload,’ however, cultural problems persist. For one thing, the sheer addiction to entertainment risks sapping both commerce and citizens of ambition for worthier things. Even in the entertainment world, the preference for self-generating content means that one-off masterpieces may become more difficult to fund. The new war film Midway was produced by the Chinese. “It wasn’t exactly franchise material … even a critical 20th century battle doesn’t have the same kind of name recognition as Iron Man or Harry Potter,” deadpans Erich Schwartzel. That’s astonishingly dumb. I often see Great Books of the Western World (54 vols) for sale on Gumtree at a ‘take it off my hands’ price and wonder if screen-induced fog is destroying who we have always been. But choice is empowering. There’s nothing stopping us from watching what’s good and buying those books. We just have to be like Indiana Jones and choose wisely.