Suggestions, subscriptions and no sense of community: Streaming is changing the way we watch TV

Who will be the winners and losers in the competitive streaming video market? And what can we, the consumers, make of all this dizzying choice?

'Every single thing on that screen is supposed to be about you and what you might watch,' says author

Seven in 10 Anglophone Canadians subscribe to a streaming service such as Netflix, according to a new study. So how does this platform switch affect our TV viewing experience? (Shutterstock)

Originally published Jan. 31, 2020.

As more Canadians switch from conventional broadcast to streaming services, our way of watching television is becoming more personalized and less community-oriented. 

A 2019 Media Technology Monitor report found that Anglophone Canadians are more likely to be watching online video than traditional TV in a typical week. The same study also found that seven in 10 Anglophone Canadians subscribe to a streaming service such as Netflix, Crave, Amazon Prime Video and many others. 

So what does this abundance of content mean for the culture of television and the future of how we watch?

"The biggest job Netflix has now is really suggesting what you might watch next," said Ed Finn, director of the Centre for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University and author of What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing.

"Every single thing on that screen is supposed to be about you and what you might watch — and that's just very different from how we used to watch TV," he told Spark's Nora Young. 

With all the available video subscription services, finding something to watch is no longer the problem. Now, Finn says, the challenge is figuring out what is worth watching in the vast ocean of available content. This is where the new algorithms come in.

"What makes Netflix recommendations interesting now is, they'll actually tell you a little bit about why they're suggesting something. It's a very different logic for thinking about how you're going to consume content," Finn said. 

However, he warned there are tradeoffs for this kind of personalization. "While you're watching the machine, the machine is also watching you. The observation of the user can lead in bad directions because it's not always conducted with the user's best interest at heart." 

Because the purpose is to keep the user on the platform for longer periods of time, Finn says the algorithms of streaming platforms tend to suggest more engaging content to draw you in. "For example, if you sit down to watch a video on YouTube that has some kind of political theme, they're going to give you something a little bit more extreme. Maybe a little bit more extreme after that. So you start out doing something pretty anodyne, and pretty soon you're in some really dark extreme political propaganda."

The CanCon conundrum 

There are other challenges that come with content curation. In Canada, there is an ongoing discussion about whether Internet streaming services operating in the country need to fulfil certain quotas of Canadian-produced content. 

A recent report on Canada's broadcasting and telecommunications sector calls on the federal government to require streaming services "to devote a portion of their program budgets to Canadian programs" — something journalist and TV writer JP Larocque says might help balance the scales to help Canadian creators.

Industry analyst Dan Rayburn says proliferation of streaming platforms means that the real streaming wars are happening over the viewers' attention. (Kowit Khamanek/Shutterstock)

"There's the concern that these streaming platforms are benefiting from the Canadian audience coming in and paying for these services, without contributing to our own domestic film and television industry," he said. 

The incentives for content creation and curation for U.S.-based versus Canadian streaming platforms are different, according to Larocque. "They [U.S.-based companies] don't have the same imperatives as Canadian companies to create Canadian content. So we're not seeing the same influx or uptick in Canadian production as you're seeing in the States." 

Attention wars

This proliferation of platforms means that the real streaming wars are happening over the viewers' attention, according to industry analyst Dan Rayburn.

"These services have very different types of content targeting different users," Rayburn said. "The way they're really competing is for our time, because we only have a limited amount of time in our day to consume content — be it music, Spotify, Pandora, radio, video, reading news."

Then there is the competition for the audience's wallets. According to a recent CRTC report, an average Canadian household spends roughly $230 every month on telecommunication, which includes mobile, internet and television services. Subscription fees add up, so streaming platforms have to create unique content offers to convince the audience to sign up.

"That's why we, as an industry, talked about aggregation, but it has never worked," Rayburn said. 

We only have a limited amount of time in our day to consume content — be it music, Spotify, Pandora, radio, video, reading news.- Dan Rayburn, video streaming industry analyst

In Canada, such calls for aggregation of services came directly from consumers, says JP Larocque. "We're having the desire for broadcasters to step up and offer a consolidating mechanism that brings all those apps in, so that people looking for specific shows aren't really thinking about where it's coming from, they're just getting access to those shows."

While a more consolidated streaming experience may feel more like traditional, channel-based broadcast TV, Ed Finn says the days of "appointment viewing" are long gone.

"We're all watching asynchronously. We're not really tuning in to the same broadcast, we're watching things separated by hours or days — yet our communication about these shows is instantaneous. So the anxiety over spoilers, which seems to be bigger now than it's ever been, is balanced by this driving need [for] a sense of community." 

One thing remains consistent: No matter the platform, format or time of day, we all watch a lot of television. And with the streaming platforms' algorithms designed to keep us watching, that habit, while it may evolve, is not going away anytime soon. 


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