Podcast with Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts and
Dr. Amanda McClain, Faculty Member, Communication
The television and film industries have changed dramatically in recent years, largely due to the growth of streaming services. In this episode, APU professor Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to Dr. Amanda McClain about the influence of streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Disney Plus and others. Learn how these platforms have allowed for the innovative creation of content by focusing on niche audiences, caused major changes to advertising, and had significant long-term implications on traditional cable companies.
Listen to the Episode:
Read the Transcript:
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today we are talking to Dr. Amanda McClain, Associate Professor of Communication in the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. Today our conversation is about how video streaming is affecting the TV and film industries. Welcome Amanda.
Dr. Amanda McClain: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. This is a great conversation because I think pretty much everybody watches TV. That sounds funny saying that. But especially because of COVID, so many people have been essentially stuck indoors, and so it’s been a boom for places like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Apple Plus, and all the other ones I can’t remember off the top of my head. Let’s just jump into the first question. What is the state of streaming video currently for different platforms, such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu?
Dr. Amanda McClain: Streaming is extremely strong. Like you mentioned, during the pandemic, everybody has been staying home and subscribing to a plethora of streaming video channels. So you have growth numbers for Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime and so on.
Start a Communication degree at American Public University.
And the amount of content they’re creating is really cool too. They’re creating tons of new content to appeal to different niche audiences. For example, Netflix has a ton of different programming designed for targeted audiences, and then you have entire channels that have niche programming for a particular audience.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’m glad you brought up the niche marketing, because I think one thing that companies and especially media corporations realized a while ago is that they don’t need to appeal to everyone, but they need to find the market. So how is somebody like Netflix appealing to a niche market while still producing a lot of content?
Dr. Amanda McClain: Right. Well, they have spent so much money on content. You have mass market appeal like “Stranger Things,” but then you have so much content in different languages that appeal to different markets. They have an entire campaign called Representation Matters where they have programming designed for diverse audiences for a Black audience, for a Korean audience for a LGBTQ audience, so they’re really trying to hit everybody.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’m glad you brought that up because it really makes me think of two shows. “The Great” and “Bridgerton.” I think that’s how you say it: “Bridgerton.” Two shows that are historically based, but the casts are way more diverse than of course what they were in reality. What is it? 17th century Russia? And “Bridgerton” in early 19th century England in which essentially everybody would have been white. But they have cast the actors in a very diverse way. How has that changed things and how is it also slightly controversial? And I say controversial in the sense that some people would be like, “Why?”
Dr. Amanda McClain: Yeah. It’s called race-blind casting, or supposedly they just pick the best or the hottest person for the role. In one sense, it’s a little controversial because yes, it’s not historically accurate, but then also gets people watching. So the controversy is good to grow audiences.
And then it’s also sort of a utopia. This is what our past could have looked like. This is what our future can look like. We can have a British queen who is Black. Potentially we could.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s great. Yeah, the standout, especially for “Bridgerton,” is of course the Queen, and then you said for as far as the casting, the hottest, the Duke, whatever his name is, I can’t remember. And then also in “The Great” where there’s so many great actors and actresses who contribute.
Of course, when you go back to early 19th century England and 17th century Russia, they were all English and Russian. Although in the Russian empire at the time, it was much more diverse than say England, because it was such a large span of territory.
Moving forward, it is a great way to do it where you don’t want to watch a show where it’s historically accurate to a T. Now, since we’re talking about streaming and media, can you think of other ways in which casting people for parts has been a controversy? I’m thinking of Scarlett Johansson and the sci-fi thing in Japan, and also more recently with Gal Godot being cast for Cleopatra when she’s Israeli, but Cleopatra was Egyptian.
Now, why do you think people have a problem with that? And why is it also a good, healthy conversation to have versus when people are just outraged?
Dr. Amanda McClain: Well, Hollywood has a long history of whitewashing their casting. So in order to rectify that they are trying to be more diverse. However, there’s something to be said in Hollywood for celebrity name power. So if you cast Emma Roberts, who was cast as a half-Asian person in a movie, she has more draw than an unknown actress. That’s their rationale for it.
However, you are starting to have actors and actresses say, no, they won’t play those roles. Like Scarlett Johansson was cast in a trans role where she would have played someone who was trans and she backed out of it, refused to do it because one, they’re recognizing that those roles should go to people who aren’t normally cast and do represent those communities, and two, I think they’re afraid of the backlash from the audience.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Oh agreed. One of the funny things about Twitter is that although Twitter is influential and used by hundreds of millions of people, its influence is somewhat outweighed for what it actually is. Like when you look at the number of people who actually tweet, it’s actually a smaller percentage of the Twitter users versus how many are on there.
But moving on with streaming, how did COVID affect the popularity of streaming video and how is it still and will affect movie theaters? Obviously, theaters have been closed for a long time and have reopened, but will movie theaters regain their luster?
Dr. Amanda McClain: COVID is affecting movie theaters and not all of movie theaters are going to reopen. Because one of the disruptions to the movie theater industry we’ve seen over the past year is the simultaneous release of movies in theaters and at home, like “Tenant” and “Mulan,” where you could pay extra to see them at home without the hassle of going to the theater and other people breathing on you.
People I think really enjoy, I saw a statistic that said American consumers, about 22% paid to see a movie at home over the past year, 2020. So the disruption to the movie theater industry is not going away entirely.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. I could see, this is me predicting the future, which of course it totally might not happen, but obviously the number of movie theaters going down just because of market forces. For me personally, I would go to a movie theater to see a Marvel movie, something that is a huge spectacle that you essentially can’t recreate at home versus if a romcom came out, I mean, you don’t really need to see that in the theater to get the full experience.
I remember when my wife and I watched “The Irishman.” Now that would have been really rough to watch in the theater because it was two and a half hours, three hours long, but on Netflix, we watched it over a three-day period and it was very enjoyable. It seems like because of streaming, they’re creating series and movies that are different than if they had to just release them into the theaters.
Dr. Amanda McClain: Yes, definitely, 100%. There’s a big difference in creating that multimillion dollar spectacle, like “The Avengers” versus “The Irishman.” The regulations are for the Academy Awards, the movies have to been released in the movie theater. They can’t be a streaming only.
But you have a focus on the small screen on your TV or on your phone or computer, wherever you’re watching it, you get more close-ups on actors and more talking, more drama, as opposed to those wide screenshots with thousands of extras that are made for the big screen.
So we can expect to see more romcoms, more movies shot in one room, or even like Bridgerton where you have beautiful sets, but you also have a lot of talking, a lot of drama, a lot of close-ups.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Oh, that’s excellent. It just seems like with streaming, in a sense the monies that would typically go to movie theaters is being shifted towards the streaming services, so the sheer amount of money that Netflix is investing is quite amazing, and then also Amazon and Hulu. Now, why do some platforms like Quibi fail and others like YouTube remain strong?
Dr. Amanda McClain: Quibi had the misfortune of coming out in April of 2020, and their whole platform was designed to be consumed on the go, during your commute, on those liminal edges of time where you have 10 minutes to look at your phone. And of course in April 2020 people were at home watching longer-form content.
Quibi was Meg Whitman and Jeffrey Katzenberg, big hitters in Hollywood. They had enlisted a lot of Hollywood people to create content. But sometimes that content doesn’t really translate well to the small screen, like we were just talking about. So you had a Steven Spielberg horror show that may not have looked good on a phone.
They also had other problems where you were not allowed to take screenshots, so you couldn’t really share a lot on social media, which hindered some of the buzz. It was just a strange combination of timing and lack of knowledge about mobile.
YouTube has a ton of influencers who host programs very frequently, and that people follow all the time to hear what’s going on with them. Quibi is starting this short format online. Did they contact any of these YouTubers offer them shows? No. They decided to do an old school Hollywood way, which doesn’t really work in today’s mobile media content format.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That totally makes sense. I remember reading the articles about Quibi when it was coming out and just the monumental failure of it, which of course, is sad. As with, I think, any product today, the product you put out, the best marketing you can get is kind of that guerrilla marketing, or however you want to describe it, where influencers will pick it up and put out different articles. You tweet it. Versus old school marketing where it can come off as very—I’m trying to think of the right word—but very stuffy, very produced, and a lot of people do want some authenticity and honest reactions from other people.
Dr. Amanda McClain: Yeah. What you want is that earned media, where you have people picking up your ideas and talking about them online, that you’re not paying an influencer necessarily, but he or she is talking about your product with their friends or followers online and recommending it. That’s what you want. You want to go viral. You want some buzz. And if you ignore the social media part of your advertising or your marketing campaign, that’s not usually going to work out well in the 2021, 2020 time period.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It did seem like Quibi kind of expected to just roll out and then be instantly a big hitter. How long did it take for Netflix to really gain its footing? How long did it take Hulu to gain its footing? I mean, Amazon kind of just exploded, but it was also Amazon.
Dr. Amanda McClain: Right. Well, also have Netflix or Hulu had a bunch of content already. Netflix had all the back catalogs of all those old movies and TV shows, and then Hulu is a joint product between CBS, NBC, and Fox, if I got that correctly, so they had a ton of content. Whereas, Quibi had to start fresh with all new content. It’s another aspect of the money and the time and effort that went into it.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: If you include Disney Plus, obviously Disney Plus has the entire Disney vault, and then because of COVID-19, they were able to release some of the movies that were going to be released theatrically, but then on Disney Plus. So you can see how Disney Plus was released and became obviously a big hitter because it’s Disney. Versus when Quibi came out, I’m like, “I don’t know what that is.” First, I don’t know how to say it. The content was like, “Okay, I’m sure some of it’s great,” but it kind of came and went, unfortunately.
Dr. Amanda McClain: Disney Plus is really growing in terms of subscribers. And they have arguably the hit of the pandemic, “The Mandalorian,” but Disney’s profits are actually down for 2020. Those big tent-pole movies like “Mulan,” they usually garner millions and millions of dollars in revenue worldwide, and just can’t make that much money if it’s only being broadcast on Disney Plus.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: What is the future of smaller platforms, such as Discovery Plus, AMC, et cetera?
Dr. Amanda McClain: The smaller platforms are really interesting because they do have subscribers. For example, The Criterion Collection or Shudder is a horror film streaming platform. It’s interesting to see whether they will be purchased, consolidated, or they’re going to remain somewhat independent entities.
For example, AMC has partnered with Sundance. If you subscribe to AMC, you also get the Sundance content, which is great. But right now, as people are cutting the cord with their cable providers like Comcast or Verizon or whoever you pay to watch television, the streaming channels are continuing to do really well.
What’s probably going to happen in terms of Comcast or these other big cable companies is that they’re going to end up offering skinny bundles. So instead of having to buy a tiered plan with 100, 500 channels, you get to choose the channels you want, the platforms you want.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: They should have done that years ago, absolutely years ago, giving people an option. It’s sad, yet expected that now that they’re being forced to give people options, that they’re doing it. From a company perspective it’s like, “How are these people going to survive in 15 years as the older generation ages a bit, and then those who are not dedicated to cable start really influencing where the market is going?
Dr. Amanda McClain: You have companies like Comcast that are buying content providers like NBC in order to have another stream of revenue. And then, in terms of a younger generation, they’re sometimes called the “cord-nevers” because they’ve never subscribed to cable and they only rely on platforms like Netflix.
The one stumbling block to everybody cutting their cable I think is live sports. Live sports, a lot of people will pay to get access to that. Now, of course you can just buy that directly, you can buy the MLB platform and you get every baseball game, so maybe that’s going to happen more.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I could see that. I’d be curious to see in 10, 15 years, if, I think the NFL will easily survive. For some reason, the NFL is America’s sport. Even if you don’t like football, you still put it on for some reason. But if MLB, if NBA, if hockey or, if soccer, if any of the other major sports, will decline.
Dr. Amanda McClain: Yeah. I don’t think they’re going to decline. Sports are extremely popular. We wanted to watch some soccer games and my husband bought a package through ESPN to access the certain leagues, so you can certainly do that. I think a lot of people are doing that. Live sports is very popular, and it’s a great community builder in your hometown or your league, whatever it is. And the advertising industry is so heavily invested in live sports, as well.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: A follow-up question is, how do you think the pick and choose will affect streaming platforms where just literally we watched “The Tudors” on Showtime. We watched it and then we canceled it. How will that affect companies like Showtime or Netflix or Amazon when people are adding them, not adding them? Of course, the big one is HBO. When Game of Thrones finished, a bunch of people canceled their HBO.
Dr. Amanda McClain: There’s a lot of churn where people are doing a free trial and then having that channel for one month and then getting rid of it. They’re looking for other ways to boost their subscriptions. For example, my cell phone service is through AT&T. Through AT&T you get free access to HBO Max, so HBO can claim all of those people as subscribers. That adds to their bottom line by saying, “Look, we’re still growing.”
I believe Sprint has the same partnership with Netflix, where if you pay Sprint for your cell phone service, you get Netflix. So they’re looking to have more partnerships like this, which adds to that. And then they’re also trying to grow globally. Netflix has a huge global audience.
We were just talking about “Ted Lasso,” which is set in the UK. So they’re having more shows like that, which appeal to a broader audience. Netflix is trying to grow in many different countries, offering content in different languages and different content dubbed into different languages.
Historically, reality TV has done very well in using the same template in many different countries. So they are trying to expand globally, but there is that churn definitely, but the numbers are all still growing.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’m glad you used the term churn, because I didn’t know what it was called. It totally makes sense because even a smaller streaming service, like Stars has some great content and you can have it for a few months and then cancel it. How has streaming affecting the TV and the film industries going along with what we’re talking about?
Dr. Amanda McClain: It’s affecting in many different ways. It’s affecting in terms of the content being made. There’s a lot lower barrier to entry. You have people who are able to get distribution, like the Duffer brothers, whose “Stranger Things” probably would not have been on ABC, CBS or NBC, right?
You also have your broadcast television, like ABC, NBC, CBS that have to invest in more content or try to get more live sports because they’re losing their audiences.
Streaming is also affecting the advertising world because of course on streaming, Netflix doesn’t have your traditional commercials, so they have to look at different ways of advertising. YouTube TV, other platforms out there can be ad supported or not. But there’s new ways of advertising. You pause Hulu, an ad pops up. The advertising industry has to change with the times as well.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Just like you said, where the barrier to entry is lower, how is something like YouTube really allowing innovation when it comes to media and content creation, but also how is it hamstringing people’s ability to make money?
Dr. Amanda McClain: YouTube definitely lowers that barrier to entry. For example, “Cobra Kai” is a popular show on Netflix, but it started on YouTube. And then once it started picking up viewers, Netflix bought the distribution rights. You have examples like that, which are great for the makers.
And then Netflix also has some issues with copyright where people try to upload copyrighted material to Netflix, and they immediately take that down.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: YouTube is wonderful because your average person who is motivated and driven could actually create some wonderful content on YouTube, but to be able to monetize say only talking about YouTube now is very, very difficult. Do you think that allows then people to use other aspects like Patreon to have the gap as far as making money, or is it also just kind of a hobbyist creation?
Dr. Amanda McClain: Yeah. There’s Patreon and there’s GoFundMes and there’s ways that people are funding their content, whether that’s music or influencer shows, what have you, but I think YouTube in general is pretty great in order to get your content out there.
It’s hard to make money from YouTube because you have to have a high number of subscribers and a high number of views, which is hard to get. A lot of people think, “Oh, I’m going to become an influencer. I’m going to start reviewing products on YouTube,” but you really have to be very dedicated and have a plan and put time and effort into that, because creating content is a difficult enterprise.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It’s true. When you look at channels that is moderately successful, has half a million subscriptions already, and so just that by itself, won’t guarantee financial independence just to be able to do it full time. It’s really inspiring to watch what people can create, but at the same time, it is a job and it’s difficult for these people and tastes can change on a dime.
Dr. Amanda McClain: Yeah, very true. So someone like Jenna Marbles or any of the other young YouTubers, it’s hard to replicate that success. Very hard.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Now this leads me to the last question is what will happen to traditional TV in the future? What will happen to Comcast, Verizon? We talked a little bit about that, but any other comments about that?
Dr. Amanda McClain: Once the older generation of cable subscribers disappears, they’re going to have a lot of difficulty maintaining that high subscriber base. As I mentioned, they’re expanding into content and, of course, they also own the cables that bring you the internet to your house.
They’re going to do fine, however, their whole model has to change. Their whole model has to change into either skinny bundles or changing their content into what people really want. If I really want to watch the NFL and Fox News, I might be able to buy them separately. Once people are more adept at figuring out how to do that, then the traditional cable is going to have a problem.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That totally makes sense because for me, if I want to watch English Premier League and the Champions League in Europe, I can just buy that and then augment anything else with Netflix or Hulu or whatnot.
For a follow-up question, one of the criticisms of media in general is that there’s always a left lean to media or Hollywood or different things like that. How could streaming be a way in which there’s no more lean, in which the content you provide can lean left, can lean right? And do you also see a left lane in the more traditional say media?
Dr. Amanda McClain: There’s a lot of media out there. You have content like “The Avengers,” and I would say, that’s not very left or right leaning. It’s really just very American; the hero, good guys versus bad guys, the American dream, that stuff is all in there. So I don’t think that content necessarily leans that much, but when you have Netflix or other platforms like that, they are really tackling diversity. Some people might construe that as left-leaning, but really what they’re doing is trying to target a large audience.
Remember the broadcast television, they are always going for the biggest audience possible, and that’s why they use the lowest common denominator of content. That’s why you get shows like “Survivor” and “Big Brother” and “American Idol” and “The Voice,” which are just super easy to understand. You don’t have to follow a plot. You can jump in and out. You know what’s going to happen.
A lot of times Netflix or other streaming providers are offering more content that’s interesting and in-depth, doesn’t need to aim for that lowest denominator because they’re targeting a smaller audience.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Now, do you see any negatives to the a la carte method that will be the future?
Dr. Amanda McClain: The only negative I think is that you’re missing some of those cultural moments where everybody would be watching television at once. In television theory there’s this concept of everybody at home watching the 6:00 news, and that creates an audience at home where everybody is joined together, the imagined audience, right?
But we don’t have that cultural unity if we’re all watching different things. Television is considered our greatest storyteller, right? It tells us all about the world. It explains it to us. It tells us who matters. It tells us which values are important. But if we’re all getting different content, we all might be getting different stories.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I really like how you said that where we all are getting different stories. I think we have seen that honestly, really come about in the last half decade where it really came to a head in the last election where different people were getting different stories—and this podcast isn’t about that—but whatever story you are getting, you really believed it 100%. And no casual tweet or directed tweet could change people’s minds.
It’s not to be doom or gloom, but that is a concern moving forward where as a culture what shared values do we have besides the Super Bowl, besides the NFL final? Or even something like the presidential inauguration. It might be viewed all at the same time, but they’re getting it via different news sources, and so getting extremely different perspectives on it. Different perspectives are 100% okay, but they can be radically different in how they view the world.
Dr. Amanda McClain: Yeah, definitely. We’re not all sitting down watching the last episode of “Mash,” learning about the Vietnam War and what the producers believe. Instead, we’re all watching different content and we’re missing that cohesive outlook, and that’s definitely contributing to the split in American culture between right and left.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I do think that it’s a positive because history and culture and reality is more complicated than just everybody’s watching the same thing and they’re getting the exact same message. In a sense it’s been like that for a long time because technology was limited and that’s okay.
The media that has provided aligns to how complicated the world actually is. If we can figure this out and number one, as Americans, as long as we stay together, it will be stronger because it is a very diverse world. A wonderful conversation. Any last words today, Amanda?
Dr. Amanda McClain: Thank you so much for having me Bjorn. It was a pleasure to talk with you.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Oh, for sure. I’d love to have you back. I feel like we’re only scratching the surface of a very complicated and very interesting industry and TV and film and everything. Today we’re speaking to Dr. Amanda McClain about how video streaming is affecting the TV and film industries. Of course, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. Thank you for listening.
About the Guest:
Dr. Amanda S. McClain is an Associate Professor of Communication at American Public University. McClain earned her doctorate in Mass Media and Communication from Temple University. he authored the books “American Ideal: How American Idol Constructs Celebrity, Collective Identity, and American Discourses” and “Keeping Up the Kardashian Brand: Celebrity, Materialism, and Sexuality.” McClain’s research interests include social media, celebrity, television, and stream