Hollywood on strike, and the economics of streaming

I hope you weren’t waiting on the edge of your seat for the next season of whatever to drop on Netflix or Paramount+. In case you missed it, both the actors guild and the writers guild are now on strike. This brings the production of any scripted movies or television shows to a screeching halt for the duration.

Does the blame lie with greedy studio execs? Snowflake screenwriters and actors? Or perhaps something more complicated…

Remember what happened to the music industry once it went full Internet. In my (pre-Internet) 1980s youth, MTV played music videos, because record companies funded them. Music videos were free advertising for albums, after all. Millions of teens (myself included, in those days) watched those MTV videos, and then we rushed off to Camelot Music or Peaches Records & Tapes to buy the latest Def Leppard or Michael Jackson album.

Then people stopped buying albums. They haven’t bought albums for decades. Music is now delivered almost exclusively through streaming services.

This is why there is no 21st-century equivalent to Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, the Rolling Stones, Def Leppard, etc. The economics required to invest in new, groundbreaking rock acts simply isn’t there anymore.

This is also, by the way, why MTV no longer plays music videos. The album-driven economics that funded the 80s-era music videos no longer exists.

Def Leppard, “Photograph” (1983)

So all we have nowadays is way more Taylor Swift than most of us can handle without gagging, and lots of struggling indie bands that may never get the capital necessary to take off. They’ll scrape by on the pittance of streaming fees, and a few tee-shirt sales. You’ll never hear of most of them.

That was what Full Internet did to the music industry. The economics of movies and television were slower to shift. In the 2000s, while the music industry was being decimated by online piracy and the beginnings of the streaming industry, people were still watching television in the pre-Internet ways, and they were still flocking to cinemas.

Then we all became addicted to streaming.

I’m not pointing any fingers here. I have a subscription to Netflix myself. For about $20 per month, Netflix delivers unlimited, high-end scripted content. No more movie tickets to buy, no more pay-per-view for the latest movies.

Oh, and no pesky commercials, either!

That’s a pretty sweet deal for the consumer, but it’s a lot harder to make money (and fund content) that way. Most of the streaming services are losing money at present.

The writers, actors, and studio execs haven’t yet adjusted to the reality of streaming economics, as the entire music industry was forced to do about two decades ago.

So what happens next? The Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA), the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the studio heads will eventually come to a settlement. They are all in this together, whether they like it or not, and these are, by and large, people who want to keep doing what they’re already doing. Jennifer Lawrence is not going to “learn how to code”.

But if the history of the music industry’s decline is a reliable guide, the current strikes will have consequences. And you won’t like them.

The Golden Age of Streaming has likely crested. Some of the most interesting shows of recent years—Stranger Things, The Last Kingdom, even Yellowstone—will be replaced by cheaper-to-make, more repetitive fare.

Are you sick of superhero movies yet? How about superhero streaming series, too? Sick of Taylor Swift? How about a Taylor Swift streaming biopic?

(I don’t even want to think about that, but I may have no choice.)

This summer will likely mark the beginning of the streaming decline. There will still be streaming content, but it will be less innovative, less engaging, and not nearly as good as it was during its golden age.

After all, that’s what happened to the music industry once it was struck by the economics of streaming. That’s how we got nonstop Taylor Swift, who would have been regarded as a moderately competent lounge singer in the more musically diverse 1980s.