The Streaming TV Dream Is Now a Price-Gouging Nightmare | Opinion

À la carte streaming was supposed to be liberatory. We would cut the cord. We would no longer subsidize the minority of people who mainline sports all day with our monthly fees. We would pay for what we want, no more and no less. If you wanted to watch only Babylon 5 reruns every day for the rest of your life, this new world would be for you!

Yet somehow this journey to freedom has led to a place where people are nostalgic for the straightforward, price-gouging cable television bundle, where you were relieved of a set sum of money every month in exchange for access to virtually all the "content" there was.

The recent news that streaming services HBO Max and Discovery+ would merge caused an online furor, as observers fretted that HBO would torch some of its boundary-pushing scripted offerings. But the bigger problem is that more than a decade into the streaming era, viewers are no closer to a rational market than they were when it began.

And, of course, the bundle has returned, just in different form. Now you need to buy Star Wars with your Thor (Disney+) and Euphoria with your Game of Thrones (HBO Max). Every streaming service is a bundle and to get only the shows you want, chances are, you're stuck buying more than one. And that's expensive, to the tune of as much as $20 per month for one—if you want to use that nice UHD TV you got for Hannukah.

So, what's changed, what do we buy now? A bundle of bundles!

The proliferation of "plus" offerings is truly bewildering, and it got worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, when demand for home entertainment exploded. In addition to behemoths like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, there are also Apple+, Disney+, AMC+, Paramount+, Peacock, Showtime, Starz, and more. So much more. This is to say nothing of the services whose purpose I only dimly understand, like Vudu.

In 2021 there were 559 scripted TV series to watch, enough to fill almost every waking hour of every day of the year if you are the sort of person who has literally nothing else to do. Even that is a dramatic undercount, since this tally inexplicably excludes foreign-language shows like Netflix's breakout Korean-language thriller Squid Game.

An illustration of a handheld television broadcasting directly at a young boy floating on a cloud. Found Image Holdings Inc/Getty Images

Yoking yourself to six or seven services is not just expensive. It's seven more passwords to manage, seven monthly charges to keep track of, and even then, you won't get to watch everything percolating in the Zeitgeist and getting discussed around virtual water coolers. Sure, you can sign up for a service's free trial and then cancel in an endless loop, but most people forget the cancellation part and just bleed cash long after they've tapped everything interesting available on any particular service.

The end-user's point of view is classic capitalism run amok—too many choices at seemingly random price points (subject to unexpected change) and a total lack of clarity on what is available through which service. And that's all for a system where at least some content producers seem to be losing money anyway.

Content from some traditional cable channels like FX is available on Hulu, some content that I'm paying Hulu to access (such as TV shows from Freeform) appear to be freely available elsewhere, and some content is buried behind paywalls on yet another streaming service, like the crime-thriller-filled Britbox. It's a situation that pleases and benefits no one, including writers and filmmakers whose work gets buried behind the paywalls of lower tier streaming services.

Like many Americans, I'm also almost certainly double or triple-paying for some things. A case in point—I am a subscriber to Shudder, a streaming service for horror aficionados, but I also pay for cable, and apparently already have access to Shudder through AMC? Or is it AMC+? Internet and cable service runs me well over $150 a month, and that's before piling streamers on top. Maybe I'm just an idiot, but it shouldn't be this hard to find what you want to watch—or to pay for it.

The good news is that some executives understand that the situation is unsustainable and are beginning to bundle services together, most recently an offering from Disney, Hulu, and ESPN+ that offers dramatic discounts on all three streaming channels if purchased together. A plurality of viewers seem unwilling to expand their streaming budget beyond $40 or so a month, so this won't be the last consolidation.

One other thing to consider is that you're paying separately for the miracle that brings it all into your home: the internet. Ideally, broadband service would be dramatically cheaper (as it is in Europe) and decoupled from entertainment altogether. States could either subsidize existing internet service or create a more affordable public option, with the federal government more tightly regulating some of the more abusive cable practices. Consumers could then choose from tiered TV bundles offered by a small number of potential providers.

None of this is life-and-death, to be clear. "I don't know exactly how to watch all of the incredible TV that is being produced" is the very definition of a first-world problem. Imagine going back to 1994, when there were, generously, maybe five things worth watching, and learning that someday there would be so much lavishly produced, high-quality TV in every conceivable genre that you would need to watch it on a tablet while running on a treadmill every day to have any hope of catching even a fraction of it.

All we're asking, really, is to make it easier for us to give them our money.

David Faris is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Roosevelt University and the author of It's Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. His writing has appeared in The Week, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Washington Monthly, and more. You can find him on Twitter @davidmfaris.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.