The Michael Scott GIF circulated quickly on social media: Dunder-Mifflin’s branch manager shouting, “No! God! Please! No!” in response to something incomprehensibly minor. But the news late in June that prompted its widespread sharing was anything but: “The Office” is leaving Netflix.
That’s a big deal. NBC’s workplace sitcom got solid ratings and accolades during its original run as a weekly series from 2005-13, but Netflix has made it culturally eternal. The streaming service said “The Office” was its most-watched show over a 12-month period that ended last summer. Subscribers spent 52 billion minutes streaming “The Office” in 2018 alone.
I can also confirm anecdotally that “The Office” is the thing Netflix subscribers settle on when they can’t decide what to watch on Netflix, and that 100 percent of straight people on dating apps describe themselves as “Just a Pam looking for my Jim” or vice versa.
The show in 2021 will join a new streaming service from NBCUniversal, which outbid Netflix, Hulu, Apple and Amazon to buy back the rights. Netflix also announced Tuesday that “Friends” will leave its catalog in early 2020 for HBO Max, a service launching next year from WarnerMedia. These departures are a clear signal that the rich era of streaming entertainment we’ve enjoyed for the past several years — in which viewers have accessed vast libraries of TV shows and movies at a fraction of the cost of a typical cable-TV subscription — is coming to an end.
The boom began when early streaming services like Netflix and Hulu gobbled up rights to countless TV series and films before studios understood the value of their intellectual property. Now that they do, every legacy media conglomerate soon will have its own subscription service structured around its most treasured titles. It’s the same reason streaming services now invest heavily in creating their own libraries of original content to supplement their dwindling lists of well-known titles.
Before long, everything from Marvel, Pixar and “Star Wars” — all Disney properties — will also leave Netflix for Disney+, a streaming service launching later this year. Its $7 monthly subscription cost isn’t going to kill anyone who already pays for Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go and Amazon Prime Video. But what if the next great series is released on Apple TV+, CBS All Access, Showtime Anytime, YouTube Red, Quibi, Shudder, Sony Crackle, PlayStation Vue, Boomerang or DC Universe?
What happens is we’ll move from the consumer-friendly Wild West era of streaming into a model that looks distressingly familiar. David Sims recently wrote in the Atlantic: “The siloed age of television has arrived, a time when people will be paying six or seven different monthly fees, if not more, to keep abreast of pop culture — and the cost will end up approximating the hefty cable bill that every cord cutter has sought to avoid.”
Fun while it lasted, wasn’t it?
It was probably inevitable that streaming entertainment would become a new version of the problem it once solved, and approximately the ten millionth example of a promising digital innovation that has ended up simply reinforcing a corporate structure it might have disrupted.
Good job, capitalism.
How will customers respond? Here’s a guess: good ol’ fashioned digital piracy. It’s still a thing, though not quite the menace it was during the heyday of peer-to-peer music file sharing. Tech and entertainment companies in the early 2000s, led by Apple’s iTunes, overcame piracy by making it easier to buy things cheaply than steal them. Later on, Netflix made streaming your favorite shows for a small monthly fee easier than figuring out how to torrent.
But now, wrote Brian Feldman last month in New York magazine, “the pop-culture industry is once again re-creating the conditions that allowed piracy to flourish in the first place.” Conditions such as: customers having to pay more than they want to for a ton of stuff they don’t care about in order to get the handful of things that interest them. In other words, just like cable TV.
Of course, if you really need to watch “Friends” or “The Office” all the way through for the 20th time, maybe it would be healthy to stare at your monthly streaming expenses with a look of Michael Scott-like horror and shout, “No! God! Please! No!”