An illustration of a decaying play button under construction.
Illustration: Simon Abranowicz

Streaming Is Too Big for Its Own Good

Viewers are overloaded with content. And as Netflix and other major services are now learning, blind excess comes at a cost.

Why We Hate Streaming

Streaming is an overstuffed mess. This series aims to get to the bottom of why the boom is so boring.

By the time I finally got around to watching, and quickly falling in love with, Reservation Dogs—the ethereal dark comedy on FX about four rebellious Indigenous teens who stir up trouble on a small-town Oklahoma reservation—almost a year had passed since its 2021 premiere. My lingering wasn’t deliberate, but it did mean I had missed out on one of the more fulfilling aspects of what makes TV, especially a trinket of a show like Reservation Dogs, all the more appointment-worthy in this piggish age of streaming: the opportunity to absorb its quirks while watching and arguing about it alongside everyone else on social media.

This has become a trend of late. I find myself unable to keep pace with the overflow of television and film offered across all the major streamers (I binged Reservation Dogs last month on Hulu, FX’s corporate partner), and on the network and cable outfits that have belatedly gotten with the times by generating cultural IP on various platforms. (Yes, I signed up for Paramount+’s free trial, and yes, I watched the precooked American version of Love Island without one morsel of embarrassment.) I only just completed The Gilded Age (10/10 recommend—it’s Housewives before Housewives) and have yet to start Station Eleven, the sophomore season of Succession, and couldn’t even tell you where I left off on Ozark (actually I just checked; season 3, episode 1). Amidst all of this, I still had no time to watch the movies piling up in my ever expanding queues, including the dystopian thriller Mother/Android and the documentaries Ailey, High Score, and Our Father.

Context, as always, is crucial. All of this has happened at a time—spring into summer, kinda-post-Covid but not quite—when streaming was, and still very much is, vomiting content at an unprecedented rate. In addition to playing catch-up, I also added to my treasure chest of streaming ephemera: I subscribed to Peacock in April (Bel-Air is the first reboot in a long time to trouble genre lines with real payoff) while watching, chronologically, all of what the animated DC universe had to offer on HBO Max (in terms of its animation slate, DC far outpaced Marvel). Such are the times. According to an analysis done by Vulture on spring programming, “streaming platforms and cable networks rolled out more than 50 new and returning high-profile series” over a 10-week period. One executive colored it bluntly: “It’s almost hurting consumers at this point. It’s just too much.”

On top of this, creator-first apps, such as YouTube and TikTok, have slowly reengineered where we look for entertainment and escape. During the first year of the pandemic, Instagram Live became appointment TV, as users came together to watch the song-battle series Verzuz, or bonded over the eccentricities of influencers like Boman Martinez-Reid on TikTok. Video streaming, Neilsen reported, now accounts for 25 percent of TV consumption, an increase of 6 percent from the year before.

It doesn’t register as all bad. One immediate upside to the algorithmic glut of content clogging our attention is the delight in being introduced to a genre or series otherwise overlooked. Force-feeding, I can admit, has its advantages. Streamers like Netflix and Hulu that previously mishandled bringing international storylines stateside have since come around, with the rare surprise hit that seems to take hold of the culture in a roundabout fashion: an oddball series seems unfathomable until, all of a sudden, there’s fan fiction being written about it on message boards.

By the fourth week of its release, in October of last year, Squid Game—the South Korean Survivor-style drama about class hostility—had become the most-watched show on Netflix across all language groups, and the talk of social media. (According to the company, total hours viewed by the end of the first month totaled 1.65 billion.) With fluctuating results, other foreign series have found audiences in the US, including Netflix’s recent South African society soap, Savage Beauty.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that the instinct of more, bigger, now has only exacerbated our worst impulses. The choice is either stay plugged in and up to date on everything or get ridiculed in the group chat for not catching any of the Keke Palmer references from the newest season of Legendary. What’s more, to the average consumer, streaming companies have maneuvered with what appears to be only rapid growth and blind excess in mind. Sure, we reap the fruits of that near-impossible ethic, but is it what we want—or even need?

The first domino—of, let’s be frank, many more in a long line of dominoes that might soon topple over—fell last quarter, when Netflix lost 200,000 subscribers and nearly 40 percent of its market value. In the wake of this ongoing news, The Hollywood Reporter recently detailed that the latest directive inside the streaming colossus is addition by subtraction. “TV and other parts of the company have taken their hits, but a pointed focus is the features division,” Borys Kit explained. “A good portion of cuts have wiped out the family live-action film division, and the original independent features division … has also seen its ranks cleaned out.”

As both consumer and critic, this comes to me as a relief (minus the part about people losing their jobs at such a fraught time, that's brutal). Netflix was already in a losing battle to be the Everything Streamer; no platform, cunning as it is, will ever achieve that sort of all-controlling omnipresence. By curtailing its efforts, it will give us all a fighting chance at watching its most inspired shows and films. All we want is a little time to catch up.

In the fall of 2019, years after it had revolutionized the industry with a slate of boundary-challenging originals and maybe a little drunk with ego, Netflix ushered in what I considered its new normal: the Just OK Era of TV. And mostly, with the occasional exception, the company has stayed in that lane. Increasing subscriber rates on top of marginal creative growth—to say nothing of the company’s questionable allegiance to Dave Chappelle—allows for only so much wiggle room.

The company's current implosion reminds me of something George W. S. Trow, a media critic and theorist, observed more than 40 years ago about the age of American television, its twists and turns, and our sometimes skewed intoxication with it, of how it can confound us, even now. He begins his critique with a note on “wonder,” which speaks to the heart of the problem at hand today. Trow writes:

Wonder was the grace of the country. Any action could be justified by that: the wonder it was rooted in. Period followed period, and finally the wonder was that things could be built so big. Bridges, skyscrapers, fortunes, all having a life first in the marketplace, still drew on the force of wonder. But then a moment’s quiet. What was it now that was built so big? Only the marketplace itself. Could there be wonder in that? The size of the con?

In the dawning years of streaming sovereignty, there was comfort in the magnitude, in the lack of restraint. The recklessness felt audacious. It was fun. A decade-plus later, with considerable distance and time in our rearview, that mindset no longer serves consumers or the bottom line for streaming companies. Trow’s questions hold even more relevance today: What was it now that was built so big? What wonder remains?

All of this is not to suggest that such surplus is absent benefit. Within this flood of content is the opportunity to create a wonderland tailored to one’s exact interests, picking and choosing what best fits your viewing appetite. To, in a sense, design your very own timeline, a cozy multiverse even, detached from the tempo of those around you.

But that’s only half of it, really. Because there exists an even more fundamental beauty, in a future from today, when those timelines overlap, when we all come together, happily bickering over a show or film, free of the endless multiplicity, and of the escalating noise, finally—joyously—released from the glut of manufactured consumption.