When I was in 11th grade, my high school boyfriend gave me the first season of Seinfeld on DVD. The plan was for us to eventually watch the whole series in order, rather than wait for scattered reruns to air on TV. It was the early days of streaming — at the time you could watch The Twilight Zone on Netflix, but Hulu wouldn't get Seinfeld for another five years — and buying DVDs for $15 at Target was still just what you did if you wanted to watch a show that wasn't on one of the two main streaming services in existence.
High-school me would have been overwhelmed by the structure of television today, where seemingly every show in existence except Northern Exposure is at your fingertips. But I'm actually weirdly nostalgic for my Seinfeld DVD set. Not just because I miss physical media, but because it was so much simpler to buy a beloved TV show and own it forever, rather than having to sign up for some combination of the more than 300 video streaming services now offered in the U.S. And it's getting worse: When NBC announced its streaming service Peacock on Tuesday, I couldn't help but wince at yet another blow to my bank account in its ongoing death by a thousand streaming services.
Described by Vulture as "a destination for superfans of NBCU programming and a way to deliver digital impressions to advertisers," Peacock is the atrociously-named new home for NBC's back catalog and original programming. With its launch scheduled for April 2020, Peacock plans to eventually host The Office (when it's wrestled back from Netflix in 2021) and become the exclusive home of Parks and Recreation, which currently streams on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. Peacock additionally announced a slate of original titles like Saved by the Bell and Punky Brewster revivals, a Battlestar Galactica reboot, a new comedy by Mike Schur, a Brave New World adaptation, and thousands of hours of Spanish-language programming plucked from Telemundo.
For someone who doesn't consider herself to be a "superfan of NBCU programming," though, Peacock presents much the same problem I had when CBS All Access stepped up its game this past spring. At that time, I was attracted to CBS's service exclusively by Jordan Peele's Twilight Zone reboot, although it hadn't seemed worth paying $5.99 a month into perpetuity just to have access to. But the deal has since been sweetened by All Access' forthcoming 10-episode Stand limited-series and The Good Fight. All of a sudden, the prospect of dropping either CBS All Access or Peacock from my roster gives me FOMO. Of course, that's the whole point; some 57 percent of streaming video users in 2018 told Deloitte that they subscribed to a service specifically to access its original content.
As important as legacy shows are for streaming services — and they are important; one needs to look no further than Netflix forking over an astronomical sum to nab Seinfeld to see that — it is really the original programming that traps you. While you can still dig out your Seinfeld box sets if need be (even if you feel like a dinosaur doing so, and there's a layer of dust half-an-inch thick on your blu-ray player), Netflix pioneered the crafty trend of never releasing its original content physically. The implications of such a decision are frankly terrifying: for one thing, it means you have to keep paying Netflix forever if you want to watch its originals; for another, it means even Oscar-nominated movies like Roma are never released for people to own; and questions concerning the preservation, or lack thereof, of Netflix's original content are deeply worrying.
It's still true that on the whole, the decentralization of streaming is a good thing. As infuriating as something like Peacock might be from a consumer perspective, it's good that the television ecosystem doesn't look the way the book industry currently does, with one gargantuan retailer and a smattering of indie and boutique sellers struggling to coexist beneath it. Streaming remains much more competitive; even with Netflix as the industry leader, services like Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and niche offerings like Shudder or the Criterion Channel allow you to mix and match to create a combination that's right for you.
But in recent months, it's gotten explosively out of hand: Disney+, CBS All Access, Apple TV+, and WarnerMedia's HBO Max all seem indispensable to me as a TV lover, but also unaffordable when taken as a lump sum. Even paying for the most basic version of every service, a combo of something like Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max, plus Disney+ and Apple TV+, will run you over $50 a month (and that's not counting additional add-ons like paying for ESPN, Twitch, or regular cable).
The oversaturation is hurting streamers, industry experts say; most households only subscribe to three or four streaming services total, with some 47 percent of respondents to the Deloitte survey confirming they are frustrated with needing to sort through multiple services to access the programs they want to watch. "I don't think we'll see the continuous launching of more streaming services in the years ahead," Deloitte's vice chairman, Kevin Westcott, told Indiewire in June, estimating "there could be too many choices."
As someone who loves television, there doesn't seem like much of a choice at all.