Law in the Internet Society

Subscriptions, or Keeping Us Hooked

-- By MattDial - 08 Oct 2019

Our growing system of subscriptions is keeping us segmented and passive as consumers. Subscriptions as a concept are not new, but the shifting ways in which we interact with technology are changing the ways subscription services recommend items, how the items get produced, and even what gets produced. These changes, along with the auto-renew, auto-play design of modern subscriptions combine to keep us hooked and set in our consumption habits.

Using Your Data For "You"

A prime example of the modern subscription service is the streaming giant, Netflix. It operates similarly to other TV and movie streaming services, recommending shows and movies based on what is popular overall on the service as well as what you have already watched. Netflix tracks its consumers' viewing in part to work its recommendations, and the result for the consumer is increased ease of viewing. After all, who wouldn't want more things like what they have already watched? Certainly, to a degree this is the desired manner of personalized recommendations. However, in a time of increasing levels of content overall, this can also serve to keep consumers taking in only the types of media they have already enjoyed. Combine this with the increasing segmentation of the streaming market and this interaction will apply beyond genres that people like and will apply more to the brands or intellectual property that they have already enjoyed. Like the BBC Earth documentaries that only Netflix has the rights to? Well here’s a Netflix original filmed in the same style with the same famous British narrator! Liked the original Star Wars you saw with your Disney+ free trial? Well here’s an original weekly series based in that universe that you can only see on Disney’s platform. The history informs the recommendations which in turn breed loyalty to the platform.

The Evolution of Content

Streaming services producing original content is a commonplace occurrence now, but it was not always this way. Following modifications to its recommendation mechanism, Netflix pioneered the next step now commonly performed by streaming giants- tailoring content available to viewers to correspond with past choices. When Netflix hosts shows and movies, it works to get the most viewers relative to the licensing cost. But the growing trend on Netflix and other streaming services, especially considering the growing number of competitors, is in original content.

Interestingly, this shift in focus on original content has had an effect on what type of content is available for viewing (at least for instant access via streaming). Since 2010, Netflix has had an increase of 300% in TV shows available, and a decrease of 40% in movies available. While some of this has corresponded to shifting licenses and film titles being pulled, the vast majority of new productions are still new TV shows. Furthermore, there is an evolution even within the meaning of the phrase “TV show”. Shows are now no longer beholden to the standard, 22-episode broadcast TV season. Now a “TV show” can have a “season” that is six or eight episodes long, and it all releases at the same time. The line between what makes something a TV show and a miniseries is more and more blurred.

Overall though, whether a “TV show” or “miniseries”, the shift toward increased production of series over individual movies plays to the “binge” model for how many viewers intake TV today. Built into the writing of a movie is a finality, a wrapping-up of the story (leaving out the myriad sequels and franchises now also permeating the streaming services). With a TV show however, there can be an open-ended story- continuing for as long as there is a viewer captive to watch it. If increasingly segmented streaming platforms means more TV overall, then this will mean increasing retention for longer periods of time on the same streaming platforms.

Subscriptions for Physical "Content"

While Netflix has specifics that render it unique, including its original status as a DVD rental service and its rare position as a streaming giant, its evolution and the TV shift toward subscription streaming services corresponds with a huge increase in subscription model services for non-media items. There are clothing subscription services, meal subscription services, even toothbrush subscription services, all of which you can manage to have the products delivered straight to your home. These also can include built-in recommendation services and changes in available content based on users’ preferences and item popularity. This physical version of subscription can also come with increased attachment to the service. Auto-renewal with the option of later canceling is a standard form of subscribing to TV streaming and other services, promoted for the purpose of payment ease. But changes in subscription price can outweigh any financial benefit they may have offered in the first place. There are now many options of apps that help track and flag recurring payments to subscription services for you- but first, you must give them access to your bank information. Suddenly the ease of a subscription service becomes a headache.

As the marketplace becomes increasingly subscriber-based, consumers must be critical of whether any ease promoted by companies is real or simply a ploy to get you into their system, where they will recommend future services and goods to keep you interacting with the brand. And for those who hope to avoid the subscription-based mess in its entirety, signs are pointing to even more tech-based hardware companies pivoting to similar subscription-based models too. By pulling consumers in and keeping them connected to specific platforms, the subscription providers are taking away a fundamental cross-pollination aspect of an open, communicative society. The free thinker must be able to pull from a variety of sources to inform a well-balanced view of the world, and the separation and stratification of subscriptions go directly against this idea that is, in theory, central to a democratic society.

A very substantial improvement.

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r4 - 11 Jan 2020 - 15:03:16 - EbenMoglen
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