Apple joins the streaming menu, but are viewers already full?

Why We Wrote This

Apple’s new streaming service brings big-name content to a saturated market. How do you say enough’s enough in an era of unlimited entertainment?

Tony Avelar/AP
Oprah Winfrey speaks during an event to announce new Apple products March 25 in Cupertino, California. One of those, the company's streaming service Apple TV+, debuts this fall with a buffet of shows starring celebrities like Ms. Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Brie Larson.

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Call it subscription fatigue. Afraid of missing out on hit shows and movies, viewers are loading up their TV screens with multiple portals, each one a gateway to seemingly infinite viewing choices. Now Apple is muscling in, too. Its newly announced platform is an all-you-can-watch buffet of shows starring Reese Witherspoon, Brie Larson, and even Oprah.

As non-cable options proliferate, so does anxiety about having to subscribe to multiple products to see favorite shows. Industry observers wonder if a saturation point is near, as more consumers evaluate their relationship with unlimited options. “I’m always questioning if it’s worth paying for these services,” says IT manager Dave Ross of Boston. “Where does it stop?”

For now, millions of viewers will continue to spend their evenings scrolling through the nearly 500 scripted TV shows currently in production. Barry Schwartz, author of “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,” encourages consumers to change their thinking when they feel overwhelmed. “The most important single step people can take is to learn to be satisfied with ‘good enough’ options,” he says, “instead of always needing the best.”

When Taylor Parker and his fiancée recently changed internet providers, cable TV was bundled into their package. Four months on, they still haven’t plugged in the cable box.

That’s because they can barely keep up with Amazon Prime Video, HBO Now, Hulu, Netflix, Showtime, Sling TV, and Starz. Last month, Mr. Parker added one more – CBS All Access, for the March Madness games. Cumulative cost? About $150 per month to watch two hours of television a week.

“Saying it out loud makes you feel like, oh ... I’m spending all this money for no reason,” says Mr. Parker, a tech-firm salesman in Redmond, Washington. “You end up paying more than you would when you’re cutting cable.”  

Call it subscription fatigue. Afraid of missing out on hit shows and movies, viewers are loading up their TV screens with multiple portals, each one a gateway to seemingly infinite viewing choices. Now Apple is muscling in, too. Its newly announced platform is an all-you-can-watch buffet of shows starring Reese Witherspoon, Brie Larson, and Oprah. As overwhelmed viewers struggle to juggle all the options, industry observers wonder if a saturation point is near.

“In one sense this is the best of times for consumers because they haven’t had so much choice, 300 streaming video services alone, on top of music services and gaming services,” says Jeff Loucks, co-author of the 2019 Digital Media Trends Survey published by the consulting firm Deloitte. But, he adds, “because they have so many choices, it can be hard for them to select among them. But also once they have them, it can be hard for them to find the content that they want while they are juggling these services.”

Deloitte’s annual survey discovered that, for the first time, more respondents (69 percent) had at least one streaming service subscription than have a cable or satellite subscription (65 percent). The survey reports that 47 percent of respondents are “frustrated” by the proliferation of services needing subscriptions in order to customize their viewing experience.

Even among couch potatoes, the overwhelming number of TV options – many of them seldom used – prompts the same kind of anxiety as expensive, infrequently used gym memberships. The worry for individual streaming services is that overwhelmed customers will finally cancel that monthly payment. After all, many have already cut the cord on cable. Many streamers, like Bostonian Rebeca Oliveira, have developed strategies to regularly streamline their a la carte television menus.  

“HBO, Starz, and CBS are recent additions due to our programming: “ ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Last Week Tonight,’ ‘American Gods,’ and ‘Star Trek: Discovery,’ respectively,” says Ms. Oliveira, an executive assistant. “We cancel those when the shows are off the air and re-up when they’re back on. Netflix is on the verge of being canceled, especially following their cancellation of ‘One Day at a Time,’ but ‘Queer Eye’ and ‘Great British Bake Off’ are my favorite feel-good shows, so it’s still hanging on.”

Wooing viewers with originality

For streaming platforms, the challenge is to retain viewers by developing a deep slate of shows. In 2018, Netflix spent $8 billion on developing original content that now accounts for more than half its offerings. Amazon, Apple, Hulu, and others are in an arms race to sign big-name talent to supply must-see titles that roll out year round.

For example, Amazon Prime Video is developing “The Hunt,” a show about Nazi hunters in 1970s New York with director Jordan Peele (“Us,” “Get Out”). Hulu snagged Kristen Bell to revive cult detective series “Veronica Mars.” Apple TV+ has resorted to breaking out the big guns – namely Jason Momoa’s muscles – in the sci-fi warrior show “See.” Disney may be able top that: Its yet-to-be-unveiled streaming platform will include Marvel’s superheroes, Pixar’s movies, and the recently acquired 20th Century Fox library.

“Right now, all of these different high-profile content creators are aligned with different streaming services. But, at some point, all of the disassociation between streaming services and where they watch which content is really going to rattle consumers and frustrate them,” says Noelle Barnes, a marketing director in Bellevue, Washington, who worked for Amazon Prime Video when it launched in 2011.

The push to create original content has created a bubble and consumers may decide they’re overpaying, agrees Kevin McDonald, co-editor of “The Netflix Effect.” He anticipates a shakeout of the market and coming consolidation of some of the services.

“This could come crashing down, but behaviorally people have become accustomed to having access to all this stuff,” says Dr. McDonald, who teaches communication studies at California State University, Northridge.

‘Where does it stop?’

There’s another phenomenon at work: FOMO (fear of missing out). Streaming services work to prime the “must see” anticipation of their products. Amazon’s prequel series to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” is still several years away but the buzz is already louder than an army of Orcs.

“I’m always questioning if it’s worth paying for these services,” says IT manager Dave Ross of Boston. “Where does it stop? It feels like everybody wants their own streaming service with their own exclusives now. We’ve learned to live with FOMO. There might be a show exclusively on a service we don’t subscribe to, and that’s OK. We’d rather keep the $10 to $20 a month and spend it on something more meaningful.”

For now, millions of viewers will continue to spend their evenings scrolling through the nearly 500 scripted TV shows currently in production. For many, the search ends up in a paralysis of indecision.

“The most important single step people can take is to learn to be satisfied with ‘good enough’ options instead of always needing the best because that in and of itself can limit the amount of time you spend searching,” says Barry Schwartz, author of “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.”

A fan of binge-watching shows such as “The Wire,” “Better Call Saul,” and “True Detective,” Mr. Schwartz also tries to abide by his other piece of advice: “Go out and get some exercise.”

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