In the past decade, the number of original, scripted television shows being produced each year has more than doubled. Meanwhile, subscriptions to streaming services have surpassed one billion worldwide. We have the shows; we have the access. Why does it feel next to impossible to find anything good to see? On episode 38 of The Politics of Everything, hosts Laura Marsh and Alex Pareene discuss how the streaming era has transformed what we’re watching, why we’re watching it, and the way movies and TV shows are getting made. Guests include Kyle Chayka, a staff writer at The New Yorker who’s written about streaming culture, and Peter Labuza, a historian of the creative industries.
Laura Marsh: I have had this experience for the last several years of deciding that I’m going to unwind by finding a great TV show or movie—or not even great, just a watchable TV show or movie. I’ll start at 10 p.m., and I’ll spend the next three hours watching trailers or the first 10 minutes of a show, just being like, “Oh, this is … bad.” And then I’ll go to sleep unsatisfied and exhausted by my quest.
Alex Pareene: By the start of last year, peak TV was a quantitative fact, not a critical assessment. Five hundred thirty-two scripted, original television series had been produced in 2019, up from around 200 a decade earlier. That number doesn’t even include reality shows, soap operas, or kids’ programs.
Laura: And it’s likely the number of original TV shows would have kept growing if not for the Covid-19 pandemic, which delayed production throughout the entertainment industry at the same time that it increased demand for its product. Streaming-service subscriptions passed a billion worldwide for the first time in 2020.
Alex: The entertainment business has seemingly never been better. But those figures—and Laura’s viewing dilemma—led us to ask some questions about the movie and television industries. How has this explosion in production affected the people who actually make these movies and TV shows?
Laura: And why is it so hard to find something good to watch?
Alex: I’m Alex Pareene.
Laura: And I’m Laura Marsh.
Alex: This is The Politics of Everything.
Laura: We’re talking now with Kyle Chayka, who’s written about streaming culture for The New Republic and elsewhere. Kyle, Alex, and I have been talking a lot about the way that streaming has affected the process of just finding TV or movies to watch. What is your impression of what I guess you’d call discovery? Is it getting harder to find things to watch at night?
Kyle Chayka: I think it is. Streaming always promised this endless choice, like, “You can watch anything you want, we’re going to recommend the best stuff for you all the time.” And that’s what made it better than cable TV, which was just a passive watching experience—you’d turn it on, you’d watch whatever stuff. But instead of that, we’re faced with endless options and nothing super-appealing, and so we just ended up being confused, I think.
Laura: When streaming services first launched—I’m not talking about the DVD-by- mail era of Netflix but the streaming era of Netflix or Amazon Prime—there was this golden age, where you could go on Amazon Prime and, like, every Alfred Hitchcock movie was available to stream, or there were all these brilliant classics that you could suddenly access. But it feels like something has changed in recent years where that stuff just slowly left the platforms, and the stuff that replaced it was very different.
Kyle: Totally. In the beginning, there were just a few streaming options, like Netflix or Amazon or whatever. Those platforms gathered a huge amount of content, so you could watch whatever you wanted on one or the other. But then, as more and more platforms came in and started competing for the same backlog of shows, you didn’t know where the show you wanted to watch was. And on top of that, all of a sudden, Netflix comes in and, instead of offering you the old shows, the ones you know you like, it’s like, “No, you’re going to watch Netflix Original content because that’s cheaper for us to produce. It’s going to make more money for us in the long run. Instead of Alfred Hitchcock, we’re going to show you like 18 holiday movies that we just made in three months.”
Laura: But there was this idea several years ago, when Netflix started making its own content, that they were going to greenlight all this really creative, amazing stuff that old-fashioned studios were too fusty to support. And there was that moment when Transparent came out, where people said, “See, this show’s really good and no one else would make it. This is what streaming can deliver.” Do you have a sense of why we didn’t get more Transparents or why that’s such a small portion of what Netflix original content and these other platforms are delivering?
Kyle: It’s hard to make good original content. You can’t just generate a slew of 18 new Mad Mens. And I do think streaming has served a lot of niches, but it’s not the niches that we thought were going to be served. It’s not prestige drama. It’s not gripping literary accomplishments.
Laura: Instead, it’s like a hundred different baking shows, or a million different true crime shows, like a million variations on Making a Murderer. Do you think there are certain breakout hits that these companies had and just decided to replicate again and again?
Kyle: Yeah, I think it’s the scaling ethos or the tech company ethos behind the cultural generation of this stuff. Like, we’re going to drag in a bunch of subscribers with super high-end prestige content, the most ambitious, cool stuff, then we’re going to figure out which models or patterns work, à la true crime documentaries or whatever. And then we’re just going to iterate them over and over again until we extract every amount of capital and profit that we can and our viewers are utterly bored.
Alex: It’s the customer acquisition part, right? I remember Amazon’s first originals. They made a huge deal about these pilots they were launching, and it was very much in the prestige TV model. So then you acquire customers and use your algorithm to see the things they are watching, and you produce more generic things based on what their behavior was. I’ve likened it to how Amazon treated every other kind of product in the entire world. We all turned to Amazon because it was the most convenient place to get product X, and when they saw what we were buying, they started offering shoddy knockoff or generic or bootleg versions of product X across every line. I feel like that’s kind of what happened with the movies and TV that are now getting produced. What do you think?
Kyle: Yeah, I think that’s totally the case. You find a genre that works, you find a category that works, and then it’s like, how can we produce as many of these as cheaply as possible?
Laura: One of the shows that comes to mind is the resurrection of Unsolved Mysteries. Have you seen this? A lot of the things that are featured as unsolved mysteries on this show are like, “A woman is brutally murdered, we think we know who did it, but they haven’t been formally charged....” Is that an unsolved mystery? But it’s just more content that fits that sweet spot of stuff you already know, stuff that was around in the past, and it’s about murder. It’s my impression that that may be one of the primary genres of screening. For some reason, people just want to watch shows about murder, like 24/7, wall-to-wall murder, sports, baking. That’s it, there’s three options. And if you want something outside of that, good luck.
Kyle: I was just looking at my Netflix home page, actually. And a big category for me is “romantic international” TV shows, which basically means Emily in Paris, but in every different country that exists. So it’s Emily in Paris but in Spain, which is Valeria, or Emily in Paris but in Norway, which is Home for Christmas. There are just endless iterations of the same pattern from different countries, which I find fascinating.
Laura: One thing I want to figure out is how different what the streaming platforms are doing is from what networks used to do, because networks knew how many people were watching the most popular shows. They had ratings, so they could see that this crappy sitcom got millions of viewers and then decide to greenlight a bunch more sitcoms in that vein. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu—they all have an algorithm. What’s the difference in the kind of data that that can give the company? And when it’s coming back to the consumer, how does that change the shows that are being made and then that you’re being served?
Kyle Chayka: I think we have to separate the data collection into two sides. On one side, Netflix has access to more data about when the viewer is engaged or not. They can see what you’re looking at on the home page, they can tell how far you watched into a show, and I think that is way more data, and more granular data, than cable TV providers had access to. But on the other side, when we talk about the algorithm, we’re often talking about recommendation algorithms or automatic recommendations. So that data about your engagement with content is then used to figure out which shows Netflix is going to recommend to you. And that’s where the automation comes in.
Laura: This is the part that puzzles me, because these algorithms are meant to be so tailored to serving you the thing that you want to watch. But every time I click on Netflix, I get the fiftieth show about a woman who was murdered. And that’s exactly what I have no stomach for anymore. So much stuff it shows me is just, “We don’t have anything that’s tailored to you. So here’s some stuff you don’t want.” “The algorithm, we’re so smart.”
Kyle: Yeah, I think it’s gotten less algorithmic, actually. Or there’s still the marketing message of, “We’re tailoring what shows up on your home page to you individually,” when really it’s gotten more and more just, “Here’s our newest Netflix stuff,” or, “Here’s what’s most popular right now.”
Alex: I wonder how much of it is snake oil. I was joking about this with Laura, but you know, over years and years and years, every music recommendation algorithm that exists—from Spotify to Title to YouTube—has not been able to figure out that I just don’t like The Cure. But then, that’s a completely subjective judgment. I like a lot of things that sound like it. Laura might have the demographic profile of a person who wants to see more true crime about women getting murdered. The algorithm can’t figure out quality, it can’t figure out subjectivity and quality. And it’s not going to be able to.
Kyle: No, I don’t think it will be able to. Right now, I think it’s mostly operating on genre terms—“You like true crime, so I’m going to give you more true crime.” It’s not, “You like good stuff. So I’m giving you more good stuff.” Though I think it triangulates somewhere, because I get a lot of mediocre real estate shows, which is fantastic. It’s really working for me in that way.
Laura: It feels like it doesn’t even have to be, “They should serve me good stuff.” If there was a mediocre content tag, like a watchable, kind of good real estate show, I don’t need five stars—3.7 would be the sweet spot for me to be like, “Oh, here is a show about someone who flipped a house that’s 3.7 stars, I’ll watch that for 20 minutes.” But that seems completely missing from these services.
Kyle: I think the big problem that we’re all encountering is that there’s no way of giving feedback to the recommendations aside from just watching things. There is no way to be like, “OK, I’m going to turn off this genre.” Or on Spotify, you can’t say “Never play me a Phoebe Bridgers song ever again”—though everyone wishes that option existed! The algorithmic feeds will always find a way to put something back in your face that you did not want to see or hear. And we don’t have control over that.
Laura: Is that specific to streaming services that try to provide full-length TV shows and films? For instance, is the Instagram algorithm or the TikTok algorithm better?
Kyle: I think with Netflix and streaming services, there’s much less data. So you decide whether or not to watch a TV episode once every 30 minutes or hour, whereas you decide to listen to a song or not every three minutes, and you decide to watch a TikTok or not every five to 30 seconds. And so TikTok does go the furthest, in terms of giving you a feed that’s tailored to what you’re actually interested in. Netflix couldn’t do that because you’re not watching a different TV show every 30 seconds.
Laura: Do you think, then, that this whole idea of a revolution in taste in TV just won’t happen? Like with TV, Netflix basically is the same, more or less, as the way networks are, and that this kind of bigger change in how you find stuff will be more limited to shorter content and music and, I don’t know, clothing recommendations?
Kyle: Yeah, I think the Netflix home page has certainly changed how we decide what to watch, but I don’t know if it’s changed our taste in what to watch necessarily, whereas I think TikToK is absolutely shaping what we expect from music and how dances look, and Instagram is affecting how products look and how things are marketed.
Alex: I wonder how the experience of having a bottomless well of things to watch that extends primarily back only a few years is going to change the way people watch movies and TV, and change what kind of viewers they are.
Kyle: Yeah, I always think about when you develop a taste in something—it’s almost a historical act, it happens over time. You figure out what you like, you seek it out in older artists or filmmakers or whatever. And you gradually develop a vocabulary and a series of artists that you pursue. I think the dynamic quality of the Netflix home page and the fact that their archive is always changing destroys the ability to develop that long-term sense of taste.
Laura: Do you think there is good stuff being made, or is it just harder to find it? Because there is some good stuff. We just did an episode on Succession, and I think it’s a fantastic drama, one of the best dramas that’s come out in a long time. There is good stuff being made, but unless it reaches the level of discussion or prominence in the discourse that that show has, it’s pretty hard to know where to find it.
Alex: This is actually an interesting difference, right? Because Succession is an HBO show, and HBO has expanded what that means now that it’s HBO Max, but that’s the old cable model. These brands of cable channels meant something. I would know what a Bravo show was compared to an HGTV show. And if Netflix has everything, if it’s the everything store, like Amazon but for content, does that make it harder to find the good things because you don’t have those codes and hints that tell you, “This is the good thing,” or does it actually make everything that they make worse?
Kyle: I think it’s definitely harder to find the good stuff. There’s more stuff to dig through. There are worse interfaces. And I do think that brand identity is a problem. You have to know what you’re looking for. But then perhaps what streaming is delivering is just not the kind of high-quality masterpiece that we want. It’s not delivering the Successions of the world. It’s delivering a very broad band of what I wrote about as “ambient TV,” which is just pleasantly ignorable, nice to look at, thinly plotted stuff. Some of it’s better than others, but it’s all OK, and it’s all going to be totally not memorable in five years. Streaming is great at doing that. It’s really hitting it out of the park.
Laura: Well, thanks so much, Kyle. It was awesome talking to you.
Kyle: Thanks so much.
Laura: Kyle Chayka is working on a book about algorithmic culture called Filterworld.
Alex: We’ve been talking about how streaming platforms are transforming the kinds of movies and TV shows that are available to watch and what it’s like to try to watch them.
Laura: After a short break, we’ll be back to talk about the other side of things: how streaming is affecting the people who make movies and TV.
Alex: So we’ve been talking about the content—we’ve been talking about how streaming has changed what sorts of shows and movies are made, and how we the viewers find them. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, there’s been significant labor unrest recently, specifically from the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, which is the labor union that represents so-called below-the-line talent—not the people on screen but all the technical people that help make all of these shows and movies possible. They’ve been threatening to strike about working conditions. And they’ve been negotiating with the producers. We’re joined now by Peter Labuza, who is a historian of the creative industries. Peter, my question is, are these things related? Is the labor unrest in Hollywood we’re seeing related to the rise of streaming?
Peter Labuza: Absolutely. They are extremely related. When you look at what’s happened with the streaming revolution over the last 10 years, especially for workers in the Alliance, or IATSE, as it’s regularly known, they used to work on this schedule of stopping and starting based on the television schedule. So there’ll be the fall premieres and the spring premiere. You would put in these 14-to-16-hour days that the union members have been talking about, and then you’d have these longer breaks afterward. What’s happened with streaming is that there’s just more content being produced all the time. There’s more shows. So the members are getting more opportunities, but what they’re not getting is time off, and it’s really difficult to turn down work. So they’re just becoming exhausted through that process.
Alex: It used to be these periods of a lot of hard work and these periods of time off, and then, because the seasons don’t exist in TV anymore, and because Netflix just needs an endless supply of movies, those long hours are now just all year long.
Alex: And then the second issue is that they have these negotiated deals that treated streaming, I would say, as a sort of a secondary or niche thing, and then in the last few years it has become a much more primary way people are getting this content.
Peter: There’s always been this tentative agreement between the studios that are producing these shows and IATSE to treat streaming as what was called a “new media property.” And now they’re finally pushing against that. It’s like, “We know the compensation, we know how much you’re making on these shows, and our basic contract isn’t paying the way it pays for traditional film and television.” Because if a film makes $100 million at the box office, that film—
Alex: People buy a ticket to go to that movie, and then you know how many people paid to go to that movie, but you can’t break that down the same way with a streaming film.
Peter: Exactly. So there are different ways to approach it by budget, but the last thing that Netflix, Amazon, or Disney wants to do is somehow a) have to release the data of how many people are watching these things, and b) have to pay either above-the-line or below-the-line talent some sort of percentage of that based on viewership.
Alex: So this is IATSE and film workers in general—we’re including the writers and the actors. They have all these contracts negotiated. And for the most part, would you say, these contracts are based on the old way of doing business in Hollywood?
Alex: So tell me more about how movies used to be distributed prior to streaming. How were these movies funded, and how do they come out, and how did the labor work?
Peter: So if you released a film, you would have your big box office number to start off that weekend, and then all the deals underneath it. So for your cable television, your HBO or Showtime, your American Movie Channel or TNT, you would negotiate a deal, then eventually ABC, CBS, and then foreign sales, toys, whatever—all of this was built on what’s called a downstreaming effect. So if you do well at the theatrical box office, everything kind of pours onto the other, and all the talent would get a certain portion of that. So if you are a top actor, say a Tom Cruise or a Nicole Kidman, you could negotiate something like 20 percent of all profits if you were very strong and powerful, but even IATSE gets a certain portion of that money—at each level of the sale, they get a certain percentage. And this is what’s really changed at streaming because a) you don’t have that downstreaming effect, it just shows up on Netflix and exists there theoretically in perpetuity, and b) there’s not necessarily any sharing of the pot at the same time.
Alex: So that’s key, right? Because a movie before, if you make a movie, and say it’s a modest midsize movie, not even talking about a huge blockbuster, you have the box office, and a portion of that is negotiated to go to labor, and then you have the sales for it to be aired on TNT a few years later, like every weekend, and then a portion of that counts as the revenue that gets to the labor. And then you have the DVD sales or the VHS sales. And now it’s just like you make a thing. It goes on Netflix. No one tells you how many people watched it. It seems a lot harder to negotiate your cut of that.
Peter: Unless Netflix tells you how many people watched it. Netflix actually just made a change—before they were telling you how many people watched the first two minutes of a show, which, you know, sometimes the trailer starts playing automatically. You left the room, you went to the bathroom, and suddenly you’re counted as a view. And I think it really hurts talent. Since the 1950s, you negotiated your film based on how well your last film did. If you have a big hit, you get a better contract. If you don’t know how well your film did on Amazon Prime, how do you negotiate your next contract? How do you know how much you’re worth?
Laura: So stars are not being compensated the way they used to. Also the below-the-line employees are not getting paid the way they would be traditionally. So that’s the compensation side of it, but I want to switch over to talking about the working conditions on set, and how streaming has affected that day-to-day experience and the kind of days that you are expected to work and the conventions, like the meetings that you might have. What kinds of complaints do people and production staff have, particularly?
Peter: With all types of production, going all the way back to the 1910s and 1920s, the more days you have to spend on set, the more you have to pay. Any show, any film is budgeted essentially at a per-day average. Any time you can eliminate days, the better you’re going to pay out. And one of the big issues in the IATSE contract is lunch fees, being able to just take time off from your 14-hour day for lunch. Maybe a producer says, “We’re skipping lunch today”—there’s a fee that a producer has to pay. But sometimes these producers would say that the fee is worth it, because if we have to add another day onto production, that’s a lot more money, so we start to make those decisions. The fact is that you’re running a 14-hour day for which you’re willing to pay the overtime, theoretically, as opposed to letting people go home and sleep. And so I think what’s really happening with streaming is that there’s more production, but they’re always being squeezed because we don’t have those traditional ways of financing these things and profiting off them, so everyone’s looking for ways to cut corners. The IATSE agreements, at least in the past, have said, “This film is only budgeted at this rate.” So we’re actually not only going to work you harder, we’re going to pay you less, at the same time, than you would [get] if you were doing the theatrical film version of this.
Alex: Tell me if I’m off base here, because I’ve been trying to figure out how or whether these conditions affect the product, but I’m thinking about your description of how the studio system worked and then the period of film and television where if you made a movie, everyone involved wanted or needed that movie to be a hit or at least to make its money back. So each movie was an individual product that needed to earn itself back. With a TV show, your end goal was syndication—you wanted it to be successful enough that you could go for 100 episodes so that it could be sold to be in reruns, which is syndication, for years, and everyone would continue to make money on it. Meanwhile, streamers like Netflix are notorious for just canceling shows after a few seasons, saying, “We’ll get no more value out of this. We have no reason to continue doing it.” If what you are trying to build is a library, and you don’t care about the individual picture being a blockbuster, does that lead to shoddier work and shoddier working conditions?
Peter: I think you’re actually onto something, Alex. If you go back to 1990s television and what used to be called pilot season—we’ve all heard about famous pilots being made for different shows that sounded really exciting, and then they don’t get picked up, and you never see them. That was the way that television worked, right? The television networks would analyze a bunch of pilots, one episode, and then choose select ones to go and actually shoot a full season of it. And then they started shooting full seasons. I think for a lot of workers, once you get into a full season of a show and really once you get onto the second season of the show, you have a good sense of your career trajectory—that work is going to be there the next year and the next.
Alex: You have job security.
Peter: If you’ve been working on The Big Bang Theory, you know that The Big Bang Theory is not going away anytime soon, and it is a form of job security, you’re right. But Netflix will go two seasons, right? So you build your entire career around this show and then it just suddenly drops out from under you. And you have no idea that it was going to drop out because you don’t even know how well it was doing. I think a lot of this is that Netflix is willing to take these theoretical risks or these risks that it thinks it is creating—they’ll play it out for a season, they’ll get the buzz without necessarily then having to deliver the goods all the way down the line. The other thing I want to say about this is that if you’re a writer in Hollywood, you would maybe work for five, six years, you get your first film or television show, and then you slowly start digging from your archive of scripts you’ve been working on. And now, you’re being asked for your fourth- or fifth-worst thing. And that’s just automatically getting produced because it’s something that exists, and it’s ready to go, and we can start shooting it in two months.
Laura: Well, this keys into the question that we started the show with: Has streaming made it harder to find good things to watch, whether that’s TV or movies? Because you have this kind of half-baked, original content, and then the other thing you have is endless franchises. And there isn’t this kind of peak TV that we were promised in the middle. How has the rise of streaming affected what’s being made?
Peter: The reason that a company like Netflix or Amazon is always targeting this intellectual property, the kind of thing about which we’re saying, “Do they really need to remake the show? Do they really need to do a new version of this film?” is in terms of building an audience. You used to build around a film star or maybe a director, like a Wes Anderson, and certainly they can still sell certain films. But for a lot of these studios, they know they can at least get an audience to stream it on day one. If they have a known fanbase, then at least someone’s going to show up once you produce the entire season.
Alex: What I find really interesting with the way I.P. has taken over everything is that you get a lot of projects now that have a recognizable name attached that is only tangentially related. There’s so much stuff out there that the only way to guarantee a few people will click on this to watch it is if it’s got a name they’ve heard of. And not to disparage the show, because it’s a very well-produced show, but Fargo the show was a series of original ideas by a filmmaker and TV producer who might not have ever gotten his original ideas produced if he didn’t attach a name to it that people had already heard of. I haven’t watched the Foundation show, but I imagine an original science fiction idea would be a lot harder to get produced to be a high-budget television show than saying, “Here’s Isaac Asimov’s Foundation,” or something like that.
Peter: You talk to these directors and writer-producers who are in the middle, and it’s just harder and harder to pitch the show and get the financing without that tie to intellectual property. It’s true that the studios are being more flexible in terms of what you can do with the intellectual property, and Fargo is a great example in that way. But you have to have that attachment to I.P., just because of the way that the studios are just scared about what something is when it looks original, and how it might look to either the financiers or to the audiences, that theoretically no one’s going to show up.
Alex: Yeah. And I’m sure you saw the news, but Taika Waititi will be directing Tower of Terror, based on the Disney ride Tower of Terror—coming soon!
Peter: And we forget, right? This is actually the fourth or fifth Disney theme-park-ride production. This is actually Disney recognizing how Disney+ is technically a money loser for the company, but the theme parks are the best profit-making business they have. And the more they can find ways to tie these together, the classic form of synergy that brought us Disneyland in the first place in the 1950s, the better the world of Disney that will slowly consume us all will be.
Alex: Thank you, Peter.
Peter: Thank you, everyone.
Alex: So after all that, what are you going to watch tonight, Laura?
Laura: Probably a lot of trailers, just fruitless clicking through trailers. And then I’ll probably watch instructional videos on YouTube of people, like, demonstrating how to use different hand tools or how to arrange their closets.
Alex: That’s your YouTube—DIY YouTube?
Laura: That’s what has filled the storytelling void in my viewing habits. But we began this episode with my dilemma, and you’ve remained very objective during the whole discussion and haven’t really said whether you’re having the same problem. Do you find it difficult to find stuff to watch?
Alex: It’s funny, I would say a combination of things has made me basically quit TV. I can blame that on cord-cutting—I got rid of my cable—having a kid, the pandemic, but to some degree, I had a dilemma very similar to yours, and I just sort of gave up. So I’ll probably be watching YouTube as well, though my feed is probably a little different than yours.
Laura: I’m curious.
Alex: It’s like urbanist YouTube channels about how well the streets are designed in
Laura: So you’re the more highbrow, if we’ve got high- and lowbrow YouTube.
Alex: Well, there’s also a guy I love whose thing is just that he gets old gadgets and computers from the 1990s and assembles them. It’s great. That’s my kind of stuff. I can watch that all night.
Laura: It’s very, very soothing. I’ve been watching videos of this guy who finds tables on the sidewalk and applies paint stripper to them and polishes them. That’s like a good 15-minute video.
Alex: And no gaffers or below-the-line talent had to be exploited to make it.
Laura: On the other hand, it certainly wasn’t a union production.
Alex: No, it definitely wasn’t.