Streaming executives believe TV’s future is a lot like its past

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We’re going through a transitional period in the streaming space — user growth is slowing and major players are moving toward consolidation, but the long-promised dream of profitability finally appears to be within reach (especially if you’re Netflix).

So, it’s the perfect time for The New York Times to interview several of the industry’s big names — including Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, Amazon Prime Video chief Mike Hopkins, and IAC Chairman Barry Diller — about what they think is next.

There seems to be broad agreement on most of the big themes: more ads, higher prices and fewer big changes on prestige TV. All of these changes are tied to a shift toward profitability, not growth at all costs. If the initial prices of many streaming services seemed low at launch, it turns out they were — prices have been steadily rising, while streamers have also introduced more affordable subscription tiers for viewers willing to watch ads.

In fact, some executives told The Times that streamers will continue to raise prices for ad-free tiers to get more customers to sign up for ad-supported subscriptions.

The growth of ad-supported streaming could also affect the type of movies and shows being made, as advertisers generally want to reach a mass audience — think of the heyday of ad-supported network TV, which featured endless shows about doctors and cops, compared to the more ambitious shows on subscription-supported HBO.

This shift to streaming is already underway, though executives insist they’re not giving up their hopes of finding the next “Sopranos” or “House of Cards.” Sarandos (who is already backing away from his decade-old claim that he wanted Netflix to “become HBO before HBO becomes us”) said Netflix “can do prestige TV at a large scale,” but he added, “We just don’t do prestige.”

Similarly, Hopkins said that on Prime Video, “Procedural and other tried-and-true formats work well for us, but we also need bigger changes that make customers say ‘Wow, I can’t believe that just happened’ and people will tell their friends.”

Other not-so-outlandish predictions include more investment in live sports (“the simplest and most interesting thing,” according to Warner Bros. Discovery board member John Malone), more bundling, and shutting down or merging some existing services. Apparently the consensus among executives was that streamers needed at least 200 million subscribers to be “big enough to compete,” as former Disney CEO Bob Chapek put it.

Some of these changes will be welcome, but they reinforce the sense that streaming — at least as envisioned by the executives currently running the business — won’t be all that different from the old cable TV ecosystem. Some things will be better (on-demand viewing), some will be worse (compensation for writers, actors, and other talent), and there may be different players at the top. But in many ways, it will look just like the same old TV.

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