March 12, 2020 at 2:05 am PDT | by Joey DiGuglielmo
SPRING ARTS 2020: TV’s big paradigm shift and the queer consumer
streaming, gay news, Washington Blade

Alexis Bledel as Emily, a lesbian character, in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ on Hulu. (Photo courtesy Hulu)

Streaming content — whether we’re talking about music or movies/TV — is, of course, nothing new. But on the movie/TV side, it’s ramping up to unprecedented levels.

The New York Times compares it to the great entertainment industry disruptions of yore — silent films going to “talkies” in the ’20s, TV in the ’50s and the double whammy of cable TV and VCRs in the ’80s, which radically shifted the way consumers viewed content.

Netflix started streaming movies and shows in 2007 and dominates the field with 166 million subscribers worldwide and a $12 billion budget for new content. Until now, the main old school media conglomerates — Disney, NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia — stayed out of it while Netflix (“Stranger Things,” “The Crown”), Amazon Prime Video (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Fleabag”) and Hulu (“The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Veronica Mars”) battled it out.

The old companies now realize they’ll have to adapt to survive. Disney Plus launched Nov. 12 for $6.99 a month offering content from Disney, Pixar, the “Star Wars” franchise, Marvel movies, reruns of “The Simpsons” and about 7,500 episodes of old Disney shows. WarnerMedia will launch HBO Max for $14.99 per month in May with 10,000 hours of available content such as “Friends,” “South Park, old Warner Bros. movies, CNN documentaries, “Sesame Street” and more. And Peacock, NBCUniversal’s imprint, will boast 15,000 hours of available content including reruns of “The Office,” “Frasier,” “Saturday Night Live,” Universal movies, a reboot of “Battlestar Galactica” and gobs more. It’s slated for an April 15 rollout.

Others are taking the can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em approach. FX on Hulu launched March 2 boasting its shows such as “Mrs. America,” “Better Things,” “Dave” and “Fargo” now available there. And Quibi, set to launch April 6, is focusing on short-form mobile video. Founder Jeffrey Katzenberg is said to have spent more than $1 billion for short-form episodes of shows like a Steven Spielberg horror series “Spielberg’s After Dark” and “Kill the Efrons,” a survival reality series starring Zac Efron and his brother.

Apple, of course, is no longer content to sit on the sidelines either. Apple TV Plus launched Nov. 1. That makes the likely big players Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus, HBO Max and Peacock, but that’s just for starters.

There are, according to the New York Times citing data from Parks Associates, 271 online video services in the U.S. some of the more obscure ones offering highly curated content. For every mainstream one, such as ESPN Plus or NFL Sunday Ticket for sports, there’s a bounty of niche options like Crunchyroll and Hidive for anime, Hi-Yah! for martial arts or GAIA for yoga-themed content.

Navigating the deluge

So much is now available, though, that consumers are overwhelmed. Although it’s changed some in recent years, one of the long-running complaints of cable TV or Dish satellite subscribers was having to pay for hundreds of channels they never watched. Well, now with streaming, the argument goes, they no longer have to. Just subscribe to the services you want.

But it’s not that simple. Say you subscribe to Netflix and Hulu but then everybody starts buzzing about “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” winning a bunch of Emmys and being must-see TV and you’re faced with major pop culture FOMO. And if you have cut your cable subscription, as 5.5 million did in 2019 alone, what do you do when there’s a major event like the Olympics, the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl that none of the streaming services have the rights to? (The presidential debates, for example, are easy to stream for free online.) And what if you have one of those deals where your phone, home internet and cable are all under one umbrella like Xfinity in the D.C. market and it’s not as easy to get out of?

At some point, viewers will have to make a choice, much as they did between VHS or Beta 30 in the ’80s, and not all the companies getting into the game will be successful as consumers are only willing to pay so much — $44 the Wall Street Journal reports citing its own polling — for about 3.6 streaming services (one in five plan to cut the cable cord within the year, the Journal reports).

streaming, gay news, Washington Blade

Felix Maritaud in ‘I Am Jonas,’ a Netflix original movie about a passionate gay teen romance. Netflix is not only the industry dominator, it has the most queer content overall. (Photo courtesy Netflix)

Gay entertainment writer/guru Greg Hernandez says it’s “a new frontier” for pop culture fans.

“There’s so much more content, the sky’s the limit,” he says. “And that’s why this seems unprecedented. It feels like the biggest beneficiaries are the consumers. They have so many choices now. They’re being courted with really quality content from all the top stars, the best actors are going for roles on shows that are being streamed, so I think the consumer is the biggest beneficiary. It’s nice to be courted and nice to have so much of the top talent flocking to this form.”

Cutting the cable cord?

For Matt Chun, a gay Washington man who early in his career worked at ABC, the current system is both a blessing and a curse.

“Digital and social media trends have changed just about everything in terms of the way we consume our content,” he says. “In some ways, we are more than ever in the driver’s seat with TV executives and music artists catering to our short attention spans, our schedules and our price points. In other ways, we’re spoiled brats imprisoned by our voracious appetites. And if not us, certainly the next generation of iPad-trained kids.”

Chun canceled cable about three years ago because it was simply cheaper to pay for streaming. He had Xfinity internet and cable and got tired of the hikes — it started at $75, jumped to $116, then $139 and he said, “Enough.” Similarly, his parents’ Xfinity bill in Philadelphia hiked from $150-187.

He now subscribes to AT&T TV, which comes with HBO GO, and Amazon Prime. The latter two are $63.60 per month (higher because they offer more of a hybrid experience with live TV and On Demand). Amazon Prime is $13 per month. He used to have Netflix but not currently.

And yes, he says there are times there’s something he wants to watch on another service.

“Often you’ll hear buzz about a show on social media but then realize it’s on the one you just cancelled,” he says. “For example right now, I’m curious about ‘The Circle’ on Netflix. There was a time that I would switch my services on and off, chasing the premiere of shows such as ‘Game of Thrones’ on HBO or the return of ‘Love’ on Netflix. But now there are just so many good shows that I just end up choosing one that I’m interested in on one of the services I have.”

There are ways around the dilemma, too.

“If there’s a show I really want to watch and don’t have paid access to, I can often find a streaming site — likely illegal — to binge watch it. Sometimes the quality suffers or the streaming lags, but it’s good enough. Or I’ll binge watch in spurts when I’m at my friend’s house who has different streaming options. It seems like I’m never without options … and someone is always entering the market with lower costs.”

“People share passwords with friends,” Hernandez says. “There are ways to see what you want to see.”

Kenya Hutton, another gay Washington TV fan, subscribes to Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime in addition to his $165 monthly Xfinity bill, which he plans to keep. He says despite all that, there’s still a dearth of representation.

“It would be great to see more quality LGBTQ programming from people of color,” Hutton says.

Where are all the queer shows?

There’s voluminous queer content on the major platforms. Four years ago, GLAAD started gathering data on streaming original series for its annual “Where We Are on TV” survey and the numbers have mostly gone up every year since then.

For the most recent survey, released last November, GLAAD found 109 regular LGBT characters on original scripted series on Amazon, Hulu and Netflix, the three platforms it monitors. That was an increase of 34 from last year’s tally. There are also 44 recurring LGBT characters, up from just seven the previous year.

Gay male characters make up 42 percent, lesbians 30 percent, 14 percent bi women and nine percent bi men. The one dip was in trans characters at seven percent, down four percentage points from the previous year. That’s likely a hiccup, GLAAD’s Megan Townsend, lead author of the report, says as shows such as “Transparent” and “Orange is the New Black” have ended and some shows she knows of in development with trans characters haven’t yet launched.

“I think maybe that was just a one-off year,” Townsend, who’s bi, says. “The bigger problem will be if this becomes a trend.”

The 109 LGBTQ characters on the streaming platforms compares to 90 on scripted shows on broadcast TV networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and The CW) and 121 on scripted primetime cable shows. So while it’s not as if there’s a deluge of LGBTQ characters and storylines on the streaming shows, it’s right up there in the same league as the network and cable shows. Some might even argue it’s a tad underwhelming when you consider streaming has unlimited volume potential whereas network and cable have limited daytime/prime time hours to program.

Of Amazon, Hulu and Netflix, Netflix had the most LGBTQ characters as has been the case every year streaming has been included in the GLAAD survey. So if queer representation on original streaming shows is your main interest, Netflix, home to “Grace and Frankie,” “Tales of the City” and the new RuPaul series “AJ and the Queen,” not to mention reality juggernaut “Queer Eye” (not counted in the GLAAD report) is your best bet.

So how did Netflix end up being the industry leader and also the best at LGBTQ representation? Brian Wright, Netflix’s vice president of original series: young adults/family, says the GLAAD report and other industry report cards are important, but the representation just happened on its own.

“I’m happy to report that it all truly comes out of an organic process,” Wright, who’s gay, says. “It’s about finding incredible storytellers and letting them do their best work. There’s no additional layer of, ‘Well, can you make this person this or that person that?’ We don’t have to do that because it’s already there in the storytelling, in the fabric of these shows. I would say that this great result we’re seeing with GLAAD is just a result of us attracting incredible talent to reflect the world back to the world.”

Wright has been with Netflix for six years and says there’s strong queer representation among its employees. Comparable, he says, to what he experienced at previous jobs with Viacom, Disney and Lifetime — “I’ve bounced around the Hollywood gauntlet,” he says. He oversees shows such as “Stranger Things,” “13 Reasons Why,” “Fuller House,” “The Umbrella Academy,” “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” and the Ryan Murphy Netflix shows, the latest of which, “Hollywood,” launches in May.

He says the industry gatekeepers at Netflix — those with the power to greenlight a pitch — are more unencumbered than their counterparts in network.

“We don’t have a lot of handcuffs,” he says. “We’re not handcuffed by advertising considerations, we’re not handcuffed by a conservative standards and practices group. … We hear pitches all day long and we go toward the ones that are the most pure in vision and where we feel like, ‘Wow, this person has a story to tell and they totally understand what it is in their bones.’ It’s just not uncommon that there’s a gay person or people that are central to the story.”

There are, however, even gayer (albeit smaller) options.

Dekkoo, which started in late 2015, offers movies and TV — both original and non — geared toward gay men for $9.99 per month.

“When we launched, we had no delusions of grandeur or trying to beat Netflix or even pretending we could play in that field,” says Brian Sokel, Dekkoo president who, ironically, is straight having started the platform with his gay business partner Derek Curl. “But what we realized is that we could fill a void that was missing in the marketplace and probably do it very well and operate as a complementary service that’s all-inclusive for one type of audience.”

He says the big platforms are analogous to Blockbuster Video 20 years ago.

“I remember going there years ago and being bummed out because the selection was one geared to the largest, most homogenous audience possible,” he says. “You wouldn’t find any really deep selections of any genre, you really were just scratching the surface. That’s what made On Demand and Netflix, back when it was DVD by mail, so great was that suddenly you found this individual, independent content and all this incredible stuff you didn’t even know existed.”

Don’t go to Dekkoo looking for major titles like “Moonlight” or “Love, Simon.” Dekkoo, which is about 10 percent original content, Sokel says, is for the “queer independent fare that is really driving the queer cinema universe.”

“You can find gay stuff on all the main platforms,” he says. “It just depends on the user and what they’re looking for. The casual viewer could go on Amazon or Netflix and say, ‘Oh great, there’s a gay movie to watch.’ But for the person who’s really passionate about queer cinema where that’s not gonna cut it for them, that’s why we exist.”

Sokel declined to share how many subscribers Dekkoo has.

WOW Presents Plus (World of Wonder) is $3.99 per month after a seven-day free trial and offers “all things drag” with “UNHhhh,” “Werq the World” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 12” (also on VH1).

WOW Presents Plus media department did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week from the Blade.

Looking ahead

So where’s it all headed? Is network dying a long, slow death? How does Netflix plan to stave off the competition?

Wright says the beauty of the new paradigm — Netflix is seven years into its original content creation — is the chance for non-U.S. content to take off and have a global impact. He cites “Money Heist” (“La casa de papel”), a crime drama/thriller from Spain (part four with eight new episodes drops April 3), as a strong example.

Netflix headquarters in Hollywood. The company dominates the streaming industry and has more LGBT representation than its rivals, according to GLAAD. (Photo courtesy Netflix)

“It’s become massive,” he says. “I don’t believe in a pre-Netflix world that would have connected with millions of joyful fans all over the world. I think that’s a trend that we’re gonna see continue.”

He says his company always knew competitors would emerge in time. As for how long streaming and broadcast can co-exist, he says it’s “anyone’s guess.”

“I think that streaming is absolutely from a behavioral and technological perspective, it’s so good for the consumer and consumer control is something that’s more and more gonna be considered as the stakes keep moving forward. There are gonna be a lot of different choices out there and we just want to be the that people continue to feel is a must have.”

Chun enjoys all the options and still binge-watches certain shows, but says as a consumer, he has no strong opinions about streaming usurping traditional TV.

“I’m a bit numb and agnostic to it all,” he says. “Mergers are happening and Emmys are being won and I’m just like, ‘Alright, maybe I’ll check you out but I’m already bored thinking about the effort it would take and all my funds are tied up with multiple ‘cheap’ subscriptions. Oh yeah, and we haven’t even talked about porn yet.”

Netflix’s dark side?

Huge industry behemoths often have well-documented dark sides from Walmart’s predatory pricing, Facebook’s shady information sharing, Amazon’s anti-competitive/monopolistic behavior and Google’s recent wave of firing employees — a few of whom are transgender — who dared to call the company out on what they considered unethical practices, as the New York Times reported last month.

So surely Netflix has a dark side too, right?

Brian Wright, Netflix’s VP of original series, insists not.

“I’ve worked in so many places in Hollywood and this is by far the most collaborative group of people I have ever come across,” he says. “It’s a place where that kind of palace intrigue and backstabbing is not tolerated and honestly is called out. … It’s absolutely a high-performance culture here, but we like to avoid the brilliant jerks. One of our key tenets is selflessness.”

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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