The Solution to Streaming Wars? Nationalize Netflix

NPR and PBS already exist, so why not add Netflix to the fold?

With the launch of Disney+ last month, streaming wars were officially abound Every major production house is seizing back the means of distribution, which means that instead of striking a deal with Netflix to distribute their content, they’ll charge users on an individual service basis to access it. The idea behind this shift was that content makers were no longer beholden to Netflix’s algorithms and having to compete with the front’s own slate of content, but it’s already clashing hard with the financial standing of cordcutters who once saw affordability as an irrefutable winning argument for ditching cable and relying exclusively on streaming for entertainment needs.

The price of subscription to all relevant services now that Netflix is no longer the great unifier runs in the ballpark of what a cable subscription used to cost. It looked as though for a hot second that Netflix has started to bridge that gap with popular shows in past years, and Hulu was acting as a perfect supplement for TV shows that air on cable and can take up to several months before they land in their entirety on Netflix–that reality was quickly becoming undone by the slow-setting realization that since aggregative streaming services were controlling the supply chain as cable viewership was declining, the old guard of traditional media were eventually going to have to contend with a monopoly they can’t weasel their way out of. Netflix, a convenience for many consumers, was starting to become old media’s worst nightmare.

In the pursuit of decoupling themselves from Netflix, major studios have perhaps not realized that they introduced themselves a much harder issue to solve–that of market saturation. Not only is the rush to create original content going to create problems for consumers who’ve already expressed overwhelm, but the business model now has become contingent on developing a brand that very much aspires to exist as a supplemental value to what Netflix already offers, as opposed to the television guide just becoming a grid of apps for users to click on. The — often costly — convenience of cable is that it lumped everything together in one neat package–the experience of using a cable box was about where it began and ended. The proliferation of personalized fronts for each content maker’s stuff however makes it more likely they’ll think that skipping red tape for hosting content on another platform is a worthwhile endeavor, even in the absence of explicit consumer demand.

Making content isn’t cheap, and if Netflix’s initial strategy was to do that at scale and bankroll the least-profitable parts of its business by creating audience darlings like Stranger Things, it has now turned to the international market as an opportunity to break the growth plateau that focusing on the American market doomed them to.

There’s however a more tenable solution for both Netflix, and its future competitors that is likely to lower the casualty count of the streaming wars–since Netflix has become almost a utility for Americans seeking entertainment at a discount cost, absorbing it to become a part of the government isn’t all that crazy a thought to have. NPR and PBS are already funded by the US Congress, and they’re not mouthpieces for government propaganda any more than privately-owned media is, as fear-mongers of publicly-funded media would have you otherwise believe.

Under this hypothetical scheme, Netflix wouldn’t have to worry about turning a profit, and would give creatives full liberty to come up with as crazy and as novel a set of ideas as possible. Art as a product has never been traditionally subject to market logic as goods that serve an explicit function like cars do for example. Market dynamics dictate in their current state that Netflix has to maximize their engagement, so much that they’ve been testing the ability of their customers to play content at an increased speed just to consume more of it. With the government’s backing, Netflix could live free of having to carefully thread the needle between being an effective collaborator and a fearsome competitor… but what if it could reassume its aggregative function once more?

There’s already a working version of this model on Amazon Prime Video, where users could opt in to purchase additional channels on top of Amazon’s price of admission. If Netflix were to act as the unifying whole to the whims of every production house, they’d naturally be subsumed into the government’s arts endowment budget, averting them the inevitable scrutiny of contributing to a competitor’s revenue, given that the government here acts as a collaborator, not seeking to fully upset the scales of the current entertainment business apparatus.

Think this is too hard to realize under the current political context? Think again. Bernie Sanders had already expressed interest in nationalizing the energy sector — an industry historically dominated by private entities in the United States — so it wouldn’t be that far a throw to see a future in which the volume of content produced, combined with an unwillingness by consumers to indulge a scheme where their monthly entertainment expenses quickly shoot through the roof, could spark an interest by the American government to open up the possibility of owning a part of Netflix’s assets — and by extension a large chunk of the entertainment industry — given how ubiquitous it has become to the average American household.

As unlikely as this future is, it begs the question of what has inherent value to the public, such as its funding by the government is required to persist. Netflix doesn’t need that at the moment, nor do any of its competitors for that matter–but if the streaming wars backlash continues, and Netflix’s position as the aggregator of all is threatened, it might be time to consider that state film tax credit programs won’t have to be the extent of the government’s involvement in an industry that’s facing an imminent moment of reckoning as their aspirations for capital expansion disregard public interest as a worthwhile consideration.