The Great Unbundling

The days of one-stop media shopping are long gone.

For years, we complained about the ever-escalating cost of cable or satellite television that forced us to pay for stuff we didn’t want. À la carte is turning out to be more aggravating and just as expensive.

The Verge’s Julia Alexander (“Into the Spider-Verse is leaving Netflix, and it plays into 2020’s biggest streaming problem“):

Two of the biggest movies people want to talk about this week are Wonder Woman 1984 and Pixar’s Soul, but there’s another film that can’t be missed: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Sony’s critically acclaimed 2018 animated superhero movie, which saw Miles Morales step into the web slinger’s suit and save the world with the help of a few other Spider-beings, is leaving Netflix on December 25th. That’s two days from now. It’s also unclear where Into the Spider-Verse will end up. Sony doesn’t have a major streaming platform, and none of the other big streamers — HBO Max, Disney Plus, Peacock, Apple TV Plus, or Amazon Prime Video — have announced that it’s arriving.

Streaming shuffles aren’t new. Movies and TV shows leave Netflix (or Hulu, or HBO Max) every single month. Ephemerality has defined streaming for years. It’s why sites like JustWatch have found massive success, helping people who flock to Google to find out where the movie they watched on HBO Max has wound up, or why tweet threads about the importance of physical media pop up every single week. (This is where I plug buying Blu-rays if possible, especially because streaming also coincides with impermanence, and titles can seemingly be edited at whim.)


What’s impossible to ignore, however, is how much our streaming experiences have changed in less than a decade. It used to be that if you wanted to watch something, there was a 90 percent chance Netflix had it. If Netflix didn’t, it was probably on Hulu. Now, it practically takes a college degree in content ownership.

I’ve all but stopped buying BluRay. The advent of Disney+ meant that most of the movies I wanted available to watch more than once (Disney and Pixar cartoons, Star Wars, and Marvel Comics Universe) were going to be available to stream in 4K for ten bucks a month. While I must admit that the George Lucas experience should have alerted me to the value of permanence, I’m not willing to invest $15 per movie when streaming is actually much more convenient (especially since the girls are far, far more likely to want to watch movies multiple times and can just make it happen with their iPads rather than having to keep track of the disc).

Regardless, Alexander is certainly right about the bigger problem. It’s aggravating to be in the middle of watching a television series only to have it suddenly disappear from the streaming platform. That’s happened to me more than once. Netflix has at least started alerting us that a show we’re watching is going to leave the service—as it did during my rewatch of the West Wing, which disappeared from the platform two days ago (ironically, landing on HBO Max, which I subscribed to yesterday).

Mostly because of live football but also because I had tons of stuff for the girls stored on my virtual DVR, I had long resisted cutting the cord. I was spending close to $250 a month for DirecTV on multiple screens.

I’ve replaced it with Hulu, which is something like $60/month with the features that I need to make it bearable. It’s still nowhere near as good as DirecTV, mostly because of interface issues.

I already had Netflix, which seems to go up in price every two or three months. And, because even the most expensive package a month only allows four people to use it at a time and I have seven people in the household, we actually have two subscriptions (that is, we just didn’t cancel my wife’s subscription). So that’s something like $30/month.

Disney Plus is $10 or so a month and easily the best deal. (Except for Amazon Prime, which is $125/year but essentially free because I would be paying that for the “free” shipping, which I was doing for more than a decade before they threw in bundled media.)

We just added HBO Plus, which is pricey at $15/month. But it would have cost us five or six times that to take everyone to see “Wonder Woman 1984” even if we skipped the concessions stand, which we never do. And they look to have a ton of content that we’ll enjoy having access to. (If I manage to get two hours or television time a day, I’m fortunate. But we’ve got “kids” ranging from 9 to 21 who have a lot more free time.)

Oh, and I’m paying something like $50/year to stream NFL Sunday Ticket.

I’m probably forgetting something. But even that has me up to roughly half of the old DirecTV price. Now, granted, the divergence of media was going to happen whether I personally cut the cord or not, so I’d have likely be subscribing to multiple things, anyway. But the cord-cutting phenomenon is what drove the creation of all these streaming outlets.

And, yes, if it was just my viewing needs (or even mine and my wife’s), I would “need” a lot less. I probably wouldn’t have anything but the bare-bones version of Hulu outside football season and would probably just subscribe to Netflix, Disney+, or HBO Max on an occasional, rotating basis as I wanted to binge their content. But with multiple younger viewers with different content desires and viewing habits, it’s certainly worth a hundred bucks a month for the added flexibility.

In the olden days, one needed a TV Guide to know what shows were airing and on what channel. Nowadays, the Internet solves that problem. But it’s rather a pain to keep up with what show is on what streaming service—and, in the case of a series we’re slowly binge watching—whose account we’re currently watching it on. And each of the services have different interfaces, some of which are better than others.

And none of them are as good as the DirecTV interface. They’re all a little balky in terms of finding the shows I want to watch and some play better with Chromecast than others. Speaking of which, while it’s a miracle of modern science to be able to call up pretty much any show I want to watch anywhere, any time on a device I carry with me every waking moment, it’s not an ideal way to control the television. And, yes, I really do prefer to watch programs on a 60-inch television or the massive projection screen in the theater rather than on a tiny, hand-held device despite its beautiful picture.

In an ideal world, we could subscribe to the content and simply call it all up from a central hub with an interface of our choosing. I don’t mind the cost as much as the inconvenience. But, of course, the whole point of the separate services is to call attention to their exclusive content and make it hard to do without it. That’s harder to do even with the appearance of bundling. (Indeed, in the days where my DirecTV DVR was the main platform through which I consumed shows, I tended to have no idea what network aired them.)

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Economics and Business, Entertainment
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    And some folks are surprised to hear that we don’t have TV. I got dizzy just reading that. You have my sympathies James.

  2. MarkedMan says:

    We have no cable TV service and get good use out of Amazon, HBO and NetFlix. We also rent the occasional movie from Apple via our Apple TV. We used to buy episodes of shows we watched, but to be honest, there is so much available on those three services there isn’t much “must see right away” stuff left. Except “The Good Place”. We bought each episode at $2 a pop when they came out and are on our fourth or fifth time through the series.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Ha. Especially with a pandemic keeping everyone more-or-less locked down at home (including a 21-year-old who would otherwise be away at college), it’s worth it to have a multiple of options. Not only does it allow anyone to watch pretty much anything they’d want, they’re seldom competing against one another for a single service. (Most have limits of no more than 4 simultaneous streams.)

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: Yeah, with that houseful it’s a survival strategy.

  5. Paine says:

    I subscribe to HBO, Amazon Prime, Disney+, and Netflix. With the entire Star Wars and Marvel catalog, The Mandalorian (great show), and a whole slate of upcoming Marvel and SW properties, Disney+ is a keeper. HBO is great for movies and their quality shows that are worth the occasional rewatch (Carnivale, The Wire, Sopranos). Amazon prime is more about the shipping than the movies. If I had to choose one to get rid of it would most likely be Netflix. Ever since they axed their Marvel lines it just doesn’t have the same appeal to me.

  6. Stormy Dragon says:

    The solution to the problem already exists in radio and theaters, so this problem is only a problem due to a lack of political will:
    1. Ban content producers from owning distribution
    2. Universal licensing (ala ASCAP)

  7. Kingdaddy says:

    As a fan of classic movies, and someone who wants them to be easily available to new generations of watchers, streaming are a mixed blessing. Some movies are easily available. Others are not. When FilmStruck was still around, it provided the best collection, but movies kept going in and out of availability through that service. Amazon is now the most reliable service for finding them, but you have to rent each movie individually. At least with DVDs, I buy them once, and can play them whenever I want. Plus, DVD extras.

  8. Sleeping Dog says:

    The proliferation of streaming services would have happened even if the cable companies kept forcing the bundle on their customers. Those who found the cable content to expensive for what they utilized, would have simply dropped cable entirely, now they cutback to basic cable and a few channels, supplemented by on or more streaming services. As @Stormy Dragon: points out, the cost issue is exacerbated by content siloing and vertical business integration.

    Streaming services and cable companies are a great example of the failure of market capitalism and the tendency toward protected markets.

  9. EddieInCA says:

    Currently, we carry YoutubeTV as our main service. On top of that, we pay for HBOMax, Cinemax, Showtime, Epix within YoutubeTV. Then on top of that, we pay for Hulu, Amazon Prime, Netflix, Peacock, Disney+. Additionally, we get Crackle and AppleTV for free with the smart TV we purchased.

    Fortunately, for me, it all all tax deductible, as it’s a legitimate business expense for me. It’s a dream world for people who produce TV. There, literally, aren’t enough good producers to work on the avalanche of television production worldwide.

    Additionally, I believe the best forum for telling stories is television, not feature films. It’s so much better to be able to tell a story in 8-12 hours as opposed to two. I’m looking forward to the TV versions of such recent feature films as Jack Reacher. Rogue One, etc.

  10. We ditched DirecTV back in March (or thereabouts) because I realized that we were watching almost all of our DVR’ed content on Hulu.

    During non-football season I likely did save money even with several services, if anything because I was already subscribing to Netflix, Hulu, and CBS All Access. The only one I added after ditching satellite was HBO. So, really, it was less one or the other, but ditching the expensive bill and keeping the cheaper options. I did buy an OTA antenna and an Amazon Recast–which I have used more during football season than I did previously.

    One thing I do like is that I can turn on and turn off services easily now (like Disney+ to watch Mandalorian or YouTubeTV when I want the full cablesque experience).

    SmartTVs help.

  11. Tony W says:

    I see many comparisons to music – but TV/Movies are very different. It is not uncommon to listen to a very good song more than 1000 times in a lifetime – often many more times.

    There is not a movie or TV show in existence that I have seen more than four times, and that’s excessive/obsessive because the writing is so exceptional that it’s worth multiple viewings.

    Point is, streaming services for video must get you on your first viewing. You may watch a thing again a few years later, but you probably will not.

    That’s a very different business model from, say, Spotify or Apple Music.

  12. MarkedMan says:

    @Sleeping Dog:My perspective is almost 180 degrees from yours. For decades I didn’t watch any commercial TV except the Super Bowl (which, oddly, I watched more for the commercials than the game). I find that ads render shows completely unwatchable for me. Nothing has changed. My kids turned me on to Brooklyn 99 but I don’t want to buy the episodes and now it is only available on Hulu. I’ve tried to watch the latest season at least three times on my daughters account, which breaks the action every few minutes for ads, and I just can’t do it, even on the treadmill. Completely ruins the story for me. So for me the streaming services represent a cornucopia of ad free television and movies that I most likely would have never stumbled across. Sure, there are complex shows that must be watched carefully (“Counterpart”, “Dark”, “Black Spot”), but there are also hundreds or thousands of series perfect for the treadmill (basically, you don’t have to bother rewinding if you are distracted by actual exercise from time to time), such as “Derry Girls”, “Cowboy Bebop”, “Babylon Five”, and so on.

  13. Kathy says:

    [..]would probably just subscribe to Netflix, Disney+, or HBO Max on an occasional, rotating basis as I wanted to binge their content.

    That’s exactly what I do. I’m rarely subscribed to any given service for more than a couple of months at a time, and never to more than one.

    It helps to follow the Wil Wheaton Principle, too: It’s only a movie/TV show. Regardless of whether you see it or not, or it’s any good or not, your life will go on pretty much as usual.

  14. Michael Reynolds says:


    Additionally, I believe the best forum for telling stories is television, not feature films.

    Completely agree. I’ve said as much to the PictureStart people supposedly producing an ANIMORPHS movie. We built the book series like a TV show, in fact we deliberately modeled it on Combat! the old TV series. Movies reduce the underlying IP, TV allows it to breathe. Obviously that’s not true in every case, I’m not looking for the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY streaming TV series. But on balance, especially since so much of the IP comes from publishing, it’s TV.

    I think Disney shanked theatrical with Mulan, and Warner has twisted the knife good and hard.
    I’m putting the question to my Twitter people: theater or home? Looks like about 70/30 or 60/40 in favor of theater. I think it’s much worse than that for theaters. They have fixed costs including a lot of pricey real estate and can’t take much of a drop-off especially after this year.

    Also when you look at family dynamics, if you have four people and three want to go out and one wants to stay home, I suspect the stay-at-home wins more often than not. I don’t hate theaters but my wife won’t have them, period.

    If theaters were that great they wouldn’t need a window, would they? Give people a choice and I suspect theaters lose big. I don’t think theaters will disappear but I expect them to dwindle.

  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    testing testing….

  16. @Michael Reynolds:

    Give people a choice and I suspect theaters lose big. I don’t think theaters will disappear but I expect them to dwindle.

    I agree. I think we are about to see a real transformation of the industry.

  17. Michael Reynolds says:

    I admire Derry Girls’ writer Lisa McGee so much. In the pilot episode she brings what, a dozen characters to vivid life? In one show? The girls, the wee English fella, the parents, aunts and uncles and grandparents, the little snitch and of course Sister Michael, one of the great TV characters ever. Just amazing work.

  18. Mister Bluster says:


    Since my TV does not get any channels or streaming services (it is steam powered, who needs electricity) I rely on my CD collection for entertainment. I have discs of several films I have seen in theatres over the years like Chinatown, Blade Runner, M*A*S*H (sometimes I start it at the football game), All the President’s Men, Citizen Kane. Sometimes I get on kicks where I watch them several times a day. Add Double Indemnity and a few others that I have not seen on the big screen (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, my Dirty Harry collection and Law and Order reruns) and I can spend days being totally unproductive.

  19. sam says:

    We cut the cord about two years ago. A fellow came over and installed an over-the-air antenna for us (the thing’s about 12″ x 12″). By law, the networks have broadcast OTA in high-def, so we get high-def network TV plus a lot of goofy channels like Comet (if you like cheesy sci-fi, and I do). Plus we get 5 NPR channels. Our reception’s really good because the transmitters are on top of the Sandia mountains right behind Albuquerque. We have Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney. We rent movies through VUDU mostly. Don’t miss Direct TV at all.

  20. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    We watched Pixar’s SOUL last night. (Some good visuals, preachy without really saying anything). The final scene has one of our heroes going to Earth and the spot on Earth they’re clearly heading, is China. Not an accident. I imagine we’ll see even more pandering to the Chinese market for theatrical releases, while domestically we’ll move decisively to TV.

    This changes the kinds of stories that are told, as well as how they’re told. In movies ‘diversity’ will become more about Asian actors and settings. TV will focus on US-centric stories and diversity reflective of the US population.

  21. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    If theaters were that great they wouldn’t need a window, would they? Give people a choice and I suspect theaters lose big. I don’t think theaters will disappear but I expect them to dwindle.

    I’ve had so many terrible experiences in theaters that I have to desperately want to see something to be willing to go to one. Crowded, loud, smelly and cramped.

    I will try to go to the fancy places with good recliners, beer, reserved seats and the like. The high price keeps out the riff-raff. I expect those places will continue to do well, or as well as they have been doing, as it’s a different experience.

    Assuming that movies start trending down to a more bladder-sized length. Three hour movies are just someone using the wrong medium to tell a story, or bloated as fuck, and I’ll be missing something with a bladder break if I can’t pause it.

  22. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Wow. First world problems.

  23. Michael Cain says:

    Theaters must absolutely hate the prices we’re seeing for 65″ 4K HDR televisions.

    Back in the day when I worked for a giant telecom/cable company, the subject of a la carte pricing came up regularly. Even then, given what the cable side of the business had to pay for content, it wasn’t going to save people money unless they had very narrow viewing interests. The real killer at that time was the stupid billing system we were saddled with. No way to do a la carte billing with it.

  24. wr says:

    I think Warners has really twisted the knife for theaters with WW 1984. Not just because they’re streaming it for free, but because it’s essentially impossible to watch the movie without thinking “Holy crap I’m glad I didn’t have to pay for this piece of shit.”

    Everything the filmmakers did right in the original Wonder Woman — and there were so many of them — they got wrong here. It’s not just set in the 80s — it’s as if they decided Superman 3 was the pinnacle of superhero moviemaking and they were going to try as hard as they could to duplicate its charms.

  25. MarkedMan says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Exactly. Every single one a fully realized and unique individual, all done in such a way I can’t imagine them ever becoming dated.

  26. Just nutha ignint cracker says:


    “Holy crap I’m glad I didn’t have to pay for this piece of shit.”

    The last 4 MCU and DC movies I watched, I watched on a flight to Korea–which first of all shows how long it’s been since I’ve seen a movie–and that was my reaction then. I think I watched the original Gal Gadot Wonder Woman movie on that flight, and it was the only good movie I watched on the trip. Good to know that I don’t have to switch over to AT&T phone service to watch this one for “free.”

  27. Kathy says:


    I will try to go to the fancy places with good recliners, beer, reserved seats and the like. The high price keeps out the riff-raff. I expect those places will continue to do well, or as well as they have been doing, as it’s a different experience.

    Here they are called Premium, Platinum, or VIP. If I see a movie in a theater, it’s at one of those. I concur the extra expense tends to make people behave better, but also it keeps them from bringing children, who tend to be disruptive (especially in movies not suitable for children).

    What I do miss is the intermission. I pretty much skip the concession stand, and make sure I visit the restroom before the movie. Otherwise I’ll either wind up missing a part fo the movie, or have to run to seek relief right as the movie ends.

  28. DrDaveT says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    First world problems.

    My thought exactly. 🙂 But then, I also still believe that “the best forum for telling stories” is books…

  29. Paine says:

    “I will try to go to the fancy places with good recliners, beer, reserved seats and the like. The high price keeps out the riff-raff. I expect those places will continue to do well, or as well as they have been doing, as it’s a different experience.”

    One of the few things I miss about Texas since my departure almost four years ago is the Alamo Drafthouses. They serve food, drinks, and all-you-can-eat-popcorn. Seats are comfy and with foldable tables. They take the whole movie going experience very, very seriously. My first visit to a local theater upon moving I was sore afterwards from the lousy seating and people were boisterous.

  30. Michael Reynolds says:


    I also still believe that “the best forum for telling stories” is books…

    True, which is why Hollywood adapts books far, far more often than publishing adapts Hollywood. For one thing there are no budget considerations in a book. In an hour I can write a scene that would cost 50 million dollars to shoot. Costs me nothing.

    And, since the dollars involved are so much lower there’s less sweaty hand-wringing and no editor ever suggests piling on additional writers in order to cover executive asses. Book authors have more freedom and more autonomy. A book is just me typing all alone and then an editor making suggestions which I am generally free to dismiss. It’s a bit like school – group projects tend to be safe B plusses with few Fs but also fewer A plusses than individual projects.

    Ever notice what a hard time Hollywood has making movies about writers? Invariably there’s an editor camping out in the writers living room reading each new page, or nagging over the phone. They have to make it a group project. There’s a godawful movie up (I think on Netflix) with Meryl Streep and Candice Bergen and the premise is that one of them is a writer who won’t fly and whose agents send her and her friends on a transatlantic cruise, FFS. Agents. Paying for a cruise to do publicity along with a coterie of BFFs. Agents. It’s like writing a story built around a generous tapeworm.

  31. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I would have thought making movies about writers would be hard because the movies would turn out boring. Then again, not a biography fan either. Few lives make publicly interesting stories.

  32. Andy says:

    We cut the cord 5 or 6 years ago and never looked back. Even paying for an internet connection and several streaming services it’s much cheaper than cable or satellite.

    Plus we watch hardly any live TV except sports. Not sure how you are getting NFL Sunday ticket for $50/year – it’s about $400 per season and only includes the Sunday games. At that price the NFL can pack sand.

  33. Mister Bluster says:

    Ever notice what a hard time Hollywood has making movies about writers?

    Dead writers?
    Altman’s The Player comes to mind.

  34. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Yes, they would be boring because – here’s the big reveal – actual writing is just some person typing. Fitfully.

    When I write I have an excellent view, the soothing sound of my pool waterfall, a fat cigar, plenty of coffee and it’s still just boring. So boring. A squirrel comes by every day to stare at me and run away in alarm. Occasionally a bird will fly past. That’s the excitement. Also, sometimes a package is delivered. And yet, even with all that magical activity it’s still just an old bald dude typing. Unless you want to bet on how often said old dude has to go pee. Which, given that old men have old prostates, is frequently.

    It’s almost as if people should stop trying to make movies about writers.