CES: Streaming Digital Citizenship as a Societal Experiment

After years of development, direct-to-consumer streaming is poised to actively provide new choices for how the world consumes entertainment content. While it started as a response to the one-size-fits-all model offered by cable companies, it now offers choice of separate walled gardens, each with a different gate. Aggregators in the streaming space are quickly bulking up to what traditional providers charge based on the cost of channel acquisition. To some consumers this will seem like déjà vu. Others will choose carefully among the direct offerings to customize the content entering their world. 

While this sounds encouraging — and even logical — it is a fundamental change of the cultural open media space we have enjoyed for the past 100+ years.

Social media has delivered a raft of unintended and initially ignored consequences as it revolutionized personal interaction. That jarring experience suggests that as we enter this new age, we consider what the transition from open marketplace to cable walled garden — and now to personal self reflective terrariums — will mean for the culture at large. 

Narrative works have gained new depth of experience as story worlds have enjoyed longer arcs fueled by the competition associated with streaming maturity. As the promotional phase wanes and eventually we see consolidation as a result, it’s likely when the actual production costs are viewed in a colder light, we might see just a few giants remain. Will that mean we see two or three narrative viewpoints that promote singular world views in a hardening of cultural lines?

Here’s an important background question to consider. The intangible advances of cultural growth have all centered on experiences and often pivotal narratives that showed the “other” in like experiences. Empathy is the single most important psychological civilizing effect of much of the best influence of entertainment. 

The novel revolutionized the 19th century by opening the internal view of others. The movie did the same in an even more accessible way in the 20th century. If the extended narratives of this new streaming world are to contribute to a better world more driven by empathy, how could that be effective if only some get a chance to experience it? 

In that light, are some works so important that services will need to think hard about pro bono offerings of content access for sake of the better — or proof of their active corporate digital citizenship? Or will we eventually need ads again to reach everyone?

We are on the cusp of significant change that will bring answers to these questions and more.