OTT is HOT

It seems like wherever you turn these days everyone is talking about how Over The Top services (streaming networks) are taking over the video world. (Except, of course, when they’re talking about Donald Trump.)

To wit:

  • Netflix received 8 Golden Globe nominations for television programming this year, more than any other network. In stark contrast, NBC – host of the awards show – received 0. While Netflix didn’t take home any statuettes, Amazon won 2 of the 5 categories in which it was nominated. The streaming services’ dominance was most obvious in the Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy category, representing 4 of the 6 nominees: Orange is the New Black from Netflix, Transparent from Amazon, and Casual from Hulu, with Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle taking home the prize. The other 2 nominees were from HBO.
  • Amazon and Netflix shelled out millions at the Sundance Film Festival, snapping up high profile films by outbidding traditional distributors. Last year Amazon attended the festival but didn’t buy anything. This year their acquisitions include the drama Manchester by the Sea starring Casey Affleck for $10 million (that’s Casey, not Ben). Netflix ultimately lost the most buzzed-about film at the festival, Nate Parker’s The Birth of A Nation, to Fox Searchlight, but not before bidding the price up to a record-breaking $17.5 million.
  • Netflix has even worked its way into the millennial vernacular: “Netflix and Chill” is the new “Booty Call.”

It should come as no surprise that the most innovative content is being driven by the newest delivery platform. Historically each time a new competitor enters the ring they have had to be more agile and original than the established players to earn the respect of the creative community, viewers, and the press. Back in the early days of cable, basic networks’ lineups included a heavy dose of broadcast repeats and rejects. Cable was the Rodney Dangerfield of the television world. When the cable networks became profitable enough to invest in quality original programming, they had to break new ground to lure viewers away from broadcast. Suddenly cable shows started winning critical acclaim and awards.

HBO (and later Showtime) figured out that theatrical films were commodities. To build viewer loyalty they had to offer original programming too…and it had to be better than what was on basic so customers would pay more to get it. Unencumbered by the “standards and practices” of broadcast, with bigger budgets than basic, and without the need to pander to advertisers, the premium networks attracted the best Hollywood talent–both behind and in front of the camera–by offering more creative control. Premium became the place to be for high quality, pushing-the-envelope series.

Now the OTT services are the new kids in town, so they’re the ones willing to take creative risks. They’re out-premiuming the premium networks. I have yet to pay for a streaming service; we spend so much on our cable bundle that I can’t rationalize shelling out any more for in-home entertainment even though they’re very reasonably priced. While you pay for Netflix as you go and Amazon charges upfront for a year, they both come out to about $8 a month. If it were up to me alone I’d probably cut the cord, get a digital antenna for broadcast reception, and order up Amazon and Netflix. But my husband and son are die-hard sports fans, so cable is still the best option for our family.

To get a first-hand view of what all the fuss is about I took a deep dive into streaming waters with simultaneous month-long trials of Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. On Netflix I started the month with season 3 of Orange is the New Black (I was already a fan, having seen seasons 1 and 2 with previous freebies) and ended it with the first episode of Making a Murderer, the series making documentaries cool again and sparking a national debate about the guilt or innocence of its protagonist. I was sorry to miss the rest of the series, but not sorry enough to pony up $8 to see it. My husband, who doesn’t watch a lot of dramas, stuck with Narcos (based on the life and legend of Pablo Escobar) while I sampled a couple of episodes but never got hooked.

On Amazon I double-binged seasons 1 and 2 of Transparent. I loved that it’s unlike anything else on television but was surprised how much of the focus is on Maura’s narcissistic children’s dysfunctional sex lives rather than her own struggles as a transgender woman. Prompted by its Golden Globe win I checked out Mozart in the Jungle. I liked it enough to watch several episodes but, even combined with free 2-day shipping and the other Amazon Prime perks, opted to opt-out and the end of the trial.

Our kids like Netflix because its easy-to-use guide and recommendations for each family member make it simple to find programming that appeals to them. We’ve probably got access to just as much family friendly fare on cable (if not more), but it’s cumbersome to search through the linear channels and each network’s on demand offerings. They were turned off by Amazon’s interface and didn’t really give it a chance; they may have been more interested if we didn’t have Netflix at the same time.

Circumventing even the streaming services and with no advance warning, Louis CK just released the first episode of a new series he wrote, directed and stars in called Horace and Pete on his website. For $5 “You can download the video here. Once you’ve got it, it’s yours to do with as you like: sync it to your Zune, stream it over wi-fi to your spouse, burn it to DVD, etc.” I admire that he brings his programming directly to the people and I was intrigued enough to part with $5, but I have to say I appreciated it more than I actually enjoyed it. The superb cast includes Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Jessica Lange and Edie Falco. It’s more like a stage play than a television show, compete with an intermission, and is most definitely not a comedy.

I didn’t love it but I love that he did it. Whether direct-to-consumer, OTT, on cable or on broadcast, the less interference there is from the “suits”, the more innovative programming we’ll see.

Thoughts? Comments? I'd like to hear from you!