How Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other streaming services changed the way we watch TV

  • A record 495 new original TV series were introduced in 2018 in the United States
  • Streaming services put out more series than cable and broadcast TV networks
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 December, 2018, 3:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 December, 2018, 4:39pm

The flat screen on your living room wall, the cable box below it and the digital programme guide that help you find your way through an increasingly congested universe of shopping networks, reality show repeats and the eight channels you actually watch might as well have been inhabitants of a dying star in 2018.

Television, already bursting at the seams with peak programming and lots of filler, finally blew apart this year, fragmenting into a dizzying constellation of nearly 500 new original series and destinations we’ve yet to explore. These include the forthcoming launch of subscription streaming services from Apple, Warner Media, Disney and, yes, Costco and Walmart, plus a whole lot of space debris that includes Terrence Howard’s Fright Club, a Fox Nation cooking show and 98 per cent of the offerings on YouTube TV.

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A record 495 original scripted series dropped this year, and for the first time, streaming platforms such as Hulu and Amazon Prime delivered more original series programming than broadcast and cable networks.

Forget arguments about when and how peak TV will peak. Judging from the past 12 months, it doesn’t appear we’re anywhere close to the summit. More interesting is what’s been happening below those lofty heights. After a decade or more of seismic shifts across the industry, 2018 became the year that television broke TV. The very structure of the medium morphed and changed so rapidly over the last year that we still haven’t wrapped our heads – or attention spans – around exactly what it is we’re watching.

Was the YouTube live stream of Beyonce’s performance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival a TV event or something else? And what about the wonderfully bizarre formatting of Atlanta’s second season? It was shown on FX, but the series’ self-contained episodes resembled nothing else on TV.

Next year is already shaping up to be a battle between media giants for control of wherever it is that we’re heading.

Apple will compete with Netflix by spending way more than it should on originals by big name producers such as J.J. Abrams and top-tier stars like Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston. Netflix, meanwhile, has a plan of its own and it involves pricey production deals with Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes and Michelle and Barack Obama.

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CBS All Access, which already has half a dozen original series, including The Good Fight and Star Trek: Discovery on the streaming platform, is going big in 2019 with a Twilight Zone reboot executive produced by Oscar winner Jordan Peele, who will also narrate and host. A big budget, live-action Star Wars series starring Diego Luna is expected to launch Disney+ into the stratosphere.

And we haven’t even begun sorting through what’s on the books for the networks and services we’re already watching. Expect lots of reality show reboots, the return of water cooler shows like Game of Thrones and Stranger Things and the prospect of never feeling caught up with what TV has to offer.

At least 2018 did away with any residual guilt that may have existed about watching too much television. It was replaced by a soldier-like duty to consume as many premium shows as possible or risk being called out by one’s peers.

Have you watched The Little Drummer Girl yet? How about Succession? Not even The Great British Baking Show?! Oh, the shame of taking time out for career, family, grooming and sleep. We’ll have to work on that in 2019.

Network telecasts still boast the highest ratings, according to Nielsen, and football was at the top of 2018’s most-watched list, followed by the short-lived Roseanne reboot.

But that is likely the next convention to be broken by the great fragmentation, especially given that this was the year that an estimated 147.5 million people in the US watched Netflix at least once a month, followed by Amazon Prime Video (88.7 million), Hulu (55 million) and HBO Now (17.1 million).

Netflix hopes to kill off that old ratings standard by introducing more and more original series and films, an approach that Saturday Night Live recently satirised in a fake ad for the streaming service. The breathless “commercial” promised a new year with even more content to choose from.

“That’s right, we’re spending billions of dollars and making every show in the world. Our goal is the endless scroll. By the time you reach the bottom of our menu, there are new shows at the top. And then singularity will be achieved.”

It’s a joke that makes perfect sense in the fragmented universe of post-everything TV.