Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Amazon Prime is Gaining Ground

It's been a while since I've checked in with the state of internet streaming services. Last time around I was bemoaning the state of Hulu, which has become so user unfriendly and clogged with commercials that I took it out of my streaming rotation. Netflix suffered some setbacks after splitting their service, but they got a boost by successfully launching original content, notably "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black." Amazon, Hulu, and a few others have tried to follow suit, but their series haven't attracted nearly as much attention. Netflix looks to be back on top of the streaming game and entrenching itself ever more firmly into the media landscape while the traditional networks continue to decline.

I'd mostly ignored what Amazon Prime was up to, having concluded that most of the content mirrored what was on Netflix. Their movie selection in particular hasn't been impressive. However, a couple of recent incidents have changed my mind. First, my significant other got himself hooked on FX's "Justified," which just finished its fifth season. Amazon Prime has exclusive streaming rights to the series, and currently offers the first four seasons. He's been marathoning them all month. Amazon Prime is also the only place where you can catch up on "Orphan Black" and "Hannibal," two shows in their sophomore years that are quickly moving up my list of current favorites. Netflix has its own exclusives, notably Disney movies and the AMC shows like "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men," but Amazon Prime is quickly stepping up its game in the content arms race.

And then the bombshell hit today. HBO, which vocally refused to have anything to do with Netflix in the past, announced that they have licensed a nice, big chunk of their older programming exclusively to Amazon Prime. Soon you can go binge on all the episodes of "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under," and "The Wire" you like. Alas, no "Deadwood," which was the next show on my "To Watch" list. For those hoping for a standalone HBO Go service, no such luck either. New content is strictly off limits, so don't expect the ravenous hordes of "Game of Thrones" fans to flock to Prime for their fix. Still, this is a big win for Amazon, and a clear sign that the studios are becoming more and more willing to do business with the streaming services.

Full disclosure - I still own a couple of shares of Netflix stock, but as a media junkie, I couldn't be happier that they now have a real competitor in Amazon Prime. It keeps both companies healthy and on their toes. I don't expect Netflix is going to make another mistake like Qwikster anytime soon, because the stakes have gone up so high. Amazon will also have more incentive to make some much-needed improvements. Their user interface and queuing features remain pretty atrocious. Just look at the way they've both been handling pricing announcements. Amazon Prime recently bumped up its yearly fee by $20 a year, making it slightly more per month than Netflix currently. And Netflix just announced that their prices will go up a dollar or two per month in the near future, but for new customers only.

I'm happy to continue subscribing to both services, which together cost less than half of what I was paying for basic cable five years ago. I do miss Netflix's streaming and DVD combo plan, but swapping out between one and the other has been working pretty well for me. Keep in mind that I'm still watching mostly films on these services, and most of the big deals that have been coming down have been geared toward securing licenses of television shows, so their impact on me has been fairly limited so far. Ironically, the only time that I've really gotten excited over new content being available through a streaming service was back when Hulu landed a big chunk of the Criterion Collection. However, Hulu's treatment of it has been so poor that I'm now biding my time, waiting for the license to expire and for the titles to go somewhere else when Hulu inevitably folds.

That's the biggest fallout I can see from Amazon becoming a big streaming player. Netflix won't be going anywhere, having established themselves so firmly. Amazon has the ambition and the deep pockets to compete with them on even terms. However, Hulu is owned by a collection of the networks, and they have consistently been unwilling to give their customers not only what they want, but what they have come to expect from online streaming content. The fact that they're not only still running commercials on Hulu Plus, but have increased them to the point where the service is almost indistinguishable from regular television, is maddening. I really don't see them lasting much longer.

No comments:

Post a Comment