Democrats: Do something about streaming

Zach Simonson is chair of the Wapello County Democrats. He works in city planning and is a Masters in Public Policy student at the University of Northern Iowa. -promoted by Laura Belin

Someone smarter than me will come up with a name for this moment in the development of streaming media. In last couple of weeks alone, two of the world’s largest companies launched their own platforms with Apple TV+ and Disney+. Those platforms join Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Starz, CBS, HBO and Showtime. Walmart, Comcast and WarnerMedia are expect to announce their own platforms in the coming months, each with exclusive content and other gimmicks.

It’s going to make you long for the days of cable.

I think a lot about movies, especially the business of making movies. Hollywood history has everything: scandal, grift, exploitation, innovation, revolution, artistry. There’s a particular chapter of that history that I hope our Democratic candidates and activists would pay attention to: U.S. v. Paramount Pictures. This case is the reason every movie theater shows the same big releases, and every theater has at least the same opportunity to show everything else. And I think it’s the key to getting out of this streaming mess.

As early as the silent film era, federal regulators were investigating the movie business for antitrust violations. At that time, movie studios owned movie theaters. The studio system solidified around complete vertical integration. Studios owned distribution and had exclusive contracts with stars and directors. They even owned the film labs and use proprietary methods to shoot movies.

When studios didn’t own theaters, they used exclusive contracts and block-booking to control what was shown at independent theaters. Collusion between studios resembled the worst features of cartels. Competition and consumer choice suffered.

Thankfully, FDR and Truman’s Justice Departments enforced antitrust laws. (Oh that we could do so again!) The government sued and, to keep it short, studios were stopped from owning theaters and from using anti-competitive methods to limit consumer choice. Lawmakers, activists, Democratic candidates for president listen close: We can do that again!

Streaming without exclusives would be a much more customer-friendly market. Let content creators offer films and shows on whatever platforms will pay to host them. Make the platforms compete on the level of the user experience. Niche platforms might cater to specific tastes by having the largest library of art house films or anime, just as independent theaters do today. But there wouldn’t be exclusives.

The legal framework exists. This might not be a life-or-death matter, but it’s an issue that touches millions of lives every day. We’re headed for an entertainment hellscape where simply subscribing to the shows you want to watch costs hundreds of dollars. Where internet and mobile phone service providers offer exclusives only on their networks.

It doesn’t just break the bank and it isn’t just inconvenient. It means that art and culture count for less. That we have fewer shared experiences. It means that a piece of media has less ability to move public policy.

Maybe stopping exclusives isn’t the answer. It’s definitely not the whole answer; net neutrality is a factor too. But someone has to start talking about this problem, organizing around it, and doing something.

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