Diversity, Technology, and the Superiority of Streaming Services
When consumers express a want, a shrewd business will deliver. The film and television industries thrive because they have spent decades upon decades tailoring their products to the desires of their audiences, but modern Hollywood fails to do so in a major way: it lacks the diversity audiences want. Now, though, Hollywood has competition. Streaming services are taking the film and television industries by storm, and this new form of entertainment distribution responds to the growing desire for diversity that a shrewd producer wouldn’t ignore.
Contrary to a popular Hollywood belief, diversity sells. In the 2015-16 season of television and movies, diverse content had the “highest box office and viewership numbers” according to a UCLA study. Audiences have only gotten hungrier for diversity since then, as seen by social media, where hashtags such as #RepresentationMatters are being used this very minute, and by the overwhelming successes of 2017’s Get Out and 2018’s Black Panther. However, in the words of Marina Fang in her Huffington Post article “Audiences Want Diversity In Hollywood. Hollywood’s Been Slow To Get The Message,” Hollywood sees these successes as “the exception rather than the rule.” A demand as loud as the demand for diversity cannot go unheard, though, and streaming services have stepped in where conventional Hollywood is failing.
The newness of streaming naturally puts companies such as Netflix and Hulu on the cutting edge. A forward-thinking business listens attentively to what younger audiences want and finds out how to deliver it in the most satisfactory way possible. The coveted 18-34 age demographic wants diversity, and teenaged audiences want it even more. Knowing that today’s youth are tomorrow’s primary consumers, it’s logical for streaming services to create content that will please the younger demographic, gain their trust, and make them long-term customers.
Also, streaming services have the ability to not only keep tabs on what audiences want but to deliver content tailored to an individual through algorithms- a luxury film and television don’t have as they are not digital platforms. Algorithms give a content provider “insight into every second of the viewing experience,” says Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer, in the book Distribution Revolution: Conversations about the Digital Future of Film and Television as quoted in Popular Communication. The data shows that viewers watch content with diverse casts, and streaming services see that data first hand- it’s built into their structure. That knowledge leads to action. If audiences want diversity, then streaming services will deliver the highest quality diverse content they can in order to win over customers, thus gaining an edge over Hollywood.
Given their social advantage, streaming services could grow larger than Hollywood and cause the old Tinseltown machine to fizzle into irrelevance. Audiences trust streaming services with diversity, but streaming wins audiences over in more ways than that. People are drawn to “on-demand” entertainment, described by media scholar Amanda Lotz in her book The Television Will Be Revolutionized and quoted in the journal Popular Communication as programming “produced in any decade” that can be watched anywhere, from “‘living room’ sets” to “portable devices.” Also, as far as specifically television programming is concerned, consumers are cutting the cord. Between the high prices of cable and the fact that streaming offers not only more diverse content but more content in general, people are ditching cable and switching to non-wired, non-network content delivery. Granted, the cable industry is stable, but its allure is coming into question. It no longer has complete control over consumers’ television habits. In the future, streaming could very well become the dominant television industry. It could become the dominant film and TV industry in general. Hollywood is socially out of date, the industry isn’t changing meaningfully, and streaming is more convenient to top it all off. Diversity is the future. Technology is the future. Streaming is in line with the trajectory of societal progression. Audiences and professionals have been petitioning Hollywood to change for years, and a time may come when audiences turn their backs on Hollywood and turn toward an industry that has earned their trust.
Another factor worth mentioning is the COVID-19 pandemic. When the world had no choice but to stay inside, many people turned to entertainment to bide their time, and streaming services hooked a significant amount of new customers. In the case of Netflix, the number of new subscribers reached as high as over ten million between March and May 2020. In the United Kingdom, as much as 55% of adults who newly subscribed to streaming during the pandemic said that they would continue their subscriptions and keep up their watching habits even as lockdown restrictions lessened, according to the UK Office of Communications’ Media Nations 2020 study. Major studios also tested the water of digital distribution, releasing new movies digitally since audiences physically could not go to theaters. The pandemic proved how valuable and enticing streaming and digital content is to audiences and businesses alike. The industry no doubt took note of the role that streaming played during lockdown, and it could mean a shift in focus for how entertainment is delivered and consumed.
The pandemic also made racial diversity more relevant than ever. The issue of racial equality came into public awareness on an unavoidable level during the lockdown months with Black Lives Matter protests happening across the globe. The ripple effect of this social revolution inevitably makes its way to entertainment, as mainstream art is often expected to reflect real life. Non-diverse casts will no longer be acceptable. Stereotyping will no longer be acceptable. Hollywood needs to step up, unless they come up with an out.
Hollywood might simply absorb the streaming industry. At the end of the day, Hollywood is a business. The largest possible profit is the goal. If diversity will bring in that profit, then Hollywood studios can essentially hire others to take care of diversity for them by purchasing companies like Netflix. Studios won’t have to labor over changing their system at a fundamental level and they can expand their assets. Racial equality activists might have a different endgame in mind, but one can only expect so much from corporations.
Burroughs, B. (2018). House of Netflix: Streaming media and digital lore. Popular Communication, 17(1), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/15405702.2017.1343948
Curtin, M., Holt, J., Sanson, K., & Sutter, K. (2014). Distribution revolution conversations about the digital future of film and television. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.
Fang, M. (2018, February 27). Audiences Want Diversity In Hollywood. Hollywood’s Been Slow To Get The Message. Retrieved October 27, 2020, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/hollywood-diversity-study-black-panther_n_5a954898e4b0699553cc3cc8
Lopez, R. (2017, November 06). Despite Dollars in Diversity, Hollywood Still Averse to Making Inclusive Films. Retrieved October 27, 2020, from https://variety.com/2017/film/news/diversity-box-office-winners-hollywood-1202603438/
Lotz, A. D. (2014). The television will be revolutionized. New York, NY: New York University Press.Rajan, A. (2020, August 05). TV watching and online streaming surge during lockdown. Retrieved November 23, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-53637305