Make no bones about it, streaming wars have begun

The fragmenting video-streaming landscape may also result in more people resorting to illegal content

Movie and TV-show lovers here had it pretty good the past year and a half. The two biggest names in video-streaming services - Netflix and Amazon Prime Video - landed on our shores, alongside the likes of Viu for Korean dramas, Hooq for Hollywood movies and HBO Go for prestige TV shows.

So it may surprise some that piracy is back in the news.

A study commissioned by the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (Casbaa) published last week found that two in five people in Singapore actively stream illegal content over the Internet. Among those who turned to piracy, 63 per cent said it was because it did not cost them anything, while 31 per cent said it was because they could not watch their desired TV shows legally.

These figures, I suspect, may worsen down the road .

One reason is that while content choices in Singapore have grown, they still lag far behind those in the United States. But, more importantly, it seems like the global content scene - which has been consolidating nicely under streaming vendors like Netflix - now appears to be splintering into smaller parts again.

It all started last month, when Disney announced that it is ending its exclusive distribution agreement with Netflix, a deal that allowed Netflix to stream Disney movies like Moana and Zootopia in the US.

Instead, from 2019, all new Disney and Pixar movies will be exclusive to Disney's upcoming video-streaming service. This would include Toy Story 4, a sequel to Frozen and a live-action remake of The Lion King.

A study published last week found that two in five people in Singapore actively stream illegal content over the Internet. Some cited cost while others said they could not watch their desired TV shows legally. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The fate of other key Disney properties, like the Star Wars and Marvel movies, has yet to be decided, but I would not expect Netflix to retain the US streaming rights for current shows like Rogue One or Doctor Strange. Unsurprisingly, Netflix's shares took a dive after the news broke. Disney is now a rival, on a collision course with Netflix, Amazon and other video-streaming services.

Disney is not the first media company to do away with middlemen like Netflix. CBS started its CBS All Access service in 2014. Later this month, this US-only service will stream the new "Star Trek: Discovery" TV series as an exclusive. Fox CEO James Murdoch said last month the company was "very open-minded about an independently priced, direct-to-consumer offering" to deliver its content to users.

But Disney is probably the content creator with the most valuable movie and TV rights.

Netflix is keenly aware of this trend. It has been spending big on original content - US$6 billion (S$8 billion) this year alone - because this strategy could safeguard its long-term survival. Content is king, after all.

If media conglomerates such as Disney and CBS succeed, the video-streaming scene will soon become very fragmented. The early verdict, according to US entertainment trade magazine Variety, is that these separate services are off to a slow start, but are making increasing contributions to the companies' revenues.

This trend spells bad news for cord-cutters like me who have ditched cable TV for Internet video platforms.

This is because, on top of having to subscribe to a virtual private network (VPN) service to access US-only content for Netflix and Amazon, I may have to consider other streaming services just to watch the content I want.

The end result could be something very much like cable TV, with each streaming app akin to a cable channel. Users may have to subscribe to multiple services, and those monthly fees that seem so reasonable compared with pricey pay-TV packages would start to add up.

There could even be a demand for aggregators that could offer all these separate streaming services under one roof and simplify billing arrangements into a single bill.

This is something local pay-TV operators are probably looking into now.

In a few years' time, cord cutters might look back and wonder if the past few years, when Netflix had mostly everything you'd want to watch, was all just a dream.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2017, with the headline 'Make no bones about it, streaming wars have begun'. Subscribe