Opinion

Now That Prime Video Has Ads, the Only Good Streaming Services Left Are Niche Ones

Mainstream streaming services abandoned the promise of a streaming subscription and now only niche platforms are keeping up their end of the bargain.

Lais Borges/Inverse; Photograph by Ian Carlos Campbell

Streaming has never been less exciting. It’s not because of poor TV apps, or uninteresting new films or shows. We still get a seasonal hit now and then from streaming giants like Netflix or Max. No, the real problem is that it feels like the “service” part of streaming services has been cast to the wayside.

Regardless of how much you pay per month, streaming services have degraded their core offering, adding ads in shows clearly designed not to have them, removing film and TV shows outright, removing features, and cracking down on account sharing. Signing up for a new streaming service is as much about preventing you from unsubscribing (“churn” in industry lingo) as it is about getting you to upgrade to a more expensive plan.

Amid all of these changes, the core promise of a video streaming service as a library of things you like, with even more things you don't know you like only a search away has been broken, and only niche, specialized streaming services are keeping up their end of the bargain.

The Erosion of “Service”

Prime Video isn’t the ad-free experience it used to be.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Last September, Amazon announced that every Prime subscriber would have their bundled-in Prime Video service converted to an ad-supported account. To reap the benefits of ad-free viewing, you would need to pay more than the $100+ annual subscription that most people pony up to get two-day shipping at “The Everything Store.”

Ad-based streaming plans aren’t a new thing. Both Disney and Netflix launched and now operate successful ad-supported plans, essentially offering more or less the same library of content for a lower monthly fee, only with commercials inserted between most movies and TV shows (though it’s less than broadcast TV). According to Netflix, “on-demand titles” don’t include ads, but they may have “branded content or sponsorship messaging.”

The problem with Prime Video is that Amazon converted all existing members to its ad-supported plan and asked them to start paying to remove them. Earlier this week, Amazon also revealed that to watch films and TV shows with Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, you’d have to upgrade to the more expensive plan (another $3 per month) as well. There’s nothing wrong with charging more for a better experience on paper, but it does seem somewhat antagonistic to offer a premium experience for free for years and then remove it unless you pay more. A recently filed class action lawsuit over Amazon’s conversion to ad-supported plans suggests at least a few current subscribers agree.

Ultimately, fretting over Dolby's audio and video tech is a niche complaint, but pair the flippancy with which Amazon seemed to change up its service with things like the ongoing crackdown on account sharing by Netflix, and you begin to see a trend in the relationship between subscribers and streaming service providers. The “service” component of these platforms is being degraded. Streaming services aren’t hostile to people paying money, but they’re definitely testing to see what subscribers will tolerate.

The Sanctity of the Library

Westworld was one of HBO’s flagship shows and even it was removed from the Max library.

HBO / Twitter

The issues extend beyond just how a film or TV show is streamed, though. One of the now well-documented aspects of the modern streaming era is the frequent removal of content, sometimes before it’s even released.

Warners Bros. Discovery, the owner of Max, removed shows like Westworld, Raised by Wolves, and Generation from the Max app. It opted to not release Batgirl and Coyote vs. Acme at all. Disney has also completely removed shows like Willow and The Mysterious Benedict Society on Disney+ and Dollface on Hulu. These might not have commanded huge audiences, and media coming and going from streaming services is common, but these are movies and shows that these companies had a financial stake in, either as a producer or acting as the sole distributor. To completely eliminate them feels callous.

In my opinion, you’re not really operating a library if you can’t even hold onto things you own outright. Why, as a subscriber, would you get invested in any new show or movie if it could be suddenly removed overnight? As a filmmaker, why would you make something with one of these companies if they might just decide not to release it at all?

Independent Alternatives

The Criterion Channel app has less content, but much better curation.

Photograph by Ian Carlos Campbell

The saving grace in what’s fast becoming a streaming wasteland is niche streaming services, catering to specific tastes and needs. Mubi, The Criterion Channel, and even Acorn TV stand out, not just because they haven’t raised prices to nearly the degree of a Netflix or a Disney+ (all are under $20), but because they offer things you can’t see anywhere else, and in many cases, they actually take the work of curating their libraries seriously.

They might not be the size of the other major streaming services, which can have thousands of episodes and hundreds of films to choose from, but they keep up the basic promise of offering things I like, in this case independent cinema, and plenty of things I have yet to discover.

I can open up a collection like “Interdimensional Romance” on The Criterion Channel and find movies I’ve seen, some I’ve never seen before, and others I’ve never even heard of, all with brief notes explaining why they’re important and interesting. Some of these collections even include filmed supplemental material with filmmakers, cast members, or critics. Before heading to Sundance in January, I was able to pull up a playlist of films that first premiered at the film festival on Mubi, again with little editor notes for each one. Acorn TV has less of the obvious curation of Criterion or Mubi, but it has more British TV shows than any reasonable person could watch. Every possible kind of detective, spy, or period piece setup is represented; it’s uncanny. None of these streaming services are perfect, and in the case of Criterion and Mubi, sometimes you feel the curation being guided more by what’s available to license rather than a broader curatorial vision, but it’s still a lot more than what you get from Netflix.

Think Small

The Criterion Channel and Mubi both have corporate backing, in the form of Janus Films for Criterion, and a series of private investors for Mubi, so they’re as fallible as any other streaming service when it comes down to it. Acorn TV, which does a great job of curating a catalog of British television, is technically owned by AMC. Money will make the decisions in the end for these companies. But even more independent alternatives exist. Means TV, a cooperatively owned streaming service, has been around and kicking since 2019 and has collected a fascinating library of documentaries, films, and experimental video projects that's well worth a look. Dropout is working some of the same magic with comedy, live Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying, and game shows.

When it came to larger platforms, it’s clear now that the big promises of streaming services were always going to be contingent on a willingness to spend more money than you make. The belt-tightening we’re experiencing now is all about making these money pits quasi-profitable businesses. But I think there’s still a way to get what we used to have — the golden days of early Netflix and Hulu — today. You just need to be willing to pay for a streaming service that’s a little more “artisanal” to get a better quality of entertainment.

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