The ad-supported tier of Prime Video debuted this week, which means that, as with other platforms such as Hulu, Netflix, and Disney+, if you want to remain ad-free, you have to pay more. This is frustrating for viewers because the original lure of streaming was three-fold: no pricey cable bundles, no ads, on-demand viewing. Just over ten years into the streaming revolution, and only the last promise remains intact—at least we can still watch what we want, when we want.
But the issue of ads on streaming isn’t just about viewers. It’s also about the producers and writers making episodic series for streaming. They’re speaking out about being subjected to ad placement in shows they didn’t necessarily calculate for ad breaks. Lulu Wang, for instance, is “very angry” about having ads sprung on her for her new series, Expats, saying she would have “created in a different way” if she knew to plan for ads. Similarly, David E. Kelley thought his Hulu series, Nine Perfect Strangers, was “horrible” with commercials, calling it a “pudding” that was being “served like a pie”.
Creatively, it’s a question of flow. Network TV used to come with built-in peaks and valleys in the story, natural points to break for an ad, or end an episode until the next week’s installment. Streaming did away with that, negating the necessity to incorporate breaks into the storytelling. The entire binge model evolved out of the propulsive, what-happens-next momentum of ad-free storytelling. That kind of long-form narrative has more in common with cinematic storytelling than network TV ever did, which is a huge reason film and TV moved closer together than ever during the peak streaming era.
And then there is the issue of “tackiness”, as one person working at a major agency called it when we talked about the rise of streaming ads. “It’s a talent knowing how to sculpt your performance around the rhythm of ad breaks. It’s why some actors excel at TV, they learn the knack, same as writers, directors, and editors do. But there is a certain class of actor who doesn’t want to do ‘that kind’ of acting. Prestige TV was sellable to them in part because the style of acting was one they already knew and considered ‘cinematic.’”
Is that snobby? Sure! But we talk a lot about career moves around here, and it’s a career move to say you’ll do TV, but only a certain kind of TV—and thus, prestige TV was born. I mean, that was HBO’s tagline for years: it’s not TV, it’s HBO! But now, Max offers an ad tier, too, which means even “not TV” is now “just TV”, and clearly at least some of the creatives behind high-profile prestige projects do not like it.
We’re inching our way back toward the cable-style bundle, we have ads unless we cough up more money to avoid them, and if it continues this way, it seems like the movie/TV divide might reassert itself as that “certain class” of (possibly snobby) actors retreat from what they see as “tacky” TV-style acting. Technologically, obviously streaming is an advancement. But outside that, in every respect viewers are losing all the benefits represented by that tech, and now the creatives are starting to get pissed off, too. Is streaming a failure?
Live long and gossip,