2023: The Year of the Commercial

Like everything else, it was a year of rising prices and mergers, a year when companies looked at their streaming services and realized they weren't as profitable as they'd hoped. Things had to change so services started dropping popular titles. They also added hundreds of free channels but there was a catch: you had to be willing to sit through commercials, as if you were watching cable TV. Yes, you could still get uninterrupted, commercial-free content but you would have to pay dearly for it.

Commercials Make a Comeback
2023 could well be called the year commercials made a comeback or the year streaming services embraced Free Ad-supported TV (a.k.a. FAST). In addition to adding "live" TV channels, every major streaming service added an ad-supported tier that’s considerably cheaper than watching without ads. At the same time, streaming services started charging double-digit subscription fees (often over $15 per month) for the luxury of skipping commercials, which made the option paying $5 to $7 a month and suffering through commercial interruptions more appealing.

It was sticker shock. To think that Apple TV+ (now $10 per month) started at $4, and Disney+ doubled from its original $7 to $14. Apple TV+ hasn't added an ad-supported tier (yet), but Disney+ has a "basic" tier with commercials for $8. Other services now charge a substantial premium to stream 4K. Max with ads is $10 but jumps to $20 per month if you want 4K streaming. Netflix discontinued its basic plan in favor of Standard With Ads for $7 per month but if you're want to watch in 4K, it'll cost you $23 a month.

A subscription that lets you skip commercials and watch content made for your 4K TV became a luxury item in 2023.

There are ways to stream on a budget, which I covered in November's blog, How to Reduce Your Monthly Streaming Costs. One strategy is to do the "subscription shuffle," canceling and resubscribing to different services each month. Another is to hunt for shows to watch on free channels.

Subscribing to an ad-free FAST plan is akin to channel surfing on cable TV: You're bound to find something interesting, but you have to browse the channel guide to locate it. And many of the channels are the same from service to service — Joy of Painting with Bob Ross, The Price is Right Channel, This Old House, The Carol Burnett Show, Cinevault movie channels, and hundreds more.

It seems that each streaming service is trying to outdo the other by offering more channels. Last April, Google TV announced they had added 800 FAST channels. While there were 800 different channels, it was an exaggeration because the count included free channels from other FAST services like Tubi, Plex, Haystack News, and Pluto TV, news channels from NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox, and channels from around the world, with programming in more than ten languages from Spanish to Hindi to Japanese.

Most FAST services have become interchangeable — Roku, Freevee, Pluto TV, and other "live TV.” They work as live TV did before DVRs. You go to a show and watch from the time when you tune to the channel. Most don’t allow pausing or restarting a show from the beginning.

Sling's Freestream, available for free without a subscription, is different. It offers video on demand for many channels, enabling viewers to pause, rewind, and restart the show they are watching. Freestream also includes unique channels not available on every other FAST service, such as Conde Nast’s Vogue, Architectural Digest, GQ, and Wired channels in addition to The Movie Hub, For the Culture, Latino Cinema, Living History, Film Shorts, Suspense, and more.

Easier Access to Sports Aids Cord Cutting
In 2023, it became easier for sports fans to find and watch their favorite teams for free. Recognizing that sports fans are reticent to give up cable TV without access to their favorite sports programming, many apps and devices made it easier to watch sports. Roku added a Sports Zone in its menu as did Apple TV, which also now offers a Major League Soccer (MLS) Season Pass for $15 a month.

Streaming apps also started including sports in 2023. Peacock has NBC Sports with Sunday Night Football . NFL and college football is on CBS and you can get the UEFA Champions (soccer) League with a Paramount+ Essential subscription. You can also find special sporting events such as the Tour de France, Wimbledon, or the Great American Rescue Super Bowl with a simple search.

Streaming sports has now become the norm. Roku, Apple TV, and many streaming services now let you create a list of your favorite teams and notify you about upcoming games and close scores.

Global Watch Lists
This year, it became easier to find the entertainment you want to watch. Apple TV created its Up Next list. Roku and the Plex app improved their universal watch lists, making it possible to add a movie or TV show from any participating streaming app — making it easy to choose the night's entertainment from one place. Starting playback from the list is a significant time-saving benefit, but don't expect to "deep link" on a Fire TV device, as Amazon has blocked this feature to ensure you see the banner ads they want to show you.

Updates, Not New Hardware
While 2023 didn't bring notable changes to streaming hardware, updates included some desired benefits.

Roku added the Sport Zone and Watchlist with its OS 12 update. Apple TV's OS 17 updates brought some welcome additions, including the ability to make or receive FaceTime calls on Apple TV using an iPhone as a "continuity camera" that captures you in front of your TV and lets you see friends and colleagues on the big screen. The Center Stage feature will even follow you if move around the room.

Siri also became more functional on Apple TV, using resources from the internet to answer general questions and making it easier to search for content. A short press of the microphone button now searches the current app, all apps, or just music, depending on what’s on the screen. A long press gets you into home control. The newest changes to Apple TV include a sidebar on the home screen with links to submenus that display various types of content. But the biggest change of the year was moving your iTunes video library to the main Apple TV app.

Wrapping Up 2023
Streaming is no longer a novelty. In 2023, as studios looked to make their streaming services profitable, things evolved — and will likely continue to evolve in 2024.

Gone are the days when services like Netflix, HBO, and Hulu would throw money at acquiring and creating loads of titles to provide a multitude of choices for uninterrupted streaming. Also gone is the boom in subscriptions that streaming services enjoyed during the pandemic. Today, the streaming industry is experiencing a significant amount of “churn” as more people return to the workplace and look to cut monthly expenses — including streaming subscriptions — in an environment of higher prices everywhere.

Streaming executives claim that fewer titles will be produced moving forward, but promise that the movies and TV shows that are produced will be of higher quality and therefore worthy of the higher monthly fees. Of course, that remains to be seen. I might not mind paying more for shows like Ted Lasso or Queen's Gambit but if new offerings turn out to be mediocre, I might be forced to suffer through commercials.

Billy's picture

I do not believe that they are not profitable, just not as profitable as the greedy Wall Street people want. Once you have more cash then you could ever possibly spend, well, you just gotta have gobs and gobs more. Any wonder that file sharing is out there? Add in the future trauma of the death of physical media and there will be mass deppression for many of us. The world should be run more like Sam Walton did versus his spoiled children do today.

trynberg's picture

It blows my mind that so many people are willing to pay money and still be served commercials in 2023...one of the major selling points of streaming was no ads. But heaven forbid the C-suite not be able to afford their third yacht.

Billy's picture

You speak truth brother.

cletuswehner11's picture

This article provides an insightful overview of the changing dynamics in the streaming industry, emphasizing getting over it the trade-offs viewers face between cost and ad-free viewing experiences. It encourages readers to consider alternative approaches to managing their monthly streaming expenses.

scandalcorner's picture

This essay offers a perceptive summary of the shifting dynamics inside the streaming market, highlighting the need for consumers to accept the trade-offs between paying for and enjoying ad-free content. It invites readers to think about other ways to control their monthly streaming connections costs.

Billy's picture

So you are buying into the idea that the profiteers here make too little profit? Either your trustfund is tied to this industry, or someone has not taught you to think outside the box. Take a look around the world we live in, a long close look. Then think about this issue again.

Barb Gonzalez's picture
As a clarification, I don't agree/approve of the trend of streaming and the claims of poorhouse. I'm just reporting on the trends and the justification the companies are putting out there. It feels like cable did, monopolies hijacking prices. Streaming began as a rebellion and has ended up being abducted by the large corporations.
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