What’s Old Is New Again for Hollywood

The revenge of ad-supported viewing, procedural shows, and other old-fashioned tweaks to the streaming model

Richard Yao
IPG Media Lab

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Created with Dall-E

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The streaming wars are over, and Hollywood is entering its own Ozempic era, trying to dramatically slim down from the bloat of excessive content greenlit during the streaming arms race.

Per Luminate’s tracking data, the total number of original scripted and unscripted series released on U.S. TV platforms plunged 20% year-over-year in 2023, from more than 2,000 titles to just over 1,600.

Source: Variety

Part of that is a hangover effect of the historic double strikes that engulfed Hollywood last summer, and part of it can be blamed on the end of ZIRP. Regardless of the reason why, how to proceed and rebuild remains the central question for the entertainment industry to contend with in 2024 and beyond.

For starters, cinema still has not fully recovered from behavioral shifts triggered by the pandemic. Despite the box-office lift buoyed by the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon and the concert films by Taylor Swift and Beyoncé last year, the total number of tickets sold in 2023 was a third lower than in 2019, according to the website The Numbers, which tracks box-office data. To be fair, the strikes did push some tentpole releases like Dune 2 into 2024, but overall only 88 new movies debuted in theaters in 2023, compared to 108 in 2019.

Streaming is now the default mode for content distribution, and it is becoming more and more costly. A CNET survey found that U.S. adults spend an average of $91 on subscription services each month, including video streaming services, music streaming services, as well as ecommerce memberships like Amazon Prime. (For Millennials, the figure is $119 per month — or more than $1,400 per year.) In addition, subscription creep — the creeping increases in subscription fees after someone has signed up — hit a full two-thirds of US consumers in the past year. Cue the consumer complaints and high churn rates that rose alongside the rising prices.

Yet, despite those complaints, cord-cutting shows no sign of stopping, and most cord-cutters (86% of them, per a recent survey) are happy with their choice to abandon cable bundles for streaming subscriptions. Time spent watching digital video content continues to outpace time spent on traditional TV.

Source: eMarketer via Statista

So, is the streaming model broken? Instead of the type of ad-free, on-demand, cheaper-than-cable viewing experiences once promised by the streaming revolution, we’re now being treated to a comeback of features typically associated with linear TV, such as ad-supported viewing, procedural shows, and so on. Even the sports bundle is being remade for the streaming era, with ESPN, Fox, and Warner Bros Discovery joining forces to launch a super sports streamer.

It’s not just that Hollywood is running out of original ideas. The reality is more complex than that. As cord-cutting continues and smart TV usage continues to grow, more “normie” users of older generations will start consuming more content via streaming services. Dovetailing with the “vibecession” that makes the rising subscription fees feel unsustainable, the viewing habits and content preferences of a decidedly mainstream user base will start steering Hollywood back to some tried-and-true methods of catering to the core audience. They are not replacing the changes that streaming has brought forth, but rather bringing back certain elements that got lost in the rush towards streaming, and thus granting the audience more options in how they engage with entertainment content.

Ad-Supported Viewing

The rise of FAST/AVOD services has been evident for the past few years, and it has shown no sign of stopping. Fox-owned Tubi, in particular, has quietly emerged as a fast-growing streamer in recent months, now accounting for more time spent watching than Max, Peacock, or Paramount+, per a recent Bloomberg report.

Chart source: Bloomberg

While Tubi might not have the hottest new shows or must-see movies, it does have a deep-enough catalog that everyone can find some moderately compelling reruns or reality shows to throw on in the background while folding laundry.

Overall, ad-supported viewing is on the upswing with nearly all streamers. Amazon made an immediate impact with the launch of Prime Video’s new ad tier: now an estimated 80% of US Amazon Prime Video viewers will be watching commercials in 2024.

Source: eMarketer

In comparison, although Netflix and Disney+ are also projected to make sizable gains in ad-supported viewing, most of their users will still choose their ad-free plans. Meanwhile, YouTube and FAST services like Tubi and Pluto will directly compete with these subscription-driven streamers for ad dollars.

Revenge of the Procedurals & Reruns

Besides bringing more ads into streaming, viewers’ collective nostalgia for linear TV is also evident in the type of content that becomes streaming hits these days.

For one thing, procedural shows — formulaic crime or medical dramas like ER or Law & Order — are making a comeback on streaming as easy-to-follow comfort watch. After the sleeper hit success of Suits on Netflix, there really seems to be a streaming audience for the kinds of shows that once packed broadcast and cable TV schedules.

Bloomberg reports that people have spent 11.4 million hours a week streaming NCIS since March 2021, citing Nielsen data. In other words, they watch roughly 11.4 million episodes a week. In fact, reruns have been dominating Nielsen’s weekly streaming charts since 2021, with only Netflix’s Stranger Things being the sole original-run exception.

Chart source: Bloomberg

As ABC renews Grey’s Anatomy for a historical 21st season, more streamers are also dipping their toes into procedure content. Last week, Max confirmed a series order for The Pitt, a new medical procedural drama helmed by ER veterans, while Netflix earlier this year greenlit Pulse, its first real medical procedural show, after finding success with semi-procedural The Lincoln Lawyer last year.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the original titles have no value for the streamers. While reruns dominate the top 10, that is not the case overall. Over half of the 100 most popular titles of the last three years are original series, per Bloomberg, and mostly of them hail from Netflix, as the streamer benefits from having the largest subscriber base. That said, reruns of catalog content are helping rivals chip away at Netflix’s dominance in time spent viewing lately.

Chart source: Bloomberg

Looking ahead, the future of rerun content on streaming platforms may lean into social media and interactive formats in order to engage with younger audiences who favor digital and stream-based media. Startups like Gaggl TV are spearheading this experiment by licensing nostalgic TV shows and repurposing them for consumption on modern platforms where young audiences already spend their time, such as Twitch and YouTube. In a deal with Fremantle, Gaggl acquired the rights to old TV shows like The Price is Right, and is distributing them to five Twitch streamers.

Should this model prove to be successful, we can expect more streaming services to follow suit, blending traditional TV content with interactive elements to create a new form of entertainment that bridges generational preferences.

Lean-Back Viewing Experience

Another linear TV feature that some streamers are trying to revitalize is the lean-back viewing experience. For years, streaming has been dominated by an on-demand user interface that puts the choice of “what to watch” squarely on the viewers. But then, TikTok and its algorithmic “For You” feed quickly showed the world that, sometimes, viewers don’t want to waste time doing the research and picking out what they want to watch; they just want to watch something that is either popular or niche but relevant to their interests.

Streamers have been taking note of this nostalgia for channel surfing and surreptitious content discovery. Services like Pluto TV or Peacock offer linear TV-style channels within their platforms, where reruns of popular shows stream continuously and viewers can jump in at any time, mimicking the traditional TV watching experience. This week, the Criterion Channel launched a “24/7 channel” that live streams classic films around the clock for the unemployed letterboxd users.

Compare that with the more interactive “lean-forward” content evidently favored by younger generations like video games or live streams, it is clear that there is room for both types of viewing experiences going forward. In fact, what viewers don’t want is having to scroll through block after block of content tiles to find something new and interesting to watch. A sorta of “death of the middle” scenario for content discovery, if you will. The interplay between these two trends is an interesting dynamic. Streaming services have to find ways to cater to both the lean-back and lean-forward preferences within their user bases.

Back to the Soap Opera Roots

One last thing to note is that Hollywood seems to be flirting withreturning to the early days of TV production where brands would directly sponsor a program. Soap operas got its name because a lot of them were originally sponsored by soap manufacturers (and later, other household product brands) in the 1930s trying to target housewives.

Fast forward to now, AdAge reports that Hollywood veteran Michael Sugar is launching a new upfront that aims to give brands a direct opportunity to finance upcoming movie and TV productions in early stages, rather than coming in later for product placement opportunities.

Scheduled to debut virtually on May 7–8, this quarterly event will be hosted by Sugar’s entertainment company, Sugar23. Top-level producers and celebrities, including Scarlett Johansson, John Legend, and Steven Soderbergh, will pitch their projects to brand executives, who could invest substantial funds typically reserved for traditional advertising. Sugar23 has reportedly already struck content partnerships for major brands like AB InBev and P&G, demonstrating a shift from conventional content marketing towards investing in content creation.

Odd as it might seem, an upfront specifically for branded content is a natural step in the evolution of branded content. As I wrote last year, we are now in a new era of branded blockbusters, and some tentpole movies already double as vehicles for brand storytelling and myth-making. It is worth repeating that:

While some may lament the intrusion of such nakedly commercial titles in the world of cinema, it is perhaps best to remember that Hollywood has always been a business-first industrial complex. Filmmakers have a responsibility to reflect the world we live in, and we do unfortunately live in a world where nearly every piece of content is trying to sell you something. Like it or not, popular brands inherently play a part in pop culture, and their influence over Hollywood will likely continue to grow.

If the billion-dollar success of Barbie taught us anything, let it be smart filmmakers may be able to leverage familiar brand IP to tell interesting stories that will hopefully transcend beyond being an entertaining, feature-length commercial.

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