UCLA’s streaming culture spans far beyond just BruinCast.
Students, whether they’re catching up on the latest episode of “Game of Thrones” at Bruin Fitness Center or rewatching “The Office” for the ninth time during their chemistry lecture, interact with content in ways unpredicted by the industry’s past. Though streaming has shifted entertainment from TV and movie screens toward the internet, the ever-evolving medium has allowed UCLA students to explore diverse collections of content while helping them find community.
RISE OF STREAMING
Within the past decade, consumers turned their attention from the shiny gloss of DVDs and the heft of robust cable sets to the sleek design and seemingly endless variety provided by online platforms. Streaming, naturally, has become a norm in entertainment consumption but has also found ways to stand out from traditional TV and film.
“I’m interested in streaming because it’s ... a brave new world,” said Tom Nunan, a lecturer at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.
Though multiple streaming services have created their own paths to success, Nunan believes Netflix, the DVD- rental-service-turned-streaming powerhouse, spearheaded the move to online content. In addition to providing its millions of consumers with an easy-to-use website, Netflix brought an impressively wide selection of television series and movies to its diverse range of users.
“It’s the first time a distribution platform has said essentially, ‘We want to be your platform of choice for content, whether you’re 6 years old or 96 years old.’ ... No one’s ever done that before,” Nunan said.
He said unlike streaming services, broadcast networks like ABC, Fox, CBS and NBC are government-regulated channels that need to adhere to federal ratings and standards. In turn, such online platforms have more freedom to create content that best fits their brand, he said. As most online platforms want to cater to audiences of all ages, they produce content ranging from G-rated kid’s series to R-rated originals containing material like nudity and strong language. Netflix, for example, has created multiple kid-friendly shows but has also produced critically acclaimed TV-MA shows like “House of Cards” which contain profanity and sexual scenes.
Netflix’s 2013 remake of the BBC series with the same name was one show the platform produced to prove its original works provide the same high-quality entertainment as programs created by premium channels like HBO and Showtime, Nunan said. The series demonstrated streaming platforms could attach big Hollywood names, such as Kevin Spacey, to their projects and secure a couple of Emmy nominations and awards along the way. Other streaming services soon followed Netflix’s example with their own original series and movies – Amazon Prime Video with “Transparent” and Hulu with “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
The increasing popularity of streaming, like most things, came at a price. On the television side, cable and broadcast networks, according to Variety, experienced a drop of more than 3 million North American subscribers in 2017, citing the high prices for such programming. Cable subscription prices can range anywhere from $20 to over $100 a month, making a, at most, $13.99 streaming subscription for Netflix seem more worth the dollar.
However, streaming hasn’t negatively affected just the television industry, but the movie industry as well. According to Nunan and evidence provided by the Motion Picture Association of America, the average adult consumer in the U.S. currently sees fewer than 10 films a year in theaters. Nunan attributes this low number not only to theaters’ inability to compete with a home viewing experience, but also their inability to captivate audiences.
“I don’t think the movie studios have figured out how to inspire people to go to the movies anymore,” he said. “I think the problem is that (studios) haven’t figured out how to make the moviegoing experience special, vibrant and addictive the way they’ve been able to do that for TV.”
Though cineplexes have introduced measures to make the moviegoing experience more enticing, from high-end concessions to interactive screenings, the movie industry struggles to cater to consumer needs as easily as streaming services do. The online platforms provide consumers with equally gratifying experiences with little to no cost to their pocket or comfort.
With diverse content, high-quality original series and films, Nunan said streaming services also cater to audience members who like to be entertained in the comfort of their homes. Streaming a movie or TV series online takes up significantly less amounts of time than finding a DVD rental distributor or waiting in line for a flick.
Additionally, the comfort of watching in their own homes allows consumers full control over their own viewing experiences. They’re easily able to pause, rewind and watch shows at their own pace, which was essentially unheard of for live TV, Nunan said.
“People were becoming more and more accustomed to watching entertainment at home and dedicating real space and resources to their home entertainment center,” Nunan said. “They would really have to be forced off their couch to go to a cineplex because there’s nothing that can compete with your home viewing experience.”
However, streaming owes a major part of its popularity to portable technology. Devices like laptops, tablets and smartphones helped usher in the age of streaming as it played to one of its most appealing characteristics: portability. Depending on their choice of streaming device, viewers can choose to have either a solitary or social watching experience. The ability to stream shows or new content through everyday devices is especially appealing to college students, Nunan said.
“When you’re having a streaming experience, typically it’s coming through a piece of technology that you have a warm relationship with,” he said. “Anything that can be streamed through your phone, you’re going to have a lot of affection for that, most likely.”
When considering price, portability and full control of a watching experience, it’s no surprise that college students, too, have already made the move online for entertainment.
Current UCLA students may differ in fields of study, race, gender and background, but one thing remains certain for many of them: Steve Carell and the rest of “The Office” cast know how to entertain.
The 2005 hit comedy series was just one of many shows participants in a 120-student survey said they enjoyed streaming. Other responses included ABC’s medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” and the Andy Samberg-led “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”
In addition to replying with their favorite shows and films to stream, students across campus identified their favorite genres to watch, preferred streaming services and the reasons for their selected platform. Nearly 82 percent – approximately 98 students – of participants said Netflix was their platform of choice, citing the streaming giant’s diverse selection of movies and shows as one of the service’s appealing characteristics.
Behind Netflix was Hulu pulling in 14 students, taking up 11.7 percent of the breakdown. Similar to Netflix, a majority of the surveyed Hulu users also cited the service’s broad selection as their reason for choosing the platform as their favorite one. However, others also cited price as a major selling point for the streaming website.
Mel Ohanian, a first-year political science student, said she acquired Hulu Plus through a package that also offered Spotify Premium and Showtime for $4.99 per month. However, in addition to the fairly affordable price, Ohanian said “The Handmaid’s Tale” initially drew her to Hulu.
Despite completely catching up to the adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel in a matter of days, Ohanian, like many other student participants, streams her shows for less than five hours a week, more than 12 hours less than the average American watches TV, according to the Nielsen Total Audience Report for the first quarter of 2018. Though streaming can be therapeutic and help pass time, Ohanian said she simply does not have time to stream and watches on her phone or laptop when she can.
“I barely have time to go to the gym, so it’s hard to make watching TV a top priority,” she said. “I’m also a freshman so I’m trying to get used to the ... quarter system.”
According to the Nielsen report, young adults ages 18 to 34 spend roughly 3 1/2 hours a day on TV-related devices and services, falling behind both younger and older age groups who reached the five- to seven-hour marks. Reasons for the lower viewing hours in young adults can include increased schoolwork and study time, extracurriculars, and jobs, among other things. However, when they do make the time to stream, whether it be for hours a day or minutes a week, students can find ways to make their shows relevant in their lives.
Second-year physiological science student Yael Mendoza uses Funimation Productions, a streaming service which focuses on anime, to watch his favorite series. He spends around five to 10 hours a week watching anime and has watched nearly 600 episodes of his favorite show, “One Piece.” He said he particularly enjoys the show for the way it discusses real-life issues and makes approaching such topics easier.
“It’s one of my favorite shows to stream because it has adventure, these aspects of friendships and it goes into things that are a lot harder to talk about in real life, like slavery. It’s kind of subtle but it’s in there – slavery and racism,” he said. “You may not realize it, but those themes are tied into the anime.”
More than half the student participants said comedy was their favorite genre to stream. Such students said their favorite series included shows like “Friends,” “New Girl,” “Rick and Morty” and “The Office.”
As it is, UCLA students experience the need to juggle sizable amounts of academic, professional and social stresses. However, their streaming habits and preferences may say something about their own emotional needs for connection and escape, said Neil Landau.
Landau, the assistant dean and co-director of the MFA screenwriting program at the UCLA School of TFT, said the comedy and drama genres – the first and second most popular genres, respectively, to stream among UCLA students – tap into viewers’ desire to live a second life. Living a second life through favorite characters in a comedy or drama series, Landau said, allows viewers to escape the stress of school without any real-life consequences.
Other popular shows among UCLA students, like the dramas “Game of Thrones” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” are series that also allow viewers to become emotionally invested in the characters or the storyline, Landau said. He said the shows can present a kind of microcosm for emotional issues and hardships viewers might be dealing with. Because viewers can see themselves and possibly their own trials and tribulations, such as heartbreak, represented in shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” they’re able to have some cathartic release and validate their own feelings, Landau said. Similarly, comedy can speak to viewers’ needs to feel accepted and part of a community, he said.
“It’s a way to connect to a community in a second life as opposed to in your first life. ... There are consequences, you can get rejected or may not be accepted, but when you watch ‘The Office’ you belong, you’re part of that group just by tuning in,” Landau said. “You can play it safe and get that itch scratched.”
Streaming not only allows student viewers to connect with their favorite characters and plots, but also fosters a sense of community that transcends the confines of the screen.
According to Landau, streaming is a peculiar and paradoxical form of entertainment because although it is a solitary activity, the online format also promotes the creation of entertainment-based connections.
“When you’re watching a show, whether you’re in the same room (as friends) or not, everyone’s participating at the same time. Most people probably choose friends based on who (is) interested in the same shows they are and it just becomes something people talk about,” he said. “You want to be able to be part of that conversation.”
By bringing communities of students together, binge-watching and streaming television is somewhat akin to extracurricular activities, Nunan said.
He added, during his university days, some of the major points of connection were through fields of study or off-campus organizations like sports or Greek life. With streaming and technology now, he said students can also build community based on a common love for genres or shows.
“You can share the content together, you can have clubs where you watch things together,” he said.
One such club is the Japanese Animation Club. The organization seeks to provide anime enthusiasts with a community of other people who share a similar passion for the genre and its various series, said Mary Zhang.
Zhang, the president of JAC and a third-year English student, said the club is a space to combat the stigma of enjoying and pursuing “nerdy” hobbies like watching anime. The 100-member club hosts anime screenings and various anime-themed activities, like trivia nights, to bolster a passion for Japanese animation.
“That’s the biggest importance of having clubs like these on campus,” she said. “It represents a side of culture that I think is less appreciated, and I think giving it a spotlight and a forum of a club in a big community really helps people find their place on campus and become more comfortable with themselves.”
So far, the student organization has screened episodes of anime series like “That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime” in large viewing spaces in Perloff Hall. During these meetings, students sit together, watch an episode and share their reactions and thoughts with other members, said Jerry Li, JAC’s executive vice president and a third-year biology student. The meeting environment encourages both new and returning members to engage with each other and the anime.
“Viewing in clubs is completely different than watching it by yourself. We want to give members a reason to wait for the screenings at the actual club, as opposed to watching it by themselves,” Li said. “That whole environment where you get to hear what everyone else thinks of the film or show as it’s going on is a very special part of the club, it’s what convinces members to join and stay.”
From club screenings to Westwood dinner debates, members of JAC use their similar interests in anime as a platform to build new relationships and come out of their shells, Zhang said. When the club isn’t able to show its selected series in their entireties, members will watch the episodes on their own or with a group of friends, allowing them build their own meaningful connections beyond JAC, Zhang said.
But even if students aren’t involved in clubs like JAC, they still find streaming as a way to feel more connected with popular culture and build communities based in their favorite shows.
Ohanian said that the fast-paced nature of streaming allows her to catch up on hit TV shows. In turn, she said she’s able to feel more in the know about buzz-worthy shows.
Mendoza said his interest in anime and superhero series has allowed him to find like-minded communities both on campus and beyond UCLA. He recalled using streaming services as a conversation topic get to know his roommate better and learn about the shows he watches. However, through social media and the internet, Mendoza uses his love for shows like “The Flash” and “Arrow” to connect with other fans.
“I followed the actors on social media and there I found people who are passionate about the show and superheroes in general,” he said. “It’s a good community to talk about the show, what they like or dislike about the new episodes that come out.”
Entertainment, specifically with the rise of streaming platforms, has allowed viewers to find commonalities with others beyond their own communities, Landau said. Anywhere he goes, Landau said he notices other people using entertainment as a kind of social currency to meet, either physically or virtually, and understand each other, leading to lasting connections.
“Sharing and experiencing the lives of others, (fictional and real), plants seeds of empathy. It’s like having digital pen pals or friendships on demand,” he said.
CUTTING THE CORDS
Television networks and movie studios, despite the increasing ubiquity of streaming platforms, continue to produce critically acclaimed and popular content.
With dramas like “This is Us” and “Pose,” cable and broadcast networks have still been able to pull in audience members and high ratings. However, it won’t be too long before TV corporations will completely make the move to online platforms, Landau predicts.
“I think people will continue to cut the cords and you’ll just turn on your TV and you’ll see a bunch of apps,” he said. “You’ll see (entertainment) companies continue to consolidate into fewer and fewer monolithic corporations.”
As the Walt Disney Co. acquired 21st Century Fox and Comcast purchased NBCUniversal, Landau thinks streaming giants like Netflix will soon be taken in by larger corporations like Apple. Such consolidation could mean safer, more brand-oriented content creation supervised by patent companies and their shareholders.
Though movie theaters and cineplexes might take more immersive approaches to cinema, such as including virtual reality, in the near future, Landau said those spaces are becoming increasingly similar to bookstores. Like some bookshops, movie theaters are bound to close as people continue watching movies in the comfort of their own homes.
Nunan also said he believes television networks will soon be a thing of the past and streaming services will become the norm. The future of televised entertainment, he said, will be mostly subscription-based, with the exception of a la carte purchases.
“I envision small-screen entertainment opportunities being driven strictly by show choices, versus network choices,” he said. “If you want to watch ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘The Walking Dead,’ ‘America’s Got Talent’ or any of your other favorite scripted or unscripted shows, you’ll either do so via a broad subscription ... or a specific a la carte purchase, like (how) pay-per-view or on-demand works today.”
To students, the future of entertainment platforms remains uncertain. Ohanian said she thinks more original series will result from the continuous growth of streaming platforms. After the precedent of original content from services like Netflix and Hulu, Ohanian said she thinks more original shows will continue to appear since streaming has become a part of daily life.
On the other hand, Mendoza said he doesn’t think TV platforms will necessarily go away just yet. He said while he thinks streaming will continue to grow, cable networks will remain present and will continue their regulated weekly, biweekly or yearly episode paces as before. A one-shot release of all seasons or episodes of a series is not possible, he said, because filming or animating them takes time.
Traditional models like cable television and movies are experiencing drops and their respective watching modes may be a thing of the past. Change in entertainment formats, platforms and distribution is inevitable, Landau said. However, despite the ever-evolving landscape of new media and technology, he said some things will remain constant.
“As technology changes, things will shift,” Landau said. “But what won’t change is that there will always be a need for new, great stories and great characters.”