We've talked several times before about how for most digital innovations, the word "digital" is doing most of the heavy lifting. Still, even if a lot of modern online services are the 21st century equivalent of putting a clock on a microwave and calling it a day, at least we're moving forward. Right? Sadly, it feels like we're getting to the "one step back" part of the "two steps forward, one step back" of progress, and not only are plenty of modern services slowly sinking back into the analog age, others are greedily divebombing in with abandon. For example...
With the start of the streaming wars, Netflix learned the most important lesson of the 21st century: you don't own anything anymore. With most of its prized passive catalog of popular movies and shows strip-mined by the competition, the platform quickly had to find something new for people to mindlessly let autoplay while you're thinking about maybe cleaning your bedroom.
At first, Netflix's own programming made big artsy swings with shows like Orange Is The New Black and Bojack Horseman, and bold flops like Marco Polo. It seemed that the streaming giant was on its way to becoming the new HBO or, at very least, the new AMC (Or, worst-case scenario, the new Starz.). But when it started bleeding licenses in 2018, Netflix made a perplexing pivot and proceeded to pad its prestige with piles and piles of trash. Now, with a constant release schedule of C+ shows like Fuller House, Hallmark-level movies like The Knight Before Christmas and a bunch of Adam Sandler's glorified vacation slideshows, Netflix has been crowned the "king of mediocre," making itself look like an out-of-their-depth kid trying to make an essay look longer by starting every sentence with "on the other hand" instead of "however" or "in order to" instead of "to."
On the other hand, in order to truly understand the service's strategy we have to adjust our vision to 3:4 and look back to the glory days of daytime TV. Hard to imagine but, once upon a time, TV channels didn't even try to fill the entire day with programs, telling everyone who switched on their box before 5 PM to switch it off and go buy war bonds. By the fifties, TV execs finally realized that housewives keep existing even when the men aren't home. Suddenly the race was on to create days' worth of content without going bankrupt. This created the phenomenon of daytime TV, which brought about the rise of cheap and easy programming like game shows, Made-for-TV movies, soap operas, reality TV and anything bland and simple enough to not distract you from ironing your husband's underpants.
That quantity over quality pattern is exactly how Netflix is now trying to mesmerize the 21st equivalent of the lonely housewife: the digitally isolated. And yes, that now includes Big Brother-style reality shows -- though strangely updated for the streaming generation. Like The Circle, which is just Survivor for social media influencers. Or Dating Around, which is like Blind Date for people who've never been swiped right on Tinder. Or the infamous Terrace House, the reality show equivalent of the YouTube comment section under a six-hour-long Let's Play of The Sims. And with this pattern, it's only a matter of time before Netflix starts rebooting soap operas like All My Children. Or suggests to the makers of The Crown that the next season should be 130 episodes of the queen dealing with her evil twin's pregnancy.
To most young people, podcasts and radio couldn't be more different. After all, podcasts are cool and popular while talk radio's only remaining demographics are racist uncles and whoever's currently visiting a hospice. But something we don't expect is how the incredible prosperity of podcasts overlap with that of the golden age of talk radio. And we should, because that also means it's all about to start crashing down again.
The spirit of talk radio lives on, it has just moved from AM to FM to MFM -- My Favorite Murder, that is. While most podcasters don't earn enough to soundproof their recording studio/parents' garage, top tier podcasts like My Favorite Murder, The Bill Simmons Podcast or The Joe Rogan Experience are now earning their hosts millions of dollars a year and even allow them to go on sold-out tours or even create hit YouTube channels with nothing more than the promise of seeing Elon Musk cough weed into a condenser mic.
That doesn't set them apart from the trappings of old-fashioned talk radio hosts, it continues their weird brand of mystifying popularity. Up until a mere decade ago, shock jocks, airwave psychics and conservative pundits were the rockstars of radio (aside from, y'know, the actual rockstars) and were courting tens of millions of listeners, earning millions of dollars and some were even successful enough to create hit TV shows with nothing more than the promise of seeing the star of Baywatch ride a sex toy to near completion.
But despite a 93% market coverage, talk radio never managed to convince big brands that they had mainstream appeal, leading to a weird economic bubble where networks kept wasting money on the vain belief that one day everyone would get rich from promoting the Nike Baba Booey. That never happened, so now only Howard Stern and barely enough Fox News hosts to fill a whites-only retirement community have managed to survive, while the rest of talk radio slowly falls into the sea.
Now, experts are fearing that very same oversaturation will also burst the podcast bubble. Like talk radio, podcasts are so widespread that, statistically, every living human has started a libertarian movie podcast about serial killers. Like talk radio, podcast's ad money is already starting to stagnate, a word that makes clueless billionaire buyout bros spontaneously combust. So like talk radio, podcast networks are folding all over the place. And when the bottom of the inverse bell curve falls out, the only people who'll still be making money will be Joe Rogan and barely enough D&D nerds to fill a whites-only retirement community.
It's not too hard to see the (intentional) similarities between cryptocurrency and gold. Both are coveted by millions, both involve mining, and most crypto bros smell like the river-bloated corpse of an old-timey prospector. But it isn't just the cryptocurrency itself, but the crypto culture that gleams like gold to a new generation of paranoid libertarians.
While cryptocurrency has always been hailed as an untraceable, decentralized people's currency that isn't being meddled with by The Man, that is the exact motivation folks have for collecting their gold coins (or bullion coins, sound familiar?). For centuries, the 1% has been hoarding gold in vaults like libertarian Scrooge McDucks with the idea of government-proofing their wealth, since it's a lot harder for Uncle Sam to say gold is worthless compared to his dumb dollar bill. A paranoid knee-jerk that still jerks to this day, as plenty of current country club members are returning to "the guns and the motorcycles and the gold coins" prep since seeing an Eat the Rich guillotine meme on their mistress' phone.
Aside from the paranoia, another timeless aspect of gold hoarding is the ease by which they've been scammed. And while young crypto bros regard themselves as savvy operators who see the world for what it truly is, they tend to fall for the same money scams as their elderly grandma -- just replace cold-calls with WhatsApp chains and fake business cards with stolen pictures of Russian escorts. Over the past years, several high-profile multi-hundred million dollar cryptocurrency scams that boiled down to alt currency classics like illegal money laundering, ripoff rates, and honest-to-grift pyramid schemes. If only there was some way that some sort of regulating body could step in to prevent such easy exploitation of ... oh, right.
But perhaps the most important similarity, aside from paranoia and the I-am-very-smart mentality that makes them so easy to dupe, is that both crypto and gold are both underwhelming investment options for the same reason -- the same reason that gets ignored both by old gold and nouveau crypto. Why? Because there's just something inherently shiny about that these vaguely pirate-related investments for its big-money Peter Pan demographics. It's about how burying your treasures away from the world could make you so much smarter than all those rubes believing in those pieces of paper the system hands out. At least with gold, you don't run the risk of losing it all just because you accidentally left a USB stick on the train.
One day soon, the last Cadillac Coupe de Ville will be crushed into a cube and with it, so will the very concept of listening to the radio. Not that most consumers will care, as research has shown that younger demographics have gone all-in on the music streaming revolution and can barely remember what it's like listening to a commercial mainstream radio station. Not that that stops Spotify from doing all it can to best remind them.
Today, over 200 million people and counting listen to music via Spotify, but only fewer than half of that number are putting down money to enjoy the Premium level. That means, despite having sworn off radio, most users still have to listen to two actors incoherently shout at each other about carpets every fifth song or, even more hellish, Spotify Premium commercials interrupting you to remind you you can pay money to stop being interrupted by commercials.
At least after suffering through those many commercials, Spotify does something radio cannot: Allow people to pick and choose what to listen to out of all the music in the world. In theory, at least. In practice, the vast majority of folks don't want to flip through albums and create bespoke playlists like some insufferable Nick Hornby character. They just want to listen to "Depacito" and 70 songs very similar to "Despacito" (70 of which might just be "Despacito" itself). Spotify has long since picked up on this, investing heavily in its curated playlists for all possible social functions, moods, and levels of horniness.
While those playlists could potentially broaden your musical experience, like any I heart the 80s radio DJ, Spotify's algorithm has been trained to narrow it. According to some music experts, the algorithm is geared towards picking the most offensively inoffensive mainstream songs possible, blending blandly into the background in order to eliminate skipping, rack up more commercials and listen counts for their biggest artists so they don't defect to Tidal. And despite not having DJs like SiriusFM's Fartbro and The Daterapist, Spotify's radio algorithm even does an equally good job perpetuating radio's weird gender bias, disproportionately featuring male artists in all of its playlists.
So while you think you're listening to the new wave of music enjoyment, if you listen to Spotify you might as well invest in one of those portable radios with the rapier-length antennas. It's the same level of innovation, and least they don't eat up your phone's family plan data.
As the number of streaming services continues to rise, corporations are carving the market into smaller pieces than an intern who wildly overestimated the birthday-cake-to-coworkers ratio. But while Netflix has tried to stay relevant by ironically making shows like an old TV channel, its competitors are trying to release them like one, making sure you're constantly starved of options to make you grateful for each scrap.
With every single old media corporation (yes, even The History Channel) now releasing its own streaming service, content has become so fractured that those possessing the madness to subscribe to all of the 100+ current U.S. streams would put you back $400 a week and counting. Meanwhile, just getting the big five costs you more (and gets you less) than an old-fashioned 100-channel cable subscription.
Self-aware enough that they don't have enough content to convince people to stick around for longer than the trial period, streaming services are now bringing back another restrictive element of old TV: weekly releases. Apple TV+, HBO Max, and Disney+ have all given their flagship shows artificially staggered releases in a noble attempt to give people back their water cooler banter/give multi-billion dollar corporations free advertising again. Even more jarring, plenty of people agree with this return to corporate-mandated schedules "for our own good," treating audiences like dumb pets who'll binge themselves to death if our corporate owners forget to seal up the content-bag. Did you know novels used to be released chapter by chapter in the Sunday edition of newspapers? A bit like TV shows, except nobody ever complained that the new "binge model" of literature was destroying the zeitgeist, or that you can't truly appreciate Tolstoy without the 3-month long midseason cliffhanger between War and Peace.
But if you think that a return to dozens of lackluster channels and weekly releases means a return to our parent's TV landscape -- guess again. It's more like returning to the pre-VHS days of the fifties. After all, streaming is also killing the DVD market with platforms often refusing to release physical copies of its shows since they'd only serve as the competition, giving streaming platforms a level of control over our viewing experience not seen since the days of The Dick Van Dyke Show.
For more weird tangents that are shockingly outdated, do follow Cedric on Twitter.
For more, check out Why Stupid YouTube Comments Are Older Than The Internet:
Follow us on Facebook. It's free.