The Shift To Online TV: Where Are We Headed Next?

An exploration of the cord-cutter's dream.

Streaming TV online has swiftly and effectively become the preferred way for people to catch up on and stay current with their favorite shows. Considering the long history of TV and programming, it didn't take long for Netflix to become not only a household name, but even a substitute for the literal act of watching TV online. How often do you hear people say the words "I'm going to stay in and watch Netflix tonight" as opposed to "I'm going to stay in and stream TV online tonight"?

FX Network President John Landgraf said recently at the Television Critics Association press tour that we're nearing "peak TV," a glut of original scripted programming that has reached an apex. The influx that's led to this point is in no small part due to the rise of streaming players such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, and more traditional TV channels' response — networks have had to keep pace with these tech companies' aggressive push into original content and it has resulted in way more TV than any one person can consume.

Of course, when this kind of competition ensues, the customer always wins. Opening up the floodgates does result in more low-quality content, but with it comes more high-quality content. Network executives are more willing to take a chance on unproven writers and showrunners, allowing for a creative renaissance in TV that's lifted it to a status on par with film, its bigger sister for decades. And with more great content comes more great binge watching. So where do we go from here?

A cord-cutter's paradise.

In 2013, the number of paid TV subscriptions fell by 251,000, marking the first year that the industry saw an overall decline. More people than ever are "cutting the cord," or choosing to cancel their cable packages in favor of streaming services that offer a wide catalog of shows and movies for less than $10 per month. The trend is not surprising — why pay $40 or much more every month for a large sampling of channels you never watch and an extra $10 for a DVR to record your favorites? Watching TV online provides an affordability and flexibility people love. Long gone are the days of gathering around the TV at the same time every week so as not to miss the latest episode — we live in an on-demand world and our TV-watching habits reflect that.

Unsurprisingly, major networks such as HBO have begun to follow the model paved by Netflix: over-the-top access to content for a small monthly fee. As more and more continue to do so, consumers will be further empowered to customize their own TV experience. It's the freedom to buy only the "channels" you want without any of the hassle of a conglomerate such as Comcast lumping in stuff you don't want for extra.

Fast-forward to the future.

Naturally, cable providers aren't pleased to be relinquishing their control of TV consumption and they hold a fair amount of weight. That means the full process of cutting cords won't happen for some time, if at all. Live events such as sports, award shows, presidential debates and the like are difficult to pry from the hands of providers due to longstanding contracts and the sheer number of viewers they pull in. If the Super Bowl is ever offered over-the-top, it likely won't come cheap — think pay-per-view for boxing matches.

Beyond that, it would seem that channels breaking off from cable providers to offer their shows in a stand-alone service stops being cost-effective for the consumer eventually. If everyone's setting their price at $10 per month, it doesn't take many channel purchases to outweigh the cost of a standard cable plan.

That's why even bigger giants such as Apple are widely speculated to be negotiating behind the scenes to put together cable-like bundles of streaming services that customers can opt into if they like. Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV Stick, Roku and various smart TVs already allow consumers to bring Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Showtime and more directly to their televisions, and such bundles could be a much more flexible option on top than traditional pay TV subscription currently is.

Wait, so we're not breaking out of anything?

If this bundle system just sounds like coming full circle back to paid TV subscriptions, well, it is. But depending on how these bundles are structured, they may very well give consumers a fair amount of freedom. In theory, we could all pay maybe a $40 flat rate for a bundle and be given the option to select a certain number of channels from a wide list. That way, even if we fell into a similar paid TV model, it would at least be much more customizable.

At this juncture, we should appreciate how rapidly accelerating tech cycles have given us the ability to watch the shows we love on our laptops, tablets and smartphones from just about anywhere we could ever want. It's 2015 and just as recently as 2010, Netflix was primarily known for being that company that shipped you DVDs in the mail. It's unclear where exactly things will go from here, but there's no question the situation now is better than it used to be.

We've come a long way, binge-watchers of the world. And there's plenty of room for us to grow.