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Why video streaming will never be like music streaming

Kirk McElhearn | March 11, 2016
It all comes down to licensing.

It’s Friday night, and you want to kick back and relax after a long week’s work. You fire up your Apple TV and click on Netflix to find a movie to watch. Maybe you like Denzel Washington, and want to see one of his great movies. Search for Denzel, and what do you find? Four films, and not the best. No Malcolm X, no Philadelphia, no Hurricane, Training Day, or Inside Man. They’ve got Flight, but they don’t have American Gangster or The Taking of Pelham 123. (However, if you want to pay for a rental, the iTunes Store has 41 of his movies...)

But if you want to check out the latest albums on Apple Music or Spotify, just look at what’s new. You’ll have almost all of the biggest hits, in every major genre, along with most artists’ full catalogues. You want to hear an old Rolling Stones album? No problem.

Why the discrepancy? Why is so much music available to stream, and so few movies and TV shows?

How many songs and movies?

When you check out music streaming services, they all try to lure you by saying how many “songs” they have. Apple Music has more than 30 million songs, Spotify has about the same number, and Deezer claims to have 40 million.

But streaming video services (those with a fixed monthly fee for unlimited streaming, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video) are nowhere near as proud of citing the size of their collections. Amazon claims that they have 15,000 films and TV episodes available to stream as part of Amazon Prime Video, but, when the service launched in the U.K., I examined what was available, and found that there were only 2,269 movies and 938 TV series. Amazon counts each episode of a TV series as one of their 15,000 titles. According to FlixList, Netflix has just over 15,000 titles as well, counting the same way Amazon does; they currently have 2,680 movies.

Sure, music streaming services count songs, not albums—similar to the way Amazon and Netflix count TV series—but if you assume an average of ten songs per album, that’s still three million albums compared to fewer than three thousand movies.

What if Apple gets into the game with a subscription streaming video service? Would they have any more titles available for a subscription service? Most likely not.


The big difference between the two types of streaming is licensing. While it’s easy for a large or small record label to release an album to stream on Apple Music or Spotify, movie releases obey a logic that is only understood by Hollywood’s creative accountants. Movies and TV shows are released in a Byzantine way to benefit from “windowing,” which allows the producers to exploit their work as efficiently as possible. Each step of the release schedule has very different returns, and is calculated to make the most profit possible.


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