TV discussion

Starz in Your Eyes: Counterpart and the dawn of the Streaming Wars

Raise your hands, who reading this article has seen Counterpart, the recently cancelled science-fiction drama starring JK Simmons? Just as suspected… that’s not very many hands.

Honestly, had you ever even really *heard* of it in the first place? Counterpart, created by Justin Marks, has spent over a year across two seasons being critically feted by writers yet largely being ignored by audiences. Most people who *have* found Counterpart have seemed to embrace its ‘Fringe for grown ups’ narrative; Simmons in the dual role of a UN diplomat, Howard Silk, with two very different personas across adjacent parallel universes in danger of edging into conflict with each other. Counterpart is stylish, measured, dramatic and filled with great performances… so why, two seasons in, has it been dumped?

As is often the way with American networks, it all comes down to ratings. Counterpart aired on Starz with just a network average share of 500,000 viewers across its second season. When Netflix are boasting about Gillian Anderson-starring teen dramedy Sex Education netting 40 *million* viewers, half a million is chump change. Counterpart is filmed in Europe often on location, with actors such as Simmons, Olivia Williams, Harry Lloyd etc… who don’t come dirt cheap, and ultimately the sums simply don’t add up. Not enough people watched to justify the expense. So goes the story of hundreds of other shows a core fan base loved but ended unresolved and sometimes ignominiously.

The difference now is that something like this just should not happen to a show as critically applauded as Counterpart. Not in the streaming era of peak TV.

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While Starz may attract viewers in the US as a cable channel (though not many, it seems), in the UK it is buried as part of a curious new development in the world of streaming – the sub-service. Amazon Prime has a brace of services *within* their service, catering to all kinds of niches. Shudder provide horror movies for the gore hound, BFI Player is there if you want some artful British and European cinema, even Hayu is a salve for the reality TV masochist who just wants 24/7 Kardashians. Starz arrived in the UK in 2018 as a sub-set of the Prime service, which you’re already paying around £80 a year for as an Amazon subscriber. If you want StarzPlay, as the service is called, along with any of the other streaming sub-sets named above, you need to pony up an extra fiver a month. This was the only way you could see Counterpart in the UK in the last few months if 2018.

Is it any wonder barely anyone knows it exists, particularly in the U.K.?

This feels like a problem which is only set to intensify as the Streaming Wars fully kick into gear. What we have experienced this far has been an hors d’oeuvres compared to the battle for your pounds when the major incoming rivals to Netflix’s dominance ride into town toward the end of 2019 into 2020. Two will make a serious, almost immediate dent in the UK and Europe: Disney+ and Apple’s unnamed service. The other major US player will be WarnerMedia but it’s less clear if they too will cross the Atlantic and provide yet another major add-on for your smart TV list of services. By the end of 2020, Disney+ at the very least will be as par for the course as both Netflix and Amazon in the UK.

We are seeing the steady transition from the original network model of television into the streaming era. US TV network dominance trickled out to the UK via distribution to various major cable and terrestrial outlets over the 80’s to the start of the 2010’s: Sky, the BBC, sometimes ITV and Channel 4. That’s how we, as Brits, digested classic dramas and comedies from across the Pond and it mostly just involved a Sky subscription, or latterly an equivalent such as Virgin or BT, or simply Freeview. Under these providers, ancillary channels popped up to replicate some of the American major networks – channels such as FOXTV, which provided your dose of The Walking Dead, for example. From a payment perspective, this only meant one significant charge, for whatever cable provider you signed up for. All of the shows within fell under that bracket, or if on terrestrial, under the license fee.

Streaming has changed the game now. A significant majority of cable subscribers in the UK and Europe will now have Netflix as a given on their smart TV, paying the fairly small subscription cost per month which has continued to make its vast range of (admittedly mixed quality) content. If you buy through Amazon regularly, Prime Video given it is a bonus of a yearly subscription is almost another given. Sky customers with savvy will have figured out Now TV is a cheaper and more expedient streaming way of having key Sky draws (Cinema, TV, now Sports) without necessarily having the array of channels nobody watches anyway. There are other tag-ons – Rakuten, Mubi etc… but these are far from household name streaming services. Netflix dominates, with Amazon and Now TV just behind, and everyone else in their shadow.

Assuming a devoted watcher of TV and cinema has all three of these services, it amounts to a roughly monthly cost of between £30-40 for streaming services, and then maybe £20-25 for the cable service which is often tied up with home broadband access. We’re now edging to around £65-70 per month to access a wide range of services and most of the new TV shows and movies being added daily. Not everyone of course utilises all of these platforms, many would likely dip in and dip out, but the cost implications and wide variety of choice has kept the balance between streaming and cable costs fairly low for UK consumers. That is changing and is about to change even more significantly, and Counterpart’s fate on Starz, and its burial on StarzPlay, is a warning sign about how good content may end up getting lost as the Wars begin.

Disney+ will have a broad range of universes on which they will build with original programming – Marvel, Star Wars, and the entire Hulu & Fox catalogue which includes premium IP such as The X-Files and The Simpsons, let alone their already significant House of Mouse store of material. They are without doubt Netflix’s biggest competitor to come. If Apple come out loaded for bear, lacking the IP power Disney have, they too have the resources to challenge the existing power structure. This will mean, in real terms, two significant streaming services people will likely add on to their package or detach an existing service to gain. The dip in, dip out model will likely grow in prevalence as people subtract due to economic constraints.

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This is currently how it works with Amazon’s sub-channel services. Adding Starz or Shudder etc… does not lock you down for months at a time, it is perfectly easy to subscribe, even get the free trial for 10 days, and binge-watch a show such as Counterpart in full before ducking out again. However to do that, it relies on buying into one-level of streaming subscription to access another, effectively locking content like Counterpart behind two distinctive paywalls, on a service you have to *know* about or actively seek out. Castle Rock, the new Stephen King-universe mystery series, could well go the same way in the UK on Starz, but the fact it airs on Hulu in the US—a far better utilised service now owned by Disney which never launched in the UK—likely means it could survive, plus given it it based on well known, existing IP. A more likely upcoming casualty could well be Starz’ American Gods – expensive, esoteric and loaded with well known faces, it too could end up more pricey to produce than it ends up being worth.

The consequences of the Streaming Wars are wide ranging and deep, and many of them are yet to be foreseen. Will Netflix’s streaming hegemony fall away as they lose access to some major IP’s and well known attractants to their service? Will Disney+ be as powerfully successful, given its wealth of material, as everyone predicts? Where will Apple or WarnerMedia fall? Will Amazon be squeezed out or match them? And for those of us in the UK, how will this affect Sky or Virgin or even the BBC and their public service broadcasting? Will the growth of streaming and the increased move away by millennials and even Generation Y viewers from broadcast television change the very nature of how we engage with licensed television?

These are all questions with answers to come. Right now, one thing is becoming certain. Unless you’re a You that is lucky enough to be scooped up by Netflix and immediately trend as a streaming sensation, there is every chance if you’re a Counterpart—a series with true quality buried on a small streaming sub-service—you could fare no better than the legion of Firefly’s or Odyssey 5’s at the mercy of Nielsen ratings that died long long before their time.

Start crossing fingers Counterpart gets a reprieve. Because it’s more than just one show at stake.

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