The Streaming Service
Part One

by Steven Mallas

What if a streaming service took over the country, and maybe the world? 1,740 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Mark Fearing.

Anna walked into the Pitching Room. She was nervous. Perspiring. It was a pretty normal reaction. Seated before her were three Evaluators. It was like a parole board. Or an appellate court bench. Except she wasn’t accused of a crime. She was valedictorian of her high school class. She was a good girl. It was simply her time. Her lottery number was called up in the draft. She was selected by The Streaming Service. And she needed to hit a home run in this pitching session.

Or else.

“I have an idea for something called Unboxing.”

The Evaluators were stone. They were among the most powerful individuals. Their time was not to be wasted.

From The Streaming Service: A History: “Consolidation in the media industry was rampant for many years until all major studios were placed under one corporate roof. All the tech companies also were gathered together. All the FANG stocks were taken off the public markets. AT&T, with Warner Bros., was a hard one to swallow, but it finally got the memo. Apple eventually bought it all, and then acquired Disney, the latter having never ceased its incessant mission of becoming bigger and bigger, even after Robert Iger finally retired and became POTUS.

“All the over-the-top/direct-to-consumer subscription products eventually went away and were consolidated into one concern. Some 80% of the country subscribed. Most of the world did, too. And, of course, content drove it all.
“The political landscape changed, and a new species of loyalty formed, not to flag and country, but to The Streaming Service. Storytelling replaced God in a sense, and following Hollywood productions and comings-and-goings became the prime religious order. What was the Bible anyway except perhaps the most powerful Original Content of all?
“Wars were no longer fought with blood and armor. Instead, all of it was accomplished by drone and cyber means. No wonder everyone binged…”

The Pitching Room itself was small, an interior more suited for interrogation than interview. The furnishing was attractive, and the raised dais upon which the panel sat was reminiscent of the panopticon bench of a powerful jurist. The desk where the pitching participant resided was shopworn and splintered. Papers were strewn on the small surface, and Anna did her best to make sense of them.

The silence lingered. Anna strove to fill it.

“Yes. Unboxing. A weird strange event happens. YouTube creators begin to unbox odd stuff. They think they are about to open a new video game console, or a package of candy from Japan. What comes out is totally unexpected. A talking head. A giant spider. A poltergeist. A warning from the future. The government tries to figure out exactly what happened. I see it as a three, maybe four, season arc. The last season would be comprised of only four episodes or so.”

The panel wrote a few things down. Whispered.

“Interesting. We’ll pass for now and come back to it later if we feel it necessary. Give us the next idea.”

Oh no, she thought.

“Another financial crisis occurred, driven once again in the credit markets in part. Something had to be done about it, but mostly something had to be done about what was being termed “Content Inequality.” CI was pushed as the most significant crisis in the country and the world. It was deemed that access to movies and episodic in the home should be a priority of policy, a concept with which President Bob Iger and Vice President Sheryl Sandberg agreed. Those on the cabinet – Zuckerberg, Peele, Kennedy, Bezos, Roth, Rhimes, Shyamalan, Blum – were unanimous: something had to be done.
“Speaker Of The House Lin-Manuel Miranda, in concert with Senate Majority Leader J.J. Abrams, drafted and distributed legislation to the necessary effect. It narrowly passed, with much heated debate. All of it ended up at the steps of Supreme Court. Chief Justice Ted Sarandos delivered the opinion of the Court, while Justice Winfrey read from the bench her passionate concurrence…”

“What if the 1998 indie movie Pi were instead set in Hollywood?”

Did Anna really want to pitch this? She didn’t; it was too arthouse. Yet, isn’t that what streaming platforms were for when there were more of them instead of a dominating monolith? To give hope to writers and directors so that they may see the ideas they could never sell anywhere else brought to moving-picture life?

The panel waited.

“Hollywood always wants to quantify the formula of success, assuming it even exists. It wants to figure out what variables are most important to the factors in creation. Just like the movie Pi was all about the equation of Wall Street, I want to write a series, maybe a limited one, whose focus is on the equation of Hollywood. Maybe an AI platform discovers it. Maybe an autistic genius. It could be several characters, all maybe in a reality-show type competition where the equation is stumbled upon, and the person who finds it disappears. Then the search begins, along with the mystery. In the end, it’s bigger than anyone thinks. There’s a conspiracy, a collection of violent crimes, maybe even torture scenes for information gathering.”

“For some reason,” one panelist said, “I’m getting flashbacks to that Tom Hanks series based on cryptography and alternate religious history.”

“Besides,” said another, “I think Darren Aronofsky would certainly interject.”

Deflated, Anna moved on.

At the draftee dormitory, Anna found herself in a black mood. The depressive undercurrent was vicious and rapid, but worse than that was the desperate anxiousness smothering the top of her mind. Her concentration was challenged, and the solitary nature of the process – no roommate, limited contact with the other pitching individuals – grated on her. She wanted to do well, even though she was a conscript and not a participant of her own volition. She knew there was the possibility of advancement and money if she moved up the ranks, even though it wasn’t like the old days when talent could demand whatever it wanted thanks to agents/managers and executives who wanted to exploit the path of least resistance to job security (i.e., risk millions of dollars on celebrities even after the first flop). Things had become more rationalized in that regard.

“In the Hollywood of old, in the time before, during and after the sweeping tsunami of consolidation, compensation structures began to stray from the scientific and into the realm of mental pathology. As OTT services multiplied like paramecia, the bid for talent soared in, if not true geometric fashion, then in a way that made it appear to be similar to such descriptive trajectory. Overall deals of $100 million became the norm, followed by $200 million deals, then $300 million deals. Anybody who was doing something more substantial than YouTube got their quote and even beyond, something which was considered by many economists to be the sublime height of arrogance.
“Companies like Netflix and Disney and Hulu were floating debt at levels that were too crazy to be believed. Netflix topped out at a debt load of $100 billion, while Disney was a close second at $90 billion. No one wanted to do secondary offerings lest that work against the options-heavy pay packages for the media chiefs. It seemed like everyone knew, somehow, that Apple would eventually lead a consolidation of its colleagues – Alphabet, Facebook, etc. – and then basically use its own overvalued stock, backed by its continuing cash- cow iX series that consumers still stood in line to buy, as well as its pristine operational-cash-flow characteristics, to bail the Hastings of the world out of their leveraged mess. All the execs received platinum parachutes and went on to other things, mostly in government, where they helped to lobby for digital subscription services, deeming then an essential right not dissimilar to the concept of freedom of speech.
“A universal basic income was set up, not so much for justifiably moral reasons, but so that people could afford to pay higher prices for the Service. Combine that with the $20 minimum wage (the latter was passed with the notable legislative carve-out exempting Hollywood industry from the obligation) and the elimination of the Guilds, it was easy to see what happened next: consumers had more money and talent became more affordable, reducing the need to hit the debt markets. Old debts had been cancelled anyway by Congress when the industry needed to be bailed out after the financial crisis caused by the sudden jump in wages and the introduction of the UBI).”

“Okay,” Anna shuffled some papers as she spoke, “Working title: The Same Day… Over And Over.”

The panel seemed dubious. Anna sensed the reticence. “Just working on that title. Anyway, what if a series was based on the Groundhog Day concept, and each episode saw a character repeating the same day over and over again? Furthermore, imagine if we followed the stories of other characters within those repeated days, who themselves are repeating the same day, over and over? In other words, multiple characters experience the same day and they all eventually figure out what’s happening and want to know how to stop it. That could be the overriding arc, but there might be stand-alone episodes as well covering all genres: romantic comedy, horror, sci-fi.”

A couple of Evaluators made notes. One of them said: “Perhaps. But we’d like to hear some more ideas.”

More ideas, Anna thought. Sure.

She pitched them on a story about an older man who lost his job and then became a YouTube star. Maybe Casey Neistat could play the lead role? That didn’t fly. She moved on to a complex science fiction scenario about future messages being sent back in time to the neurons within multiple brains, with the hope that one of the people whose gray matter had received the communications would be in an upwardly mobile position to act upon the suggestion (e.g., information about an impending financial crisis would reach someone connected with the Federal Reserve, or the cure that could stop a new viral epidemic arrives at an immunologist at the CDC). She had to work on that one, admittedly. There was the comedy about a Halloween store that stayed open year-round, but all her jokes fell flat during the telling. A series set in Salem, Massachusetts, in modern day that could be branded and then generate spin-offs (Salem ER, Salem PD, Salem Prep) had no takers.

Nothing was working.

Part Two tomorrow

About The Author:
Steven Mallas
Steven Mallas writes financial commentary for Seeking Alpha. He has previously contributed to The Motley Fool and TheStreet. His short fiction has appeared in online markets and in his anthology Tales From Salem, Massachusetts. He also has written the YA novel Abner Wilcox Thornberry And The Witch of Wall Street.

About Steven Mallas

Steven Mallas writes financial commentary for Seeking Alpha. He has previously contributed to The Motley Fool and TheStreet. His short fiction has appeared in online markets and in his anthology Tales From Salem, Massachusetts. He also has written the YA novel Abner Wilcox Thornberry And The Witch of Wall Street.

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