Steven S. Drachman: Is Streaming Media Dividing America in Two?

My family subscribes to Netflix, Prime, Disney+, Hulu, PBS Passport and HBO. Bundled together, our streaming entertainment costs approximately 809 million dollars a week.

I have no idea why we subscribe to fascist overlord Disney. But I don’t make all the decisions in the household. Or, you know, any of the decisions in the household.

Free TV?

Hulu used to be the platform to watch “free” TV, and it featured programs from all of the networks, other than CBS. So just now, I sat down this morning to watch last night’s episode of Saturday Night Live and eat my toast and drink tap water, which is what I have for Sunday brunch since I can’t afford food and coffee, since I spend all my money on TV.

But I discovered that if I want to watch Saturday Night Live on Hulu, it now costs extra. I still get Only Murders in the Building, but no more SNL. So I can watch senior citizen Steve Martin, but not wild and crazy young Steve Martin.

This is as though CBS in 1978 let my grandmother keep watching Lombardo, but Metromedia demanded $35 a month for Lawrence Welk.

Oh well, SNL has gone downhill since Gilda left anyway.

I considered telling my daughter she’d need to drop out of college so I can afford to watch SNL again.

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A Story of Two Americas

There is a point to this, beyond just bitching about bills, which is that one of our great American equalizers is essentially no more, with no possibility of returning anytime soon.

In the 1930s and 1940s, it was said, you could walk down any street in any town in America on a Sunday night from 8 pm to 8:30 pm and hear The Jack Benny Program on CBS radio from start to finish, without missing a second of it. New Yorkers and Mississipians might laugh at Black sidekick Rochester’s gags for different reasons, but they all laughed, they had that in common.

The same would have been true for All in the Family, America’s top-ranked show in the 1970s (which, coincidentally, also ran on CBS on Sundays from 8 to 8:30). Some audience members laughed at the white bigot Archie Bunker and some laughed with him, but they all laughed, and it opened up lines of communication across the Thanksgiving table.

In 1971, Carson’s late-night talk show pulled in nine million viewers a night, sometimes as many as nineteen million, and his viewership traversed all ideologies. Today, Stephen Colbert averages three million, in a country with 150 million more people.

Progressives tune in to Colbert, which streams on Paramount (and might also catch The Daily Show, streaming on Hulu), while conservatives watch Greg Gutfield‘s late night comedy show on Fox’s cable channel. You may never have heard of Gutfield, but he currently has the highest rated late-night comedy show, probably because he’s the only choice for half the country, the half that would never watch the “woke” streaming platforms, so they all watch him.

Are there conservative TV shows on the streaming platforms? Sure! But their algorithms will make sure that if you are progressive, you will never hear about them.

Television Used to Bridge the Political Divide

The last TV show that successfully bridged the Red/Blue divide in America was King of the Hill, a show about a Republican family patriarch whose politics and worldview were either gently ribbed or perpetually reinforced, depending on your own predisposition. Either way, it was funny.

The last show that tried to bridge the Red/Blue divide in America was the Roseanne revival, which brought Roseanne Connor back as a Trumpist, then promptly killed her off when the real Roseanne sent a tweet that was, well, Trumpy.

So now we live in different places, read different opinions (with different facts) on the internet, and watch entirely different entertainment, behind separate paywalls.

The popular Weird-Western, historical-fantasy/science fiction podcast, The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh, starring Sal Rendino, returns for a full season, with eight new episodes!

Available on Spotify, AmazonApple Podcasts and wherever you get your podcasts

Why Not Just Watch TV?

With all the mishegas over SNL, I thought maybe I’d start watching TV again over the air. For free! See how the other half lives, the part of America that doesn’t stream. Just turn on the TV and watch stuff. It is theoretically possible to unsubscribe from the streaming networks and watch Late Show with Colbert, which I haven’t seen in years and years because I don’t want to pay to subscribe to CBS.

I’m not sure if any of you have watched TV from the airwaves recently, but the fancy new TVs require fancy new expensive antennas, which cost extra. We own one just so we can watch the Oscars once a year. So theoretically, I have the equipment to make the switch.

But what is actually on the networks?

Did you know that NBC, on Wednesday, has a three-hour bloc of different shows about Chicago? Chicago hospital doctors at 8, Chicago firemen at 9, and Chicago police officers at 10. On Tuesday, they have a singing competition, a show about a big sinkhole in Los Angeles, and another show about hospital doctors, this time in New York.

CBS, NBC and ABC all put their best shows behind a paywall (ABC/Disney owns both Hulu and Disney+). You can watch the advertisements for free on the network, but if you want to see the shows themselves — shows like Murders in the Building, Picard, The Good Fight and Yellowstone — you have to buy a Roku box and a subscription.

Plus, if I wanted to go back to “TV,” I’d have to learn when everything is on. And I don’t think I have the intellectual resources for that kind of rigor anymore.


Steven S. Drachman is the author of a science fiction trilogy, The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is available in paperback from your local bookstore, Amazon and Barnes & Noble; it is also available as a Kindle e-book.

Image design by Steven S. Drachman