We all know that TV as we know it is on the way out. No longer is it a choice between giving your money to Netflix or Amazon Prime (answer: always Netflix). This autumn will see the big beasts coming lumbering into view in ultra-HD, all set to end the idea of “broadcast TV” for good. There’s Disney, who will launch Disney+, which promises to bring every Disney title under one roof, from the Marvel and Star Wars films to Pixar and the rest, along with a whole host of original commissioning (of which a new Star Wars and Marvel series – starring Tom Hiddleston’s Loki – are but two). And then of course there’s Apple, who will launch Apple TV+ and with it a host of new shows from the likes of JJ Abrams, Steven Spielberg and even Oprah Winfrey.
But what if your tastes are more, well, particular? What if you really want to binge-watch some quality South Korean drama? Or wall-to-wall anime? It turns out, there’s a streaming service for that too (specifically: Viki and Crunchyroll). But they are far from the only ones. As streaming services aim more and more for the middle of the middle ground, so niche streaming services have popped up to fill the streaming margins. There’s Le Cinéma Club, a Netflix for film snobs that keeps its audience away from the idiot box by presenting exactly one new release a weekm and then there’s Fandor, the indie film streamer for those who think Le Cinéma Club isn’t niche and snobby enough.
But while those merely curate, others – just like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney and Apple – are creators too. Shudder, for fans of horror, has originals such as Satan’s Slaves (tagline, “She comes back for the last child”; shudder rating, four skulls) and Deadwax (“a mindbending neo-noir set in the obsessive world of vinyl collecting”; also four skulls).
Many of these niche services, in fairness, are simply bad, repackaging old content no one else wants to (Shout Factory TV, for instance, is where bad Eighties films go to die, including Munchie, a Gremlins knockoff, and Cyberzone: Droid Gunner, a Bladerunner knockoff).
But others are thriving by occupying niches you didn’t suspect existed. Acorn TV specialises in middle-brow, Daily Mail-friendly UK programming for a US audience. Shows such as Doc Martin, Midsomer Murders and Line Of Duty are brought across the pond for Americans who like actors with accents and, if possible, called Martin Clunes (along with every series of Doc Martin you can also watch Clunes as a detective in Manhunt and as himself in Martin Clunes’ Islands Of America).
Manhunt and Islands Of America are both Acorn TV Originals, providing more Martin Clunes for your buck than any other streaming service, and it’s not the only one. Take your pick from Queens Of Mystery (imagine The Golden Girls, but set in Middle England, where they solve crimes) or London Kills (featuring a detective whose wife is missing: “a case he has been unable to solve”). The latter shows how strange the niche streaming ecosystem has become. As Acorn TV Originals are created to be American exclusives, nothing stops them from selling the rights to a UK broadcaster. And so London Kills – a UK show made by a US streaming service specialising in UK shows – also airs in the UK on BBC iPlayer with viewers none of the wiser.
Sometimes, a show that’s popular on Acorn will be cancelled in the UK, only to be revived by Acorn, which refuses to let the patient die. Ever heard of Agatha Raisin, the Sky One comedy crime drama starring Ashley Jensen as a PR from the big city turned crime solver in a small village? Sky cancelled it, but Acorn was so appalled that last year it commissioned a new series, this time with feature-length episodes (evidently the secret to making Agatha Raisin better was making it longer).
And yet from Acorn TV mighty oaks can grow: in 2015 it became the only niche streaming service to be nominated for an Emmy when Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case was up for Best Television Movie.
There are also streaming services that are niche in size, even if the companies behind them are anything but. Facebook Watch has seen Mark Zuckerberg dip the edge of exactly one toe in the streaming market. What is there to watch on Facebook Watch, you ask? Not a lot. The biggest success has been the Elizabeth Olsen-starring drama Sorry For Your Loss. The rest are reality shows that, in fairness, perfectly fit the Facebook brand: cynical mass-market flotsam such as prank show You Kiddin’ Me (the title of which helpfully doubles as your reaction to any Facebook news story).
Into this world of on-demand ubiquity there is even a niche in streaming services that bring back, well, broadcast television. Pluto TV, which is free, includes a whole host of actual online-only channels, from Glory Kickboxing (“all-striking, all the time”) and The Pet Collective (“the funniest animal videos”) to channels that show “retro” everything (Retro Drama, Retro Movies, Retro Toons). It “brings back”, boasts the Pluto TV website, “the linear TV you love”.