It is now just over a year since hawk-eyed Irish consumers of all things Washington became briefly obsessed with CNN's Key Race Alerts, its "magic wall" of US states turning blue or red and the sleep-defying performance of veteran Bostonian anchor John King. And it was only earlier this year (though it feels longer) that many were drawn back to the news channel by Trump supporters' chaotic storming of the Capitol.
From last Tuesday, alas, Virgin Media Ireland customers who ventured on to channel 205 were met with a black screen, the message "unfortunately CNN have taken the decision to remove their channel from Virgin TV" and a redirection to a website Q&A that outlines how – courtesy of the new strategy of its owner, the spacebar-challenged WarnerMedia – CNN is moving to a subscription model. Well, aren't they all?
In the UK, where it also recently left the platforms BT and Freesat, CNN has indeed started offering the live-stream of its channel as a low-priced subscription, though anyone in the Republic trying to sign up will merely be told “this product isn’t currently available in your area”.
In itself, this is a minor frustration for all but the most die-hard of Donie O’Sullivan fans. For now, CNN remains part of the Sky package under the terms of its content deal with WarnerMedia. Still, the loss of the channel from more than 300,000 cable TV customers is symbolic given the “C” in CNN stands for “cable” and also notable for being one of three developments in the great industry skirmish known as the “streaming wars” to affect Irish audiences just last week.
In themselves, they are all footnotes. And yet they each reflect the extent to which viewers in this tiny market are at the mercy of the international ambitions of media giants as they shape up for their next attempted land-grabs.
The second of the three developments concerns the imminent forays into Europe of the ViacomCBS-owned streamer Paramount Plus, previously known as CBS All Access. In October, a ViacomCBS executive described Europe as "the next logical step" for the platform.
For fans of Star Trek – or, more specifically, fans of one of the franchise’s current iterations, Star Trek: Discovery – the way the US broadcast company has gone about its overseas streaming expansion is, however, deeply illogical. And not all of them are coming to that conclusion with a Spock-like control of emotion.
Just days before season four of Star Trek: Discovery premiered in the US and Canada last week, it emerged that Paramount had pulled the show's previous three seasons from Netflix, which had distributed it in places CBS All Access didn't exist. Gallingly, as Paramount Plus still hasn't been launched in Europe and won't do so until 2022, "international" Star Trek fans would either have to wait months – 1990s-style – to see the new season or resort to piracy to procure it.
The premiere episode of Star Trek: Discovery’s fourth season, incidentally, was titled Kobayashi Maru, which is Trek-speak for “no-win situation”. Let’s hope this was not a forecast of Paramount Plus’s prospects.
While the exact date of its launch in the Irish market has yet to be confirmed, some details about its plan of attack are out there. It will have a direct-to-consumer option, the pricing as yet unknown, but it will also be available through Sky’s platform, either as a paid-for add-on to customers’ accounts or for no additional cost to Sky Cinema subscribers.
Both CNN’s departure from Virgin Media Ireland and Paramount’s old-school Star Trek manoeuvre involve a loss of content to some Irish viewers. This is one of the great ironies of the peak-TV, peak-streaming age. Despite an incredible explosion in total content volumes, our experience of the Irish market often feels as much defined by what is not legally or officially accessible to audiences here as what is. (See also: BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub and Britbox.)
The third development last week did, thankfully, see content added rather than taken away: in the Republic and the UK, customers of Sky’s pay-TV packages and entertainment members of Sky-owned standalone service Now were introduced to Peacock, the nascent streaming brand owned and operated by Sky’s US sister company NBCUniversal.
It would be churlish to note, given the absence of any additional cost, that this European version of Peacock does not exactly replicate its US cousin. On both sides of the Atlantic, Peacock has yet to reach full strut. But what is relevant is that Peacock's arrival is really a means by which Comcast-owned Sky will seek to offset the expected future loss of HBO drama and comedy.
This is likely to happen in 2024, when Sky’s partnership with WarnerMedia is due to expire, allowing the HBO Max streaming service (or whatever it is called by then) to expand into Sky’s European markets, including the Republic.
As the likes of Netflix and Disney Plus chase their next subscriber surges by targeting potential subscribers outside the saturated US market through dizzyingly high spends on local commissioning, WarnerMedia – soon to merge with Discovery Communications – is gathering its troops in Europe at a somewhat more relaxed pace.
Last month, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Spain and Andorra became the first European countries to receive HBO Max, while at least seven more (Turkey, Greece, Estonia, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania and the Netherlands) will have the pleasure in 2022.
By 2024, of course, anything could happen. HBO Max’s European advance could flop or stall. Some also-rans could be in full retreat, as the players with the strongest ammunition – financial and content-wise – divide the spoils of the streaming wars between them.
Consumers could en masse refuse to shell out for yet another subscription or prune those they already have. For streamers, meanwhile, cutting distribution deals with the pay-TV platforms that fancy themselves as “aggregators” could remain in vogue.
Either way, “streaming service” feels an increasingly grand term to describe just another tab, just another app, on our crowded interfaces.