With COVID-19 canceling in-person movie nights for the time being, it’s unfortunate that group streaming technology for the socially distant equivalent isn’t outstanding.
There are more remote movie night services and apps than ever, such as Netflix Party and Scener, and many of them work decently enough. However, nothing has recreated the experience of sitting down in front of a gorgeous television with a group of friends.
The good news for a variety of reasons is that 2020 won’t last forever. Group streaming can, should, and probably will get better.
It’s tough to project exactly how it will look in 2025 given that few of us ever thought we would even need group streaming just six months ago. As new apps pop up with new features on a regular basis, the best we can do is take stock of what we have now and use that to build a list of what we want, like better TV compatibility and less tech troubleshooting.
Where group streaming is at now
The good news is there’s at least one way to stream every major service such as Netflix, Disney+, and Hulu with other people.
Hulu and Amazon Prime Video have led the charge with their own official group streaming apps. Hulu Watch Party is one of the most bare-bones and restrictive options, as every user needs an ad-free Hulu login. It also only works in a web browser, which is the same with Prime Video Watch Party. Amazon’s offering is exclusive to paying Prime members and, like Hulu’s, it only provides basic text chat for communication.
Other streaming stalwarts like HBO, Netflix, and Disney have yet to produce their own official solutions. You can use unofficial Google Chrome extensions like Netflix Party and Disney Plus Party to watch those streaming networks with your pals, or you can turn to sites like TwoSeven and Scener that bundle a handful of different streaming services into one group streaming UI.
Scener is unique among its peers in that it partnered with HBO near the beginning of the pandemic in the United States, making it the “official” way to group watch HBO content despite also offering Netflix, Hulu, and a bundle of other options.
In case you’re wondering how that works, Scener founder Joe Braidwood told Mashable that steaming services aren’t necessarily against third-party sites as long as nothing is being stolen.
“[The HBO deal] would not happen if we weren’t friendly to the industry, if we weren’t additive to the goals that they have, and if they didn’t see us as a great way to drive the conversation around their own content,” Braidwood said.
If you don’t care what content houses like Disney think about your viewing habits, Plex Watch Together is arguably the most limitless solution right now. Instead of pulling content from other people, Plex lets you upload any video file you have to a private server and share it with friends. If you just so happened to have a movie lying around on your hard drive, you could watch it with friends on Plex. It also works on a TV through an app (with no native chat features), unlike everything else we’ve covered.
Group streaming went from being a novelty for some to a necessity for many in a jiffy. It exploded due to unprecedented global conditions, making it difficult to predict exactly where it will go. That doesn’t mean we can’t try.
Where group streaming might be in 2025
In our conversation with Braidwood, the Scener founder pointed out something that tends to be true in the tech world: One company could do it better than everyone and force the rest of the industry to follow suit.
“I think that there will be one big winner…and then I think that these experiences will be piecemeal integrated into every viewing platform,” Braidwood said.
It’s just a little too early to tell exactly who will change the game to that degree. We reached out to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and Disney to ask if they had plans to introduce official group streaming features or expand their existing ones. All of them were tight-lipped, so it’s up to us to figure out the future.
First things first, someone needs to solve the TV problem. Watching Michael Mann’s 1995 artistic achievement Heat with your buds (as I did recently) is a great time, but the experience is diminished on a laptop screen. It’s a visual art form, one that needs to be experienced on the best display you own.
Sadly, modern TVs and streaming devices weren’t built with any of this in mind. How do you chat with people on devices with no cameras, microphones, or keyboards built in? Companies are going to need to experiment with some deeply goofy ideas to make this work. Let’s start with a basic one: Living room TVs with webcams built in.
That should set off every privacy alarm you have, but it’s a possibility if we have to keep watching content this way. In 2025, Sony, Vizio, or any other manufacturer could sell you a breathtaking 8K set that’s spying on you as you eat too many Doritos on the couch. On the plus side, you’d be able to watch sports (if they still exist) with your buddies and gauge their reactions in real-time thanks to small webcam windows around the screen.
Even if TVs don’t include webcams in their hardware, there’s plenty of room for third-party alternatives. You can already plug some of them into TVs for big-screen video chats. Gaming consoles could also help out, given that PlayStation and Xbox already include robust social features like voice chat. It’s probably worth noting that Netflix is incredibly popular on Xbox, so there might be demand going forward.
If TV manufacturers don’t seize the opportunity, standalone streaming hardware might step in. In one potential (and potentially annoying) scenario, a company like Roku could add social features to its lineup of streaming devices. Maybe you could curate a friends list and see a social feed showing what everyone’s watching just like you already do with music on Spotify, perhaps even with a way to hop in and join if you have the right login. Of course, those devices might have to have webcams built in, too.
However, none of this matters if content creators aren’t on board. The worst-case scenario would be companies like Netflix putting barriers around their content by creating their own hardware for group streaming, which could be expensive and exclusionary. There’s no reason for a Netflix box to exist in 2020, but five years from now, the company could decide that owning one is the only way to remotely watch season 17 of Stranger Things with friends.
If group streaming takes off, we may see a power struggle between studios and third-party app developers going forward. Roku may not implement group streaming at the system level because a company like TwoSeven or Scener could step in with a TV-compatible app of their own. You might need to memorize which streaming services work with which group watch apps, much like how you have to memorize which shows and movies are on which services right now. Confusion is just great, isn’t it?
The best possible outcome is an end to the COVID-19 pandemic and a return to our normal lives where we don’t need group streaming to the same extent that we do now. That’s the most powerful wrench that could be thrown into every single one of those predictions.
There is, of course, plenty of demand right now. According to Braidwood, Scener’s usage has grown greatly since the pandemic started and the site is on track for more than a million weekly active users by the end of 2020. That’s just one example, but it might be a sign that people are generally interested in doing this going forward.
Ideally, we won’t have to rely on group streaming to watch classics with our friends once the pandemic fades. That said, it’s proven itself useful under the current circumstances and could still facilitate long-distance movie nights even when it’s safe to see people again. Whether it’s out of necessity or not, group streaming can and arguably should factor into the future of on-demand entertainment.