Disney launched its much-anticipated Disney+ streaming service just a little over a year ago on November 12, 2019 and the Streaming Wars heated up in earnest. For more than a decade prior, the streaming market had largely been the exclusive domain of Amazon (2006), Netflix (2007) and Hulu (2007). Other services launched sporadically during and since that time, but were for the most part catering to niche audiences, such as anime-focused Crunchyroll (2006) or were platform-specific such as Sony’s Crackle (2006). The one thing they had in common was that they were all websites like YouTube (2005). And, all were possible due to the faster computer servers and broadband becoming available within the US and Canada, supplanting dial-up. Just as YouTube drove music video programming off of MTV and VH-1, in a few short years, streaming services had ensured the demise of the video rental industry.
Since 2014, the number of major streaming services had grown by over a dozen. Cable and satellite TV operators along with telecom companies, facing the long-running trend of “cord cutting” – enabled by the rise of streaming services – launched their own streaming services in an attempt to slow the loss of customers. Joining them, a number of studios also made content available, frequently removing it from other platforms at the same time. Even YouTube got into the act announcing its own premier subscriber platform YouTube Red in 2105. It joined with Amazon, Netflix and Hulu in going beyond solely distributing content created by others, producing original and exclusive content of their own.
Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, cable and telecom companies acquired studios to build content libraries in order to keep customers and possibly draw them from the competition. This industry consolidation hit a peak frenzy in during 2018-19 when AT&T finally acquired Warner Bros after a long, drawn out process, CBS and Viacom re-merged after a 15-year divorce and Disney not only won a pricey bidding war for Fox, but in quick order, cemented its control of Hulu with CEO Bob Iger announcing the November launch of Disney+.
In addition to Disney, other content owners announced the launch – or at least plans to launch their own services. But, other studios saw the fierce fight ahead and decided to bow out. Rupert Murdoch, who had built the Fox media empire saw that he would not be able to create a streaming powerhouse and surrendered the field to Disney, taking the Mouse’s money and running. Sony, the weakest of the Big 5 Hollywood studios now that Fox was gone, likewise shut down its Play Station Vue service and sold off control of its Crackle service. Warner Bros. new corporate masters slowly and systematically dismantled the DCU service, starting by killing off the successful Swamp Thing TV series and ultimately relegating it to a digital comic book shop.
The Bug in the System
The COVID-19 pandemic upended everyone’s plans in unforeseen ways. On the one hand, with live entertainment and theaters going dark, people turned to streaming services. But, for those studios whose business model was based on cinematic releases bringing in huge box office revenue to fund further projects, it brought pain that could only be partially offset by premiering on their streaming platforms instead.
The coronavirus brought an early demise to the much hyped and well-funded Quibi short-format streamer. It launched just as the pandemic was taking hold and a majority of its subscribers shifted to working from home, thus removing the appeal of 10 minute video segments which could be viewed during a commute.
NBCUniversal, having had its cinematic schedule upended by theater closures, was the first to break and released its Trolls World Tour animated film via various streaming platforms in a Video On Demand (VOD) format in an attempt to recoup some of its costs. To the studio’s pleasant surprise, it more than broke even, but risked the anger of the largest theater chains, Regal and AMC who were still shuttered and subsequently promised to boycott future offerings, although all parties negotiated a profit-sharing agreement for future such releases.
For its part, Disney pushed its 2020 release schedule back a few months, before finally shifting the entire schedule of its Marvel, Disney and Avatar branded films back a full year. In addition, it moved a few of its lesser features to Disney+, which by then had grown to the number three streaming platform in North America less than six months after its launch, more than doubling the subscribers of its stablemate, Hulu. Disney’s new CEO, Bob Chapek, announced that at the end of the summer, the company would make a more intense focus on streaming as a source of revenue. That was followed up in early December by major layoffs among executives at its Burbank, CA headquarters. Control of content for both Disney+, Hulu and ABC television was consolidated and a few legacy Fox studios that had survived last year’s merger were folded into their Disney/ABC counterparts.
Also at the end of summer, as it was being separately announced that the studio’s 2020-2021 blockbuster schedule would be postponed by a full year, Disney acknowledged the inevitable and released the live action Mulan in September on Disney+ and announced that Pixar’s Soul would follow in December. Unfortunately for the Mouse, Mulan did not replicate Troll’s success as a premium VOD release, hampered in large part due to Chinese government action and international fallout from its filming in areas where Beijing had been systematically repressing its Uighur minority. While it was the victim of a unique set of circumstances, it has likely contributed to Disney’s unwillingness to give any of its other blockbusters streaming premiers, choosing instead to go with a year delay.
Please Adjust Your Set
Launching only four months after Disney+, AT&T’s HBO Max service has yet to find the same level of success. It has 8.6 million paid subscribers to the 73.7 million paying for Disney+. For that reason, and lacking the same broad library plus original programming (namely, The Mandalorian) enjoyed by its Burbank neighbor, Warner Bros’ 2021 schedule, including Dune, Wonder Woman 1984 and others would debut simultaneously on HBO Max and in theaters where possible. In order to forestall AMC and Regal’s anger, the movies would only be available on the streamer for a month before becoming theatrical-only shows. While Disney has reported a $2.83B loss for the year, AT&T’s $160B debt (in part due to its acquisition of Warner Bros), plus declines in subscribers for its DirecTV and cable operations means that it has a more urgent need to boost its HBO Max by retaining customers and hopefully incentivizing new sign ups. The folding in of the content of its former DCU platform is also intended to bring in those former subscribers while removing needless competition with its own flagship service.
Similarly, ViacomCBS is undergoing its second major shakeup since last year’s merger. Its CBS All Access platform, which has seen monumental growth since the launch of the Star Trek franchise shows is also creating premium content based on other CBS shows. It will be rebranded as Paramount Plus early in 2021 with a shift from its TV show focus to include Paramount’s movie library as well as offering content from BET, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and other properties. But at the same time, it will be shutting down its other, smaller services such as MTV Hits, NickHits, Comedy Central Now, and Noggin.
Late to the game is NBCUniversal’s Peacock service. Although it only launched in August of 2020, it has a reported subscriber base of 22 million, but most of those are via the company’s Comcast and Xfinity cable and internet services as well as via Cox Cable. Additionally, the basic ad-supported service is available for free to anyone with an internet connection. Comcast still retains a 33% stake in Hulu via its acquisition of NBC, but it can sell its portion to Disney in a few years.
As Things Stand Now and a Look to the Future
At the end of 2020, Netflix still dominates with 195 million subscribers with Amazon’s Prime Video a relatively close second at 150 million. Disney+ third at 73.7 million, but it achieved that number in a year where it took Netflix nearly a decade to do so. Disney’s other services, Hulu and ESPN+ have 36.6 million and 10 million respectively, with some of that being due to the package deal that was offered giving subscribers a discount for signing up for two or all three services. Others in the over 10 million subscriber range are Comcast’s Peacock (22 million), Google’s YouTube Premium (20 million), documentary-focused Curiosity Stream (13 million), CBS All Access/Paramount Plus (11.3 million) and Apple TV+ which also launched in November 2019 and has 10 million.
Trailing far behind (so far), are AT&T’s HBO Max (8.6 million), its older HBO NOW (8 million) service and it’s anime-centric Crunchyroll (3 million). Britbox, which brings UK television to the US has 1.5 million. There are several dozen other, smaller services which are highly focused, whether being operated by sports teams, or catering to specific audiences such as veterans, or fans of cult movies. Additionally, there are video-on-demand services such as Fandango’s Vudu. Clearly not all of these will survive the Streaming Wars. The clear favorites are those with the ability to supply viewers with new content as well as classic favorites. The studio-backed ones as well as those owned by the internet providers themselves are similarly best positioned to endure. With Amazon and Netflix being their own studios and production companies, their scale also helps ensure their survival. Apple certainly has cash to burn, but they may be content to be a smaller player since they use their content to promote sales of their hardware. There was a swirl of rumors throughout 2019 that they would be buying Sony Pictures as the Japanese company has made no secret of wanting to exit the film production business, but it’s unclear whether that speculation was just wishful thinking or if COVID-19 upended those plans, like so many others.
The stuff we love to watch is intimately bound to the swirling corporate dance of streamers, as they jockey for position in the marketplace, Watching the melee unfold in real time, we are often bewildered by the complexity of it all, and we ask ourselves, is this really what our genre of choice has become? Is this our lives from now on?
But it’s easy to lose track of the fact that this is not the totality. At the base of it all is not the rhythmic rise and fall of studio fortunes, but all the books and comics and imagination that pours from them upon which all the movies and television shows are based. It’s not them – it’s us. All these giants stomping about the landscape would have nothing if not for us, and while the Streaming Wars may dominate the news cycles these days, the giants of today will be the footnotes of tomorrow.
New forms of media will level playing fields once again as they emerge, pushing streaming to the back seat as streaming has done with movie theaters, television, and radio before it. At the base of it all, though, will be us, and the imagination that streams from us.
In the immortal words of Stan Lee, “stay tuned, true believers!”