By Sammy Bovitz
We live in a more unpredictable streaming world than ever before. Netflix lost subscribers for the first time in a decade, CNN+ shut down after just a month, and Apple– yeah, Apple— just won the Academy Award for Best Picture for CODA. But it takes a deeper look to understand what’s happening on the digital battlefield of the biggest entertainment corporations in the country.
About a year ago, I took a look at the state of streaming services across the United States, analyzing from the perspective of each individual service. But analyzing services on a case-by-case basis doesn’t show the full picture. The decisions these services make are not random– it’s all about the strategies of the companies behind them. Like it or not, these services are businesses first, so seemingly random announcements always have a monetary motivation behind them.
With that in mind, let’s analyze the biggest services from the perspective of the corporations behind them, and how their respective game plans have been working out. Let’s start with the most predictable and consistent company so far, which has to be…
DISNEY (Disney+, Hulu, ESPN+)
The House of Mouse had a clear and obvious plan going in, namely “we own everything, and you should pay for it.” This plan seems to be working. The base Disney+ experience is already a fairly complete service. Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and National Geographic is a near-unbeatable base lineup, and its rapidly expanding slate of originals has filled the service’s need for more TV shows to balance out the films. Already, we’ve gotten an original Pixar show, three original Star Wars shows, six Marvel Studios productions, and a grab bag of assorted adaptations and reboots that fill out one of the most robust original libraries of the new streaming players.
In addition, the purchase of 21st Century Fox and their properties means a rapidly growing backlog of additional films and shows. Hulu continues to press on, as does ESPN+, but the recent addition of ESPN documentaries as well as a filter for mature content on Disney+ may indicate a merger of these three services (or at least two of them) at some point in the future. Hulu itself is no slouch right now, with series like The Handmaid’s Tale, Only Murders in the Building, Reservation Dogs, and The Kardashians all generating decent buzz. It’s still worthwhile as of now as a standalone service, but seems to be slowly losing relevance as time goes on.
But for now, the package deal of Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ appears to be a well-liked service among viewers, and shows no signs of slowing down.
WARNER BROS. DISCOVERY (HBO Max, Discovery+,
A few years ago, I predicted that HBO Max would one day be the biggest threat to Netflix in terms of universal appeal in its library. Disney has clearly not been a slouch in that department, but HBO Max is slowly but surely making its case to viewers everywhere. From the start the service had HBO, DC, Studio Ghibli, Cartoon Network, Sesame Street, and Friends. But it didn’t have noteworthy originals, and the starting price was too expensive. So Warner Bros. buckled down and began to rapidly add content. They’ve begun to release HBO shows just hours after they air on the service, making shows like Euphoria and Last Week Tonight almost indistinguishable from Max originals to the average viewer. More importantly, the service itself finally has a competitive lineup of buzzy originals: The Flight Attendant, Hacks, Peacemaker, Julia, and Sex and the City sequel series And Just Like That all made a splash upon release. With the promise of original DC films and Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon on the way, HBO Max is possibly the most promising service out there right now – and it’s about to get bigger.
Warner Bros. is now Warner Bros. Discovery, and their long-planned merger with the titular Discovery Inc. will bring the likes of the Food Network and HGTV to the service once their content joins HBO Max in the near future. In fact, the aforementioned shutdown of CNN+ makes all the sense in the world. Warner Bros. Discovery owns CNN, and would love nothing more than to make CNN’s library, not to mention the Food Network’s, just another hub on the menu.
AMAZON (Amazon Prime Video)
Amazon’s doing pretty well. They now have the full library of James Bond films, the exclusive rights to a dozen NFL games each year for the next decade, the first entry in the Lord of the Rings franchise in 20 years, your left ear, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, every sock in existence, The Boys, the ability to rent almost anything, enough stuffed animals to fill an island, Jeff Bezos’s soul…
APPLE (Apple TV+)
You could argue that Apple is in the same boat as Amazon, as they’re just another big tech company jumping into the entertainment business. But Apple came in with a much less obvious pitch. While Amazon relies on both rentals and subscriptions to Amazon Prime, which just happens to include Video, Apple was producing a service practically out of thin air and filled almost exclusively with original content.
But the little trillion-dollar engine that could has continued to make a splash with its originals. Ted Lasso, Dickinson, The Morning Show, Mythic Quest, Severance, The Afterparty, Central Park, and For All Mankind have ended up as a pretty compelling lineup of originals. They’ve been supplemented by more surefire hits like a Fraggle Rock reboot, The Problem With Jon Stewart, and, in a recent move, exclusive Major League Baseball broadcasts on Friday nights. Then there’s film, and in addition to the aforementioned CODA, movies like Cherry, Come From Away, and Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth are a solid start. I was definitely a lot more lukewarm on this service’s library a year ago, but it now appears to be at least competitive, which is more than I could say from many other offerings out right now.
A year ago, I said this:
“If people see enough originals they like, Netflix will be just fine. But we’ll truly understand how much shows like The Office mattered as the service moves into full-on original territory within the next few years and subscription numbers are revealed.”
Well then! It looks like Netflix is steadily losing ground in the streaming wars. It’s clear that they can’t exactly rest on their laurels anymore. They lost subscribers for the first time in nearly a decade, largely due to a crackdown on password sharing, but is that really the only reason?
To their credit, Netflix isn’t exactly slowing down when it comes to originals– Inventing Anna, season 2 of Bridgerton, and the final season of Ozark have all gotten good ratings, with new seasons of heavy hitters like Stranger Things, The Crown, and The Umbrella Academy still coming. Then there was Squid Game, the kind of worldwide phenomenon Netflix needed in 2021. Locking in a second season was rightfully a top priority for the service. In the film department, they had a solid holiday season with Tick Tick Boom and Don’t Look Up, and 2022 promises films like the long-awaited sequel to Knives Out.
With all these big originals, you would think that Netflix would continue their dominance in streaming. But it’s clear to anyone that they just haven’t done that. Again, it’s not as if they’ve exactly let up in terms of quality original content, but there are simply too many new streaming services with unique appeal. HBO Max has brought more critical hits than any other service, Disney+ boasts originals from some of the biggest franchises in the world, Apple TV+ is pretty solid for the price point, and Hulu and Amazon Prime are still competitive. Unless they do something drastic to turn heads, Netflix’s reign at the top is over. But that doesn’t mean they’re going anywhere.
There are a few other players worth a mention. Paramount+ and Peacock are doing solidly enough, but neither have a huge library of notable originals, and it seems like they’ll stay firmly in the second tier of streamers.
In other news, the two biggest anime streamers Crunchyroll and Funimation recently announced a merger. It likely won’t change much in the larger landscape – Netflix has invested lots in animation, though recent layoffs have unfortunately changed that, and almost every major streamer has major animated series at this point. But it’s still an acquisition to keep in mind– anime is huge, and this kind of centralization of the medium could really drive subscriber totals up.
Other than that, it appears that the previously uncertain world of streaming is finally falling into a sort of certainty. It appears right now that we have a clear hierarchy in place, with Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, and Amazon Prime at the top, and Apple TV+, Hulu, Peacock, and Paramount+ not far behind.
If there’s one thing that these companies like to do, it’s make money. Other than that, though, they certainly love to subvert expectations. So who knows what this landscape might look like in one year’s time?