By Sammy Bovitz
If there’s anything that people all agree on when it comes to streaming services, it’s that there are simply too many. An overwhelming amount of content to choose from for ongoing monthly prices means that consumers have to pick and choose which services they deem to be worth shelling out real money for and which one will be Quibi. Each major streaming service has spent a little under a year on the market at this point, so let’s take a look at each one in terms of their outlook now and what the future holds. We’ll be taking a look at nine services, which can be easily split up into three categories:
Group One: The Powerhouses
With over 200 million subscriptions, Netflix is still king, and it’s easy to see why. The sheer amount and variety of content is unmatched. HBO Max has since outclassed them when it comes to quality, but still, no one is topping Netflix. But it still costs a bunch of money– even an account for one person costs $8.99 a month, and that doesn’t even provide HD. Most people are probably getting the next tier up, which is $13.99. To keep people convinced, and to keep Netflix at the top, the company is going to have to fight off Disney+ and HBO Max, and they need to keep providing quality originals and variety of content. Seinfeld alone coming over is not going to save them. The Crown and Stranger Things are still coming, but that’s not enough– not to mention that we haven’t seen anything about release timing for the latter show’s fourth season.
More than any other streaming service, Netflix is seeing their third parties leaving for other services or to start new services of their own. The Office, Friends, and Disney content alone is a huge blow, so Netflix needs to rebound and double down on originals. For now, that’s exactly what’s happening. The sheer variety that they have already is overwhelming: Bridgerton, Ozark, The Witcher, Narcos: Mexico, The Umbrella Academy, Outer Banks, Master of None, The Poltician, Space Force, Big Mouth, Love is Blind, Grace and Frankie, Cobra Kai, and Lucifer are just some of the original shows set to return right now. As for the future in both movies and shows, the Knives Out sequels, the Avatar: The Last Airbender reboot, Tick… Tick… Boom!, the star-studded Red Notice, a Cowboy Bebop reboot, a Matilda series, The Kissing Booth and The Princess Switch sequels (for people that are not me) are just the tip of the iceberg. Netflix is also going all-in on games, with Magic: the Gathering, Resident Evil, Sonic Prime, and The Cuphead Show! all slated for the next few years. 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.
Absolutely no one is shocked to see that this streaming powerhouse is still going strong, and their recent price hike to $7.99 a month didn’t seem to faze anyone. Disney+ doesn’t exactly live and die by its originals– the Disney, Pixar, Star Wars, and Marvel content they already have will keep plenty around– but the remainder of their 2021 lineup looks incredibly strong. We’ve got big hitters for Disney+ coming up for every major tentpole. Marvel is going to continue to lead the way with Loki, What-If, Ms.Marvel, Hawkeye, and even Black Widow coming to its $30 Premier Access service– for my money, the first real must-have for that price. That’s only 2021 we’re getting into, and Disney+ will always have the Marvel diehards locked into a subscription as long as the shows keep coming and they keep making a splash. Star Wars spinoff The Bad Batch is going to carry on through the summer, and with The Book of Boba Fett, The Mandalorian season 3, Andor, and even Obi-Wan Kenobi coming in the next year or so, fans of the franchise will have more than their fair share. The Pixar straight-to-streaming trend is going to continue with Luca, but keep an eye on this one– it’s not getting nearly as much attention as Onward and Soul did. Luca’s performance could mean a lot for the future of Pixar in theatres. It could also mean nothing, so we’ll see. But that’s not even the end of Disney+ originals this year: Monsters at Work, Muppets Haunted Mansion, Dug Days, and The Mysterious Benedict Society are among the highlights slated for this year.
The service hit 100 million subscribers months ago, and as long as enough people don’t get tired of Marvel and Star Wars, Disney+ will continue to rise. But it remains to be seen how rapidly this rise will continue– the service is running out of big new regions to hit and big service-selling originals. If WandaVision didn’t sell people, who’s to say that Hawkeye would change that? The only gigantic title I see next year that could finally push people over the edge is Obi-Wan Kenobi, but beyond that, this subscriber momentum probably won’t be sustained for too much longer. But the service is going to continue to break through milestones and could even gun for Netflix long-term.
If there’s any service that I thought could topple Netflix down the line at the start, it was HBO Max. But the service really stumbled out of the gate. Max’s $15 price point and lack of compelling launch originals– along with the debacle of having and almost immediately removing the Harry Potter series– made for a largely unappealing service to start, as only The Flight Attendant managed to make a splash in 2020. But a couple of originals came out recently that are pushing the service in the right direction, and those are Zack Snyder’s Justice League and the Friends reunion. The amount of positive press the service is getting– and will continue to get– because of these two titles alone really boosts the first half of their year. Not only that, their decision to bring all of their theatrical releases to the service, if only for this year, is a pretty big bet on the service that could really pay off. The fact that In the Heights, Space Jam: A New Legacy, The Suicide Squad, Dune, and even The Matrix 4 are all coming to HBO Max– no Premier Access required– will drive a lot more subscriptions for sure. But as for the originals themselves, Max has a largely unremarkable lineup. Gossip Girl and the untitled Conan O’Brien series are the headliners confirmed for a 2021 release thus far, and it looks like the real year for Max originals will be 2022, when Peacemaker and Game of Thrones spinoff House of the Dragon headline.
Overall, the best bet for HBO Max will be gradual success in the long term. Over 40 million subscribers is nothing to sneeze at, but it looks like the service is still looking for its Netflix-level tentpole originals, and there are several projects coming up with a lot of promise. It’ll also be interesting to see what happens when it comes to the service’s new ad-supported tier. The fact that the privilege to watch HBO Max with ads comes in at $9.99 a month– $2 more than a typical Disney+ subscription– shows that HBO is still about high-quality content for a high price. Finally, the merger deal with Discovery is going to drive a lot of subscribers– especially if they dissolve Discovery+ in favor of a more robust all-in-one home. This is a direct challenge to Disney’s dominance in the second generation of streaming, and will make for a huge drive of subscribers. I still think HBO Max can beat out Netflix, it’s just going to take a clearly defined strategy– and some slip-ups from the top two.
Group Two: The Wild Cards
Hulu is in a weird position right now. While The Handmaid’s Tale, Love, Victor, PEN15, the Animaniacs reboot, and MODOK is a fine original lineup, it’s not exactly a showstopping group. But there are promising originals in the future, from American Horror Stories, How I Met Your Father, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to reality shows booked with both the D’Amelio and Kardashian families. None of these originals really appeal to me, but I’ll admit it’s a good enough lineup to keep them going. But their content from partners like FOX, ABC, Sony, PBS, and DreamWorks are going to have to continue to carry them– especially with NBC and ViacomCBS content leaving for their own streaming services and one of their biggest shows in Seinfeld heading to Netflix in 2022. A price drop or straight-up merger with Disney+ could be in the cards, but for now, this is one of the weirder players in the streaming wars.
Amazon Prime Video
This company is rich with a capital R, so continuing to invest in streaming for movies, TV, music, and video games is going to continue. Being free with Amazon Prime will allow this service to continue to survive. But whether it’s going to do anything with that remains to be seen. They’ve got The Marvelous Mrs.Maisel, The Boys, and Invincible as headlining originals, but like Hulu, their strength mostly lies in their vast back catalog. But with partners pulling out, they’re going to have to pivot to bigger series to keep people interested. Good thing is, Amazon has The Lord of The Rings, A League of Their Own, and even an adaptation of popular video game series Fallout coming. I don’t see this service going away anytime soon, but it’s not going to take the world by storm either. But they purchased MGM for $8.4 billion as I was getting ready to finish this article, so I guess they’re serious about this.
Peacock is yet another weird one, and haven’t quite done enough to set themselves apart from the competition. NBCUniversal doesn’t seem to be all-in on the service, but they’ll probably stick around– Peacock has The Office and Harry Potter, and that on its own might be enough for some people. Shows like the Saved by the Bell reboot, Rutherford Falls, Girls 5eva, and The Amber Ruffin Show have been modest successes if nothing else, and future titles like a Battlestar Galactica reboot have promise, but nothing is really selling me about Peacock right now. For one thing, the “free” tier they offer is not a lot more than a glorified free trial, except with no time limit, almost no original programming beyond the first couple episodes, and with ads. Peacock needs to push more people to the Premium tier, as it’s a fairly good Hulu alternative for $4.99 a month with ads, and less to the very limited “free” offerings. Peacock will stick around as long as NBCUniversal understands they’ve got a long way to go and sells their more appealing tiers more often. They have The Office, but as even Netflix learned, that’s not enough. I don’t think Peacock is going anywhere, but they need to have more standout originals and have a much clearer direction in order to stand out.
Group Three: The Unnecessary Ones
Apple TV+ is another case of the gigantic company dipping their toes into streaming, and is perhaps the most confusing one we’ve seen outside of Quibi. The only original I really love from Apple is Ted Lasso, and other headliners like The Morning Show, For All Mankind, Dickinson, Central Park, and the film Cherry have a niche audience at best. Things like a new Jon Stewart series, the Fraggle Rock reboot, Come From Away, and The Shrink Next Door have promise, but none of these sell people on Apple’s service. Their back catalog outside of originals is also pretty barren– they’ve got Charlie Brown and the Fraggles, but not a lot else. There’s not much of a reason to buy Apple TV+ right now, and as much as I love Ted Lasso, I wish he and Charlie Brown were just on Netflix.
You might have known this one as CBS All Access or as that one commercial that played too much during the Super Bowl. ViacomCBS actually has a pretty big library, but they don’t quite have the movie library that NBCUniversal does. To me, this service is just a lesser Peacock right now. Their original headliners are Star Trek, a spinoff of The Good Wife (The Good Fight), and, I don’t know, the Rugrats reboot? To be fair, they’ve got reboots galore in development (iCarly, Frasier, Dora the Explorer, The Fairly Odd-Parents), and for some reason ViacomCBS thinks they can adapt the award-winning green man shoots things video game known as Halo into a television series. But unless you really like Star Trek, there’s not a lot here. Sure, they’ve got a limited amount of live sports similar to Peacock, but both of their offerings are so all over the place that it’s not worth much of a mention, especially because of the last service we need to talk about.
I am a huge sports fan, but I still don’t understand ESPN+ for the life of me. I love 30 for 30 and would love if live sports pivoted to streaming– after all, when that happens, cable will be officially obsolete. But ESPN+ is pretty unclear about what it offers. They have a lot of soccer and a little bit of baseball, but even when NFL games come over, it won’t really be enough. Not only that, no one’s going to pay $5 a month for Peyton’s Places or the return of NFL Primetime (which should’ve been on cable, let’s be honest). Not only that, the weirdest streaming service in the world in ESPN3 is still active, but most of it is behind a paywall. Plus, people that want to pay a premium for more ESPN articles don’t always want to sign up for a streaming service to do so, and vice versa, so selling them separately might be a nice option. It would make a lot of sense for ESPN+ to fully merge into Hulu so both services can stay relevant. If they combine Hulu’s back catalog and originals with 30 for 30 and actual live sports, Hulu will make the case as the strongest challenger in terms of variety to Netflix, except for the fact that they don’t have the best family-friendly content, which stays on Disney+. Sure, it makes sense to have three separate streaming services so that people pay for all the Disney they can consume (each sold separately), but from the average consumer’s perspective, combining all three services for the price of an HBO Max subscription makes all the sense in the world. They’re already bundling Disney+, ESPN+, and ad-tier Hulu right now, after all! An all-in-one Disney home might be overwhelming, but to truly dethrone Netflix, it might be their best bet.
So that’s a general recap on the state of streaming so far, but it’s going to be a while once we see the hierarchy of services actually take shape. I’ll bet that at least two of these services won’t last too long– my money’s on Paramount+ and ESPN+– but we’ll just have to see how much streaming the average consumer can take. Services like Quibi got absolutely destroyed, and there aren’t many major entertainment companies left that aren’t attempting their own streaming services. I don’t see more than 5 or 6 of these services really sticking with everyone long-term, and it’ll be fascinating to see where this weird world of watching goes next.