Who will win the streaming wars?
An epic battle is brewing in the entertainment industry. In the coming months, most of the biggest media conglomerates will launch their own streaming services in a high-stakes effort to remain relevant by selling movies, TV programming and short-form videos directly to viewers.
While the much-anticipated slugfest between the Walt Disney Co. and Netflix Inc. is sure to garner the most attention, AT&T Inc.’s HBO Max and Comcast Corp.’s Peacock also are getting ready to enter the fray, as are Apple Inc.’s Apple TV+ and Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman’s Quibi.
The competition for subscription and advertising dollars has already led to disruption and anxiety. Studios are spending heavily to lock up popular older shows that they hope will get viewers to subscribe. Recently, tensions flared as Disney began rejecting Netflix ads on its TV channels.
“It’s really setting up to where all these massive media organizations are looking to keep their content within their own ecosystems,” said Kevin Crotty, co-president of Century City-based talent agency ICM Partners.
Not every service will be able to thrive in this crowded market, and several companies have clear advantages. But it’s far too early to declare winners and losers, said Tom K. Ara, a Los Angeles-based entertainment industry attorney at the law firm DLA Piper.
“Anyone who says they know how it’s going to play out is foolish,” Ara said.
If any company can claim “favorite” status in the streaming race, it’s probably Disney, which launches its subscription service, Disney+, on Nov. 12.
Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger has been clear about his intentions for Disney+, calling it “the most important product that the company has launched” during his 14-year tenure. It’s not just a product but a shift in Disney’s business model. The company’s stock surged after Disney executives presented their plans at an April investor event at the company’s Burbank headquarters, where they projected attracting 60 million to 90 million subscribers by 2024.
The Mouse House has several key advantages: namely its deep library and slate of originals from the industry’s most enviable collection of brands, including Marvel, Pixar and “Star Wars.” New productions exclusive to Disney+ include a live-action Lucasfilm series, “The Mandalorian,” several Marvel shows including “WandaVision,” and Disney Channel reboots such as “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.”
Another huge factor will be its low price of $6.99 a month, or a discounted $70 a year, compared to Netflix’s basic offering of $8.99 a month. The company also offered a significant three-year discount for D23 members. It will bundle Disney+ with Hulu, which will host more of the company’s non-Disney-branded content, and sports service ESPN+, for $12.99 a month.
The rise of Disney could leave frontrunner Netflix in a vulnerable position.
Netflix, which has long relied on content it licenses from studios as well as its originals, must cope with efforts by suppliers-turned-rivals to claw back the rights to stream programs such as “The Office.” Shares plunged after the company in July reported losing nearly 130,000 U.S. customers in one quarter, and observers were split on whether the stumble was a blip or a trend.
“Netflix has hit a road bump because they’ve reached a saturation point,” said Gene Del Vecchio, an entertainment marketing expert at USC’s Marshall School of Business.
Netflix will now have to rely more on addictive original content, including “Dead to Me” and “Queer Eye,” to maintain its status as a must-have for viewers. Its movies strategy is also poised for a major test when “The Irishman,” an epic from Martin Scorsese, hits theaters Nov. 1 before streaming Nov. 27.
Unlike Disney+, which is focused on family-friendly entertainment, AT&T Inc.’s WarnerMedia will offer something for every demographic. The company’s HBO Max, coming spring 2020, promises originals from its namesake channel, as well as the 96-year-old Warner Bros. studio, Looney Tunes and Cartoon Network.
HBO’s brand is associated with quality. Original shows such as “Dune: The Sisterhood” and a recently announced revival of animated satire “The Boondocks” should help convince people to sign up. In an appeal to families, the company recently announced “Sesame Street” would be moving to HBO Max for new seasons.
But pricing, which has not been announced, could be a hurdle, as Max is expected to be the most expensive on the market. HBO’s existing streaming option, HBO Now, already costs about $15 a month. HBO Max may initially charge a price similar to HBO Now’s, said people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to comment. WarnerMedia is expected to reveal details at an Oct. 29 investor event in Burbank.
Some analysts think the relatively high price may limit how many people sign up for the new service, even with exclusive content and older material including “Friends” and “The Big Bang Theory.” Some in the industry also question whether HBO will continue its dominance following the high level exodus of top executives at the premium channel, including Richard Plepler, the architect of much of HBO’s success under previous Time Warner management.
Meanwhile, Comcast Corp.’s Peacock will be playing catch-up when it launches in April. Peacock promises new seasons of such shows as “A.P. Bio,” reboots of “Battlestar Galactica” and “Saved by the Bell,” and old seasons of favorites including “30 Rock” and “Parks & Recreation.” NBCUniversal is sure to give Peacock a robust promotional push during its presentation of the Tokyo summer Olympics.
But Peacock is taking a different approach to the market, by relying largely on an ad-supported model. The advertising-based version of Peacock will be available for free for NBCUniversal pay-TV subscribers, while an ad-free version will be offered for a yet-undisclosed fee. Cord cutters will have to pay a subscription for the service.
Apple’s much-anticipated efforts in the entertainment space have long faced skepticism, despite the iPhone maker’s enormous cash reserves and fan base. However, the Cupertino, Calif. tech titan’s strategy for Apple TV+ has gradually become clearer.
The new app, launching Nov. 1, costs significantly less than the competition, at $4.99 a month (new Apple device buyers receive a free yearlong subscription). That price should be low enough for many consumers to check out original series, including Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon’s “The Morning Show” and the Jason Momoa sci-fi epic, “See.”
The company still has to prove it can make quality content. Still, with vast resources and a global mobile phone network, Apple can’t be counted out.
“I think people underestimate Apple,” said Dan Rayburn, a digital media analyst at consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. “Apple doesn’t have to have 10,000 hours of content at launch, they just have to have really great content.”