The Streaming Wars: And The Child Shall Lead Them

With Americans a semi-captive audience for most of 2020, the stakes for streaming services have only gotten higher.

Man holding a remote control in front of a television that has Disney+ displayed. The Mandalorian is being advertised on the app.

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The Post has been covering the Streaming Wars for some time now. In the past several months, a number of new developments have taken hold. These include services embracing a new kind of Video-On-Demand (VOD) model, some new service launches, and several layers of content reshuffling. HBO Max, Peacock, and Quibi all launched with various problems, while CBS All Access seems headed for a merger with a larger platform. And then there’s The Mandalorian, which barnstormed social media with breakout character “The Child” (aka “Baby Yoda”) on its way to a jaw-dropping 15 Emmy nominations. But what about stalwarts like Netflix? And how does the Age of COVID-19 change the shape of what’s to come? Here’s your war report.

Lockdown on Demand: When theaters closed across the country with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, studios scrambled to change dates and look at alternative delivery formats. One victory was found at the drive-in; the built-in social distancing that comes with watching a film from your car allowed some new releases to filter out, some old favorites to come roaring back, and for some small films to generate (for them) big numbers. One of the first movies that was slated for a big theatrical release, but shifted to a VOD delivery, was Trolls World Tour. The sequel to the hit 2016 animated musical became available for digital rental on April 10 (which was the same day that it debuted in a limited number of theaters), but at a steeper rental price point that would be more akin to taking a family of four to the movies. The film made a startling $40 million off of rentals in its opening weekend. IndieWire estimated in August that it’s made around $150 million in rentals through the life of its release. Other studios have followed suit with select releases. Bill & Ted Face the Music from United Artists bowed in select theaters and for a $19.99 rental across a number of services. In just four days, it was Fandango’s top title for all of August.

The trailer for Mulan. (Uploaded to YouTube by Walt Disney Studios)

However, it looks like Disney+ is in line to have lightning strike twice. The first major mouse move was to bring the filmed version of Hamilton to the service months before it was scheduled to arrive in theaters. The July 3 release spurred a quarter of a million new Disney+ subscriptions that weekend, and Variety reported that roughly 37 percent of all the app’s subscribers watched the musical in its first month. The second big release shuffled to the platform was the live-action remake of Mulan, which debuted September 4. Early indications are that Mulan’s performance may easily surpass Hamilton’s, with one major catch; Hamilton was simply an addition to the platform, whereas you presently have to pay $29.99 to get Mulan. With Disney+ passing 60 million subscribers in August, it would only take 8 percent of subscribers ordering Mulan for the film to clear nearly $150 million. That would be a major victory for the company, and it would make it much more feasible for other delayed blockbusters (like Black Widow) to make a profitable simultaneous home and theater debut.

New Launch Woes: Even as the traditional HBO channel is garnering attention and praise for its new series, Lovecraft Country, the rollout of the new HBO/AT&T/WarnerMedia app HBO Max has been something of a headache. When HBO Max landed in May, it wasn’t available through Roku or Amazon/Fire devices . . . and it still isn’t; the problem is that those two options represent approximately 70 percent of the streaming player market in the U.S., and they’re locked in a dispute with HBO Max over fees. Additionally, roughly 20 million people who subscribed to HBO, and who would have gotten HBO Max rolled in with their sub, simply didn’t activate the service when it started, meaning that HBO Max only had about 4 million official users by the end of June. There was also confusion when HBO’s other apps (HBO Go and HBO Now) went away and were replaced with, simply, an app called HBO. That app offers the programming that Now did, including current series, but doesn’t have access to the Max exclusive series or the wider content libraries (like the Criterion Collection) that were rolled into Max. Confusing content deals haven’t helped; while the Harry Potter franchise and various DC Comics-based films were heavily advertised for the launch, pre-existing deals with other services meant that many of the DC movies vanished in the first week, and the app lost the Potter films in August. The struggling DC Universe app will have its content rolled into HBO Max, but questions linger about whether its extremely popular digital DC Comics library will make the transition or go elsewhere.

Depature is one of many originals headed to Peacock. (Uploaded to YouTube by Peacock)

The NBCUniversal app Peacock kicked off for Xfinity users in April; it landed on other platforms in July and worked up to 10 million viewers by the end of that month. It has a free tier that accesses 15,000 hours of content; the pay levels unlock about 5,000 more. With NBC Sports deals for soccer and content with third-party providers like ViacomCBS and Paramount Pictures on the way, Peacock is putting together a big library, and is looking to Parks and Recreation (arriving in October) and The Office (arriving in January 2021) to boost subs. However, it has one big problem in common with HBO Max: you won’t find it on Roku or Amazon. Peacock also had some of its big launch-day draws, like the Fast & Furious franchise, The Matrix, and Shrek already vanish. New content has taken a hit due to the COVID-19 shutdowns. In the face of these issues, which users have complained about readily on social media, there has also been praise for a “channels” feature that runs clips and content around different themes. The Today All Day channel gathers The Today Show segments, and other channels are devoted to Saturday Night Live and other themes.

Quibi is a mobile streaming platform that launched with free trials in April with an eye toward shorter programming. The 10-minute episodes are referred to as “quick bites” (a phrase that was truncated into the service’s name). While a number of high-profile companies invested in the service and stars like Anna Kendrick and Kiefer Sutherland dot the programming, the download numbers for the app crashed after the first month of operation. The company cut staff in June amid reports that its 2 million subscribers fell well under a proposed 7.4 million user goal. The Verge reported in July that the conversion rate from free initial user to paid subscriber was a poor 8 percent.

A Viacom Mind-Meld: CBS All Access has put together a base of around four million subscribers. The service has bet big on Star Trek so far, with three active series (Discovery, Picard, and Lower Decks) and two coming (Strange New Worlds and Section 3). One much anticipated show is the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand, which launches in December. Like Apple TV+, CBS All Access has been actively gathering other content; parent company ViacomCBS looks to merge All Access with programming from its other brands (MTV, BET, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, etc.) with the notion of competing with the bigger services.

Update: Early on Tuesday morning, September 15, one day after this story originally posted, ViacomCBS announced that CBS All Access will be rebranded in early 2021. Under the new name Paramount+, the service will roll in CBS All Access programming with the other brand verticals mentioned above for a larger, more competitive service.

The Morning Show has been a major success for Apple TV+. (Uploaded to YouTube by Apple TV)

Apple in the Middle: Apple TV+ is doing all right. The streamer already renewed most of its original drama and comedy series and the service claimed 18 Emmy nominations, including nods for The Morning Show, Defending Jacob, and Beastie Boys Story. While Apple had intended for the service to focus on original content, it went into acquisition mode in the middle of the year after COVID-19 shut down original productions. The app actively bought films like Tom Hanks’s Greyhound and Will Smith’s upcoming Emancipation to bolster content offerings. Apple also has a robust development slate for series and films spread across the next few years; it has the potential to develop into destination viewing for unique programming over the long term.

The Big Kids on the Block: Netflix, Amazon’s Prime Video, and Hulu remain the big dogs in the yard, with Disney+ joining the pack. Prime Video is available to Amazon Prime’s 150 million subscribers around the world, though about 26 million actively use it. Hulu has 35 million paid, with over 3 million of those opting for Hulu+Live TV to replace cable service. Disney+ passed 60 million in their first year, stomping their initial estimate that it would take until 2024 to get 60 to 90 million subscribers. Netflix remains the numbers champ, with 193 million paid users.

Each of those services continues to offer strong performances in various areas. Prime’s The Boys has been a breakout critical and commercial hit, and anticipation is high for the forthcoming Lord of the Rings series. Hulu had a big quarantine hit with original film Palm Springs, a strong development slate, and offers returning water-cooler programs like The Handmaid’s Tale. Netflix is, of course, Netflix, and wields enormous programming influence; the primary viewer complaint about the service is the impression that many series don’t get past three “seasons” or that they appear very quick to cancel shows that might grow with more time. Nevertheless, Netflix cuts a dominant figure, especially with the success of films like Extraction, break-out series like The Witcher, and their ongoing live-comedy specials.

The trailer for The Mandalorian Season One. (Uploaded to YouTube by Star Wars)

As for Disney+, its first year has seen a subscription base that exceeded expectations, 19 Emmy nominations, and a legitimate pop culture phenomenon in the form of The Child, the inhumanly cute “Baby Yoda” that co-stars in The Mandalorian. That Star Wars spin-off accounted for 15 nominations, including an unexpected nod for Best Drama. The service also had the good fortune to have The Mandalorian season two filming completed before the pandemic; editing and effects continued remotely, which will allow the next set of episodes to debut in October as scheduled. Additionally, the much-anticipated Marvel Cinematic Universe installment The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is still expected to debut this fall after an initial delay from the COVID shutdown. All of that is, of course, on top of one of the most powerful libraries in entertainment, which includes the Marvel and Star Wars brands, the Pixar films, Disney animated classics, and National Geographic, in addition to acquisitions like Beyoncé’s video album Black is King.

Service Name Price Per Month Program Highlights
Amazon Prime Video $8.99 standalone; $12.99 w/full Prime The Boys, The Expanse, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
AppleTV+ $4.99 The Morning Show, For All Mankind, Servant
CBS All Access $5.99 Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, ST: Lower Decks
Disney+ $7; $12.99 bundled with basic Hulu & ESPN+ The Mandalorian; The Imagineereing Story
HBO Max $14.99; $143.88 for 1-year deal available Raised by Wolves; Doom Patrol
Hulu $5.99 basic; $54.99 +Live TV; ad-free tiers also available The Handmaid’s Tale; Castle Rock; Shrill, Letterkenny
Netflix $8.99 basic; $12.99 standard; $15.99 Premium The Umbrella Acadmey; Cobra Kai; Lucifer; Away

The streaming landscape has become a crowded, constantly shifting place. It’s possible for multiple large outlets to co-exist; even with the pervasiveness of Netflix, it’s obvious that several other companies have very healthy options. The big question is how many of these services will thrive in the long term. At some point, every household will hit saturation on the number of services that they actually use, or can afford. Until then, the various entrants will continue to jockey for position in a race that is much more a marathon than a sprint.

Featured image: Ivan Marc / Shutterstock

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