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The Streaming Wars Are Finally in Full Swing—And the First Casualties Are Coming Into View

8 minute read

Remember Apple TV+? You know—the subscription streaming service that spent months hyping The Morning Show, its just-OK drama starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell, only to see that flagship program outperformed by its flamboyantly weird, anachronistic comedy about Emily Dickinson? The service that spent $15-$17 million per episode on a show whose first few episodes consisted mostly of Jason Momoa stomping through the (admittedly beautiful) wilderness? The service that launched way back at the beginning of November, before we all got distracted by the impeachment hearings, the umpteenth Democratic debate and, most of all, the arrival of Disney+ less than two weeks later, with its big new Star Wars show and its archive of the most popular animated, superhero and sci-fi movies of the past several decades?

OK, yes, I’m being a little hyperbolic about our ever-shrinking collective memory. But to anyone who spends less time immersed in the art and business of television than, say, a TV critic, the Apple TV+ news cycle must have seemed remarkably short. Though a small yet vocal Dickinson fandom did assemble (guess what they call themselves), none of the initial series on the service that seemed designed to bring in larger audiences—The Morning Show, Momoa’s goofy See and the competent alternate-history Space Race drama For All Mankind—generated much excitement. In fact, all three are still dropping new episodes weekly, to little fanfare. Meanwhile, Disney+ boasted that it had signed up 10 million subscribers by the end of its first day. Since then, The Mandalorian’s Baby Yoda has become the year’s most adorable breakout character.

Such a pronounced, Goofus-and-Gallant sort of contrast might lead you to conclude that what the media has dubbed the Streaming Wars will play out more like a series of Streaming Massacres, with the fate of any service determined within weeks of its launch. R.I.P. Apple TV+, am I right? Well, probably not. The Streaming Wars will surely have some early casualties. (Is it too late to put money on my sanity?) They just aren’t likely to be any of the mega-brands pouring cash into ammunition.

Things would be different if the major players in this competition were startups, rather than some of the richest, most powerful corporations in the world. Apple TV+ is, in fact, bankrolled by America’s first-ever publicly traded company worth more than $1 trillion, which means it can pretty much keep greenlighting expensive gambles for as long as Apple’s leadership believes in what it’s doing. Other streaming superpowers seem equally invulnerable. Disney (which owns Hulu) and Amazon—as well as Warner parent AT&T and NBCUniversal, both slated to launch services in 2020—are in similar positions to Apple.

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All of these companies are playing the long game. Last year, a study found that interest in Prime Video was the chief motivating factor for just 11% of subscribers to Amazon Prime—which the company has implied is itself a way of encouraging customer loyalty more than a revenue source. Disney (whose initial sign-up count, as others have pointed out, must have included some users who canceled at the end of their free trial week) is looking ahead to 2024, when it hopes to have 60-90 million subscribers. Apple TV+ had renewed all four of its initial scripted shows for adults long before the service launched. On Nov. 28, it will debut Servant (also renewed before its premiere), a psychological thriller from M. Night Shyamalan that isn’t exactly good but, thanks to Shyamalan’s signature plot-twist gimmickry, does seem built to hook viewers and drive social media speculation.

In an acknowledgment that none of these behemoths need to see profits from their streaming divisions in the near future, several have unveiled generous introductory offers. Many new Apple products come with a free year of Apple TV+—a deal that some suggest could net it 100 million subscribers by this time in 2020, though it remains to be seen how many of them will pay to renew it. (Meanwhile, reports suggest that the company’s endgame is to bundle its video, music and news products into one mega-service.) Disney has struck a similar deal with Verizon. HBO Max will cost the same $14.99/month as HBO Now but will include heaps of additional viewing options.

Then there’s Netflix. Though its singular focus on streaming puts the company in a more precarious spot than its competitors in the long run, its enormous existing subscriber base (around 160 million at the end of the most recent quarter) and gargantuan stockpile of original content (on which it spent $12 billion in 2019 alone) should keep it afloat for the foreseeable future. In fact, the Disney-vs.-Netflix showdown might have been prematurely blown out of proportion. In October, CNBC reported that only 28% of Netflix subscribers planned to sign up for Disney+. Another poll found that only 11% of viewers who subscribed to Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime and expected to sign up for Disney+ or Apple TV+ thought they’d drop one of their existing streaming services to do so. And Netflix stock, which had a rough few months in advance of this fall’s launches, actually started climbing in mid-November—suggesting that panic over a mass exodus to its new competitors has already subsided. Such worries were probably misplaced to begin with, considering that one weekly Mandalorian episode is still pretty much the only new thing Disney+ has to offer adults and Apple TV+ has just 11 shows.

But just because none of the industry’s titans (or titans-to-be) are going away anytime soon, that doesn’t mean the Streaming Wars are going to be bloodless. The more affordable streaming options consumers have, the more cord-cutting will hurt cable channels that aren’t owned by AT&T, NBCUniversal or Disney. At the end of 2018, a year when Netflix cranked up its volume of originals from “prodigious” to “absurd,” I noted that cable, which had spent most of the past two decades expanding its scripted offerings, was already starting to scale back production of shows that were increasingly likely to get lost in the Peak TV avalanche. That trend seems likely to continue.

Relatively small streaming services from cable staples like Starz and Discovery might well take a hit, too. HBO Max acquired exclusive rights to many popular BBC shows, which may present problems for Anglophile subscription sites Acorn TV and BritBox. Acorn parent AMC Networks, for its part, operates three other niche streaming services (Sundance Now, Shudder and Urban Movie Channel) for a total subscriber base projected to top 2 million this year. The fact that it also owns some of the most artistically ambitious content creators on cable, from IFC and Sundance to BBC America and AMC itself, makes its uncertain future—one that apparently relies in large part on the Walking Dead franchise—kind of worrisome for viewers whose standards of quality were shaped by TV’s early-2000s golden age. Imagine what the past two decades of American TV would have looked like without AMC Networks: No Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Better Call Saul, Killing Eve, Documentary Now!, Rectify, Sherman’s Showcase, Halt and Catch Fire, Lodge 49, Top of the Lake, The Terror, The Staircase, Orphan Black, Doctor Who.

We haven’t even accounted for the way streaming juggernauts are raising the barrier to entry for TV makers. In 2016, Netflix’s $13 million per episode budget for The Crown was considered scandalous. Since then, according to Quartz, streaming price tags have skyrocketed: The Mandalorian, The Morning Show and See have all joined Game of Thrones‘ $15 million club. Next year promises multiple Marvel series expected to run Disney around $25 million. I worried back in August Disney+’s emphasis on fewer, astronomically expensive originals could replicate for TV the unprecedented effect Disney has had on the film industry: Instead of racing to make more content, platforms may feel pressure to stake all their cash on a few costly series designed for universal, international appeal. (If the Trump Justice Department gets its way, the end of decades-old antitrust laws prohibiting studios from owning theaters could make Disney even more of an entertainment monolith.) The effect could be catastrophic for the many small, weird, smart, diverse shows that have made the Peak TV whirlwind worth getting sucked up into. As Vanity Fair‘s Sonia Saraiya has noted, Netflix recently axed many series that fit this description: The OA, Tuca & Bertie, She’s Gotta Have It, One Day at a Time. GLOW and Dear White People will both end after another season.

Where would Streaming Wars that ended with the world’s most powerful conglomerates crushing everyone except each other leave us, as viewers? Probably back in a monoculture of one-size-fits-all programming—one I wouldn’t trade for niche masterpieces like Russian Doll and David Makes Man—though this one would be shaped by Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, Star Wars and Marvel. Instead of watching thousands of different things and sharing our favorites by word of mouth, we would all be on Twitter fighting about the same dozen superheroes, just as we now do with movies. It will be a while before the Disney-Netflix-Amazon-AT&T-NBCUniversal-Apple battle royale draws its first corporate blood. In the meantime, those of us who enjoy our current diverse TV landscape would do well to consider whether it’s still possible to stop our favorite shows from becoming collateral damage.

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