Last week, following their announcement that they would be entering the increasingly busy streaming service market with their own platform for exclusive access to their sizeable back-catalogue, Disney revealed that the service will be priced ‘substantially below where Netflix is.’ This is in part due to them having less content than Netflix, but it’s also an obvious power move to take on the biggest name in the field. This comes after they’d be pulling all Disney content from Netflix in preparation for a 2019 launch, and they’d be developing a selection of original TV series exclusively for the service. This is said to include a live-action Star Wars TV series, a new show on the Marvel roster, and programming based on beloved titles like Pixar’s Monsters Inc. and High School Musical.
All of this comes shortly after Apple, whose own streaming service is in progress, announced major original programming acquisitions in the form of a drama set in the world of morning talk shows starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, and the reboot of Amazing Stories headlined by Bryan Fuller. This follows news of Netflix’s billion dollar increase to their own slate of original content, plus Amazon’s continuing push into film and TV under their banner, and Hulu’s expansion of TV following their sweet at the Emmys with The Handmaid’s Tale. That doesn’t even count the minor players in the market, like Crackle or YouTube Red, or networks with their own exclusive players for the shows they produce. Peak TV has offered us more choice than ever in terms of the programming we watch, changing the entertainment game drastically in a way that makes it easier to distribute shows but harder to get them seen. Now, as everyone vies to be the next Netflix, we may be facing another problem of Peak content: When every channel or studio or corporation has its own streaming platform and entertainment becomes further splintered, how do viewers make the choice of which one to subscribe to, and how does that effect the ecosystem of film and television?
The great deciders in this battle will be content and pricing. The latter is negotiable since it’s dependent on the former, so when Netflix announced a price hike for monthly subscribers recently, it wasn’t a major blow to their platform since users could justify an extra dollar or two a month in order to access the array of content they have. Netflix easily outranks its competitors in terms of content. There’s so much to choose from, with over 30 original shows, movies, documentaries or stand-up specials premiering this month alone.
It’s Netflix who have also managed to turn their original content, at least in the TV stakes, into the must see, most buzzed about shows of the season. Think House of Cards when that premiered, or the surprise acclaim and enthusiasm for Orange is the New Black, or the saga of Marvel series, or the pinnacle of nostalgic zeitgeist that is Stranger Things. One could argue that Amazon’s shows are as critically acclaimed - think Transparent - or that Hulu have broken through the business ceiling with The Handmaid’s Tale, but whereas those platforms have their fans and artistic merit, they often feel like singular examples in comparison to the varied array on Netflix’s shoulders. In terms of quantity and quality, Netflix can probably make the best argument for being the best choice for consumers.
Yet it’s not all plain sailing. This is a wildly expensive market to get into, as Netflix’s terrifying debts can attest to, and in order to keep ahead of the content game, you need to be willing to spend. Netflix have no qualms about putting $100m on the table for 13 episodes of one show. Indeed, it’s their new norm. That can be a worthwhile payoff with something like The Crown, but then there are the costly duds like Marco Polo or The Get Down. General audiences probably don’t think about this problem too much when they’re looking for something new to watch, but from a business perspective, the ‘fling spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks’ method can only take you so far.
One of the biggest problems with Peak Streaming is, while the original content is seen as the best way to accrue new audiences, statistically speaking, people are more likely to watch what they’ve seen and enjoyed before. According to numbers released by Nielsen, ‘20% of the time spent watching subscription-video-on-demand (SVOD) services—including Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu—is spent on originals…The other 80% is spent watching the back catalog of content acquired from other TV and movie studios, like series re-runs and movies that have left theaters.’ That’s a lot of hours spent binge-watching Friends. It’s also an area where Netflix are losing ground to Hulu and Disney. The former announced pick-ups of beloved shows like How I Met Your Mother and Seinfeld, and there’s no doubt those are the shows that will bring viewers to Hulu more than even The Handmaid’s Tale. It must be tough to realize that all your free flowing cash on prestige TV probably means less to viewers than whether or not they can marathon several seasons of Will and Grace.
Disney have a lot to live up to in the streaming game but they’re already way ahead of their competition in several big ways, most notably the content they can offer. It’s not just the Disney films of your childhood: It’s Marvel and Star Wars and the possibility of much more in the future. Their brand is near untouchable and their clout unbeatable. Why chase trends when you can just buy them out and reap the benefits?
Inevitably, this is a bubble that will burst. We’ve already seen the beginnings of it with cases like the brief rise and briefer fall of Seeso, NBC’s attempt at a comedy exclusive streaming service that shut down earlier this year. Eventually, as everyone gets into this game in order to hold exclusive rights to their own content, audiences will find themselves struggling with where to put their money. Several streaming services will fight for your money by charging you to access slivers of entertainment. Really, we’re a naturally lazy species and we just want everything on one platform. That’s not necessarily a good thing - who wants that level of monopoly over media ownership? - but if this crowding of the market continues, it may simply come down to which platform can last the longest. So who wins - the platform with money to make lots of new things, or the one with money to buy up the intellectual property of everything you love? Tough call.