The pestilential year now in our rearview mirror, 2020, was also the year that a new era of streaming video began, as it became the overwhelming focus of Hollywood’s media companies, and an increasing focus of the tech giants that also are in the business.
That’s in part because it also became our focus. Pay-TV subscriptions continue to collapse, to about two-thirds of U.S. homes. Meanwhile, about three-fourths of American homes subscribe to at least one streamer. And studies suggest the average household has at least three.
Not every one of the services – five have launched since November 2019, and Discovery+ launched today – started well. In fact, it’s arguable that only one (Disney+) had a generally strong year, and even that came with caveats. But now that we’re done with 2020, it’s time to hand out grades for the biggest players subscription video streaming:
The Big Red N: Netflix
No Mousin’ Around: Disney+
The Sleeping Giant Awakes: Apple TV+ It’s still remarkable to think that Apple executives thought their initial originals-only approach would be enough to make their subscription-video service competitive. But the pandemic’s realities seem to have disabused the company of this misconception, leading it to pull out one of the world’s largest checkbooks and begin shopping. That led to the $70 million Greyhound deal with Sony, the Peanuts pickup (which almost certainly didn’t cost peanuts), and a $120 million pre-Cannes purchase of an Antoine Fuqua project. Ted Lasso had a real breakthrough culturally, and some other shows made a lesser impression. TV+ is part of all three tiers of new Apple services bundles launched late in the year that will at least make it far easier to watch TV+. So will carriage deals on some other platforms. But we’ll be watching for the really big deal, an acquisition that will give TV+ the deep library it so desperately needs to compete. With somewhere around $190 billion in cash, Apple certainly can afford a game-changing deal. Does it have the will? Grade: B-
Also Part of the Package: Amazon Prime Video Prime Video continues to delivery an interesting mix of shows, including quirky projects such as Good Omens and the Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, period romantic drama Sylvie’s Love, and new seasons of action hits The Boys and Jack Ryan. But anyone hoping (for entirely understandable reasons) for another The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or Fleabag was disappointed in 2020. Prime did deliver a primo prestige project, Steve McQueen’s superb Small Axe collection of five feature-length movies about the Black experience in England. But the pandemic demanded a lot of attention in most all the other parts of Amazon’s vast big picture. The company was at the front lines of e-commerce in the pandemic, and its employees were among the most challenged and stressed. The company launched another category killer with an online pharmacy service, and continued to deal with growing regulatory pressures across the world. The video service seemed like a lower priority, for some understandable reasons. Amazon did make one fascinating deal at year end, however, acquiring Wondery. Though Wondery is a podcast company, it was founded by TV veterans with the explicit plan to develop those podcasts for eventual conversion to TV, as happened with its Prime Video hit Homecoming. Grade: B
Not Yet Maximized: HBO Max The potential here is so huge, as evidenced by the swathe of great content from HBO – including remarkable 2020 newcomers Industry, I May Destroy You and Euphoria – and treasured library content from Warner Bros. film and TV series, classic MGM films, Criterion Collection, Studio Ghibli and more. It’s an embarrassment of rich, ground-breaking content going back to the earliest days of filmed entertainment. But you can’t watch if you can’t find it. The service launched, terribly, in the spring as one of four options called HBO, while carriage fights with Roku and Amazon kept the app off platforms that reach around 80 million U.S. households. New WarnerMedia chief Jason Kilar finally fixed those messes, dramatically overhauled the content silos in his domain, then embarked on a grand experiment that could pay huge dividends or leave all of Hollywood semi-permanently unhappy. After Tenet’s box-office drubbing in the fall, Warner Bros. said it would released its next 18 movies online and in theaters on the same day. That decision looked smart for Wonder Woman 1984, which debuted Christmas Day. The highly anticipated blockbuster grabbed only $22 million in theatrical revenues in its first two long holiday weekends. But reports suggest HBO Max downloads, signups and conversions jumped massively, which was exactly the point. A generous ladling of AT&T
Hoop Dream: Hulu Disney execs laid out quite a streaming future in December, but still really haven’t explained what happens to Hulu, especially internationally, and especially with the launch of the Hotstar service, which seems like the all-in-one service that Disney would have created in one of those Marvel multiverses. A few shows sparked – Mrs. America, Ramy and The Great come to mind. It added a welcome FX dedicated channel for all of John Landgraf’s creations. As well, Hulu benefits from its deep catalog of traditional TV shows, and from being part of both the Hulu + Live TV skinny bundle and the ESPN+/Disney+/Hulu bundle. Still, what’s the long-term vision?. Grade: C+
Low-Flying Bird: Peacock A soft launch on Comcast cable boxes early in the pandemic was little noticed, but neither was the wide launch a couple of months later, minus the splash of Covid-delayed originals and the delayed Tokyo Olympics. Throw in Peacock’s version of carriage disputes with Roku and Amazon, and there wasn’t much reason to tune in, much less pay for the upper tiers. Still, lots of classic TV for fans of that, and some promising odds and ends like the eponymous talk shows of Amber Ruffin and Larry Wilmore. Sitting on Comcast’s distribution machine ensured Peacock would grab 22 million subscribers, but given that massive advantage, sure sounds like an uninspired student. A widely lauded reboot of Saved By The Bell (!) was probably the biggest hit. Much more worth watching: whether NBCUniversal’s entente with two major theater chains over Premium VOD shared releases turns into a sustainable business model for both, rather than a short-term detour. Peacock needs to show a lot more in 2021 if it’s ever to truly take off. Grade: C-
Gap Year: Paramount+(née CBS All Access) This way-overdue transition and enhancement still doesn’t have a launch date. I’ve admired many of the changes Bob Bakish has managed in his time at the top with what’s now ViacomCBS, but the delays getting a beefed-up and rebranded All Access out the door are verging on problematic, if not quite at the level of corporate neglect practiced by his predecessor. ViacomCBS says that CBSAA and Showtime OTT added more viewers in 2020. Great. So did everyone else. Meanwhile, the company has squandered a seven-year lead on most of its competitors, and doesn’t really have the corporate heft to credibly muscle past all the competition soaking up viewer attention and dollars. Will still more Star Trek series, Yellowstone and some NFL games be enough to make Paramount+ a mountain worth climbing for most households? Grade: D+
The Walking Dead?: AMC+ Back in the mid-oughts, American Movie Classics renovated its sleepy old-films-only brand with a string of audacious and eye-catching originals led by Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead and all their various spinoffs, prequels, shoulder programming and the like. Late in the year, AMC+ sprung from the ground, with shows from AMC and several other nicely regarded but niche cable networks (IFC, BBC America, Sundance, Shudder, etc). AMC+ can make some money from its hard-core horror, indie-film, and Brit-drama fans. And unlike some competitors, AMC+ secured a Roku deal when it launched, so there’s that. But isn’t the company’s real future as part of some bigger service? Grade C+
Still to Be Discovered: Discovery+ John Malone’s basic cable giant finally launches today, for those who can’t wait for its programming mix of unscripted/reality, lifestyle and nature shows. There’s an audience out there for some of this? The big problem: Curiosity Stream, founded by Discovery’s founder and former CEO Jon Hendricks, has been in the market for half a decade, and costs less. Are people really that desperate for Shark Week? Grade: Late
Dropped Out: Quibi It’s tough to be both misbegotten and star crossed, yet the $1.75 billion startup managed both in an extraordinarily rapid fail that, were it to happen in Silicon Valley, would ensure that Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman would raise even more money for their next startup. Grade: F