The Gang spends a lot of time these days on the streaming wars, so it seems appropriate that Congress wants to get into it. With Netflix’s success at overturning the structure of Hollywood’s broadcast television production and advertising processes, consumers are taking advantage of a Golden Age of choices. Senator Elizabeth Warren is resuscitating her plan to tax the billionaire class as a way to fund the progressive part of the infrastructure bill through the Democrat-only reconciliation process. As bait, she is using Amazon’s MGM acquisition as the carrot, suggesting the deal would be anti-competitive and dilutive of consumer choice. Coming as streaming passes broadcast as a percentage of the entire television market, it’s not clear just what consumers are going to lose with a smorgasbord of captivating programming choices.
The streaming heavyweights are in the throes of a transition from building audience to locking in paying customers. Netflix has jumped way out in front with an enormous audience fueling an equally gigantic investment in original programming. Apple TV+ has blinked earliest, moving their free trial of a year with a new Apple device purchase to 3 months, barely long enough to get halfway through the second season of their hit The Morning Show. Similar Disney+ deals with Verizon Wireless unlimited broadband upgrades are starting to time out as Disney tries to survive the pandemic’s impact on theme park revenue and steep costs of moving newly acquired properties from theaters to streaming, And then there are the rest of the old studio and network players, trying to build enough scale to compete with the leaders. Comcast consumed NBC and Universal Studios, CBS and Viacom merged to knit together broadcast, cable networks, and Paramount studios, now renamed Paramount +. And reality TV giant Discovery absorbed the remnants of WarnerMedia’s scripted studio and cable operation as AT&T backed away from content to pay for investment in 5G.
Ironically, ad-supported networks may turn out to be where the real action is. Although streaming subscribers are running up against a budget cap as they opt out of cable bundles, their antipathy for advertising is finessed by some midtier networks like Hulu and Paramount + mixing some ads with subscriptions at a reduced monthly charge. Comcast is already managing that transition with HBO Max, bundling the new streaming network with basic cable packages that include the HBO premium service. Combining HBO’s pre-pandemic windowed, or delayed from theatrical release feature films with original series programming is one thing: adding a monthly new feature simultaneously with theatrical release for all of 2021 has proven a powerful way of attracting new HBO Max subscribers in the battle for streaming. While the strategy will moderate in 2022 as theaters reopen, movie-goers are learning to appreciate the marriage of smaller titles with the convenience of subscription television.
Although big budget films like F9 are enjoying considerable success theatrically, smaller films like Parasite and other streaming releases are winning Oscars and other awards. Films have been eligible for Oscars and Golden Globes without the requirement of theatrical runs during the pandemic, and will continue for at least one more year. The HBO Max theater/digital gambit angered producers and talent with its bold move made easier during 2020’s lockdown, but WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar was apparently the loser in AT&T’s Discovery/WarnerMedia deal as Discovery’s CEO David Zaslav was picked to run the combined company. But audiences may find more affinity with popcorn at home than the distributors expect as vaccinations take root. Kilar may have bootstrapped a look at what success will mean in the New Normal similar to what companies are saving in travel and facilities costs as we incorporate the strengths of work/play-from-anywhere and the mobile transformation.
The ad streamers bring more to the party than just subscriber discounts. While Netflix has made hay with binge viewing (dumping an entire season of shows at one time) ad streamers are using a hybrid of binge production and broadcast-style staged release as a way of updating the feel of appointment television with Peak TV dynamics. Using the weekly series model a la This Is Us and Gray’s Anatomy, shows like Paramount +‘s The Good Fight are released on a weekly basis with the release night staggered across the key nights of the week. Instead of browsing the TV Guide, you get a notification that the new episode has “dropped.” In effect, the linear tv schedule so beloved by advertisers and marketers is creating a new prime time schedule across the variety of streaming networks. With constant mergers and realignment of studios, cable assets, and streaming models, we already don’t have a clue what network is screening our new shows let alone what the network is called this week, so mobile messaging becomes the point of sale for sharing digital experiences. With cable giants like Comcast deriving more and more broadband customers as cable cutting persists, and set top boxes like AppleTV and Roku smart tvs capturing more scale and competing for a combination of ad-supported and original programming, the built in microphone on their remotes leapfrogs the vanished TV guides with audio commands that require only the name of the show or even the name of the favorite star.
The creator economy is experiencing a surge of services across the social networks. Newsletters, conversational audio sites, and new notification services from Apple are promoting media to support these AI-driven user rankings of the new Hollywood streaming winners. Apple’s notification summary screens in iOS 15 effectively present a way to organize a personalized digest of show notifications, freeing you from interrupting work to track the weekly dropping of favorite shows. It won’t be long before Twitter and other newsletter tools let you broadcast those alerts to special groups you define for watercooler-like conversations about the latest spoilers. Clubhouse and other social audio rooms will invite media analysts, showrunners, and stars to interact with these newly empowered fans, and some of the more proficient will graduate to subscription newsletter recaps and transcribed interviews. Advertisers will sponsor these streams, expanding the impact of the intersection of subscription and ad-supported hybrid services.