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Grading The Streaming Services Amid Pandemic’s Transformed Market

The pandemic that’s caused analyst Michael Nathanson to “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” is rapidly creating winners and losers even among the companies seemingly best positioned to thrive: online streaming services trying to entertain millions of suddenly homebound consumers.

It’s only been six weeks since the first COVID-19 lockdowns took effect, even if it seems a lifetime ago. Regardless, it’s time for a first round of grades on the performances of those streaming services.

While we have no idea where the pandemic will take us, it’s fair to say habits ingrained during this time of enforced home-entertainment sampling and the looming recession are likely to carry forward for many months, if not years to come.

As Nathanson wrote: “Heading into 2020, we had argued that the fundamental pillars of media were starting to crack. Now, we fear that they will crumble as customer behavior permanently shifts to streaming models. The impact should be felt in both the traditional TV ecosystem and the film industry as content producers reexamine the economics of producing linear TV content and feature films. As a result, when this is all done, the top streaming platforms — Netflix, Amazon and Disney — will emerge with the lion’s share of scripted content creation.”

It’s a chance for the streamers to prove they can give us what we need in this extraordinary time, which is to say reliably and affordably delivering a broad range of entertaining (or at least, entertaining-enough) programming, ideally for months at a time. Our collective opportunity to dive deep on the services is both a massive opportunity and a huge vulnerability for the streamers themselves, at a time of great stresses for everyone. As I have said repeatedly, the pandemic is an accelerant to trends that have been building for years. So, how are the streaming services doing? Here are my first “mid-term” grades:

Netflix: The world leader did what it was supposed to do, reporting Q1 subscriber numbers that were a) double analyst expectations (nearly 16 million new subs) and b) nicely demonstrated what happens when the planet starts looking for things to watch. They all started with Netflix, which says a lot about Netflix’s key position in consumer minds around the world. Bonus points for helping ease Europe’s crushing bandwidth demands by changing its default streaming standards. Programming has been hot too. Ozark’s latest season was a buzzy online topic, as was reality show Too Hot To Handle. Even low-cost sci-fi feature 6 Underground found some unexpected love. And fan expectations are high for Space Force, Steve Carrell’s new workplace comedy (more or less).

Importantly, Netflix said it has enough content to last the rest of the year. That contrasts with other services that launched with thin portfolios of new content, and may run out soon as this goes on, and production remains on hold. It’s not all perfect here. Netflix added another $1 billion to its big ol’ mountain of debt. For that, Netflix’s grade is A-.

Hulu: Finally under a single owner, Hulu is showing the benefits of Disney’s strategic focus. Hulu is now Not Disney+ (but also part of a great value Disney bundle). Hulu’s original programming is blossoming too, thanks to that timely launch of the FX on Hulu channel. The new channel brilliantly imposes a programming vision and edge on Hulu’s otherwise largely shapeless brand. Buzzy shows such as Devs and Mrs. America are making the case for giving Hulu a second, and third, look. Grade: B+

Amazon Prime: The company rolled out a terrific slate of shows and new seasons at just the right time, as the new programming direction under Jennifer Salke seems to be maturing nicely. The bad news: the reason everyone gets Amazon Prime is because we want the stuff we want. Just as importantly, we want it shipped for free two days after we order it. Thanks to the pandemic, that’s not happening right now. Will unhappiness about Amazon’s ability to literally deliver on its promises undermine Prime Studios’ good work? Grade: B

Quibi: Quibi’s first week brought in 1.7 million downloads. Unfair but inevitable comparison: Disney+ brought in 10 million subs in its first week. Yes, Disney manipulated its theatrical releases and TV production slate to front-load Disney+, and it paid off big. Quibi didn’t start with nearly a century of content and brand love. And like everyone else, it had no way to anticipate the pandemic, which blew up its marketing plan and primary use cases (no commuters to see those transit signs, for instance, or watch the shows on the way to work).

In fact, Quibi arrived just as its big differentiator became a lethal limitation. Viewers wanted to watch longer shows on bigger screens, for much longer periods. Quibi wouldn’t let them. Nor did it let them to share images and GIFs, cutting off any possible organic buzz for its programs.

The company said it will fix the TV viewing next month, but a few more pivots are needed, along with more memorable, not just pricey, shows. Quibi faced 1,000 questions long before the world changed. Can it evolve fast enough to survive in this new world? Grade: D+

HBO Max: We finally have a date for HBO Max’s debut, May 27, which is something. But boy, does that sound like eons from now. Owner AT&T could use a win: DirecTV and U-verse are down almost 17 percent from a year ago, while skinny bundle AT&T Now lost another 138,000 customers last quarter. HBO Max won’t debut with many originals, but at least they’ll have all those Friends episodes. Grade: Incomplete

Peacock: Comcast’s freemium service soft-launched last week, but as multi-billion-dollar bets go, it was softer than a warehouse full of toilet paper. For now, Comcast Xfinity users will get free access to some 7,500 hours of shows. The rest of us get to wait until July 15, but even then, the wide launch won’t be so wide. No exclusive Olympics coverage, and not nearly enough other originals thanks to production halts. Obsessive show completists still get The Office and other beloved comediesMaybe it’ll be worth preening about then. Grade: C+

Apple TV+: Apple has done a lot of things right during the pandemic, moving early and quickly to shut and shuffle its vast operations in China and the U.S., contributing protective equipment and devices, donating to relief funds. It also debuted several well-reviewed products that will sell a lot of units, and is launching many big services in several more countries. As for TV+, well, new shows keep popping up (some of them pretty good, like Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories). But there’s not enough here on its own to keep audiences coming back. It may not matter. The Apple TV interface makes it difficult to tell which shows are actually Apple’s, and all those people buying all those new products will get the service free anyway. If Apple really cared about its lack of a library, its $100 billion cash mountain could solve that quickly, especially in the buyers’ market about to wash over a battered Hollywood. Grade: a gentleman’s C. 

Disney+: With great power comes great responsibility, intoned the sage Stan Lee. Disney+’s deep library is perfect for a time when young children are stuck at home with nothing to do but watch the same show over and over. That, the metrics companies assure me, has driven a lot of views. Good thing too, because the new originals for older humans appeal mostly to hard-core Disney fans. A rocket start with 50 million subs in less than half a year is amazing. It’s also badly needed, given the pandemic’s pulverizing of most of the rest of Disney operations for may be months to come. Disney+ is a very bright spot on the balance sheet, but how will it navigate the next few months with few new shows for grownups? Only parents won’t care. Grade: A-

Tubi: It’s been a hot market for AVOD services the past year and a half, with big media companies scooping them up to slot into broader programming strategies. None scored bigger than Tubi, whose $440 million acquisition by Fox closed a few days ago. The company also had a string of other announcements the past couple of weeks, with more kids programming, international expansion and the like. The AVODs, as Tubi execs Farhad Massoudi and Adam Lewinson have pointed out, were already positioned as the value alternative for millions of viewers with limited entertainment budgets. The pandemic will only sharpen that opportunity, especially with Fox’s ad sales teams now integrating Tubi’s inventory. Ad markets will be a mess for months to come, but chances are some dollars will head to Tubi and other AVODs, instead of staying with traditional linear networks that no longer have live sports, or even a very good viewing experience. Once there, I’m guessing those dollars won’t leave, even when the pandemic ebbs. Grade: A