Not that any of us wants to relive 2020 mayhem, but here at the start of 2021, it’s a good time to give out grades for companies in one of the industries that actually thrived in the pandemic: streaming-video subscription services.
Audiences increasingly turned away from traditional pay-TV, now at the lowest household penetration levels in a couple of decades, around two-thirds of American homes.
At the same time, audiences signed up for more and more OTT subscriptions, at least sampling the many new services that debuted over the past 14 months. Three-fourths of U.S. homes now subscribe to at least one online video service, and the average household has more than three.
One study even suggested that average uptake number may bellow out to as many as seven, though it seems aggressive. It’ll be awhile before all this past year’s newcomers have enough consistently good new programming to regularly attract and sustain subscribers for extended periods.
Also, there are occasional news reports suggesting that effective vaccines are coming to a dispensary near you, and may actually, eventually, reduce the transformative impacts of the pandemic on both viewing habits and program production.
So, it’s a good time to assess how 2020 went for the big streamers. With Discovery+’s debut this week, seven major services have launched since November 2019, and one has already died. It’s arguable that only one (Disney+) had a consistently strong year, and even that came with caveats. But now that we’re done with 2020, it’s time for the report card:
The Red King: Netflix The streaming pioneer had an overwhelming year, ending 2020 with more than 200 million subscribers worldwide, serving those audiences with a relentless array of equally global new shows. Duplicating 2020 will be a challenge. The company also found plenty of worthwhile programs, from new franchises such as The Old Guard, The Witcher, and Extraction, to French Confection Emily in Paris, to Ryan Murphy’s over-the-top creations Ratched, The Prom and Hollywood. At year’s end, producer Shonda Rhimes delivered the first project in her mega-deal, the hit bodice-ripper Bridgerton, which Netflix said this week had its fifth-best debut ever. That’s on top of The Queen’s Gambit, which even spiked sales of chess sets and its lead character’s over-the-top 1960s clothing styles. Prestige projects such as Mank, The Midnight Sky, Da 5 Bloods, The Trial of the Chicago Seven, and the superb documentaries Crip Camp and Dick Johnson is Dead give Netflix another stong shot at Oscar glory. Under newly minted Head of Global TV Bela Bajaria, the company is poised for a productive and globe-girdling 2021. But the company will face competition that might finally start to understand what it takes to succeed in this sector. Also, what happens when audiences can finally go outside safely? For now though, Netflix has delivered. As Beth Harmon might say in The Queen’s Gambit: check. Grade: A+
No Mousin’ Around: Disney+ Disney’s streamer hit a home run business-wise, signing up millions of locked-down households desperate to entertain their children, dissect The Mandalorian and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and make up for not being able to go to a Disney theme park, cruise ship or resort. And this year’s plans – unveiled in a lengthy December investors conference – are even more promising. Disney has definitively pivoted to streaming, and now plans to put 80 percent of 100 upcoming films and series on Disney+ first. That should make the service even more attractive even to holdouts. This is a very big deal for Hollywood’s most successful studio, and Wall Street noticed, sending Disney’s suffering share prices skyward at year’s end. But amid all that promise, we must note that this grade is for 2020. Aside from a couple of fine Pixar movies, the Hamilton movie and season 2 of The Mandalorian, the service’s new programming was largely a threadbare assortment of self-referential shoulder programming. Even fans noticed by August or so. Also, it’s difficult to quite know how to treat the Mulan experiment, which required a $30 payment on top of D+ subscription to get early access to a somewhat-controversial remake that eventually became a free part of the service. That doesn’t seem like good value for early adopters, but fans want what fans want. Grade: A-
The Sleeping Giant Awakes: Apple TV+ It’s still remarkable to think that Apple executives thought their originals-only initial approach would keep their TV+ competitive amid all the other new entrants joining the fray last year. But the pandemic’s realities seem to have disabused the company of this misconception, leading it to open one of the world’s largest checkbooks and begin shopping. That led to the $70 million Greyhound deal with Sony, the Peanuts acquisition, and a $120 million pre-Cannes pickup of an Antoine Fuqua project. Ted Lasso broke through in a big way, and launch title The Morning Show won a few awards in its first season. The most important change may be inclusion of TV+ in all three tiers of Apple’s new services bundles. Those will at least make TV+ far easier to watch. So will carriage deals on platforms outside the Apple ecosystem, an unusual step for Apple but necessary. We’re still waiting for the game-changer though, an acquisition (MGM, or better, ViacomCBS come to mind) that gives TV+ the deep library it so desperately lacks. With around $193 billion in cash, Apple certainly can afford an industry-reshaping deal. Does it have the will? Grade: B-
Also Part of the Package: Amazon Prime Video Prime Video continues to deliver 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 another The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or Fleabag – which each have won Best Comedy Series Emmys – 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 attention in most everything else Amazon does, which may have limited what happened with Prime Video. The company was, after all, 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, while fending off growing regulatory pressure around 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 is huge, as evidenced by remarkable HBO newcomers such as Industry, I May Destroy You and Euphoria. They’re paired with treasured library content from Warner Bros. film and TV series, classic MGM films, the peerless 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, zapping HBO Go and HBO Now, demolishing content silos, and then embarking 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 to only $16 million in theatrical revenues, but reports of huge jumps in HBO Max downloads. For those wounded souls in Hollywood still grieving their theoretical profit-participation payouts, that was exactly the point. A generous ladling of AT&T cash eventually may mollify miffed Hollywood partners. Or not, but I would suggest Kilar had little choice but to rip off this giant bandage, given the Tenet debacle, and the continuing uncertainties of the pandemic. Those day-and-date movie releases, alongside HBO shows and that rich library, could make HBO Max the most interesting and excellent streaming service out there. But as with Disney+, that’s also looking forward to 2021. This is about 2020, which was mostly pretty ugly, though with significant promise of better times ahead. Grade: C-
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 worth adult-oriented 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 the wide launch didn’t do much better a couple of months later. It was hobbled by Covid-delayed originals and the delayed Tokyo Olympics., which both would have significantly improved its curb appeal. 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, the service offers lots of classic TV for fans of that programming, and some promising odds and ends like the eponymous talk shows of Amber Ruffin and Larry Wilmore. Sitting atop Comcast’s distribution machine helped Peacock grab 22 million subscribers, but given its inherent advantages, that doesn’t sound like much of an achievement. A widely lauded reboot of Saved By The Bell(!) was probably the biggest hit. I’ll be watching this year to see: whether NBCUniversal’s revenue-sharing deal with two major theater chains turns into a sustainable business model for both, rather than a short-term detour before the general collapse of the theatrical window. The deal mean eight features released late in the year will hit PVOD in coming weeks, and eventually head to Peacock. But the blue bird 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 wrought while running what’s now ViacomCBS, but the delays in launching a beefed-up and rebranded All Access verge on deeply problematic. ViacomCBS says that CBSAA and Showtime OTT added more viewers in 2020, and have around 18 million now combined. That’s all right, but everyone else probably added more. Meanwhile, CBS All Access has squandered a seven-year lead on most of its competitors, and doesn’t have much to show for it. Does ViacomCBS have the corporate heft to credibly muscle past all the competition while depending on more Star Trek series, Yellowstone, The Good Fight, and some NFL games? Can Paramount+ become t a peak experience? 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, buttressed by all their various spinoffs, prequels, shoulder programming and the like. Late in 2020, the reshaped network launched AMC+, featuring not just all those AMC treasures but also material from veral other nicely regarded niche nets (IFC, BBC America, Sundance, Shudder, etc). And unlike some competitors, AMC+ secured a Roku deal when it launched, so there’s that. AMC+’s focus will serve hard-core horror, indie-film, and Brit-drama fans, though it’s difficult to see it ever moving beyond those niche audiences, especially given its relatively late debut when lots of other, bigger competitors were already in the market But isn’t the company’s real future as part of some bigger service? Grade C+
Still to Be Discovered: Discovery+ The cable giant finally launched this week, with 55,0000 hours of programming from several networks beyond Discovery itself. It’s perfect for those who can’t get enough unscripted/reality, lifestyle and nature shows. The big problem: there’s already a SVOD network out there that does a lot of this. It’s Curiosity Stream, and it was founded by Jon Hendricks, the same guy who founded and for many years ran Discovery. Curiosity Stream also costs less. ls Shark Week enough of a differentiator to drive significant signups? One upside: it actually managed to get on both Roku and Fire platforms in time for launch, so bravo for that. 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. Speaking of next acts in life, the Wall Street Journal reported this week that Roku is well along in talks to acquire Quibi’s library. That’s grist for a different story altogether. In the meantime, Grade: F