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The Quarterly Report Card: How Did The Big SVOD Streaming Services Do?

We’re halfway through 2020, and now, with Peacock’s debut this week, have just about all the big players or “Flixes” in place (except for whatever ViacomCBS does to beef up All Access). 

Here at TV[R]EV, it’s time for the latest report cards for all the big streaming-video services, courtesy of Alan Wolk and David Bloom, who track the business exhaustively. 

The range of grades is pretty broad, as streamers faced extraordinary opportunities and challenges amid the pandemic, lockdown, demands for affordable and bottomless programming, an invigorated push for racial justice and media representation and a looming recession. 

So how did the Flixes do? Here’s our take:

Netflix Goes To the Head of the Class

David Bloom:  If any streaming service “won” the first months of the quarantine, it was Netflix, which saw its global audience swell by 10 percent, or 16 million subscribers, and became the must-have TV service for millions of bored viewers around the planet. A dizzyingly broad mix of shows including Inflection, Outer Banks, All For Love, Southern Survival, The Order, Space Force, 365 Days, Warrior Nun, even a rebooted Unsolved Mysteries have been big hits.

Q2 was nearly as amazing, another 10 million subscribers and the company actually had back-to-back quarters of positive free cash flow, thanks to higher subscriber revenues and all those frozen production and marketing spends.

The company also had a lot to contribute in the wake of protests for racial justice fueled by Black Lives Matter. It committed to deposit $100 million in banks serving communities of color, a pragmatic approach that could make a difference in underserved neighborhoods. CEO Reed Hastings and his wife also donated $140 million to the United Negro College Fund and two Historically Black Colleges in Atlanta, Spelman and Morehouse.

The company also made a superstar hire in new CMO Bozoma St. John, of Ghanaian descent. St. John first made a splash at Pepsi’s music unit, Beats and then Apple Music. Later, she was brought in as CMO to fix messes at Uber and Hollywood  holding company Endeavor. By comparison, Netflix has no mess to clean up, but it now is courting a more global audience with an equally diverse array of programming. Count on St. John to shift the company’s $2 billion marketing budget to more emotional pitches that do more to build the overall Netflix brand amid many new competitors, rather than that of  its monthly onslaught of new releases.

While many may have bought another channel, it’s important to note that few dropped Netflix. And it was that monthly onslaught of new releases that proved a difference maker as the quarantine has ground on. Production halts shut down most of Hollywood, hamstringing the launch or expansion of several newcomers at a crucial time. Netflix’s deep, international production pipeline allowed the company to keep posting 50 to 60 new series, films, docs, and specials every month.  Compare that screen o’ plenty to the paucity of new releases on Apple TV+ or Disney+ since they launched, or the half-dozen of new shows that HBO Max launched with. Next week’s earnings announcement, after the company’s share price broke $500 for the first time this week, should confirm what already seems evident: Netflix is rocking it. Everyone else is fighting for second place. Grade: A, because it did everything right.

Alan Wolk: Netflix’s big win was also a result of having invested heavily in “new to you” series from overseas, shows like Germany’s Babylon Berlin and Israel’s Shtisel. That allowed them to keep audiences interested and engaged. Viewers searching through Netflix’s sizable library had an easy time finding shows they could one-up their friends with by seeing first. 

Another win was getting the first five seasons of Schitt’s Creek, an initially overlooked Canadian comedy (that overseas thing again)  that was the belle of the lockdown since the plot seemed in many ways to mirror people’s pandemic lives. 

Two dings though. The first  is that Netflix puts out a lot of crap and people notice. It’s not intentional, but people forget that in any art form, success is the exception, not the rule and TV is no different. That said, Netflix is starting to get a reputation for cranking a lot of mediocre shows, especially among people who don’t have the patience to sift for the gems.

The second is that since Netflix releases all episodes of their shows at once, they risk running out of programming faster than their competitors and they run the risk that new shows get lost in the shuffle, as they don’t have the long windows that other networks have to promote new shows–their marketing needs to move at a movie-like cadence.  Grade: A-, because most people can’t imagine life without them.

Disney+: The Overachieving New Kid In School

DB: Disney+ is just about the only part of Disney still doing well amid the pandemic (are you really heading to Disney World as it reopens amid Florida’s huge spike in Covid-19 cases? ). Disney+ was, in fact, perfectly positioned four months after launch to deliver a family-safe source of on-demand programming to millions of suddenly homebound children. As the lockdown hit and the company expanded into new overseas territories, signups soared past 50 million. That worked well for the first couple of months of lockdown. But discernible grumbles could be heard by Month 3 about the dearth of shows for grownups, or anything new that wasn’t effectively marketing meta-content about how wonderful it is to be Disney.

The company quieted the grumbles, for a couple of hours at least, by shifting the filmed version of Hamilton from theaters to Disney+ on July 4 weekend. Even smarter, the company stopped giving out free one-week trials, so people had to at least pay something to watch. It paid off big: downloads of the Disney+ app jumped 72.4 percent over the weekend, according to AppAnnie. The Hamilton maneuvers still don’t fix the bigger challenge: Disney+’s  strength is also its limiter. If you’re not into superhero movies or kids programming, or just American-only, scrubbed-clean mainstream entertainment, Disney+ has little to offer. It could effectively be the world’s biggest niche channel. Netflix, with a library chock full of all kinds of shows made all over the planet, is still better positioned for global success, even as Disney+ continues to expand overseas. Grade: A-, for excellent work, but not enough of it original and arresting.

AW: If you had kids, you got Disney Plus during the pandemic. That was perhaps even more of a no-brainer than wearing a mask. But kids enjoy watching the same thing over and over again. Adults? Not so much. And Disney didn’t have a lot on offer if you weren’t a Mandolorian or superhero fan.

Getting Hamilton was a smart move. More than anything, it served to remind everyone that TV had changed, that our watercooler events now happen on the Flixes and no one bats an eye about it. Not sure if Disney realized that’s what they were doing, but either way, it was a win for them.  Grade: B+, because if you don’t have a household member under the age of 12, there wasn’t a whole lot on there for you.

Apple TV+: The Rich New Kid Who Finally Got Interested 

DB: Apple’s entry in the streaming wars had a less than stellar start, at least compared to Disney+, which launched less than two weeks later in rocket-ship fashion. Regardless, Ampere Analysis estimated it ended 2019 with nearly 34 million subscribers, though most got their first year of TV+ free with purchase of an iPhone, Mac, iPad or even, appropriately, an Apple TV streaming device. It’s telling that Apple has been virtually mum since the launch on subscriber numbers. That suggests there hasn’t been a great story to tell, even though the pandemic provided a unique chance to lock in locked-down consumers.

But since Q2 started, there have been some signs of a newly engaged Apple. At the World Wide Developers Conference in June, the kickoff event featured a trailer for the upcoming version of Foundation, a series version of Isaac Asimov’s beloved science-fiction franchise. That show’s arrival sometime in 2021 won’t do much for Apple’s big shortcoming, a thin library of originals-only programming that was quickly exhausted.

Still, Defending Jacob broke out in the spring, and there are significant signs that Apple is adapting to the new realities. It bought Greyhound, the Tom Hanks WWII naval drama debuting today, from Sony for $70 million (The Greatness Code – a sport docuseries backed in part by LeBron James, Michael Strahan, and Tom Brady – and Little Voice – a scripted series from J.J. Abrams and Sara Bareilles – are also debuting today). Apple spent another $120 million at the virtual Cannes market on an Antoine Fuqua-Will Smith film project, a record for any pre-festival acquisition. It cut a deal with the Maurice Sendak estate for animated programming based on his beloved children’s books such as Where the Wild Things Are. And Apple reportedly is dumping its originals-only approach and acquiring some third-party shows, though little has surfaced yet.  It’s also running Emmy For Your Consideration campaigns for The Morning Show, Defending Jacob and other shows. All of this makes it feel like Apple is warming up to actually running a subscription video service. Given its $1.6 trillion market capitalization and vast hoard of cash, other students in this class might have reason to worry if Apple starts applying itself. Grade: C+, for increasing effort.

AW: David lives in LA where people are aware of what series are opening that week. I live in New Jersey, where we still rely on marketing campaigns. 

Meaning, like a lot of people, I watched The Morning Show at some point in late March because Jennifer Aniston won a Golden Globe, and like a lot of people, I then promptly forgot that Apple TV Plus even existed, since there only seemed to be about three or four other shows on there. That didn’t change during the pandemic.  Grade: C+, because there’s so much unfulfilled potential there.

Amazon Prime Video: Distracted Delivery Boy Still Brought It

DB:  Inexplicably, it took until the first week of July, 2020, for Amazon to finally begin rolling out two of the most basic user-friendly features one might expect from any modern subscription streaming service. One was the addition of user profiles, so different people in a household can create their own watch lists and histories, and have a personalized experience. The other big addition allows different kinds of profiles for children, with additional restrictions on what can be watched, bought or rented. And, in a trend that’s happening more widely, Amazon also launched its version of Watch Parties, allowing people to virtually watch and comment up on a show together. 

Less awesome was the continuing standoffs between Amazon with carriage of HBO Max and Peacock. Roku has the same problem, meaning the two new streaming services from giant media companies aren’t available on devices reaching roughly two-thirds of U.S. households. That’s not, strictly, a problem for Prime Video, which is just one of Amazon’s metastasizing collection of video services. But Prime fits into a broader vision of not just cementing sales through Amazon’s e-commerce operations but also its efforts through Channels and IMDB.TV and Twitch, etc. to provide the entire spectrum of online video options. The continued standoffs are a fail.

After huge success with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Fleabag the past two years, there hasn’t been the same kind of breakout original show this year. Prime just launched new seasons of Hanna and Jack Ryan, and still has that half-billion-dollar Lord of the Rings spinoff series coming, sometime. There’s also the deal it signed with some Westworld creators for a series built around the dystopian game franchise Fallout, a deep and clever narrative universe that could be fertile ground for a video spinoff.

But Amazon has understandably been a distracted student. It focused on  dominating e-commerce during the pandemic, which also helped Amazon CEO break his own record as the world’s wealthiest humanoid.  Perhaps Prime Video will get back in the competition for viewer attention online soon, given all the resources Amazon can bring to bear. Extra credit: Production is underway on a 10-part series from Barry Jenkins based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Underground Railroad, Whitehead said online this week. Good timing on that. Grade: B- for turning in late projects and not enough original work.

AW: I normally watch a lot of Prime, they’ve had some of my favorite streaming series, everything from Transparent to Mrs. Maisel to Sneaky Pete to Man In The High Castle to the underappreciated Red Oaks

But the only things I’ve watched on Amazon Prime since March have been rental movies, because I finally remembered my five-digit code and the kids and I enjoy movie night. (The dog, not so much.)

Given that Amazon has had so many great series, I’m not sure why the pandemic hit them with nothing to offer other than movie rentals…though I did wind up paying $20 to see King of Staten Island, so there’s that.  Grade: C+, because they seem to be slacking off, though the movie rental thing is key.

HBO Max: New Guy Hits The Library, But No One Can Find Him

DB: AT&T finally joined the streaming party in Q2, but it was hardly the splashy debut that new Warner Media CEO Jason Kilar would have wanted. The pandemic meant only half a dozen originals debuted on launch day, including Anna Kendrick’s winsome turn in Love Life, and the voguing competition show Legendary. Fortunately, Warner Media has a very deep library, starting with all the available shows from HBO’s remarkable collection of award-winning series.

Key component HBO continued its run of excellence, picking up 16 nominations, including four for Watchmen, from the Television Critics Association awards this week. The challenge going forward is whether HBO can continue making bell-cow shows such as Watchmen while also filling out the herd with a lot of other good-enough shows.  HBO Max also includes films from the Warner Bros. vault, beloved animation house Studio Ghibli and a superb group of classics from the Criterion Collection are a gift for cinephiles. And there’s plenty of classic TV as well, beginning with Friends. So, even without many originals, there’s plenty to watch, though at the highest monthly price of any service.

Unforced error: Debuting Gone with the Wind just before weeks of racial-justice protests. Warner certainly couldn’t have anticipated the protests, but plenty of people have raised concerns for years about GWTW’s antebellum, no, antediluvian depiction of  race relations in the South. The company pulled the film for a few weeks to add commentary and perspective about those depictions. Perhaps that could have been done, oh, 15 years ago?

Second unforced error: Deep confusion over branding and accessing the service. Where, many consumers wondered, did HBO Max fit with HBO Go, HBO Now, and, well, HBO HBO. The company moved to clean up some of that confusion as it sunsets Go and Now, but that should have happened much sooner, in some fashion.

Third unforced error: Continued disputes with Roku and Amazon about carrying the service. That keeps HBO Max off devices that reach an estimated 80 million households, which doesn’t feel like a win for anyone, least of all consumers. Warner Media absolutely should want to keep all its viewing data, subscriber relationships and advertising possibilities (an ad-supported tier is coming eventually). But the deal with Apple suggests compromise can happen. For now, HBO Max is turning itself into a niche service, given the limited carriage.

On the plus side, Richard Tom, Kilar’s cohort at both Hulu and Vessel, joined in June as CTO, bringing more online smarts and product orientation to the 97-year-old media company. I look forward to seeing what both do to reshape and focus the diverse collection of admirable assets now crammed into HBO Max.

Meanwhile, the strip-mining of Warner Media’s other streaming service, DC Universe, continues, with Star Girl moving to the CW for its second season. HBO Max already claimed Doom Patrol, and reportedly will get an animated Harley Quinn series too. That leaves DCU just one original exclusive series, Titans, and a likely ticking clock on its prospects. Grade: D+, for way too many unforced errors, and that very late debut in the market

AW: I have not been able to watch Max because I subscribe to HBO via Roku. My iPhone app updated to Max from Now, but then told me I was out of luck and kicked me off. (Not that I ever watch on my iPhone, but just in case.)

The degree to which the launch was flummoxed cannot be overstated: the fact that there were multiple articles in the mainstream (versus trade) press about how and where you can watch HBO Max and why there are so many different versions is proof enough of how confusing it was for consumers, most of whom likely just threw up their hands and walked away.

That brings up my other issue with Max: Americans have had about 30 years to decide whether or not HBO is for them or not and over 40 million of us are already subscribing. 

Which means that HBO needs to somehow bring in people who didn’t think old school HBO was worth $15/month, but who will now subscribe to the same service, plus Friends and some Harry Potter movies.

In other words, it’s a very tough sell.

That said, I’m pretty happy with HBO, I watch a lot of HBO shows and while I enjoyed Friends when it was on, I could live a long and happy life without ever seeing it again, but that’s not likely to make me unsubscribe.

As for the Amazon/Roku beef, HBO is in a tough place. Their reasons for wanting to go it alone are solid, but without the sort of original programming that will get people to seek out alternate ways to watch if they can’t get Max on Amazon or Roku, their bargaining position is very weak. 

Grade: C, because I’m skeptical that the audience that initially signed up for HBO cares enough about Friends and Harry Potter to actually care about Max, and because it will be a while before they have a slate of originals that might attract new subscribers.

Hulu:  Disney Adoptee Proves An Able Student In Full FX

The “other” Disney entertainment service continued to impress, bolstered by buzzy originals from its FX on Hulu dedicated hub, including Devs and Mrs. America. The FX and FXX programming provides an edgier alternative to the scrubbed-clean pastels of Disney+. It also has broader hits than anything on its corporate cousin, even The Mandalorian, according to new data from Parrot Analytics. Both Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Brooklyn Nine-Nine cracked Parrot’s top 10 most in-demand online shows. along with seven shows from Netflix, and Game of Thrones.

The downside: viewers have to buy two services, with different log-ins, billing and the rest. Add in Disney’s sports-focused ESPN+, which has been hamstrung by the pandemic, and it’s three log-ins, for no obvious consumer benefit. Grade: B+, for steady, if uninspiring work.

AW: Hulu is another one that has a very deep library filled with shows that can keep me occupied for hours. Their vast collection of HGTV shows is my secret vice, especially when I don’t want to actually think. 

As a Hulu Live TV subscriber, I’m never sure where the vMVPD ends and the SVOD service begins, but I will give them kudos for allowing me to watch the final season of Schitt’s Creek when all my friends who only have Netflix could not. 

They also get extra credit for being foresighted enough to put ABC News on the app during the pandemic so that cord cutters (and people too lazy to shift inputs) had a news source. It’s a great way to make ABC News – which regularly draws double or triple the viewership of the cable news networks – relevant to a new audience. Grade: A-, because there’s still a whole lot of there to watch, including a lot of great comedies like Schitt’s Creek and Ramy and my personal recommendation, the remake of High Fidelity. Extra points for keeping ad loads down and creating some innovative ad units. 

Quibi: Standing In The Dunce Corner

DB: It’s easy to say I told you so, but Quibi had a mangled launch, and not just because of the pandemic, despite founder Jeffrey Katzenberg’s blame game. The company made a series of bad decisions that looked a lot like what happens when the Olds make a new media service designed to appeal to Gen Z and Millennials. It didn’t do well. A business model expecting people to watch on mobile a few minutes at a time throughout the day didn’t work when those people were suddenly homebound, with time to kill and big screens to watch.

Unforced error No. 1: You couldn’t “throw” a Quibi show onto those big screens. 

Unforced error No. 2: The company blocked screen shots, so no one who actually watched and liked a Quibi show could share it on social media. The company is trying to fix some of that, but prospects are grim. 

Mobile analytics firm Sensor Tower issued a report suggesting the company’s subscriber numbers fell off a cliff, to just 72,000 users, after the initial three-month free trial ended for most. Even with $1.75 billion raised, that money will go fast without paying subscribers or advertisers.

Extra credit: Jason Reitman’s fan-video-style “remake” of The Princess Bride, featuring brief appearances by everyone from Jack Black and Jon Hamm to Mackenzie Davis. The unlikely hit moved Variety critic Owen Glieberman to wonder whether the “(sort of) addictive” series was “a shaggy public-access novelty or the savior of Quibi.” In the streaming future (which without rapid iteration won’t include Quibi), you can be both. Grade: F+, because Princess Bride.

AW: I don’t know anyone who thought this was a good idea. As some anonymous Hollywood executive stated in my favorite quote on the topic, “It’s not like I don’t have a pause button!”

Which is why Quibi never made sense. I mean did the shows automatically end when I got to the front of the supermarket line or when my train pulled into Penn Station?

But since this is my job, I downloaded the app, played with it for a day or two and then deleted it, making sure to cancel my free 90-day subscription. Not only was there nothing I really wanted to watch, but the interface was confusing and seemingly random and could have benefitted from a more structured onboarding procedure.

Clearly I was not the only one who felt this way. Points though for making Ishtar references relevant to a new generation.  Grade: F, because it did nothing right.

Peacock: Late To Class, But Did Do Work From Home

DB: The Comcast entry into the streaming wars finally takes flight next week, at whatever altitude, after roosting quietly for free on the company’s broadband and Flex services the past three months. You can’t grade what you can’t see, so finally, as the teacher always demands, NBCUniversal will have to show its work.

Like HBO Max, the roster of new originals will be sparse, just nine shows, including an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” And, bad luck, it won’t have the hoped-for boost of hundreds of hours of Olympics coverage later in he month. It will have 7,500 hours of classic films (Jurassic Park, Shrek) and TV shows (Parks & Recreation) available in the free, ad-supported tier that initial marketing will emphasize. Paying customers will get double that library, for $5 a month, and the whole enchilada ad-free for $10. There will be live news, late-night shows and sports, like more than 100 English Premier League soccer matches courtesy of NBC Sports, which is also different from most of Peacock’s new competitors.

Extra credit: NBCU cut a last-minute deal with ViacomCBS to add a significant cache of the latter’s films (The Godfather trilogy, American Beauty) and TV shows (Ray Donovan, The Affair) to Peacock. And its executives have said they used the three-month soft launch to tweak and reshape the service further If you’re going to be late, at least use the time to look better. Grade: Incomplete, still.

AW: There are two things about Peacock that I find very interesting. One is that it has a free version that seems to have a lot on it (including a linear-like channel guide) and that would seem to be strong competition for the FASTs. Particularly – and this is the second thing I find interesting – because free Peacock (Freecock?) has a whole lot of news programming on it. Sky and NBC News have live feeds (NBC’s is called “Today All Day”) and there are highlight reels from MSNBC and CNBC. 

Given that news is one of the two things that keeps people tied to cable, this could be a real game changer, especially given that Hulu is running ABC News. Given that the network news services have almost triple the audiences of the cable news networks, Peacock and Hulu’s news programming may be more significant than ever. 

Just as importantly, most viewers don’t see the network news services as having a particular political bent the way they do with the cable news services. That’s something to keep an eye on.  Grade: P, because it’s still too new to give it a letter grade.

CBS All Access: Send That Kid To The Cafeteria To Beef Up

DB: ViacomCBS executives keep promising they’re going to release details on plans to make CBS All Access more than a niche service for Star Trek shows and The Good Fight. The beefed-up “ViacomCBS All Access” almost certainly will have lots of shows from Paramount and all the Viacom cable networks, but we still don’t have clarity on how it will handle licensing to services such as Peacock while keeping some parts of its library to itself.

Equally confusing is where Pluto TV, the free, ad-supported service it bought in 2018, fits. It’s the same complication facing XUMO and the free component of Peacock. Who gets what? How do audiences and advertisers differentiate? 

Pluto just announced it has more than 100,000 hours of content, double levels of just six months ago. That includes 40 shows from CBS and Comedy Central such as Survivor, America’s Next Top Model, South Park and Beverly Hills 90120.

Again, the clock’s ticking on ViacomCBS to show how this all fits together. In the meantime, you might as well watch another Star Trek episode. Grade: D+, for missing way too many classes.

AW: I like Showtime, I like Pluto, I think Viacom’s vast library of ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s hits from MTV, VH1 and Nickelodeon gives them a huge advantage with Millennials and Zoomers. But I have no idea what they are planning to do in terms of an OTT app that competes with all the other Flixes. All the pieces are there, and it may turn out that waiting until all of this passes is the wisest move of all.  Grade: Incomplete, because they are still figuring this all out and I don’t think where they are now will reflect where they wind up.

Adapted from an article published by David Bloom at Forbes on July 10, 2020