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TCA 2019: Summer Kicks Off With the Streaming Wars Looming Larger Than Ever

Netflix is skipping the biannual Television Critics Association press tour yet again, but streaming still controls the narrative.

Lake BellHarley Quinn panel, TCA Summer Press Tour, Los Angeles, USA - 23 Jul 2019

Lake Bell answers a question during the “Harley Quinn” panel to kick-off TCA 2019

David Buchan/Variety/Shutterstock

The summer session of the TCA 2019 press tour kicked off with a panel for “Harley Quinn,” the upcoming animated DC Universe series aimed at adults. Even with big-name stars like Kaley Cuoco and Lake Bell taking questions, the most relevant answer came over the weekend, when DC announced its original series, “Doom Patrol,” is going to be available on HBO Max as well as the DC-centric streaming service.

What does that mean for other DC Universe series? What else will be available on HBO Max when the highly anticipated WarnerMedia streaming service launches in spring 2020? How many other services and networks will be bundled under their broader parent company’s bundle? Or, to sum it all up, how is traditional television preparing for the right-around-the-corner streaming wars?

The “Harley Quinn” cast can’t quite answer those questions, but many versions of the above queries will come up time and time again over the next 17 days. While Netflix is sitting out the tour once more, Hulu and Amazon will represent existing streaming services, while other networks — from premium cable channels like HBO and Starz, to broadcast networks like NBC and CBS — will be pushed for answers on how they’re adjusting to the massive shift in viewing preferences. The streaming wars are coming, and there’s more pressure than ever to not only build hype for shows, but make it clear how easy it will be for viewers to watch them.

And Netflix won’t really be absent. One of the biggest questions facing services like HBO Max and NBC Universal’s yet-unnamed streaming service is how much they’ll cost. In the wake of Netflix losing subscribers after raising prices, many are wondering how much room exists in potential subscribers’ budgets for additional services. If even Netflix is seeing purses tighten, what can the new services do to prove their value right off the bat?

A lot of that will come down to what’s available, both via in-demand classic library titles (like “The Office” and “Friends”) and highly anticipated upcoming original series, like “Watchmen” and “Lord of the Rings.” HBO is bringing the former to TCAs on Tuesday, with creator Damon Lindelof and star Regina King on hand to tease what’s coming in the graphic novel re-imagination. Amazon isn’t hosting a panel for “Lord of the Rings” — it’s far too early — but representatives (including Jennifer Salke, Head of Amazon Studios) will definitely be asked about next steps, given the first cast member has been named.

Hulu, meanwhile, is entering its first TCA after Disney assumed full operational control. Mindy Kaling’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral” will be most prominently featured to lure new subscribers, but how Hulu is planned to work alongside Disney+ is the question of the hour. Could the two streaming sisters see some sort of packaging deal a la DC Universe and HBO Max? As is TCA custom, individual networks are highlighted over broader services — there’s no HBO Max presentation, but instead separate HBO, TNT, and TBS panels — but that doesn’t mean they can avoid addressing the elephant in the room.

It’s too early to see the other streaming networks join in the fun — Disney+ and Apple TV+ could partake in 2020 — making broadcast an even more prominent fixture. ABC reps will certainly have to talk about how their programming will be affected by Disney+. CBS has separate sessions for its linear network and CBS All Access, while NBC could elaborate on its own streaming plans. As for Fox, can we expect more of its series to jump ship from broadcast to streaming, like “The Orville” did over the weekend when Season 3 was ordered at Hulu, not Fox. It didn’t even need to be canceled first, like “A.P. Bio” was at NBC before NBC Universal ordered it up for another season.

The TCAs are all about building excitement and exposure for the season’s upcoming programming. But these days, excitement and exposure go hand-in-hand — if a series looks good, but it’s unclear how viewers can watch it, the excitement dips. In the peak TV era, it’s up to each network not only to pitch its best material, but pitch itself as an accessible entertainment option. How each one does that will define its success or failure at the 2019 TCAs. Now is the time to make your play for an audience, before the streaming wars start knocking people off the stage.

Do people want to watch “Harley Quinn”? Sure, the amiable actors on stage and enlivening animation on screen made a good impression — there should be an audience for this show when it premieres in October. But whether or not viewers do watch comes down to more than if they want to — how badly do they want to? How much are they willing to pay? Those are questions without answers, not yet. But one way or another, by the end of TCAs, we’ll be closer to finding out.

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