With streaming dominating the industry, IndieWire is breaking down what really matters in the ongoing new cycle to provide a clear picture of what companies are winning the streaming wars — and how they’re pulling ahead. By looking at trends and curating developments, the Streaming Wars Report will offer a clear picture of what’s happening overall and day-to-day in streaming. This column will cover the major players, from Netflix to Disney+ to HBO Max, and be sure to check out our Indie Edition for thorough coverage of the boutique services.
‘#blackAF’: Another Critically Reviled Netflix… Hit? ⇓ ⇓ ⇓
What a week-long whirlwind for Kenya Barris and “#blackAF.” On Wednesday, the “black-ish” creator’s first original series for Netflix (under his $100 million overall deal) was met with a mixed-ish reception from critics, with the -ish skewing negative, especially from black writers. Reviews from IndieWire, Salon, RoberEbert.com, and The Undefeated ranged from frequent complaints about the show’s familiarity to Barris’ other sitcoms to across-the-board pans.
This isn’t new territory for Netflix originals. Plenty of series with bad reviews have gone on to snag renewals, from “Insatiable” dating all the way back to “Flaked,” and “#blackAF” has its defenders in the critical community as well as a social-media backlash to the backlash. But unlike those shows, now there’s a tool that allows us to track how popular “#blackAF” is, at least on Netflix. Per the streamer’s Top 10 lists, “#blackAF” debuted as the No. 6 most-watched program on Saturday before climbing to No. 5 on Sunday. That puts it ahead of “Ozark,” which was knocked out of the Top 5 for the first time in 22 days, but behind more recent releases like the reality show “Too Hot to Handle” (No. 2) and the teen soap “Outer Banks” (No. 4).
Whether “#blackAF” can hold its spot or gain ground in the Top 10 will give us a bit of insight into its true value to the streamer. Was Barris’ massive deal based on his history of commercially friendly, four-quadrant hits, or does Netflix need him to make programs popular with black subscribers (and potential subscribers)? The TV-MA rating on “#blackAF” — along with the many critics who questioned its intended audience — means this show wasn’t designed to be fun for the whole family. Still, its negative reaction from black critics and fans indicates the show isn’t connecting with its other presumed target demographic.
Speaking more broadly, Netflix has seen varied returns from its high-profile investments in creatives. Adam Sandler’s movies are performing extremely well for the streamer (per its own data), while Ryan Murphy’s little-talked-about Netflix debut “The Politician” never accrued the status of his past FX hits (though it was technically part of Murphy’s past tenure at Fox). In the coming months, we’ll see more key projects from Murphy (“Hollywood” hits May 1), Shonda Rhimes (“Bridgerton” is still expected this year), and more high-profile signees, and with more eyeballs than ever watching Netflix, the pressure is on to produce.
‘Mrs. America’ Makes Its Voice Heard in Week 1 ⇑⇑⇑
Hulu doesn’t release viewership numbers, but if there’s one show that took the zeitgeist by storm last week, it was “Mrs. America.” Once an FX original before being asked to frontline the FX on Hulu rollout, Dahvi Waller’s limited series tells the true story of the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and features a procession of bonafide stars, including Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth Banks, Rose Byrne, Sarah Paulson, Tracey Ullman, Margo Martindale, and Uzo Aduba. Reviews are through the roof, thinkpieces are pouring out of every outlet, and the savvy FX reps still working on the series are lining up talent for key publicity appearances every week. This should only build more buzz as episodes continue to be released, driving chatter through the end of May — when Emmy campaigning should keep discussion alive for the next three months (or more). Not to jinx the presumed Emmy favorite at HBO, but this is the kind of launch that ends in gold, and even if it comes up short, this is exactly what Disney was hoping for when it brought FX and Hulu together: “Mrs. America” gets a larger audience than FX could offer on its own, and lends more awards credibility to Hulu than it would’ve had without it. Win, win.
HBO Max Lines Up More Series, but Still No Launch Date ⇔⇔⇔
HBO Max made waves this week when it finally announced a long-in-the-works first for the streaming company: a three-series order from Bad Robot, J.J. Abrams’ production studio.
What? You were expecting some other announcement?
The new shows — “Duster,” “Overlook” (inspired by “The Shining), and a Justice League Dark series — are the first to come out of Bad Robot’s overall deal with WarnerMedia, signed in September 2019, and should generate plenty of buzz. Anything to do with Stephen King remains potentially monstrous (after the “It” movie franchise and HBO’s successful first season of “The Outsider”), comic book properties are still insanely popular, and “Duster,” an original script, will be penned by Abrams himself (alongside LaToya Morgan).
And yet, the main question looming over HBO Max is: When can we see it? Back in October 2019, WarnerMedia narrowed the original “Spring 2020” launch date to May, but with less than two weeks left in April, it’s unknown whether HBO Max will hit May 1 or 31. Further unknowns include what original series will be available at launch, if any, and whether or not the ongoing pandemic has altered plans — for the programming rollout or even the launch itself. The “Friends” reunion was supposed to be the bait that lured everyone to the pricey new service, but its cancellation has yet to trigger any talk of a replacement.
By now, mid-to-late May seems the most likely; perhaps WarnerMedia can pool its network resources and peg the launch of its streaming service for HBO, TNT, TBS, and more to the debut of the oft-moved, much-buzzed-about TNT title “Snowpiercer” and the finale of HBO’s most-watched drama, “Westworld.” The former’s premiere and the latter’s finale are both fortuitously set for May 17.
Quibi Quietly Pivots ⇓⇓⇓
The last word the Quibi team should want to hear right now is “quiet,” but when it comes to describing the streamer’s prevailing status, the only way to avoid it is with a thesaurus. No one can agree on whether their launch numbers — 300,000 app downloads on launch day, 1.7 million over the first week — are good, bad, or somewhere in between. Meanwhile, the anecdotal support given by Quibi representatives have been similarly ho-hum; CEO Meg Whitman said 80 percent of viewers who started watching a series completed at least one episode, which, when considering the 5-10 minute episode length, isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement from subscribers.
But comparing Quibi to other recent launches, especially the 4 million sign-ups Disney+ snagged on day one, isn’t fair; one is an upstart streamer whose name is based on a made-up word, and the other is a century-old media titan that just added a “plus” sign to the end of its very famous corporate title.
What’s more frustrating about Quibi is its content and response to customer complaints during its first week. On the one hand, none of the Quibi shows have people talking. Few can even agree on which are the “best,” with most people shoving them all into a big pile of “meh.” That’s not a death knell, but it does indicate the early show creators didn’t know how to fully take advantage of Quibi’s unique viewing model… or there’s simply nothing unique about it.
One of the biggest slights thrown at Quibi from a technical standpoint is its lack of support on televisions, computers, or screens other than your phone. That choice, however, was on purpose; Quibi was billed as a mobile-only service, meant to be consumed in “quick bites” while between things or on the go. Now that everyone is stuck at home, it makes sense that there would be increased demand for easier viewing options than propping up a seven-inch screen, but Whitman’s response to complaints was that casting to televisions was always part of Quibi’s plan; they just didn’t have time to implement the option before launch.
The time constraint is fair enough, but planning to make your mobile-only app less mobile points to a lack of faith in your own product, or at least a misunderstanding of its competitors. If Quibi isn’t meant to be going toe-to-toe with Netflix, Hulu, and Apple TV+, why does it cost the same, offer similar content (at least in theory), and can be viewed on the same devices? These are the questions I’m now wondering, one week into launch, even if I’m just whispering them into an empty room.