Among plenty of other 2020 streaming lessons, this year proved, finally, that original content matters. Having the must-see original series, movie, or confusion-causing combination of the two is as integral to launching a streaming service as it is to sustaining one. What people want to watch is the name of the game, and while accessibility and libraries are significant factors in attracting and maintaining a subscriber base, typically what gets people’s attention is the hot new item.
In 2020, nascent streamers like Disney+ and HBO Max as well as veterans like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video all had their fair share of big ticket releases, but now, on the precipice of a new year, is the time to look back at what else we can learn from these original series. What do their successes and failures mean for programming strategy moving forward? Will we see more shows like them? What big wins will shape brands and what frustrating losses might motivate quick pivots? Plus, what 2021 releases could carry similar consequence for each of the mighty, mega streamers? Take a look below, and let’s get ready. The streaming wars don’t take holiday breaks.
2020: “The Queen’s Gambit” and “The Crown”
I promise to hold the rest of the streamers to one original each, but seeing as Netflix is still the undisputed head-of-the-class, it’s earned two series worth a closer look. First up is “The Queen’s Gambit,” the limited series about chess that became a global smash hit thanks to Anya Taylor-Joy’s evocative micro-gestures. With success typically comes sequels, and if, as originally intended, “The Queen’s Gambit” had been made in the ’90s, everyone would be demanding Season 2, with executives throwing money at writer-director Scott Frank to come up with more adventures for Beth Harmon & Co.
But not today. Despite its “limited” qualifier, “The Queen’s Gambit” still represents the kind of program Netflix covets most: enough episodes to keep subscribers engaged for days, if not weeks; enough buzz to generate interest beyond long-term subscribers; and enough new-ness — a (relatively) new star, new story, new genre (or at least the appearance of one) — to support the idea that Netflix is on the cutting edge, that it’s the service you watch when you want to discover something new.
That “The Queen’s Gambit” was always billed as a limited series only helps Netflix, which continues to see backlash from fans when ongoing series get canceled. Much has been made about the three season “rule” at the streamer, but despite online petitions and social media complaints, the strategy doesn’t seem to be hurting subscriptions. Netflix is about to cross 200 million customers worldwide, and its standing as a utility remains unchallenged even with a glut of competitors.
And there are exceptions to the three season strategy — kind of. “The Crown” Season 4 earned more buzz and (supposedly) broke more records than its previous three seasons, buoyed by the arrival of Princess Diana (Emma Corrin) and Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson). Peter Morgan’s extravagant period drama is a costly endeavor, and was all set to wrap with a fifth and final season next year (which still would’ve made it one of the streamer’s longest-running originals). Instead, Netflix expanded the series order, granting Morgan an additional season to encapsulate Queen Elizabeth’s life.
Why the expenditure here with so much tightening elsewhere? Maybe Netflix respects success, wants to keep key talent like Morgan happy, and values the annual awards attention heaped on its prestige original. Or maybe the company sees the “The Crown” as more of a sequence of limited series than an ongoing drama? It’s heavily episodic and based in history, meaning fans can join in whenever they feel like it. Plus, because the story jumps through time with a new cast every two years, “The Crown” can still attract new fans, rather than just striving to keep old ones happy. (Plenty of viewers may have been waiting for Princess Diana to show up before starting their binge.) Cast turnover could also keep costs down — there are no Season 4 salary bumps for series regulars because no one has been there for four seasons — after three seasons, the cost/benefit ratio becomes unwieldy. For limited series, however, the ratio remains plenty lucrative.
2021: “Jupiter’s Legacy” and “Cowboy Bebop”
These motivations matter when looking ahead to 2021. For a show like “Jupiter’s Legacy,” a pricey superhero drama from Mark Millar, the question becomes whether Netflix can successfully expand its audience by launching another wide-ranging genre series. While 2019’s “The Witcher” was a fantasy hit and “The Umbrella Academy” has done well enough to earn a third season, big tentpoles like “Altered Carbon,” “The OA,” and “The Dark Crystal” fizzled out quickly. Can an original genre series (sans comic book or video game IP) do well enough to get renewed, and also prove sustainable beyond one or two seasons?
With “Cowboy Bebop,” the question is even more pressing. The ’90s anime series has grown a sizable fanbase over the years, thanks to its respected quality and adaptations in Manga, video games, and movies; its lasting popularity will help ensure a built-in audience for the admittedly weird original. (It’s a western, in space, with jazz.) But those fans also have to be wondering how long a Netflix adaptation can last. How excited should they be, in case their new favorite show doesn’t last beyond its freshman outing? And that question goes double for creatives considering taking their five-season pitches to the streamer. Does Netflix risk alienating viewers and talent who don’t want to commit to a show that could get axed before it’s over?
Considering some of the challenges facing other streamers at the moment, these aren’t bad problems to have. But it’ll be worth keeping an eye on each of these programs to see how Netflix answers these lingering queries.
Courtesy of Disney+ and Lucasfilm
2020: “The Mandalorian”
With the help of a massive library, “The Mandalorian” launched Disney+ in late 2019, and, sans verifiable data, no other original did as much to maintain interest in the nascent streamer throughout 2020. By the time Season 2 rolled out on Halloween Eve, Disney already pivoted its priority to the “+” and was secretly prepping a squadron of “Mandalorian” spin-offs and imitators to buoy the service for years to come.
2021: “The Mandalorian”
While there’s an argument to be made that any of the new, high-profile Disney+ releases are key to the platform’s future — 2021 has the MCU’s “WandaVision,” “Loki,” and “Hawkeye” all slated for release, not to mention comedies like “The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” and “Turner & Hooch” — I contend all of those shows are less consequential than how the streamer expands its O.G. success story… or doesn’t.
“The Mandalorian” Season 2 ended with what could have been a series finale, but it also pigeonholed the series within the original trilogy’s arc, rather than taking an opportunity to build onto its own. Since Disney bought Lucasfilm, new “Star Wars” projects have a tendency to sacrifice creative enterprise for nostalgic fan service. To see the same problem surface in “The Mandalorian” is as expected as it is disheartening, but it also hints at bigger issues for a service designed for serialized stories — aka TV shows.
In order to keep resurfacing known characters, “Star Wars” has to link their new stories to old timelines, old settings, and old heroes. That’s great for hooking older fans, but it’s less great for connecting with younger ones. Maybe parents’ joy in seeing Luke Skywalker again will translate to their unfamiliar kids, or maybe those kids will be more interested in their own generation of heroes: which, let’s face it, are in the MCU.
Yes, the MCU connects all its narratives, but it doesn’t look backward. (OK, it does, but not all the time.) It builds out, further and further, until hundreds of characters are all flying and time-traveling together. That’s part of its appeal, just as the opposite inclination is part of “Star Wars'” problem. The MCU is building a universe, while “Star Wars” is remodeling the same old house. Whether the MCU shows work as supplemental material to the movies or stand on their own by branching off into exciting new areas, how “Star Wars” expands through television is the biggest question facing Disney+, and we won’t really know the answer until “The Mandalorian” Season 3 hits. But even with a boatload of spinoffs coming, “Star Wars” is feeling unbearably claustrophobic.
©New Line Cinema/Courtesy Everett Collection
2020: “The Wilds”
“What about ‘The Boys,'” you ask? Been there, done that. Yes, Amazon Prime Video’s superhero satire went weekly in 2020, which only helped grow its already devout following, but what about the girls? “The Wilds” snagged a quick Season 2 renewal, and online search queries show a continued spike in interest since the premiere. Sarah Streicher’s twisty character drama marked Amazon’s first major YA series, and if Prime Video is going to maximize its subscriber base, it needs to appeal to more than just the older, arthouse demographic. Maybe parents are paying for the two-day shipping, but if kids are watching the originals, that helps keep families hooked in the Amazon ecosystem. And that’s the name of the game for tech titans like Amazon and Apple.
2021: “The Lord of the Rings”
Amazon Prime Video is also expanding into animation in 2021 — with marquee shows like “Invincible,” “Fairfax,” and “Do Re & Mi” — but nothing outranks a billion-dollar series. In 2018, when Amazon secured the rights to “The Lord of the Rings” for $250 million and a five-season commitment expected to total more than $1 billion, the deal was analyzed to death. “Game of Thrones” worship was peaking. Everyone wanted the second coming. Streamers had the cash to spend on potential deities.
But would the next “Game of Thrones” actually look like “Game of Thrones”? Would it be an epic, world-building, fantasy show, or would it be something totally different? And could any IP justify that level of investment before a single frame of footage was shot? Honestly, considering “The Mandalorian” is essentially the new “GoT” and Disney is pivoting harder than ever to invest in every piece of IP it’s got, Amazon’s “Lord of the Rings” deal is looking smarter by the day. But in 2021, we’ll finally get some real answers — and find out if this truly is the one ring to rule them all.
Niko Tavernise / HBO
2020: “Normal People”
Arguably, the biggest impact on Hulu in 2020 was the incorporation of FX. John Landgraf’s critics- and awards-friendly cable network finally found a way to connect with the cord cutters — even if it meant sharing credit with Hulu for FX productions like “Mrs. America” and “Devs” — and it helped boost viewership immediately. The Cate Blanchett-led “Mrs. America” also made a nice showing at the Emmys and ranked highly on plenty of year-end lists, but the breakout of Hulu’s year remains “Normal People.”
Two relative unknowns carrying a 12-episode Irish romance? That hardly sounds like something Disney would invest in, but now the Mouse House’s adult streamer has already greenlit another adaptation from the same team (based on Sally Rooney’s first novel, “Conversations With Friends”) with even more like it on the way. Craftsmanship and innovation deserve as much credit for “Normal People” becoming a sensation as the cast’s chemistry; the half-hour episodes proved extremely absorbing and its distinct production (shot in Ireland by Oscar nominee Lenny Abrahamson) led to an escape for many homebound viewers. These kind of artist-centric attributes are also what’s helped FX stand out over the years, so maybe this whole FX on Hulu venture will go even more smoothly than expected.
2021: “Nine Perfect Strangers”
“Little Fires Everywhere” was not, in any official capacity, a David E. Kelley joint, and yet it’s hard not to consider the series indebted to “Big Little Lies.” Maybe it’s the presence of Reese Witherspoon as producer and star; maybe it’s the suburban setting and central mystery built around moms; maybe it’s the awards pedigree and reported high viewership.
Nevertheless, “Nine Perfect Strangers” is an official David E. Kelley joint, adapted from a Liane Moriarty novel of the same name and starring Nicole Kidman (plus Melissa McCarthy, Luke Evans, Samara Weaving, Michael Shannon, Bobby Cannavale, Tiffany Boone, and Luke Evans). How it performs could set Hulu’s prestige template for years to come. Lord knows there’s no shortage of mystery novels out there, and Kelley has proven willing to juggle many writing gigs. Plus, if Hulu is going to be Disney’s adult-focused streamer, pumping out challenging new stories from unique voices, it needs surefire hits to support unproven experiments — would there be a “Normal People” without “The Handmaid’s Tale”? Maybe not. So let’s see if “Nine Perfect Strangers” can bankroll more hidden gems.
©Warner Bros / Courtesy Everett Collection
2020: “The Flight Attendant” and “Wonder Woman: 1984”
Granted, there were not a ton of options to choose from here. If you ignore the reality shows, and documentaries, HBO Max launches were limited to “Raised by Wolves,” “Love Life,” and “The Flight Attendant” — and one out of three ain’t bad! Granted, both the Ridley Scott-helmed sci-fi series and Anna Kendrick’s anthology rom-com earned Season 2 orders, but only Kaley Cuoco’s mystery-thriller made significant waves.
That is, until “Wonder Woman 1984” arrived. HBO Max was quick to announce the Warner Bros. film had “exceeded expectations” on its opening weekend (whatever that means), kicking off a year of big-ticket movies headed straight to the streamer. The pandemic may have slowed Max originals’ rollout in 2020, but come hell or high water, 2021 is primed to make up for it.
2021: “Gossip Girl” and Warner Bros. Films
Continuing the IP trend, HBO Max is betting big on pre-existing franchises in 2021. Zack Snyder’s “Justice League” limited series/director’s cut has the potential to do the most damage to society at large — toxic fandoms should not be rewarded for harassment, and if this release proves successful, God help us survive the cries for future “cuts” — so let’s instead focus on “Gossip Girl,” a WB TV series that’s been off the air less than a decade and somehow already ripe for a reboot.
To be clear, the first few seasons of Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage’s CW soap were exquisite. Anyone who watched knew Blake Lively would be a star for decades to come, fully understood that Leighton Meester was a comic talent in the making, and weren’t surprised at all when the man behind Dan Humphrey found further success when playing a(nother) creepy stalker. The new class has a lot to live up to, as does head writer Joshua Safran (who worked on the original series before helping pen “Smash” and “Quantico”), but the real question is whether there’s enough nostalgia for the original series to lead old fans back to the Upper East Side high schools and enough juice in the new take to entice the next generation of viewers.
Similar questions linger over many of the much-ballyhooed Warner Bros. motion pictures set to stream on HBO Max in 2021. Can “Tom and Jerry” charm today’s children? Can “Space Jam: A New Legacy” recreate the magic of 1996? Is “Dune’ really a story meant to be a billion dollar franchise? What about “The Matrix 4” and “Godzilla vs. Kong”? Will “Sopranos” fans return for “The Many Saints of Newark”? (OK, this one we know: Yes they will.) IP is the key to HBO Max’s streaming success in 2021, just as it’s been the key to Hollywood tentpoles for, well, a long time.
One more thought to consider: What if these blockbuster movies turn out to be less-than-great films? When it comes to movies, HBO has been airing good and bad blockbusters since its inception, and big-ticket features that made it to theaters provide the network with some of its highest ratings. That means there’s definite interest in any kind of notable new(-ish) movie, but what are subscribers paying for today? Are they forking over $15/month for HBO’s top-tier originals, their licensed movies, or both? Is it enough that they got to see “Wonder Woman 1984” from home, or does its icy reception make them less inclined to keep their subscription for next month’s movie? Can Warner Bros.’ movies be the main attraction on HBO Max? Is the pressure on HBO to produce enough must-see TV to keep people hooked? Do both have to be operating at top-levels for HBO Max to thrive? One thing’s for sure: We’ll know more by 2022.
2020: “Brave New World”
With only a handful of original series premiering in 2020, Peacock didn’t offer much in the way of brand-defining programs. The “Saved by the Bell” reboot earned solid reviews; “A.P. Bio” thrived beyond NBC and even snagged a fourth season; plenty of international series came and went; late-night got off to a good start with Larry Wilmore and Amber Ruffin.
But none of these shows caught the zeitgeist, which will eventually become an issue. Peacock’s biggest advantage in the streaming wars has been it’s one of the few ad-supported services out there (though HBO Max will roll out an AVOD option in 2021). So far, that’s led to a respectable subscriber base, with 26 million sign-ups through five months of national availability — but Peacock is still angling to turn its free users into paying users. Just look at how “The Office” is being rolled out January 1: The first two seasons will be available without a monthly fee, but you have to pay for Peacock Premium to see the other six. (And even the cheapest paid plan, $4.99 per month, still has ad breaks.)
Originals are supposed to work in a similar fashion, but no one is going to pay for a monthly plan to see shows no one is talking about, and Peacock graciously admitted as much with its quick handling of “Brave New World.” The marquee launch title was met with mixed reviews when it debuted in July and failed to generate any significant traction since, so Peacock canceled the sci-fi adaptation at the end of October. It’s somewhat surprising considering streamers tend to stick by their debut originals, but “Brave New World” wasn’t a true Peacock original; it was first developed at SyFy before shuttling to USA Network and eventually landing at the NBCU streamer.
Today, “Brave New World” episodes aren’t locked behind a paywall. The lone season can be viewed in full using the free subscription model, which is good because a) I’d argue it’s worth checking out, and b) content is critical to Peacock’s continued success. So long as subscribers can stream “Parks and Rec,” “SNL,” and “30 Rock” to their heart’s content, they’ll flock to the service for their biannual binges. But Peacock needs to keep them there, prove they’re worth the extra investment, and then lock them in long-term. “The Office” is step one toward that end, but it’s not the key to 2021…
2021: The Olympics
I know, I know: A live international sporting event that’s been taking place for more than a century isn’t exactly an original series on par with the “Bel-Air” reboot, but how Peacock factors in to NBCU’s extensive Olympics coverage will be key to the service’s success moving forward. Executives will have to find a way to funnel fans who are used to watching the games on broadcast and cable toward the streamer, and while years of online bonus coverage will help, finding what to watch and when to watch it has always been a confusing tradition of Olympics coverage. Peacock will need to be easily searchable, offer clear schedules, and be ready to handle an influx of live viewers. It will also need to be the exclusive home for must-see events beyond the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Will viewers have to pay for those events? Will they have to pay for any of them? Will two-plus weeks of viewing be enough to hook them on the service as a whole? Or will any number of issues — technical glitches, unavailability, a not-so-intuitive user interface — alienate people from Peacock instead? The 2021 Olympics will be a big moment for the streamer. Let’s hope it’s ready.
2020: “Ted Lasso”
It finally happened. Apple TV+ landed a word-of-mouth, must-see TV hit, and it didn’t come from an Oscar-winning actor or a blockbuster filmmaker. It came from TV veterans Bill Lawrence and Jason Sudeikis. While we may never know how many viewers actually watched the cheery American college football coach travel across the pond to head up a British soccer club, “Ted Lasso” still did more good for Apple TV+ than any of their preceding shows, limited series, or movies. The 10-episode comedy engendered goodwill at at time when the need for warm feelings was at a premium and ended up on more critics’ Best of 2020 lists than all of Apple’s 2019 slate combined. The series also snagged a two-season renewal, so there’s plenty more “Ted Lasso” on the way. Thank goodness.
The new year will be stocked with imaginative Apple TV+ offerings hoping to be the next “Ted Lasso,” including a 1980s-set aerobics dramedy staring Rose Byrne (“Physical”) and a romantic musical-comedy starring Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key (“Schmigadoon”), but Apple really needs a heavy-hitter (read: expensive investment) to come through. “Pachinko” is that and more. Based on Min Jin Lee’s best-selling novel, the period drama starring Lee Min-Ho (“The King: Eternal Monarch”) and Jin Ha (“Devs”) spans decades, travels to multiple continents, and tells its sweeping family saga in three different languages (Korean, Japanese, and English). Apple is looking to court a global audience with this one, along with plenty more upcoming releases, as success overseas continues to play a huge role in growing subscriptions.