2020 was always going to be the Year of the Streaming Service, even before the coronavirus pandemic swept across the nation and forced people to entertain themselves at home for months on end.
It was the year that saw the launch of the entertainment industry’s big-money streamers from high-profile companies such as AT&T and NBCUniversal. It was also a year that served as a key test for platforms such as Disney+ and Apple TV+, which launched in late 2019 and needed to prove that they had the staying power of industry heavyweights such as Netflix. Hulu began streaming a variety of FX shows. Quibi happened.
What 2020 wasn’t was the year for was traditional television. Streaming services have been premiering the bulk of the television industry’s most high-profile and acclaimed shows at an increasing rate over the last few years, and there’s no indication that that is going to change. Cable networks have continued to suffer from confusing carriage issues and price tiers, which only makes the simplicity of forking over a few bucks for a streaming service all the more appealing. Traditional television was also dealt a significant blow by the coronavirus pandemic; the companies behind the biggest networks are simply too big and cumbersome to adapt in a year that forced most productions to go on indefinite hiatuses, and many just opted to run retread content from partners in their conglomerate.
Overall, streamers fared better than networks in 2020, but that doesn’t mean they enjoyed universal success. Here are the streaming industry’s winning and losing platforms of the year:
Disney+ might not have premiered many high-profile original titles in 2020 — oh hello, “Mandalorian,” nice to see you again — but that didn’t stop the streaming service from trampling its competition in regard to subscriber gains. Disney+ immediately attracted a large subscriber base when it launched last year and continued to thrive throughout the pandemic: Disney+ had over 28 million subscribers in February 2020 and surpassed 73 million subscribers by October.
Though Disney+ wasn’t the only streamer to see gains during the pandemic, it was uniquely situated to appeal to families who have been sheltering at home for long periods of time. Disney+ is rife with family-friendly titles from the Disney and Pixar catalogues and proved that the rest of the streaming industry’s relative disregard for younger-leaning content over the last few years was a mistake. It’s not surprising that HBO Max and Peacock, which launched months after Disney+, unveiled a slew of family-friendly content following the success of Disney+. If you’re leading the pack of the freshman streamers with content strategy, that’s a win.
(Also, it’s not insignificant that Disney+ was widely accessible over a variety of platforms when people were searching for comfort TV. The service is available via Apple TV, Roku, and Amazon Fire TV, not to mention plenty of Smart TVs, web browsers, and its mobile app. Part of that advantage comes from debuting early and having time to iron out any kinks, but other services would be wise to make their product as easy to access as possible.)
After debuting “Hamilton” over the summer, Disney also made the difficult decision to premiere the live-action “Mulan” on its platform due to the nation’s widespread theater closures — only this time, subscribers had to pay an extra $29.99 on top of their monthly subscription fee to see the film. Even so, IndieWire’s Tom Brueggemann reported in September that the move was likely to the company’s benefit.
And while Disney’s streamer might not boast as many high-profile originals as its competitors, the aforementioned Emmy-nominated, merch titan “Mandalorian” is so universally popular that it’s almost a moot point. Key Marvel Cinematic Universe television shows such as “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” were unfortunately delayed to 2021 due to the pandemic, but with “WandaVision” set to premiere in January, Disney+ is well-situated to continue growing its subscriber base well into the new year. (For more on Disney+ one year in, check out our podcast’s annual performance review.)
NBCUniversal’s Peacock, which launched in July, proved that there’s a viable market for a free, ad-supported streaming service. Peacock hasn’t single-handedly reshaped the streaming industry, but the fact that it’s eked a role in a business that has historically been defined by paid subscription-based streamers is plenty impressive. According to parent company Comcast’s third quarter reports, there have been more than 22 million signups for Peacock.
Peacock boasts a variety of acclaimed library content, from “Parks and Recreation” to “Saturday Night Live” (which added every episode to the service in October) as well as well-received originals such as “Save Me” and a “Saved by the Bell” reboot. The streaming service is also one of the few in the industry that has invested in live news, sports, and late-night comedy programming. Comedians like Larry Wilmore and Amber Ruffin premiered shows on the platform to acclaim. And the future looks bright with television’s biggest event just on the horizon: Peacock is expected to exclusively stream Olympics content when — knock on wood — the Summer Olympics kicks off in Tokyo in 2021.
Plus, in case anyone could forget, “The Office” moves from Netflix to Peacock on January 1, 2021. Plenty of Dunder Mifflin die-hards will follow.
Credit when credit is due: Apple has aggressively invested in its year-old streaming service, and the fruits of the company’s labors are beginning to show. While plenty have disappeared into the ether (remember “See” or “Amazing Stories”?), Apple TV+ premiered a variety of notable titles throughout 2020, including the sports comedy series with a big heart “Ted Lasso,” the Emmy-nominated “Beastie Boys Story” documentary, and the Tom Hanks-led “Greyhound,” which the streamer is positioning for Oscar craft categories. The latter title was a big get for Apple TV+ — and one of several signs that the streamer could become a significant contender in the streaming film market. Its ambition is admirable: Apple spent big to acquire Martin Scorsese’s upcoming “Killers of the Flower Moon” and inked a first-look deal with the filmmaker in August.
Scorsese is one of numerous industry heavyweights who has deals with Apple or is working on content for the streamer. Apple TV+ will eventually premiere shows created by or starring Damien Chazelle, Jon Stewart, Brie Larson, Oprah, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Steven Spielberg, among many others. While exact subscriber numbers are hard to parse because the company isn’t breaking them out in their earnings calls, third-party analysts have estimated between 5 to 10 million subscribers.
Another potential subscriber boost lies in the company’s latest tactic: bundling. Apple is now bundling an Apple TV+ subscription in the company’s suite of services via a package called Apple One. Subscribers gain access to Apple Music, Apple Arcade, Apple TV+, and iCloud storage for a discounted monthly rate, with the option of paying more to include extra services (like Fitness+ and News+) or adding family members to the plan. If the company can convince users of one service to try out the other, it will create a self-sustaining ecosystem that drives subscriptions to all its services. Given the success Apple has seen with Apple Music and iCloud profits alone, there’s plenty of upside to the bundling strategy.
In total, Apple TV+ premiered enough high-quality content in 2020 to keep itself on the radar and boasts more than enough notable upcoming projects to stay relevant in the long-term. (For more on Apple TV+, read our Year One performance review.)
The Perpetual Honor Roll Students
Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu
Sweeties, you’re doing great! Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu all held the trajectory they were already on from last year — consistent subscriber numbers, a rational price point, critical acclaim, industry love in the form of Emmy nominations and, for Netflix, the occasional Oscar nod — congratulations, you’re the honor roll kids that made the honor roll yet again. It is worth noting that these standardbearers of the streaming industry have all been around for years, and have settled past their growing pains into routine corporate competence, ones that can even withstand the rigors of a pandemic on production and acquisition. That’s a relief for shareholders — and, frankly, for consumers who have come to depend on the trio’s reliable access, depth, and quality of content.
It was a bad sign when HBO’s own John Oliver mocked AT&T’s big-money streaming service mere weeks after launch as “the only ash heap of history that costs $15 a month.” It was a really bad sign when Christopher Nolan, who directed one of WarnerMedia’s’s most important films of the year in “Tenet,” referred to HBO Max as “the worst streaming service” following the company’s announcement that it would simultaneously release its 2021 films in theaters and on the streamer.
HBO Max boasts an impressive catalogue of old films and television shows, but the platform — which costs more than every other major streaming service — failed to attract an audience and its original content is regarded as inferior to the titles on the HBO pay-TV network. The company’s investments in HBO Max haven’t paid off: AT&T chief financial officer John Stephens told investors in January that the investments in HBO Max reduced AT&T’s revenue by $1.2 billion and industry analysts told IndieWire in October that WarnerMedia’s recent layoffs were likely due, in part, to HBO Max’s poor consumer adoption.
HBO Max, which launched in May, became available on Amazon Fire TV in November, but it’s still unavailable on Roku, which is one of the most popular devices for using streaming services. The platform’s marketing was also confusing, given that it launched when WarnerMedia already offered HBO, HBO Now, and HBO Go. The latter two have been since been phased out, but it was too little, too late. When the recent announcement was made that “Wonder Woman 1984” would debut on HBO Max alongside a theatrical release, the question “Can I get HBO Max if I have HBO?” spiked, according to Google Trends. This is not a good sign.
Still, plenty were quick to defend the service’s attributes after Nolan’s recent attack. If the company can get its marketing and accessibility issues in check, HBO Max is still the current and future home of all HBO originals — including “Succession” Season 3, “Euphoria” Season 2, and “Barry” Season 3, all of which are expected to premiere in 2021 — and the coming year will also be a consistent, reliable home for a genre of films that have scant commodities in 2020: blockbusters. If WarnerMedia can provide a quick and easy answer to “Can I get HBO Max?” it might have a strong year ahead.
Quibi, which launched in April, was the butt of many jokes during its short life span, but the most damming indictment of the streaming service is simply stating the facts as they are.
Founded by former Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and Silicon Valley veteran Meg Whitman, Quibi was a short-form streaming service that raised $1.75 billion prior to launch. Quibi was mobile-only and could not be used on computers or smart televisions. It launched when the coronavirus pandemic had spread throughout the United States, which forced consumers to stay indoors where they already had access to the streaming services and larger screens that Quibi executives incorrectly assumed their product would not have as competitors.
Katzenberg told the New York Times in May that he attributed “everything that has gone wrong to coronavirus,” but most other streaming services earned new subscribers during the pandemic. It took nearly two months for Quibi to adapt and enable casting of its programming to television screens via AirPlay.
Though “#FreeRayshawn” won two Emmys in the short-form categories, none of Quibi’s titles resonated with critics or audiences. Unlike Disney+, which found success due to its large catalogue of old Pixar and Marvel films, Quibi did not boast any library content. The platform did not own any of of the content it did offer — it was all licensed. The platform required a paid subscription, which meant that it had to compete for consumer’s time and money with immense companies such as Netflix — but its design philosophy also meant that it had to compete with popular free apps such as YouTube and TikTok.
Quibi’s most senior executives did not understand their company’s sole product or its target demographic: Whitman said in a June interview with IndieWire that Quibi was entirely unlike the industry’s existing streaming services and was instead “premium video content on your mobile device.” (To be clear: Quibi was a service that’s sole function was to provide its subscribers with streaming video. There are, obviously, mobile apps for every streaming service that can be accessed on a phone.) Users couldn’t take screenshots of Quibi to share on social media, which negated a potentially huge source of free advertising that competitors thrive on. It was aimed at millennials but its brief episodes were designed to be consumed during commutes or while waiting in line at a store, which did not mesh with coronavirus-related restrictions or millennials’ penchant for long binge-watching sessions.
Quibi shut down on December 1.