Even the Bat Signal isn’t enough to find “Batman.” Netflix was the streaming home for “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” until the end of March 2020, when the films left the service. A month later, they resurfaced on Hulu — but only for three months, at which point they landed on HBO Max. That didn’t last long; two months later, they were on Peacock for only a month. In January 2021, they returned to HBO Max, where they’re still available — but as of March 2021, they’re also back to where they began, on Netflix.
Gone are the easy, early days of streaming, where something was either on Netflix or it wasn’t. Nearly every major studio has its own streaming service and, according to research from NPD Group, the average American household uses seven different subscription or ad-supported services. That makes figuring out where you can watch Christian Bale’s gravelly-voiced crusader a real chore.
The streaming wars have spawned a new fight: the aggregation wars. Competing companies want to streamline the consumer experience by crafting a single interface that reaches across the ever-expanding universe for a unified search, a single watch list, and universal recommendations. Kind of like… cable?
Two companies leading the sector are Reelgood (which provided the “Batman” data) and JustWatch, both founded in 2015. Both were founded as consumer-facing apps, but Reelgood founder and CEO David Sanderson said his company is increasingly offering data services to device manufacturers, cable companies, and search engines that want in on the aggregation game. JustWatch, too, provides its where-to-watch data to over 100 partner companies.
“You’ll see a lot of big companies over the course of this year and early next year come out with some sort of aggregation play,” Sanderson said. “I know, because we’re working with them.”
Sanderson declined to give specific examples, citing NDAs, but this is the kind of software that would be used to power the answer box that pops up on Google when you search “Dark Knight streaming.” And Dell’s Dell Cinema Guide PC app boasts that it is powered “by Reelgood.”
With so many different data sets from different services, aggregation is hard to master. JustWatch combines data from 400 different streaming services — a number that swells to 1,500 when you account for versions of the same service in different countries. According to JustWatch founder and CEO David Croyé, that demands a terabyte of text-only data every day.
Reelgood and JustWatch are free to download; other aggregators offer paid services. For $99 a month, Dabby leases a set-top box and a 10″ touchscreen monitor that allows you to seamlessly search content across multiple services — and, perhaps more importantly, provides access to all subscriptions in one place with no app downloads or passwords required. TiVo’s $39 Stream 4K device offers similar services, only without a subscription (or a touchscreen).
To continue the cable analogy, TiVo Stream even has a feature that matches users to streaming services based on their viewing preferences, letting them “choose their bundle,” as Thun puts it.
Unlike device competitors like Amazon Fire, AppleTV, or Roku, TiVo VP of product Chris Thun said Stream4K is streaming agnostic. “There are very few players in the market that are taking the side of the consumer,” he said. “I don’t care whether you subscribe to Netflix or Hulu, I just want you to be happy.”
Apple makes a strong pitch for Apple TV as uber-app (“All your TV. All in one app.”) and it does allow users to search and get recommendations across services. However, Netflix, the world’s most popular streaming service, is absent from its integration.
Netflix and Apple’s relationship soured further last year after the launch of Apple TV+ — Apple was no longer just a company that made devices that could access Netflix; now it also wanted to beat Netflix at its own content game.
Roku, Google, and Amazon are all in the content and device businesses; all have implemented varying levels of aggregation. Netflix blocks its data from the universal guide offerings of Roku or Google TV. Instead, it forces users to interact with Netflix through its dedicated app and own its customer relationships.
“[Amazon] Prime has their own streaming service and they’re trying to do an aggregation play. That’s a very awkward situation to be in,” Sanderson said. At Reelgood, “we don’t want to be seen in any way as playing favorites. We want to be Switzerland. That’s a very critical piece for us which makes us friendlier to work with for the streaming services.”
Sanderson and Croyé each say streaming services cooperate because their products drive subscribers as well as retention. “We are a small startup, we’re international. We have a small footprint in each market,” Croyé said. “We’re not a threat to them. We’re helping them in the long run.”
JustWatch has 20 million monthly users, down from a pandemic high of 30 million, according to Croyé. In 2019, JustWatch users numbered around 10 million. For the aggregators, those metrics are leverage: Every user may represent a future subscriber to Netflix, Hulu, Criterion Channel, Kanopy, or any of the hundreds of other services.
They also represent a share of the audience’s attention, a commodity whose supply dwindles with every new streaming platform’s launch. That’s a dynamic that’s bound to reach a breaking point, when the fragmentation of libraries and attention gets so great that streaming apps will have no choice but to hand over some of their power to aggregators, whether they’re niche apps or major content competitors.