TV in 2019 was all about streaming services, signing massive deals, streaming services, replacing “Game of Thrones,” and more streaming services. No matter which platform, the pressure is on to remain viable as new competitors like HBO Max and Peacock threaten to siphon off more chunks of the market in 2020. For the smaller players that can’t emulate the sheer volume of content offered at Netflix or Disney, it’s a question of making what they do have stand out.
There were nearly as many notable business developments as there were hours of programming throughout the last 12 months, but a handful of networks and, yes, streaming services deserve to be highlighted. The following platforms navigated the highly competitive industry better than their peers in 2019 and laid the groundwork to thrive in the years ahead.
Honorable mention: Disney+
Disney will primarily be remembered for releasing “Avengers: Endgame” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” this year, but the House of Mouse also acquired Hulu and launched the much-discussed Disney+ streaming service in 2019. Disney+ is making most of Disney’s TV headlines now, but the company’s upcoming “FX on Hulu” initiative should bode well for those two verticals, even if Disney+ continues to draw the most attention.
Although Disney+ boasts a staggering library of Disney-owned content (either decades old or recently acquired), its original offerings were fairly limited at launch. That didn’t stop Disney+ from hitting the ground running with “The Mandalorian,” but it will take more time to determine how successful Disney’s new television forays are. If nothing else, the promise of more Marvel Cinematic Universe and “Star Wars” television content in the years ahead means that Disney+ is practically guaranteed to become a major player in mainstream television.
If network television is dying, NBC didn’t get the memo. “This Is Us” is on the downswing with awards voters, but the series has continued to enjoy strong critical and commercial reception. Meanwhile, shows like “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Chicago P.D.,” “Chicago MD,” and “Chicago Fire” continue to drive high ratings. NBC knows its audience, and responds accordingly.
NBC is superb at franchising, and although those shows don’t make waves at the Emmys or Golden Globes, that hasn’t hampered their popularity. There’s something to be said about consistency, and NBC has continued to churn out plenty of content from its leading properties. And even with Steve Burke expected to step down as CEO next year, consistency also is the name of the game on the exec side. It looks like his replacement will be found in-house with Chairman of NBCUniversal Film and Entertainment Jeff Shell.
The shift toward streaming is unstoppable, and NBC is adapting appropriately. NBCUniversal’s upcoming Peacock streaming service should help keep the network relevant as streaming continues to grow in popularity, and the platform will host new content from popular franchises such as “A.P. Bio,” “Saved by the Bell,” and “Battlestar Galactica.”
NBC also has the rights to exclusively broadcast the Olympics, which is returning next year, and the network recently said it has already booked more than $1 billion in national ad sales for the 2020 summer games.
Speaking of things that only happen every four years: Although ratings for the latest season of “Saturday Night Live” haven’t been stellar, 2020 is an election year, and it’s likely that more politics discourse will give the show a sizable viewership boost. NBC hosts several key programs involved in the political discourse, including “Meet the Press,” “The Rachel Maddow Show,” and “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” which are all likely to benefit from the upcoming presidential election.
4) National Geographic
National Geographic/Samuel Cross
National Geographic proves that you don’t have to be the biggest fish in the TV industry pond to stand out. Much of the network’s success can be attributed to its airing of the acclaimed “Free Solo” documentary, which won each of the seven Creative Arts Emmys it was nominated for; the documentary also received an Oscar and a BAFTA Award.
National Geographic has also essentially future-proofed itself by its partnership with Disney, which equates to having a variety of content on Disney+. This should boost the network’s potential viewership by a considerable margin. 2020 will also see another addition to the awards- and ratings-friendly “Genius” franchise, as Cynthia Erivo plays Aretha Franklin in the third season of Nat Geo’s anthology series.
No less important are the genres that National Geographic specializes in: Few networks have as much experience at crafting documentaries or off-kilter adventure shows, such as the globe-trotting “Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted.” The television industry might be more crowded than ever, but for networks with strong niches such as National Geographic, that’s hardly an insurmountable problem.
3) Amazon Prime Video
Television aficionados aren’t lacking for options, so getting the most bang for one’s buck is key. It’s hard to beat Prime Video’s sheer value proposition — who doesn’t love fast shipping, honestly? — and Amazon’s streaming service has enough quality exclusives to make it much better than a stereotypical “budget” option.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag” is one of the year’s most-discussed shows and Amazon recently inked a deal with her to exclusively produce more content for Prime Video. Amazon also completed overall deals with Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy (“Westworld”), and David Weil (“Hunters”) this year. Locking up creatives like these should help Prime Video continue its upward trajectory in quality, which was recognized in force at this year’s Emmys. Not only did “Fleabag” win the streaming network’s second Best Comedy Series trophy (two more than Netflix has in any genre), but the streamer stole the spotlight on “Game of Thrones'” big night.
Speaking of awards, popular Prime Video shows include award season-favorite “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” while well-received sci-fi series “The Expanse” was recently picked up for a fourth and fifth season on Prime Video after the show was axed by Syfy last year.
A collection of strong originals, a handful of overall deals to produce more quality content in the future, and the general value of Prime Video makes for a notable TV effort, considering that television isn’t even close to Amazon’s primary focus.
Netflix was the subject of several decidedly unflattering news stories this year: The streaming service raised its prices, lost the rights to several of its most popular shows, and even lost 126,000 domestic subscribers in Q2. Those might seem like damning issues — and they are indeed serious — but Netflix is still inarguably one of the television business’ strongest players.
2019 was the year of the mega-deal, and Netflix signed numerous new pacts with high-profile creators throughout the last 12 months. Netflix inked major deals with “Stranger Things” creators Matt and Ross Duffer; “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss; Regina King (“Watchmen”); and Peter Morgan (“The Crown”), among others. Though viewers won’t see the full results of all of these for years to come, they are essential to Netflix’s long-term strategy and building a strong talent pool that will create exclusive content for years to come will be key for Netflix’s future successes in the increasingly crowded television industry.
Netflix also released several key originals this year, including “Russian Doll,” which was one of 2019’s best new shows. The streaming service also premiered “When They See Us,” an acclaimed limited series about the Central Park Five tragedy. Of course, Netflix also released Season 3 of the ever-popular “Stranger Things;” Netflix’s effusive reports about that show’s massive viewership numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt due to its lack of transparency regarding ratings data, there’s little doubt that the show was significantly beneficial to Netflix this year.
The streaming service will also close 2019 on a high note with “The Witcher,” which hits Netflix December 20. It’s a highly-anticipated project that has already been renewed for a Season 2 and Netflix is releasing the series during a fairly quiet TV period, which should give it plenty of momentum going into the new year.
Excelling at the business of TV — signing lucrative deals, teasing noteworthy streaming service details, having favorable quarterly earnings reports — are essential, but at the end of the day, a strong television business needs a large quantity of quality projects to thrive.
“Chernobyl.” “Barry.” “Big Little Lies.” “Watchmen.” Those are but a few of the acclaimed series that debuted or released new seasons on HBO this year, and viewers and awards voters alike noticed. HBO trounced its competitors during the Emmys with 37 wins, considerably more than runner-up Netflix’s 27 wins. Crucially, HBO’s strongest content spans a variety of genres and genuinely offers something for everyone.
Also, HBO owns “Game of Thrones,” which aired its divisive final season this year. Love it or hate it, “Game of Thrones” was still one of the year’s most-discussed shows and despite the audience complaints, it’s a safe bet that HBO and the franchise will dominate all things TV when the “House of the Dragon” prequel, which was announced earlier this year, eventually releases.
As for the aforementioned business moves, HBO also performed admirably throughout 2019 and has positioned itself well for the future. HBO has been especially successful at closing overall deals with Hollywood power players, and the network’s new 2019 deals include contracts with Greg Berlanti (“Riverdale”), Kaley Cuoco (“The Big Bang Theory”), Jesse Armstrong (“Succession”), Liz Sarnoff (“Deadwood”), and Mike Judge (“King of the Hill”).
There’s also HBO Max, an upcoming streaming service that analysts have responded to with optimism. A variety of originals have already been announced for the platform and if there’s any streaming service that could match the massive legacy library of Disney+, it’s HBO Max, which will take advantage of the gargantuan collection of intellectual property parent company AT&T owns.
HBO branding is getting pretty confusing — there’s HBO, HBO Go, HBO Now, and the upcoming HBO Max — but the important thing is that the company is still churning out a large amount of quality original content, and HBO Max is shaping up to be a strong contender in the streaming television market. If HBO can maintain the momentum it built over the last 12 months, the network will be well-positioned for a decidedly bright future.
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