Who Is Winning the Streaming Wars? Subscribers by the Numbers

Netflix ended 2021 with 221 million global subscribers. See how the rest stack up in the so-called streaming wars, from Disney to Peacock.
Who is winning the streaming wars?
Who is winning the streaming wars?
HBO/Disney/Netflix/Prime Video/Paramount

Taking liberty with some Fall Out Boy lyrics: Streaming ain’t a scene, it’s a goddamn arms race. The main revenue stream for SVOD services comes from paid subscribers like you and me, so the market closely monitors the growth level (or God forbid, the lack there of) for each of the major players. So do we.

Last week, IndieWire compiled the content spends for each of the major streaming services. The week, we rank their respective subscriber totals, small to big, as of the end of calendar 2021. Yeah, we’re kind of like a one-stop shop for DTC data points this month.

Several giants have subscriber figures in or around the triple digits: Netflix, Disney, and the soon-to-be combined Discovery+ and HBO Max (including linear HBO). The others are Peacock. Sorry, NBCUniversal, but your number is just not very good — and none of us want to see another Seeso incident.

NBCUniversal’s Peacock, also home to the WWE Network, had more than 9 million paid subscribers at the end of 2021. Most of those stem from the service’s cheaper, $4.99 per month, ad-supported option as opposed to the $9.99 ad-free option, Comcast chairman Brian L. Roberts recently said.

“Within these 24.5 MAAs [monthly active accounts] are over 9 million paid subscribers approaching $10 in paid ARPU [average revenue per unit], which includes the advertising. And that is without much focus on paid subscriber growth,” Roberts said during a conference call tied to Comcast’s Q4 earnings. “We have another 7 million highly engaged bundle subscribers from Xfinity and other top distributors who use Peacock every single month and currently receive Peacock Premium at no extra cost.”

Peacock, which launched in April 2020, is clearly playing catch-up. Unfortunately, like actual peacocks, this one hasn’t quite taken off.

Apple TV+
There’s always one bad apple in a bushel that ruins your whole rankings thing. Apple TV+ has not necessarily revealed its subscriber number (nor its content spend), but it was forced to give some sort of guidance as part of a union contract dispute reported this past fall.

Apple told the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees that Apple TV+ had fewer than 20 million subscribers in the U.S. and Canada as of July 2021, according to the union. Why the big reveal of a relatively small subscriber base? Under the current IATSE contract, with fewer than 20 million subscribers in the area, Apple is able to pay discounted rates to production crew members vs. what larger streamers like Netflix and Hulu must pay.

Ted Lasso Season 2 Jason Sudeikis Brendan Hunt
Jason Sudeikis and Brendan Hunt in “Ted Lasso”Colin Hutton / Apple TV+

Discovery, Inc. ended 2021 with 22 million streaming subscribers. That tally encompasses Discovery’s entire portfolio, including international direct-to-consumer products like Eurosport Player and GolfTV. According to Discovery the majority comes from Discovery+, but the company did not provide a specific breakdown.

Of course, in a few weeks this modest number will skyrocket when Discovery merges with WarnerMedia to form Warner Bros. Discovery. And the respective subscriber bases could not be more complementary said David Zaslav, who will lead the combined company as CEO. He has said that based on estimates, fewer than 50 percent of the two platforms’ consumers subscribe to both Discovery+ and HBO/Max.

The Discovery+ portion of the soon-to-be combined streaming platforms skews more female than its near-future counterpart, the male-skewing HBO and HBO Max. While HBO and Max may be the bigger driver of signups, Discovery’s half of the content is what will keep subscribers paying 12 months out of the year, Discovery CFO Gunnar Wiedenfels said Monday at the Deutsche Bank 30th Annual Media, Internet & Telecom Conference.

“I have no doubt that we will be creating one of the most complete, sort of four-quadrant, old-young-male-female products out there,” said Wiedenfels, who will remain CFO following the merger. “And I’m really excited about it. I can’t wait to see the first combined direct-to-consumer metrics because, in theory, the acquisition power of HBO Max, combined with the retention power of the Discovery content, I think is going to make for a blowout DTC product and that should certainly drive very healthy revenue growth for years to come.”

Hulu, which is currently 67 percent owned by Disney (which will probably own 100 percent come January 2024) and 33 percent by NBCUniversal, is a significant-enough standalone streaming service that it deserves its own section — though perhaps not a lengthy one. At the end of 2021, Hulu had 45.3 million total subscribers between its streaming on-demand and live-TV services.

See where the rest of the Disney Bundle (Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+) ranks in the Disney+ section of this story.

The Handmaid's Tale Season 4
Elisabeth Moss in “The Handmaid’s Tale”Sophie Giraud/Hulu

Paramount topped 56 million paid global subscribers combined between its streaming platforms, (primarily) Paramount+ and Showtime OTT, at the end of 2021, when the company was still called ViacomCBS.

The big news for 2022 was not necessarily Paramount+ growth (or the overall company’s name change): It was the expected future growth. Paramount executives revised their subscriber projections (and revenue, and content spend) way up, now expecting 100 million global subscribers between Paramount+ and Showtime by the end of 2024. That is much larger from the previous projections of 65-75 million subs made a year ago.

Paramount is clearly going all-in on streaming and while the Paramount+ commercials incessantly boast “a mountain of entertainment,” the true strength lies in the platform’s diversity of entertainment. From kids and family programming to Taylor Sheridan’s non-“Yellowstone” westerns, to live sports and news, to blockbuster movies, Paramount+ has a pitch for pretty much every TV household (just north of 120 million, according to Nielsen) in America.

Ah, here’s Discovery+’s better half. HBO and HBO Max ended 2021 with a combined 73.8 million total global subscribers. While HBO Max launched in May 2020 and its ad-supported option in June 2021, linear HBO launched way back in 1972. That is still a pretty good head start on Netflix, which kicked off this whole streaming craze around 2012.

On Friday, we pondered the future(s) of HBO Max and Discovery+. On Monday, we got our answer. “We believe in a combined product as opposed to a bundle… We believe that the breadth and depth of this content offering is going to be a phenomenal consumer value proposition,” Wiedenfels said during his keynote session at Deutsche Bank. “The question is, in order to get to that point and do it in a way that’s actually a great user experience for our subscribers, that’s going to take some time. Again, that’s nothing that’s going to happen in weeks — hopefully not in years, but in several months — and we will start working on an interim solution in the meantime.

“So right out of the gate, we’re working on getting the bundling approach ready, maybe a single sign-on, maybe ingesting content into the other product, etc., so that we can start to get some benefits early on,” he said.

Love Life HBO Max Zoë Chao Anna Kendrick
Zoë Chao and Anna Kendrick in “Love Life”Zach Dilgard / WarnerMedia / HBO Max

It may be a small world after all, but Disney has some big global subscriber numbers. Disney+ ended 2021 with 129.8 million worldwide subscribers. That overall tally is somewhat evenly split into thirds: 42.9 million came from the U.S. and Canada, and 41.1 million from international territories. The remaining 45.9 million subscribers came from Disney+ Hotstar in India.

Including Hulu and ESPN+, Disney had 196.4 million paid global DTC subscribers overall. Two-and-a-half months into 2022, it’s very likely The Walt Disney Company has crossed that magical 200-million tally. And when Disney+ rolls out its ad-supported option later this year (and internationally in 2023), the Disney Bundle tally will obliterate the benchmark and possibly snatch the crown right off of the Netflix “N” logo.

Amazon Prime Video
Amazon Prime Video would probably like a word with us on that whole Netflix/Disney two-horse race thing. In 2021 more than 200 million Prime members worldwide streamed shows and movies, Amazon said as part of its fourth-quarter earnings.

That was the first time we learned Amazon had more than 200 million Prime members worldwide. (The company does not break out its U.S. subscribers.)

Of course, the draw for most Prime members is still the e-commerce giant’s free, two-day shipping. It’s probably pretty safe to say that if more than 200 million Prime members (that’s as granular as they got) streamed a show or a movie, there are significantly more than 200 million Prime members overall — likely enough to actually outrank Netflix, but we can only go by the stats we have.

The winner, and still champion: Netflix ended 2021 with 221.8 million global paid subscribers.

Netflix’s subscriber growth at this point is mostly from outside of the U.S. and Canada. More specifically, the largest increases in the fourth quarter of 2021 came from the Asia-Pacific and EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) regions. World domination is afoot.

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