Streaming Wars: Quibi Faces Its Ultimate Test, ‘Big Little Lies’ Starts a Trend, and ‘Tiger King’ Roars

More people are watching "Tiger King" than "Ozark." Just sit with that for a second. Wow.
Will Forte and Kaitlin Olson in the Quibi original series, "Flipped"
Will Forte and Kaitlin Olson in Quibi's "Flipped"
Patrick McElhenney

With streaming dominating the industry — and more services on the way — IndieWire is taking a closer look at the news cycle and breaking down what really matters to provide a clear picture of what companies are winning the streaming wars (and how they’re pulling ahead). By looking at trends and curating developments down to what matters, the Streaming Wars Report will offer a clear picture of what’s happening overall and day-to-day in streaming. This column will cover the major players, from Netflix to Disney+ to HBO Max, and be sure to check out our Indie Edition for thorough coverage of the boutique services.

New Numbers

Streaming Is Up, Subscriptions Are Up, But What Does It Mean for Quibi? ⇔⇔⇔

It’s almost here: the day some thought would never come. No, not an end to our collective social distancing — Quibi’s launch is tomorrow, April 6. With everyone staying home, staring at their screens, the new streamer’s rollout couldn’t come at a better time… right?

Optimists will argue Quibi’s launch date arrives during an unprecedented demand for new content. Not only is Nielsen reporting 85 percent growth in streaming last month, but subscriptions are on the rise, too, which wasn’t a given. Unemployment is spiking, plenty of people are still paying for cable, and just about every streaming service promises they’ve got everything viewers are looking for, so there was no guarantee a mounting demand for television would go hand-in-hand with a jump in subscriptions. But Antenna, a new streaming analytics company, reported a 64-percent rise across eight major streaming platforms in mid-March.

Nascent streamer Disney+ saw a whopping 212-percent rise in subscriptions from week to week, while HBO shot up 90 percent, Showtime 78 percent, and Starz — yes, Starz! — grew by 49 percent over the same period. [Update: Per a release from Starz, signups through the Starz app were up 142 percent in the U.S. and 168 percent in European and Latin American territories.] Now, these numbers aren’t verified by the services and/or a third party, but any growth is a good sign for Quibi; it means people are open to spending a little more for new, desirable content.

But the problem facing Quibi (aside from all the non-COVID 19 related problems facing Quibi) is threefold:

  • Marketing: All of the streamers seeing big gains in subscribers are known brands. The premium cable giants transitioning to streaming have been making that transition for years. Disney+, while new, has a deep catalogue of known brands to dangle in front of potential subscribers. Even Apple TV+ launched five months ago and has the added advantage of reminding anyone with Apple TV, an iPhone, or a Mac, that the service is one more option right now. Branding is key, and Quibi has to build a brand from scratch. Not only that, but it has to build a brand from scratch at a time when everyone’s attention is focused on one thing and one thing only: the pandemic. (Those Super Bowl ads, which some mocked in February, are looking like a very smart buy now.)
  • Service: For a while now, Quibi’s “quick bites” of entertainment were touted as the ideal time filler while riding the train to work or waiting for the bus — you know, things you used to do before you were confined to your home, apartment, or room. Quibi is a mobile-only app being released at the most immobile time in American history. (Quibi is not yet available worldwide.) Even if the service can bet on people still using their phones around the house, it will have to pivot its marketing strategy to explain why Quibi is worth the $5 subscription fee (with ads) when you can only watch it on your phone.
  • Accessibility: Similarly, Quibi’s mobile-only identity comes at a time when people are trying to watch things together. Whether friends are FaceTiming each other while watching TV in different places, or families are gathering to share an experience, only being able to watch Quibi on your phone adds an extra layer of restriction. Sure, you can still watch a Quibi original before going to bed and then text your friend when you wake up, but even quarantined couples might find it grating to squeeze together around one phone for 10 minutes at a time.

To counter any negative perceptions out there and help customers get accustomed to the new service, Quibi made a big change prior to launch: Rather than offering two-week free trials, anyone who signs up before Monday’s launch will get three free months of Quibi without dropping a dime. And that brings us to our final point before launch: churn. Subscriptions are on the rise, which is hugely beneficial to every one of these companies in the short term — especially as the industry waits to see when production can start back up again — but whether or not streamers retain subscribers in the long run is the main question. Quick bites are a good start, but how long can the apple last?

Big Deals

Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman
Reese Witherspoon and Nicole KidmanStephen Lovekin/Shutterstock

Nicole Kidman, Streaming Titan ⇑⇑⇑

This week, Amazon announced that Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress Nicole Kidman would star in and produce the series adaptation of “Pretty Things,” based on Janelle Brown’s upcoming novel. At first glance, this bit of news is rather unsurprising. Kidman has been getting more and more invested in television, following the massive success of “Big Little Lies,” and she has a first-look deal with Amazon through her production company Blossom Films. So, it makes sense for her next TV role to land there.

Except “Pretty Things” isn’t her next TV role — not necessarily. While the ongoing production shutdown has made guessing when a show will air impossible, Kidman has a number of TV projects in the works, and they’re not all with Amazon. She’ll be in HBO’s limited series “The Undoing,” which was slated to premiere next month until HBO pushed it to the fall. Then she’s got Ryan Murphy’s Netflix film “The Prom,” before producing and starring in Hulu’s adaptation of “Nine Perfect Strangers” from “Big Little Lies” scribe David E. Kelley. Kidman is signed on to produce and star in Amazon’s “The Expatriates,” directed by Lulu Wang, as well, but the A-list talent isn’t tying herself to just one streaming service. She’s got the prestige of HBO, the reach of Netflix, the Disney connection through Hulu, and the overall deal with Amazon.

In short, she’s making money all over town, as an actor and a producer, while keeping her top-tier status intact. Stars have been working with whomever they please since the studio-driven star system went by the wayside in the ’70s, but Kidman has her own system working — or, really, she’s working a system established by her “Big Little Lies” co-star Reese Witherspoon. After the success of HBO’s former limited series, Witherspoon was not only able to leverage her star power to an unprecedented starting salary on “The Morning Show,” but her pay bump from Apple led to another hefty raise when HBO brought back “Big Little Lies” for a second season. Then she took her talents to Hulu with “Little Fires Everywhere,” where her elevated quote commanded more than $1 million per episode (and inspired fawning profiles to boot).

Now, Witherspoon has been far more proactive as a producer-only — she’s got a number of projects lined up through her Hello Sunshine studio that she won’t be appearing in, including the Amazon limited series “Daisy Jones & The Six” — but Kidman is wisely following Witherspoon’s headfirst dive into streaming, where there is a lot of money to be made. By creating hit after hit (and winning award after award), Kidman can take her merits across town to negotiate her next big project. Better still, she can weigh her working experiences against each other, seeing not only how much each streamer is willing to offer (per episode, in producing fees, and with backend points), but how well her series perform on different platforms — and how well their audiences respond to her brand. Maybe some companies will give her viewership numbers, maybe none will. But by the time all these series make the air, Kidman will know which streaming giant she wants to be in business with, or she’ll just keep cashing in on them all.

Buzzy Originals

Tiger King Netflix
“Tiger King”Netflix

“Tiger King” Roars ⇑⇑⇑

I would be remiss to not mention the reigning “King” of streaming. We didn’t even need the Netflix Top 10 lists to confirm “Tiger King’s” lofty status, though the fact that this tawdry docuseries could top the much-anticipated return of “Ozark” does affirm just how popular it’s become. (Per IndieWire tracking, the shows have ranked No. 1 and No. 2 on the service for the past five days.) What’s curious about “Tiger King,” as it exists in the frozen cultural climate, is what happens next: No, I don’t care if Joe Exotic gets a presidential pardon (though I wouldn’t put such a crass move past our ratings-obsessed POTUS), but I do wonder how TV as a whole will try to capitalize on the “Tiger King” craze. We’ve seen late-night shows put its ridiculous premise to good use, and plenty of outlets are jumping on “developing stories,” but news and reality TV are both booming right now, and “Tiger King” falls smack dab in the middle. Its subjects are alive and talking. Its buzz factor has persisted for weeks. Netflix even tweeted a new interview with Joe from prison, so who knows what others might try? All we do know is a hit like this just doesn’t fade away.

Top 5 Power Rankings (April 3, 2020)

1. Netflix
2. Disney+
3. Amazon Prime
4. Hulu
5. HBO/HBO Max

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