Welcome to what Moffett Nathanson research analyst Robert Fishman calls the “post-streaming wars.” In 2022, streamers couldn’t wait to tell you how much they spend on content. A year later, the same platforms don’t want to open their wallets, let alone discuss it.
“Fueled by cheap money and unbridled/naive optimism from the Street, management teams were willing to spend whatever it took to establish their new streaming services,” he wrote in his very long March 21 note to clients of the Silicon Valley Bank-owned (yes, that one) firm. “To that point, if the launch of Amazon’s $1 billion ‘Lord of the Rings’ series sounded like the peak of the bubble, that’s because it likely was.”
Even at the time, that figure sounded insane. Today, as interest rates continue to rise and most services struggle toward profitability in the face of a looming recession, it’s certifiable. As Fishman wrote, “As we now painfully know, money is no longer cheap.”
He noted that Wall Street has decided that subscriber growth is exciting only if it has revenue to show for it… and on that note, is streaming even a good business? If so, the balance sheets need to start proving it.
Fishman and his team (there are four names on the 26-page note, including senior partner Michael Nathanson) see total media-industry content cash spend (not just streamers) growing to $136.4 billion in 2023. That sounds huge, until you see that it represents an increase of just 1 percent from 2022. That’s what financial analysts like to call “flat,” especially compared to the 14 percent increase in 2022 or the 25 percent jump a year prior.
Below, IndieWire analyzed 2023 content spends at the biggest streamers. When we couldn’t break out streaming-specific totals, we noted that the numbers include theatrical films and linear TV. Sources include our own reporting, company SEC filings, earnings reports, public statements by executives, and that Moffett Nathanson note.
Let’s start with the biggest of the big spenders. Even after cutting $1 billion in content spend from its own initial 2022 estimate, Walt Disney Co. still set out to spend $32 billion on movies and series last year.
Disney CFO Christine McCarthy said during the company’s fiscal first-quarter earnings call in February that she “expect(s) cash content-spend company-wide to remain in the low $30 billion range for fiscal 2023.” Last November, equity analysts at Wells Fargo predicted that Disney will spend $31.75 billion on content in 2023; Moffett Nathanson sees the cash spend coming in at $30.4 billion.
Disney’s streaming ecosystem includes Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+. Check back with us on that whole Hulu thing in a few months — and maybe even on that whole ESPN thing.
For Warner Bros. Discovery, we’re going with another ballpark figure based on recent history and professed consistency. For Warner Bros. Discovery, this is particularly tough since its 2022 track record is comprised of eight months and change.
Prior to the merger, WarnerMedia under AT&T was poised to spend “over $18 billion” in 2022. In February 2022, Discovery, Inc. CFO Gunnar Wiedenfels said his own company, the one soon to acquire WarnerMedia, spent “more than $4 billion for content” in 2021. He added that both sides of the then-pending combination would be “increasing the spend.”
Those building blocks would suggest the 2022 content spend for what we now know as WBD totaled $22 billion or so. Wiedenfels’ initial optimism hit cold water when the combined company was immediately be tasked with carving out billions to serve its mountain of debt.
However, as the WBD CFO, Wiedenfels said at this month’s Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference, it’s not really taking a chunk out of the content budget with the company’s cost-savings initiatives — at least, they’re not touching the good content.
“I view this as having shaved off that excess,” he said. “We didn’t abandon anything that would have made any sense strategically or financially.” We’ll assume he was at least half talking about “Batgirl” there.
An individual with knowledge of WBD’s linear, theatrical, and streaming (HBO Max and Discovery+, soon to be combined) 2023 content spend told IndieWire the figure remains in the same $22 billion-$23 billion range. That feels a bit high to us; we’re more in alignment with Moffett Nathanson’s $20.2 billion forecast.
Netflix has been nothing if not consistent. The streaming king invested about $17 billion — give or take — into streaming shows in movies in 2020, 2021, 2022, and now, 2023. That spend must feed the world, with an eye toward creating hits across the globe — and in rare cases, global hits.
Ted Sarandos, co-CEO (now with Greg Peters, not company founder Reed Hastings) and chief content officer put it into perspective during Netflix’s fourth-quarter earnings interview in January. “Watching where viewing is growing and where it’s suffering and where we are under-programming and over-programming around the world is a big task of the job,” he said. “There aren’t that many global hits, [where] everyone in the world watches the same thing. ‘Squid Game’ was very rare in that way. And ‘Wednesday’ looks like one of those too, very rare in that way.”
Some member countries exhibit “a real preference for local content.” Sarandos added, citing Japan and Mexico as examples. Netflix also saw significant local-language success in South Korea, Spain, Colombia, and Poland in the fourth quarter, and produced the German-language multi-Oscar winner “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
“These investments are important because it actually increases the total addressable audience for Netflix around the world,” Sarandos said. “If we were just doing English content for the world, we would be mostly attracting Western-centric viewers, but our addressable audience is anyone who’s watching TV anywhere in the world.”
Amazon Prime’s total content spend on video and music was a combined $13 billion in 2021, up 18 percent from $11 billion in 2020, according to a filing with the Securities & Exchange Commission. The number jumped another 28 percent to $16.6 billion in 2022. Though Amazon will not comment on future (or even current) content spend, it stands to reason that 2023’s could cross $20 billion all in.
Moffett Nathanson sees cash spending of $10.1 billion for just the video component in 2023, up from their $8.8 billion estimate last year.
A footnote in the Amazon SEC filing breaks down the number: “Total video and music expense includes licensing and production costs associated with content offered within Amazon Prime memberships, and costs associated with digital subscriptions and sold or rented content.”
Amazon is not in the same boat, or even the same ocean, as many of the pure-entertainment companies on this list. Prime Video is just one of the many services packaged with Amazon Prime, which remains primarily a free, 2-day shipping perk for the online-retail behemoth.
A few years ahead of Apple TV+, the MacBook maker dedicated $1 billion to creating movies and TV shows. That ballooned to $6 billion by the streamer’s November 2019 launch, according to the Financial Times. Moffett Nathanson believes Apple spent exactly that again on video content in 2022 and believes it will hit $7 billion in cash spend this year. (That’s separate from a potential $1 billion push into original theatrical features, which Bloomberg reported today.)
Aggravatingly, Apple says nothing publicly about its TV+ budget, or its TV+ subscribers. If you thought Amazon Prime Video was a loss leader, double that for Apple TV+ (and its Major League Baseball package, and its new standalone Major League Soccer service).
Apple, the largest company in the world by market cap, doesn’t really need your $6.99/month. They’re happy to throw the membership — and one to the rest of the suite of Apple services — in for free for one year with the purchase of a $1,000 iPhone.
Last year, Paramount Global shelled out “around $16 billion” overall in content, per president and CEO Bob Bakish, a number that includes linear, streaming, and Paramount Pictures films. The streaming piece was “probably around $4 billion of that” pie, he said at the 2023 Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference earlier this month.
Bakish said he expects 2023 to be Paramount’s “peak investment year” in streaming. For 2024, the company previously expected to spend $6 billion on direct-to-consumer; thanks to its Paramount+ with Showtime integration, Bakish believes they’ll shave a few bucks off of that.
The NBCUniversal streaming service planned to spend $3 billion on content in 2022. What did that get Peacock? Well, it’s finally past 20 million subscribers, for one thing. A person with knowledge of this year’s budget told IndieWire that Peacock’s content spending will remain consistent for 2023.
All told, NBCU, excluding its UK broadcaster Sky, spent $25.2 billion last year, per Moffett Nathanson. They expect a slight decline this year to $24.8 billion.
You know what would be a huge investment in Peacock? If and when Comcast buys a shiny new toy to beef up NBCUniversal’s modest subscriber base: Can we interest you in a Paramount Global or a Warner Bros. Discovery?