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Welcome to the Status Quo of the Streaming Wars

Peacock was the last of 2020’s major debuts—now we’ll see how the landscape shakes out

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With last week’s long-planned, no-Olympics launch of Peacock, the Streaming Wars have reached something approaching a status quo. For the first time in what feels like all of living memory, there are no upcoming new services to speculate about. The players are all present and accounted for, and as the pandemic has sent us inside and in search of entertainment, streaming has taken on an outsized role in how we decide to spend our spare time. In other words, it’s the perfect time to check in on the streaming landscape, which finally feels stable enough to evaluate as a whole. Here are some takeaways from the past few months in Hollywood’s digital frontier.

The End of Expansion

Peacock’s debut is certainly significant for the long-term aspirations of Comcast and NBCUniversal. But the largely free, somewhat confusing service feels most significant for the era its presence effectively ends. Ever since Apple ordered what would eventually become The Morning Show in the fall of 2017, consumers and critics have been in a state of anticipation. We’ve been reacting less to streaming as it is than predicting what it would eventually become. But while the opacity of streaming companies makes some speculation inevitable, our days of reading the tea leaves by way of press releases and trade reports are effectively over. Peacock was the final chess piece to show up on the board. Now, the game can begin.

Disney+, Apple TV+, HBO Max, Peacock, and Quibi together form the second generation of streaming services: those designed to capitalize on, and hopefully chip away at, the success of the first. Disney+, Max, and Peacock are all owned by content-rich parent companies who grew tired of leasing out libraries they could be earning profits from; Apple TV+ and Quibi used a trillion-dollar valuation and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s pitching prowess, respectively, to start their own production engines from scratch. Collectively, all of these companies have claimed they can take on the more established Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, who’ve had time to shore up their original offerings as titles like Friends and Frasier return to their home turfs. In the back half of 2020, the noise of the second wave will start to fade, and streaming will begin to settle into some kind of equilibrium—one that may well include fewer contenders.

If Peacock is an inflection point, the next few months may well bring some sort of downswing, and not just because of COVID-19-related halts on new productions. What are subscribers actually willing to pay for, or spend their time watching? After years of expansion, the pendulum is due to swing toward contraction. And there’s already a prime candidate for where natural selection may start to take its toll ...

Quibi Is Quickly Crashing

Of all the new services, Quibi assigned itself the steepest challenge. Not only were Katzenberg and his business partner Meg Whitman trying to compete with a completely clean slate—they also tried to stand out with a short-form gimmick ill-suited to a “premium” rendition, plus an emphasis on mobile, “on the go” viewing caught flat-footed by a moment when almost nobody is going anywhere. The silly name and counterintuitive pronunciation (it’s short for “quick bites,” but it rhymes with “libby”) were just the cherry on top.

More than two months after its April launch, the Wall Street Journal published a report outlining Quibi’s many troubles, both in overall performance and behind the scenes, followed soon by a similar tell-all at Vulture. In both accounts, Katzenberg and Whitman were characterized as two 60-somethings trying to cater to a demographic they didn’t understand as their brainchild burned through cash and lost executives like its head of brand marketing. Katzenberg has tried in vain to shift blame onto the pandemic, while some reports have indicated more than 90 percent of free trial users have opted not to sign on for a paid subscription. And while all publicity is good publicity, most of Quibi’s publicity consists of viral tweets dunking on loopy concepts like “a woman has a golden arm.”

The idea of a snappier streaming service that toys with the bounds of traditional TV has its defenders, including myself. But nearly four months in, it seems unlikely Quibi will be able to channel that potential into a sustainable business—as opposed to an outlet like YouTube, which has its own homegrown community of creators. If Quibi does sputter out, it’ll take floods of investor money with it, after everyone from Alibaba to Disney bought into Katzenberg’s track record because of his past ventures like Dreamworks. At least we’ll always have the memes.

Netflix Goes Full Hollywood

In happier but equally symbolic news, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings announced last week that chief content officer Ted Sarandos, widely viewed as the Hollywood counterpart to Hastings’s base in Silicon Valley, would share his title and join the company’s board of directors. While a company as big as Netflix having co-CEOs is exceedingly rare, the promotion also cements what outside observers have long known to be the case: Netflix is no longer a tech company with a satellite business in entertainment. It’s a tech and media company, one whose original productions play an increasing role in its success. Sarandos’s ascent may not change much about Netflix, but it reflects a seismic change in the kinds of companies that now shape the industry, with form and function more intertwined than ever. Our platforms and what we watch on them are now one and the same.

Broadway Is Back (Virtually)

Actual theaters may still be dark, but theater is adapting, if only at its upper tiers. July 4 weekend was dominated by the streaming release of Hamilton—or rather, a version of the Broadway smash starring the original cast and filmed without an audience. Disney’s $75 million investment appears to have paid off in the form of a meaningful uptick in new subscribers—adult theater fans are a distinct demographic from the families with kids who powered Disney+’s first few months (though Lin-Manuel Miranda’s contributions to Moana may have trained a new generation of fans).

The success of Miranda’s translation to screen naturally leads to questions about its potential replication. Just as stand-up comedy specials are live performances filmed and repackaged for home viewing, could stage plays and musicals enjoy a second life outside their venues’ four walls? (Netflix tried something similar with its 2019 release of Kerry Washington in American Son.) Such distribution could democratize an art form that’s historically limited to those who can afford tickets and travel to a theater, and could draw an untapped market to new services.

Of course, theater-as-streaming is hardly that simple. Hamilton is a once-in-a-generation hit with a massive cultural footprint. Celebrities and politicians routinely stopped by the original Broadway run, where tickets ran into the thousands; the soundtrack alone has sold millions of copies. A built-in audience makes the expense of a professional directing job worth the start-up costs, but almost every other Broadway show operates on much thinner margins; it’s doubtful there’s equal demand for, say, Keri Russell and Adam Driver in a revival of Burn This. In the space between popular sensations and niche adult dramas, however, there’s uncharted territory for other content-hungry streamers to explore. And without a path back to Broadway in sight, theater may have to get unorthodox in order to survive.

The Non-Nielsen Numbers

Last and least, as always, are the self-released statistics selectively offered by streamers to gauge their own success. Andy Samberg’s charming Palm Springs is Hulu’s most talked-about original film; Tom Hanks vehicle Greyhound earned an “audience commensurate with a summer theatrical box office big hit” on Apple TV+; 40 million people “watched” Never Have I Ever and Space Force in their first four weeks of release, a term Netflix defines as taking in just two minutes of a single episode. (The company used to tally views in terms of completing 70 percent or more of a single episode, then further lowered the threshold for its metrics.)

These data points mean little on their own, but they start to take on more meaning in context. Palm Springs was a record-setting Sundance acquisition Hulu wants to show was worth the investment, financially as well as creatively. Hulu holds an Outstanding Drama Series Emmy for The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s not yet as established in features, which a streaming-friendly romantic comedy could help to fix. Apple wants to prove itself as a venue for upcoming releases with the likes of Martin Scorsese and Sofia Coppola, whose pivots to streaming will be less last-minute than Greyhound’s. Over at Netflix, meanwhile, a full list of its pseudo-ratings reveals some surprising disparities: The ubiquitous Love Is Blind, for instance, was far less widely watched at 30 million views than the magnificently dumb Too Hot to Handle, at 51 million.

The asterisks on these figures remain firmly in place, though it’s still interesting to see exactly how many eyeballs a supersized meme like Tiger King amounts to (64 million, at least for those first two minutes). Streaming is far from transparent, but with the peacocks coming home to roost, it’s worth seeing what major players count as a success—and how they try to claim it.