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The Streaming Wars Are Turning Into a Game of Catch-up

Peacock’s addition of the WWE and HBO’s green-lighting of another ‘Game of Thrones’ spinoff are big splashes, ones that also underscore just how far they have to go before challenging Netflix

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2020 saw the Streaming Wars ramp up in earnest. 2021 is when platforms like Peacock, Disney+, and HBO Max will have to prove themselves as lasting entities instead of fresh arrivals. Even though the year is just a few weeks old, there are already a slew of updates that indicate the current state of play, as well as what’s to come. Companies are coalescing around what they perceive to be their most valuable assets—some in the form of the intellectual property that increasingly drives the culture, others in areas underserved by the streaming revolution. The news runs the gamut from Harry Potter to hockey, but it converges on a familiar theme: a game of collective catch-up that could hinge on the players’ arsenals. Let’s dive in.

Everyone Needs Their Own Flagship IP

The highest-profile streaming launch of the past few months is certainly WandaVision, the debut Marvel series on Disney+ and the official melding point of the MCU and the non-cinematic Marvelverse. It’s too early to tell whether WandaVision’s mystery box has much inside it, and so far it’s clear that detailed homages to The Dick Van Dyke Show don’t have the same visceral power as “Yoda, but a baby.” Still, the rollout has been smooth and has established Disney+ as a home base for substantive installments in not one, but two major franchises. Soon, both The Mandalorian and WandaVision will be joined by a barrage of companions; it’s all part of a plan that’s still in its early stages, yet shows no signs of slowing down.

Such momentum naturally inspires the sincerest form of flattery. This week, two pieces of news leaked from WarnerMedia, the parent company of HBO Max that’s bet heavily on the service as the company’s future, to the point of alienating talents like Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve. The first is the development of yet another Game of Thrones prequel in addition to House of the Dragon and a since-scrapped pilot starring Naomi Watts. (The latest nascent series will adapt The Tales of Dunk & Egg, a series of novellas set about a century before the show.) The second is a potential Harry Potter series, a concept so preliminary it has no set writers, actors, directors, or even slant on the material.

HBO is now several years into trying to turn Game of Thrones’ monoculture-extending success into an extended universe of its own. Harry Potter, a series technically in the WarnerMedia domain thanks to the ongoing film franchise centered on spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, is both a new and obvious target for the ongoing gold rush. (Meanwhile, the Potter theme parks are under Universal, an entirely different media conglomerate. IP: It’s a labyrinth!) And while author J.K. Rowling has voiced some repugnant views regarding trans people in recent years, her reputation hasn’t devalued the massive narrative universe she’s built—or at least, it hasn’t yet.

WarnerMedia already has the DC Extended Universe. It’s an endeavor that’s been unable to match Marvel’s perceived untouchability, but it includes success stories like Wonder Woman 1984, which marked a subscription spike with its Christmas release despite some chaotic execution. But as Disney has already shown, one massive franchise to buoy your multimedia efforts is good; two, or even three, is even better. Replicating the Marvel or Star Wars model is not as simple as snapping one’s fingers—even Star Wars has stumbled with Solo and Rise of Skywalker—but it’s easy to see why WarnerMedia wants to play up its assets. Such resources are legacy companies’ built-in advantage compared to newcomers like Netflix, and if exploited properly, they can build the foundation Netflix constructed with its head start and massive spending.

Sports, Streaming, and Streamlining

Not every piece of the foundation needs to be scripted, however. At its launch in July, NBCUniversal’s Peacock service was heavily marketed as “free,” or at least unique among major streamers in having a free, ad-subsidized option in addition to multiple premium tiers. Six months in, the service is now turning its attention to funneling more of its tens of millions of sign-ups toward the $4.99 and $9.99 a month options. (NBCUniversal does not disclose the breakdown of subscription tiers in its sign-up totals, though it seems likely the free one is the most popular.)

The campaign to make this walled garden more enticing starts with Peacock’s would-be trump card. Earlier this month, Peacock unveiled both the full run of The Office, poached back from Netflix at a hefty price, and a flotilla of accessories to accompany it, unusual for an archival show. (On Netflix, The Office’s blockbuster success was accidental, or at least unplanned; on Peacock, the spotlight is very much the point.) Most of The Office’s catalog lies behind Peacock’s paywall, as do full seasons of original series like Brave New World and Saved by the Bell. And joining those scripted shows, there are also select matches from the English Premier League, an offering that got relatively little attention upon launch but now seems to foreshadow a slew of major moves.

On January 22, NBC announced the closure of NBC Sports Network by the end of the year, indicating much of its programming will carry over to Peacock—details are sparse, but NBCSN featured NHL and NASCAR as well as the EPL. And just this week, Peacock announced a partnership with the WWE to serve as its streaming hub for premium subscribers, a move that comes in tandem with the closure of the WWE Network streaming service.

For the past few years, linear brodcast’s greatest remaining advantage over purely streaming TV has been sports. (Anecdotally, almost all of the non-cord-cutters in my life are sports fans. Many of them are my colleagues.) As much as Damian Lillard raps that “Hulu has live sports,” we’re still very far away from a time when the average sports fan could be satisfied with over-the-top options alone—but we do appear to be entering a period when sports will be a much more explicit selling point for platforms. “One of the key things we’re trying to do is differentiate ourselves through live events and sports,” Peacock executive Rick Cordella told The Wall Street Journal.

The WWE pivot, in particular, is also part of another larger story: the streamlining of the Streaming Wars as competitors either go under or opt to consolidate. Most infamous is Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Quibi, whose originals are now licensed to Roku. The end of the WWE Network service is a more positive story; NBCUniversal reportedly paid more than $1 billion for a five-year contract. (That’s two The Offices!) But it also marks a $9.99-per-month platform subsuming itself into a different platform (with plenty of other options included) widely available at half the price. The field is shrinking, ever so slightly, and continuing to coalesce around a handful of major players.

Netflix Hits a Key Milestone

Meanwhile, Netflix still represents what, in many ways, these newer entrants are trying to achieve. It’s now been the better part of a decade since Netflix started bankrolling original series in a bid for subscribers, a playbook most of its rivals are currently cribbing. Now, Netflix is starting to move into a new phase that represents the best-case outcome for those replicating its experiment.

In its Q4 earnings report earlier this month, the company unveiled a surprising figure on top of its typical subscriber tallies: zero, the amount of debt it plans to take on going forward in order to finance its dizzying output of original films and series. To finance productions before subscriber revenue could sustain the company in its own right, Netflix had previously taken on $16 billion in debt, a liability many skeptics pointed to as the service ascended. It’s a staggering number that can finally stop growing.

That still leaves Netflix with an estimated $10 billion to $15 billion of debt to actually pay down. But as HBO Max and Peacock vie for consideration as proper peers, the financial turning point is also a reminder that Netflix is just much further along in its big-picture timetable, even though it started without the muscle of Disney or WarnerMedia behind it. With nearly 204 million subscribers worldwide, including 66 million in the United States, Netflix is what a fully mature streaming service looks like. As we look forward to HBO Max’s international expansion, the launch of Paramount+, and the continued ramp-up of Disney’s master plan, Netflix’s present remains the future others are striving toward.