It used to be so simple. If you wanted to watch a movie, you'd take a trip to your local Blockbuster and spend a few bucks on a nightly rental. Then two things happened. The internet came, and at the same time, TV shows such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and The Wire started to compete with movies in terms of production standards and sheer critical acclaim. Audiences wanted access to all this content, on demand, and at a reasonable price – streaming services made all this possible. As we begin 2020, the range of these services has never been greater, and with the competition so fierce, not all these platforms are destined to survive.
Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu have all wooed subscribers with simple, convenient interfaces and low monthly subscription costs. But their time at the top is looking precarious. Disney+ and Apple TV Plus entered the market last year, and going into 2020, there are still more brands on the horizon.
The competition is cut throat, and even market leader Netflix will feel the pinch in the year ahead. In the past month, multiple Wall Street brokerages have downgraded their rating for Netflix Inc, with one predicting the service will lose up to 4 million subscribers in 2020 in the US alone. It's not just subscribers Netflix is losing, either. The emergence of rival platforms means that content is disappearing to competitors, too, with the likes of Friends, The Big Bang Theory and Parks and Recreation all moving to new services this year.
When a brand as big as Netflix can come under pressure, it's a sign that no streaming service can assume an easy ride in 2020. The next few years will prove a true challenge, with some new services struggling to establish themselves at all, and other established services struggling to maintain their market share. Below, we compare streaming platforms, old and new, and see what we can expect from them in the year ahead.
Peacock is NBC's streaming service, named after the network's iconic logo. It might be late to the party, but it shouldn't be considered an outlier, as this bird has laid two golden eggs. The first is its impressive library of content. Over the years NBC has produced many heavy hitters in the TV world, and now, these will pay dividends as it launches its own service.
To start with, it happens to have streaming rights lined up for The Office. The series currently resides on Netflix, where, according to Nielsen data, it is the most watched show on the platform. Whether or not its fans follow when it moves to Peacock remains to be seen, but its long history of programming means it will launch with a solid collection of classic shows, including Cheers, Frasier, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation.
NBC isn't just relying on old favorites. It's also making new content for Peacock, including a Rashida Jones comedy, an adaption of Brave New World, yet another reboot of Battlestar Galactica, and, believe it or not, a Saved by the Bell spin off.
Peacock is expected to be ad supported at launch, free for all viewers to watch
The other golden egg laid by Peacock is its subscription model. There might not be one. At least, not initially. The service is expected to be ad-supported at launch, and the suggestion is that it will be free to all initially, with a premium version (presumably ad-free) following later. It's a callback to the traditional TV model, and a far cry from the likes of Netflix's subscription, but if NBC can pull this off, the lack of financial barrier could mean a potentially massive audience.
Peacock will launch in April.
Verdict: A free streaming offer plus a wealth of classic shows could really help Peacock fly
Not wanting to get left behind, HBO is also launching a streaming service this year, with HBO Max. It's a similar story to Peacock. Decades of programming means that the network has a treasure trove of tried and tested content to launch with. One of the biggest coups has to be Friends, another show that is currently on Netflix, but will move over to HBO Max when it launches. The show left Netflix on New Year's Day, when its licensing agreement was up.
As well as Central Perk's most famous patrons, HBO Max will also be grabbing back shows such as The Big Bang Theory, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and South Park. The company claims that it will have over 10,000 hours of content at launch, including shows from Cartoon Network, CNN, TNT and others. It will also feature movies from Warner Bros, including titles such as A Star is Born, Joker and It: Chapter 2.
In terms of original content, shows from Anna Kendrick and Kaley Cuoco are in the pipeline, with a promise of a further 31 original series in the first year.
HBO Max will launch in May. Priced at $15, it will be one of the most expensive streaming services out there.
Verdict: Expensive, but bound to attract fans of classic sitcoms, with Friends, Fresh Prince of Bel Air and South Park on tap
Details on a new Discovery streaming service are far from concrete, but it seems that the network is working on something. In its third quarter earnings call in November, CEO David Zaslav mentioned that the company was looking at aggregating all its content for a dedicated streaming service.
While he hasn't revealed too much, Zaslav did state that any future moves by Discovery wouldn't involve partnering with another streaming service. This means that a hypothetical future streaming service from the channel would launch with exclusive content, following the lead of Peacock and HBO Max.
While there's still a lot left to be announced, if Discovery does launch its own service (and all the signs are there), every week could be Shark Week.
Verdict: When it launches, Discovery could be one streaming service too many, with limited appeal compared to the other entertainment services
Aimed at those with short attention spans, Quibi's mission statement is to provide short-form videos intended to be watched on a phone or tablet. Its name is a portmanteau of Quick Bites, and its content lives up to this. The average show length on the platform is said to run to about 10 minutes, marking it apart from the hour-plus long shows we've grown used to in the Game of Thrones TV era.
Quibi has some serious backing, however. Disney, Sony and Warner Bros are collectively funding over $1 billion into this new medium. In the age of TikTok, it seems that plenty are betting big on bitesize shows aimed at a younger audience, with a lot of the current affairs content on the platform said to have a millennial bent.
Quibi will mainly focus on producing short, ten minute shows for tablet and phone viewers
In terms of content, Steven Spielberg is contributing a horror series called After Dark, which, as the name suggests, you can only watch at night. There's also a remake of The Fugitive, with Kiefer Sutherland stepping into Harrison Ford's jumpsuit for the role, and a reality show hosted by Chrissy Teigen, called Chrissy's Court, in which she settles small claims.
Quibi launches in April, and is priced at $4.99 with adverts, or $7.99 without.
Verdict: Quibi's 10 minute shows could prove a hit with a younger audience
Disney+ launched at the end of 2019, and was always destined for success, given its vast library of Disney, Pixar, Marvel and Fox content. However, its biggest contribution to popular culture to date appears to be the spawning of never ending “Baby Yoda” memes, the diminutive green child being the breakout star of its Star Wars TV series, The Mandalorian. A hit with both critics and fans, the second season has already been greenlit. Not bad for a show whose main characters are a baby alien that doesn't talk and a man who never removes his mask.
Disney+ has the advantage of being the home for all Disney, Pixar, Marvel and Fox movies
What can we expect from Disney+ in 2020? Well, frankly, more of the same, and that's no bad thing. Naturally, there are more Marvel shows in the pipeline, with WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on their way – both based off Marvel Cinematic Universe characters, and likely to match The Mandalorian‘s high budget production standards. There's also a Monsters Inc spin off, as well as a return to the screen for Lizzie McGuire. The streaming platform will also, of course, become the natural home for all Disney and Pixar movies once they leave the cinema.
With a purported 10 million subscribers at launch, Disney's reach will only expand as the Disney+ service is brought to more countries in 2020. The big question for this year is whether or not the monthly cost of $5.99 will remain. It's markedly cheaper than Netflix, and buoyed by the early success of the service, Disney may consider bringing that price up once users are hooked in.
Verdict: Disney+ is a treasure trove of movies and shows, all with that trademark Disney polish
While it wasn't the first streaming service, Netflix undoubtedly popularized this whole concept. However, its run of being the top dog could well be coming to an end, with so many other services competing for viewers. A report from CNBC noted that 9% of Disney+ subscribers stated they had cancelled their Netflix subscriptions.
Then, there's the content drain instigated by studios taking back their valuable shows for dedicated services. The Office, Friends, and Parks and Recreation are all being taken off the service forever, which— unfortunately for Netflix — formed some of its most watched shows. It's also losing access to dozens of popular movies.
A report from CNBC noted that 9% of Disney+ subscribers stated they had cancelled their Netflix subscriptions.
The answer Netflix has come up with is to offer more original, Netflix-only content. The more shows it makes, the more exclusive content it can boast about, without the fear of it one day being removed (bye, Friends). Annually, Netflix is spending billions on original programming, hoping an essential show or movie will draw people to the service.
With the release of Netflix-produced, Martin Scorsese-directed The Irishman just before Christmas, Netflix is making a push for Oscars glory, following its previous success with Alfonso Cuarón's Roma.
This year will see Netflix create diverse content such as comic book adaptations (Locke and Key), a Jurassic Park cartoon, a zombie reality spoof, and a fashion show, as well as everything in-between. We'll see if all of this will be enough to keep users subscribing.
Verdict: Even with others fighting for its crown, Netflix still offers a vast amount of excellent original content
Apple TV Plus
Apple TV Plus is a clear example of just how brutal the world of streaming services can be.
Despite the Apple name – which is usually a license for hype and success – critics have lamented the lack of “essential” content on the platform. Flagship series The Morning Show may have been nominated for a few Golden Globes and Guild Awards, but the public reaction has been somewhat more muted.
There's more original content coming this year of course. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia creator, Rob McElhenny, will debut a new Apple TV Plus show called Mythic Quest, based on a video game company. There's also Little America, an anthology series that's described as a love letter to New York.
Apple TV Plus lacks the stand out shows of its competitors, but it is cheap (or free for a year)
Does that sound like enough to compete with the Disney+ juggernaut, or Netflix's stable of Oscar-botherers? Perhaps not. Apple TV Plus is yet to have its standout moment with exclusive content.
Unusually for Apple, the main appeal is being cheaper than the competition. The low cost of entry, just $4.99, is decent value. But the real winner is that Apple is giving a year's subscription to purchasers of new Apple products – a smart move, as it may take a year to find that killer hit show.
Verdict: Yes, it's cheap, but it doesn't have any real water cooler shows in its current line up
Amazon Prime Video
In its continued effort to infiltrate every corner of our lives, it makes sense that Amazon would have its own streaming service. However, the real genius stroke was undoubtedly bundling it as a side benefit along with other services, not least of all free postage from the online retail giant.
Like Apple TV Plus, Amazon Prime seems to be struggling to establish its banner show, though it's not through lack of trying. With series including American Gods, The Boys and The Man in High Castle, it has certainly created some interesting original programming.
It can't be accused of failing to invest money either. The Top Gear spiritual successor, The Grand Tour, reportedly cost Amazon a cool $250 million for three seasons. It spent the same again just to pay JRR Tolkien's estate for the rights to an upcoming Lord of the Rings series – and that's before you factor in the production budget.
This year will see the release of Invincible, a comic book adaption by Walking Dead creator, Robert Kirkman; Truth Seekers, a Simon Pegg original about paranormal investigators; and Hunters, a drama revolving around New York Nazi hunters in 1977.
Verdict: Come for the acceptable (if unexciting) line up of movies and shows, stay for the free postage
Hulu might have only half the subscribers of Netflix, bringing in around 30 million viewers domestically, compared to Netflix's 60 million. But it certainly seems to be in a strong position going into 2020, with that solid audience figure shielding it from new competitors.
Part of its success can be attributed to its shrewd decision in 2019 to actually cut the basic subscription price. While its competitors were raising prices, Hulu slashed its standard price from $8 to $6. At the same time, Netflix raised its entry-level subscription from $8 to $9.
In terms of new content, Hulu subscribers can look forward to new film releases such as the wrestling drama Fighting with my Family, as well as car crash reality TV from abroad, including the UK's Love Island.
Verdict: One of the original streaming services, still hanging in there with a wide range of content and lower prices
The Uncertain Future of Streaming Services
If there's a serious problem that streaming services are going to face in 2020, it's saturation. There's simply too many platforms vying for the dollar in your pocket.
Spreading media content across numerous services could also lead to a problem that many thought had been all but eliminated: piracy. According to reports, usage of BitTorrent, a popular file sharing service, is on the rise, and many are blaming streaming exclusives. When Netflix first appeared, piracy actually went down – those tempted to torrent were instead persuaded to spend just a few dollars per month for instant HD streaming and no viruses. However, more services with more original, exclusive content means audiences having to stomach mounting monthly bills, making piracy look tempting once again.
Plenty of consumers may prove willing to subscribe to multiple services to access all the content they want. But maybe not. Research from YouGov suggests that the sweet spot for monthly streaming services is $1 (unlikely) to a maximum of $20 – the cost of two to three subscriptions, tops. That's not even taking into account non-video services such as Spotify.
The affordability of streaming services has made them hugely popular as viewers cut the cord on costly traditional TV package subscriptions. But, it seems that things have now come full circle, and juggling the content and cost of these services is no longer as convenient. The end game, it seems, is that the competition will prove too much for some of the smaller services, and they will fail, presumably having their content folded back into the more popular ones.
So, who will win in the battle of the streaming services? The smart money would be on those with already established audiences – Netflix and Amazon Prime, with Hulu getting squeezed along the way – and those with genuinely compelling exclusive content. Disney+ has plenty of reasons to feel confident, but others trying to trying to get involved this late in the day will have a serious challenge on their hands.
Video streaming is currently in a volatile state, much like the dot com bubble of the late nineties. Everyone thinks they can make it in the new medium, and networks are frantically investing in the hope they can claim a section of the audience. The reality is that while 2020 marks the start of a new decade, few of these services will make it to the end, done in by a cut throat market where the consumer is king – albeit one with shallow pockets.