So who’s winning the streaming war?
If we're judging by subscribers only, then the answer is simple: It’s Netflix . . . probably. With 80-plus million people doling out $8 a month (or is it $10 now?), Netflix is indeed still the most popular premium video content streaming service, though the other contenders in the space may have strategic advantages to threaten that long-term dominance.
Unlike the linear TV universe, which monetizes based on the size of the viewership of its respective programs, the OTT world does not seem to care how many people are actually watching its content. Broadcasters want your eyeballs, and OTTs are happy with just your blind loyalty. The question of "who’s watching?" is not as relevant as you might think.
So how are these content combatants measuring who is outperforming whom?
Amazon Prime now claims a number of subscribers that threatens Netflix’s once-dominating lead. Its parent company, Amazon, has a market cap of four times that of Netflix, and though its core business is obviously retail, Amazon is wisely using that to their advantage. A Prime membership costs $99 a year and includes free two-day shipping on all Amazon purchases, a benefit no other competitor can offer.
Though a big chunk of Amazon’s original content failed to resonate with viewers, when throwing a slew of anything against the wall, something’s bound to stick. That something was Transparent; and boy (girl?) did it stick. Now Bezos and crew will attempt to fail fast and learn from the Betas and the Alpha Houses in the next several iterations. Perhaps their newly inked series with Woody Allen, Crisis in Six Scenes, will serve as their secret weapon? Who knows, but they already own your data (and credit card number), so once they crack the original content code, they could be the OTT superpower overnight.
Other contenders like HBO and Hulu still have a long way to go in terms of catching Netflix and Amazon regarding the number of subscribers, but both have powerful advantages when it comes to content. Where Hulu has partnerships with linear broadcasters to air current shows in season, as well as archival episodes, HBO carries both the longest brand history and deepest roster of original programming hits.
HBO has been a stalwart in original storytelling for decades now, and their imperatively titled OTT offerings (Go, Now) are growing rapidly, even while cable subscribers industry-wide are becoming fewer. "OTT is simply the latest vehicle to reach more consumers. In the mid-‘90s, it was satellite. In the early ‘00s, it was telcos—and now, it’s digital. "Every time there is an advance in technology, it helps HBO grow its business," HBO’s CEO and chairman Richard Plepler says.
Jumping from HBO Go, which requires a cable bill, to HBO Now, a standalone streaming platform, HBO maintains the strength of legacy cable subscribers and also empowers the cord cutters. Why pay $100-plus a month to get HBO as part of their cable package if they need only pay $15? Before, all subscribers were owned by the cable providers, and a fraction of them were leased to the premium content companies like HBO. Now HBO owns that subscriber relationship directly, and the leverage to tell cable providers like Comcast and TWC that they need HBO more than HBO needs them.
"There are 13 million broadband-only homes in the U.S. Obviously, we think a good portion of those will become HBO subscribers, some by bundling with our traditional distributors and some with new digital distributors. We will continue to evolve content, some of which will be particularly suited for digital like Vice News and Jon Stewart. But mostly it will be comprised of HBO’s wide range of superb content in every genre from documentaries, series, original movies, and miniseries to sports and theatrical movies," Plepler says.
Hulu has made huge strides to increase the depth of its catalog, securing exclusive rights to network gold including Seinfeld, Homeland, and Empire. "We are striking groundbreaking output deals with some of the biggest network brands including AMC, FX, and Turner, which guarantees that full libraries of future series produced by these networks will stream exclusively on Hulu for years to come," Hulu says.
The quality of Hulu’s original content is perhaps soft in comparison to its competitors. However, last year, Hulu looked to change that. With an aggressive rollout of quality original programming like Difficult People, Casual, 11.23.63, and The Path, the platform has started garnering hype for more than merriment of the syndicated variety. Plus, company chief Mike Hopkins has teased that live TV is on its way next year. Looks like things are heating up over at Hulu HQ.
But none of that scares Netflix. The pioneer of the binge-drop is the indisputable heavyweight, so much so that "Netflix and chill" has officially become part of our lexicon.
With more than 600 hours of original programming coming down the pipeline this year—up from 450 hours in 2015—Netflix expects that number to continue to rise. Quantity, though, is not the brand’s primary focus. Rather amassing an impressive library of original high-quality, exceedingly well-produced, and award-worthy concepts—House of Cards, Narcos, Orange Is the New Black—is the major key for growing the brand and extending the chill.
"We’re focused on the consumer, addressing their pain points, and making the service better—better personalization, better streaming, better movies and TV shows. It’s up to us to win the ‘moments of truth’ when people decide what to do with their time—whether it's watching another Internet TV service, reading a book, or playing a game," Netflix says.
Somewhat further afield, though, we have real sleeping giant: the colorfully named YouTube Red. A streaming service that caters to the new generation of bingers, YouTube Red has entered the OTT subscriber fray, and it’s brought an impressive army: its built-in community of several billion users. Much like Amazon, that advantage, along with YouTube’s inherent mobility, are a content firestorm waiting to catch an unpredictable and perhaps indescribably potent social spark.
According to YouTube’s blog, "A Trip to Unicorn Island earned more Twitter mentions and impressions at launch than Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, House of Cards and True Detective saw when they were released." The name of the game is content, and converting even a fraction of the massive audience of existing YouTube loyalists to Red subscribers could be game changing.
So what’s the takeaway? Each of the competitors in this space has distinctly different strategies and built-in advantages, and the race for producing the best content is ongoing. The benefit for audiences is that this competition keeps raising the bar in the quality of content and each product overall. What seems like a feverish race to the top may not be the winner-take-all scenario that speculators are making it out to be though. "Because the entertainment market is so broad, we believe multiple players can be successful," Netflix says.
And that may be true, but the biggest shift yet is still out there. With live sports as the most highly demanded of all content, let’s see what happens when ESPN enters the cord-cutting game.
[Mash Up: Joel Arbaje for Fast Company; Source Photos: Craig Blankenhorn, courtesy of HBO (The Night Of); courtesy of HBO (Game of Thrones); Jordin Althaus, courtesy of Hulu (The Mindy Project); Jennifer Clasen, courtesy of Amazon Studios (Transparent); courtesy of Netflix (Stranger Things); JoJo Whilden, courtesy of Netflix (Orange Is the New Black); David Giesbrecht, courtesy of Netflix (House of Cards)]