And the award for best streaming-video service goes to …
When the 77th annual Golden Globes were held on Sunday, eager awards-season campaigner Netflix Inc. was left disappointed. The streaming company triumphed in just one film category and one television category, despite scoring a whopping 34 nominations.
Instead, AT&T Inc. was the night’s big winner, taking home honors for HBO’s “Chernobyl” and “Succession” and Warner Bros.’ “Joker” — works that the wireless carrier inherited from its cinephilic acquisition of Time Warner Inc. in 2018.
In addition, Sony Corp.’s “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood” won best motion picture comedy and best screenplay, putting it in perhaps the most enviable position heading into the more prestigious Oscars ceremony next month.
But 2020 is all about the streaming wars, and the awards circuit won’t provide a reliable scorecard. The stock market may be a more accurate gauge: Though it’s still very early days in this new year, shares of Netflix are in the lead, climbing 3.8% as of Monday’s close. Walt Disney Co. is next-best with its stock price just barely up. Then comes AT&T, Comcast Corp. and the others — all either barely up or in the red. It’s practically a ranking of clearest to most opaque streaming strategies.
Comcast investors will hear more details about its streaming plans next week during a special presentation to showcase the Peacock app, which is scheduled to officially launch in April. There have been reports that the company is considering a free version for users who would rather sit through ads than pay a subscription fee. Given Comcast’s roots as a cable-service bundler, it also seems likely that the company will look at ways to combine streaming offerings with its internet packages. In fact, bundles could be the next phase of the streaming wars in an effort to one-up the value proposition of a Netflix subscription, which still provides users more bang for their buck than any of the new services on their own.
Disney+ had a wildly successful launch in November, signing up 10 million customers in the first day alone. Bernie McTernan, an analyst for Rosenblatt Securities, predicts that number has risen to at least 25 million by now, and Wedbush Securities’ Dan Ives foresees Disney’s presence in streaming helping to disrupt at least 10% of Netflix’s installed base. But Disney+ is still very much tailored to “Star Wars” superfans and kids. That’s where Disney’s Hulu stake may come into play: Subscribers who pay for both Disney+ and Hulu at $13 a month can get ESPN+ thrown in for free, a way to attract a wider audience and tame the inevitable monthly churn.
The challenge for Disney this year is proving that the costly investments in exclusive content for Disney+ make the app sticky enough and not just an add-on option for Netflix fans, but a true competitive substitute. Strong early subscriber figures could help distract from the monumental losses slated for Disney’s streaming business, which Michael Nathanson of MoffettNathanson Research pegs at about $4.5 billion this fiscal year and continuing in the red through 2023.
Investors may not have the same patience with AT&T. The company’s HBO Max app will become available in May for $15 a month, the same price as a regular HBO subscription, but it won’t become profitable until 2025. Investors weren’t as impressed with an early peek at the service as they were with Disney+, and AT&T’s costly bet on streaming adds to an already long list of challenges facing the communications-and-media conglomerate. Those challenges include cord-cutting disproportionately hitting its Turner networks, slowing growth for its consumer wireless business and the DirecTV unit’s precipitous drop in subscribers. (Here’s a deep dive on AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson’s fascinating vision and struggle to carry it out.)
It’s not totally shocking that Netflix was snubbed during the Golden Globes: “The Irishman” was enticing but very long and forgettable; the rawness of “Marriage Story” required too much emotional effort for the holidays; “The Two Popes” scored 89% on Rotten Tomatoes but has limited appeal. But taken together they show the variety contained in Netflix’s library; it offers plenty of stuff to watch, for a wide range of audiences.
The marketplace for streaming-video products will expand in 2020, but the revenue pie isn’t necessarily getting any larger. These companies and others — don’t forget about Apple Inc., Amazon.com Inc., ViacomCBS Inc., Discovery Inc., etc. — are fighting for many of the same viewers with only so many hours in their day to binge-watch TV and limited monthly household budgets.
As Hollywood spends the next few weeks applauding its own chosen accolades, the corporate giants seeking to battle Netflix still have much to prove this year both to everyday audiences and their own investors. Delivering the best overall product will matter more than the reception of a single film or series.
Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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