The golden age of cord-cutting was over almost as soon as it started. On Tuesday, WarnerMedia rolled out the name and programming details of its upcoming streaming service, HBO Max, set to launch in spring of next year. The announcement was paired with the news that Friends—along with The Office, reportedly one of the two most popular shows on Netflix—would be leaving its temporary home, where a new generation of young viewers had formed an attachment to it. The Office, too, has been reclaimed by the company whose studio arm produced it, as Comcast’s NBCUniversal aims to build a service of its own. It no longer makes sense to lend one’s content out to someone else, no matter how high the premium, when corporations can reap the profits themselves.
The splintering of Netflix and the rise of deep-pocketed competitors signals the end of an era and the rise of a raucous and unpredictable new one. Netflix’s head start can never entirely be erased, but a great deal of the service’s early success can retroactively be credited to a lack of credible rivals, plus marriages of convenience (with The Office, with Friends) that are finally reaching their limit. Now that other entertainment giants and even technology hubs are catching on to the benefits of building a service of their own, it no longer makes sense to farm out certain cash cows—even if part of what made them cash cows in the first place was their availability on a cheap, accessible, almost one-stop shop of a portal.
The sheer comprehensiveness of a mid-2010s Netflix subscription may never be replicated. In its place, a slew of new services are contending for a slice of the pie, each with their own attendant costs and flashy benefits to help them earn a portion of viewers’ finite entertainment budgets. As the number of services required to keep up with pop culture skyrockets, the dream of a streamlined alternative to a hefty cable fee is rapidly fizzling out. With no fewer than four major services set to roll out in the next year, the question is less about whether any of them can replace Netflix than which stands the best chance of chipping away at its market share—and how much a slightly weakened Netflix can retain. We took a look at Disney+, Apple TV+, HBO Max, and NBCUniversal’s still-unnamed service to evaluate their selling points, their secret weapons, and most importantly, whether they stand a chance of earning a spot in consumers’ growing portfolio of streaming options.
Projected launch date: November 12
Price point: $6.99 a month or $69.99 a year
Trump card: All of your children’s favorite movies, up to and including the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Will people pay?: Disney already exercises near-total dominion over the box office, but the company won’t rest until it has a similar monopoly on home viewing as well. Under the notorious vault system, Disney has historically exerted a vise-like hold over fans’ ability to access beloved classics from across its multidecade history. With the inventively named Disney+, the Mouse is about to open the floodgates, reverting from artificial scarcity to a seemingly unbeatable selection of touchstones from Aladdin to Beauty and the Beast (but notably not Song of the South), all for less than the price of an average movie ticket.
Disney+ will pair its archive, including all 23-and-counting installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with original series that expand its IP into the owned-and-operated streaming era. Along with the Marvel movies themselves, Disney+ has also flexed its ownership of Marvel, eclipsing awkward stepchildren like Iron Fist with spinoffs for MCU characters like Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, and Loki. Star Wars will get the same treatment, starting with Pedro Pascal as The Mandalorian and snowballing with Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor.
Now that Disney also owns and operates Hulu, the idea is that Disney+ will serve as a one-stop shop for families, while Hulu will service the adults. (Children presumably aren’t tuning into The Handmaid’s Tale.) But families are the pillar of Disney, which is in turn the pillar of a culture increasingly driven by the tastes, loyalties, and toy-purchasing habits of a younger demographic. To some parents, the fee to access so much kids’ entertainment is tantamount to a ransom, albeit a relatively small one—for now. Don’t be surprised if Disney+ lures in an overwhelming crush of subscribers with its opening price, only to slowly inch up its toll over time.
Projected launch date: Fall 2019
Price point: TBD
Trump card: … unclear, which may be a problem
Will people pay?: Apple has approached its foray into entertainment with the same tight-lipped secrecy that’s always surrounded its technology, a strategy that’s made for an awkward fit with the leaky, gossipy culture of Hollywood. For example: We’re theoretically mere months from a trillion-dollar corporation debuting its opening salvo in the streaming wars, and we still don’t know when it’s arriving or how much it will cost.
Still, Apple commands a great deal of attention just by being Apple. The manufacturer is admittedly more experienced at building screens than supplying consumers with content to watch on them; compare its silence, for example, with Disney’s confident opening bid of giving you the most popular franchises in the world for the cost of a Ben & Jerry’s pint. Apple’s counteroffer is variety and star power. Back in March, Tim Cook and his deputies effectively distracted viewers from the relative lack of details with a procession of shiny objects, among them Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston (of debut drama The Morning Show), Oprah (of Oprah, Inc.), and Steven Spielberg (of Amazing Stories). Sofia Coppola, Ronald D. Moore, Kumail Nanjiani, and Damien Chazelle are also on the roster—and a platform where Oscar winners count as second-string players is a formidable one indeed.
But we’re living in a time when auteurs and celebrities pale in comparison with intellectual property, and Apple TV+ doesn’t boast much in the way of IP (unless you count the life story of Emily Dickinson, a teenage version of whom Hailee Steinfeld will play in a comedy). Is a story- and star-driven service aimed largely at adults enough to lure customers into taking a bet on a brand-new streaming player? We’ll find out, because Apple has the funds to throw an awful lot at the wall and see what sticks.
Projected launch date: Spring 2020
Price point: More than $15 a month, the current going rate for HBO’s stand-alone service HBO Now
Trump card: Friends
Will people pay?: WarnerMedia’s newly christened service is a strange hybrid, combining the prestige of HBO with the comfort of backlogged sitcoms from the TV studio arm of Warners with a slew of original series, from an adaptation of Station Eleven to an animated Gremlins show to a Dune spinoff. Even leading with HBO’s branding is a strange choice, confusing the product with more slimmed-down options like HBO Now and doing little to impress upon customers the breadth of a company that controls Warner Bros. and classics like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as well as HBO’s highbrow cred.
Some salesmanship will doubtlessly be necessary to audiences who don’t have the same kind of associations with WarnerMedia—a relatively new composite of various brands under the ownership of AT&T—that they do with, say, Disney. But HBO Max does have Friends in its corner, a series so essential to Netflix’s base the service tweeted out an official mourning, complete with its collective “we.” Will the people who bought Netflix almost exclusively for Friends do the same for almost twice the price? Are Greg Berlanti teen movies, of which HBO Max has ordered at least four, enough of a value add?
Untitled NBCUniversal Streaming Service
Projected launch date: Mid-2020
Price point: Free, with ads
Trump card: The Office
Will people pay?: Technically, NBC has a spotty track record with in-house services; the specialized comedy platform Seeso struggled to break through before its parent company pulled the plug after less than two years. Equally troubling is the precedent set by CBS All Access, another network-owned outlet better known for stifling shows by sequestering them behind a paywall than enabling their success. CBS itself appears to be waving the white flag by giving shows like The Good Fight a secondary run on the network proper in hopes of boosting their audience.
But the as-yet-unnamed streaming service from NBCUniversal—the Comcast-owned entertainment hub that encompasses NBC, USA, Bravo, and the Universal film studio, among other sub-entities—seems to be correcting for its predecessors’ mistakes. Rather than specialize in a particular genre, the service will be more of an omnibus, drawing from its collective mass and formidable archives. And most intriguingly, in an increasingly subscription-driven culture, a version of the service will be available to cordcutters for free.99—with advertisements, of course. (CBS All Access has ads as a trade-off for a discounted rate, but everyone has to pay.)
That means NBCU isn’t looking for viewers’ money, just their eyeballs—a much lower ask than its competitors, even if advertiser revenue is no longer as dependable as it once was. Arguably, NBCU’s gamble is that advertising isn’t dead; it can be revived by transplanting the model to the internet. It’s a matter of venue, not business. And NBCU is sweetening an already good deal by using The Office as a lure—an already beloved show massively boosted in popularity among younger audiences by Netflix. NBCU is piggybacking on that success by snatching back its resurrected hit (expect other classic sitcoms like 30 Rock to get the same treatment once their current deals run out). Giving more for less sure seems like it can’t hurt.
All four of these streaming services are vying to become the new Netflix—but the circumstances that created Netflix in the first place are negated by the existence of so many viable contenders. Disney, Apple, WarnerMedia, and Comcast are instead escalating Peak TV to ever-more-staggering heights, with the choice paralysis plaguing modern viewers extending from what to watch to how much to pay to where to watch it. Each impending service has its own arsenal of not-so-secret weapons in the war for attention; the truth may be, however, that there’s no real silver bullet. Nothing can fully replicate the 360-degree experience of a cable package, except the no-longer-inconceivable resurgence of cable as a solution to cord-cutters’ problems. And the illusion of a comprehensive entertainment package for a fraction of the price has been revealed to be just that.