(Welcome to my series on an “Intelligence Preparation of the “Streaming Wars” Battlefield”. Combining my experience as a former Army intelligence officer and streaming video strategy planner, I’m applying a military planning framework to the “streaming wars” to explain where entertainment is right now, and where I think it is going. Read the rest of the series through these links:
Part I – Define the Battlefield
Defining the Area of Operations, Interest and Influence in the Streaming Wars
Unrolling the Map – The Video Value Web…Explained
Aggreggedon: The Key Terrain of the Streaming Wars is Bundling
In November, a war started.
Fortunately, in this war, no one will die and the biggest risk is to the stock price of ViacomCBS. If the biggest war our current generation is a streaming war, then the future isn’t all gloom and doom.
Since I’m writing an “intelligence preparation of the battlefield” for the streaming wars, it sort of begs the question: if the streaming wars are a war, what kind of war are they? To prove I’m not making a straw man here, here’s a host of articles asking about the streaming wars, but no one tying them to the best comparable war.
I was a history major and in the military. I should be able to figure this out. Let’s do it.
1. Will rank wars from “easily discarded” to “Pretty darn close”. Scroll down to the bottom to find out the winner(s).
2. One imaginary war per section.
3. I’m fairly “American” so all of these wars will inevitably come from that bias viewpoint.
The Civil War (and most other civil wars)
The case for the Civil War—and other civil wars—is that the entertainment industry itself is like a country riven by sectarian strife. The Confederates would be the traditional studio conglomerates and cable MVPDs clinging to their profits, while upstart streamers are, I guess, the Union? Trying to impede the new movement? Or maybe switch the two and the streamers are the Confederates splitting off from the Union? See, it doesn’t really work.
The Persian Gulf War or Franco-Prussian War
The problem with these wars is they were too darn quick, each lasting under a year. The streaming wars won’t end any time soon.
Alexander the Great, The Huns or The Khans Conquer the Known World
Every so often, some military leader just up and conquered most of the known world. Four years ago, we probably would have said Netflix was set up to do just this. Yet, unlike the foes who fell under Alexander, Attila and Genghis, the traditional studios may have a fighting chance to defend their territory.
Independence Day War
This is the fictional version of massively powerful invaders taking over everything, just this time with aliens. We only have two sides in this war, where the streaming wars are multi-polar, so we’ll need some better analogies.
Closer, but Key Flaws
We have our first “traditional” war where two massive powers square off for domination of, literally, Western civilization. If Carthage had defeated Rome, all of human history may have taken a different course. (Instead of Rome, the Western World would have been centered around North Africa.) If the upstart tech streamers defeat the traditional entertainment conglomerates, the results for investors may be similarly momentous.
The challenge is we’re not dealing with two united sides in the streaming wars. Disney+ is fighting for control from HBO Max as much as they are fighting Netflix and Amazon. However, if I did make this analogy, it would mean Ted Sarandos is Hannibal and his elephants are Netflix originals powered by algorithms. Which could mean Bob Iger is Scipio Africanus, but now we’re going too far.
The French Revolution
Revolutions are like Civil Wars, just without sides or uniforms. Which make it tough to compare to our streaming wars. Sure, our combatants don’t wear uniforms—well, NBC Pages do, but you know what I mean—but you have to like the symbolism of revolution. Streamings isn’t a war, but a “digital revolution” in how we receive content!
That has an ethos of “power to the people” who are rising up and saying, “No more high cable prices, I’m cutting the cord!” Of course, the data doesn’t support that—most Netflix subscribers have cable; most cord cutters pay well below costs for content—but it sounds good.
The Cold War
If I took points from The French Revolution for not wearing uniforms, well no one wore any uniforms in the Cold War either. This war was waged via proxies, spies and nuclear stock piles. All of which I have a tough time comparing to the streaming wars. In its favor, The Cold War was a global enterprise, with battlefields from a divided Germany to Vietnam to Latin America to China to Korea to Afghanistan. The streaming wars will match that scope.
War of the Ring (Lord of the Rings)
Human-Covenant War (Halo)
Lots of science fiction or fantasy works have two sides squaring off for all the marbles just like the Punic Wars:
Lord of The Rings. This is the literary equivalent of the Punic Wars. The humans battled Sauron for literal survival. And somehow a hobbit saved humanity.
Halo. This is the video game equivalent of the Punic Wars. The humans battled the Covenant for literal survival. And somehow a super-soldier saved humanity.
Pretty Darn Close
Peloponnesian and Corinthian Wars
Now we’re getting there. While the wars between Sparta and Athens had two sides, each city state had its own power and made its own decisions. Each city state picked a side and either allied with the Spartans (Peloponnesian league) or Athenians (The Delian League). These city-states also struggled with civil wars and popular up risings, depending if they were winning or losing. That’s a lot like the streamers disrupting traditional movie studios, but each city-state still working for its own end and switching sides as needed.
These wars also were bloody, inspiring later theorists to develop the concept of “total war”, when war isn’t just a show of force, but a fight for survival. Like the streaming wars: instead of shedding blood, though, the plan is to shed cash flow.
One Hundred Years War and/or War of the Roses
These two wars were the inspiration for countless fantasy novels, especially one of our “co-winners” of the streaming wars analogue crown. Like the Peloponnesian Wars, two sides squared off for power (first, in France, then in England), with the nobles switching sides and betraying each other whenever needed to stay in power. Still, as much as these previous wars resemble the streaming wars, neither quite captures the scope of conflict. We need a really big war, when the War of the Roses is really squabbling over England’s crown. Not like our next contender.
World War II
Most Americans when they think of wars, they think of World War II.
World War II is America’s favorite war, and Hollywood’s too. Just look at their regular output of Greatest Generation films. The problem for this analogy is that, well, I can’t make either side the Axis. Otherwise they’ll be horrifically offended.
Not to mention, if this analogy were really true, it would be as if the British turned their guns on the Americans midway through the fighting. Because Disney is squaring off as much against fellow conglomerates AT&T (HBO Max) and Comcast (NBCU/Peacock) as it is Netflix and Amazon. (And those two started the price war in the first place for content.)
Finally, at the end, the Allies won partly because they developed one tremendously destructive weapon. There are no nuclear weapons in the streaming wars. Speaking of which…
This galactic battle was allegedly a “civil war” between two sides—Rebels versus the Empire—that each squared off in decisive battles like a traditional war. Like World War II, though, there isn’t some giant super weapon of streaming which one side or the other can destroy to win the war. I tried to imagine this as “data”, but every streamer has that.
The best case for Star Wars is that The Force is a mysterious force that rules our lives that no one individual can master, sort of like “creative excellence” is the force that rules Hollywood that no one individual can master.
Runners Up – The Iraq War or Vietnam War
I could make a better case for these insurgencies than the civil wars of old. Where civil wars pit uniformed soldiers against each other, in Iraq, militias faced off against the traditional military against insurgent groups versus terrorists all mixed in with organized crime and genuine political parties. It’s as confusing a web of relationships as my “value web” for entertainment.
What I particularly like, too, is the role of persuasion in this type of war. Insurgencies aren’t just about defeating the enemy in the field, but persuading the population at large to support your side via propaganda, ideology, bribery or threats. Which is how AT&T plans to woe it’s customer base too. I really wanted to make one of these multi-sided insurgencies the winner but…
Again no uniforms! Or even enough cohesion to form coherent battle plans. So we need two other wars to take our crown.
The Winners – The 30 Years War and Game of Thrones
The 30 Years War
Whoa! Went off the “American only” board. Most of my readers don’t know what this war was really about, so let’s just slam off a summary from my AP Euro textbook, A History of the Modern World by R.R. Palmer:
The Thirty Years War…was therefore exceedingly complex. It was a German civil war fought over the Catholic Protestant issue. It was a German civil war fought over constitutional issues, between the [Holy Roman] Emperor striving to build up the central power of the Empire and the member states struggling to maintain independence…It was also an international war, between France and the Habsburgs, between Spain and the Dutch, with the Kings of Denmark and Sweden and the prince of Transylvania becoming involved, and with all these outsiders finding allies within Germany, on whose soil most of the battles were fought. The wars were further complicated by the fact that many of the generals were soldiers of fortune, who aspired to create principalities of their own or refused to to fight to suit their own convenience.
Here’s that paragraph on the streaming wars:
The Streaming Wars were therefore exceedingly complex. It was an entertainment civil war fought over new content distribution models, from streaming to theatrical to cable. It was also an entertainment civil war fought over technology, between new sticks, devices and UX. It was also an industry wide war, between giant tech companies striving to enter entertainment and traditional studios struggling to keep them out. It was also an international war stretching from Sweden to Japan, to Australia to Brazil. It was further complicated by the fact that many of the new entrants were deficit financing their streaming efforts to support other businesses, while all the while clinging to “data” as the raison d’être.
I’ve always had a soft spot for this war in my heart because when it finished, Europe was never the same. Arguably, the Peace of Westphalia established the modern conception of the nation-state. When the streaming wars finish, we’ll have new entertainment nation states ruling our lives. That connection was enough to make this our winner, but there are even better reasons.
This war had it all,. Like a traditional war, there were two sides, the Catholics versus the Protestants, which connects to our “entertainment” versus “tech” narrative. Like the Peloponnesian or Hundred Years war, there were also tons of city-states in the German heartland, like our various streamers, FASTs, vMVPDS and more. Plus there were giant empires funding the fighting on each side, the way Apple, Google and Amazon are funding their streamers. Plus, each side was trying to convince local populations to support their side, so you have influence campaigns like the Iraq or Vietnam insurgencies. The Thirty Years War lasted so long and covered so much territory, it fits almost any analogy.
Finally, if you factor in the size of the population at the time, this may have been the most destructive war in European history in terms of casualties. (Over 8 million by some estimates.) Bet you didn’t know that.
If we could take a lesson, the bloodshed only ended via diplomacy. In entertainment, this means a tacit agreement to collude on price setting, as has happened in entertainment since the golden age of studios, the golden age of broadcasting, the golden age of cable and someday the golden age of streaming. Just wait.
Game of Thrones
This analogy was written perfectly by Dylan Byers in his must read piece here. Game of Thrones captures the nuances and destructiveness of the Thirty Years War in fictional form. (Even though George RR Martins says he based his epic series on the War of the Roses, the Thirty Years War fits better.)