Well, give 2021 credit for trying to catch up with 2020 in terms of monumental new stories. This is absolutely one of the craziest weeks in my lifetime and I assume many of the folks who read. (Though, for historical hindsight, we tend to forget how absolutely chaotic the 1960s were, which featured the assassinations of at least 3 major political leaders. This isn’t to downplay the events of this week, but to emphasize that US democracy is always a fragile creature.)
The holidays tend to be slow for entertainment news, so we can take our time catching up on it. The biggest story–how did the big straight-to-streaming films perform?–I’ll handled over at Decider. In the meantime, let’s get reflective on the year that will be.
(Sign up for my newsletter to get all my writings and my favorite entertainment business picks from the last 2 weeks or so. Next issue goes out early next week.)
Most Important Question of the Year – Is Streaming a Winner-Take-All Market?
In my first column last year, I said that 2020 would be defined by this question:
“What is the same and what is different between streaming and traditional distribution?”
Little did I know that we’d have a lot of things that were extremely different in 2020, namely a global pandemic that threatened to upend streaming and traditional media. (The biggest hypothesis is still that Covid-19 “changed everything”. I don’t really buy that; flashy world-altering headlines get the clicks but I’m a little skeptical about how much actually changed. We’ll see.)
My 2020 question and the lack of an answer shows a lot of the problem with articles predicting the future. It turns out that’s really hard! That’s why I like the approach of not predicting the future, but figuring out the most important question for the given year. And I have the question that I think 2021 will potentially answer. And if it does answer it, the consequences for entertainment are huge:
Is Streaming Video a “Winner-Take-All” Market?
Specifically, will one firm take a commanding lead? Will they capture a huge portion of the marketplace? Something like 70-90% of the value of the market? Contrariwise, do the streamers split the market—defined by subscribers, revenue, viewership, you name it—roughly evenly? Or does it land somewhere in-between? Say a few big winners with a lot of smaller players fighting for scraps?
Take the United States, which is probably the most mature market. As it stands, we’re in between the extremes of market consolidation. There is one clear dominant streamer, but it has by no means a monopoly on viewing. Specifically, Netflix has roughly 30-35% of the viewership depending who is measuring and when:
This year, that number grew a pinch. Long term, that share of streaming viewership is declining. This massive viewership translates into the largest streamer by total subscribers:
That said, Netflix got to develop such a dominant position because until 2019, Netflix only had two real rivals, Hulu and Prime Video (CBS All-Access is older than you think, but until recently has felt like a side project for CBS.) Now Disney, HBO and NBC are all-in on streaming. And ViacomCBS is half-in on streaming.
Can those firms catch up to Netflix? Or does Netflix keep growing and outpace its rivals? Can Disney+ catch up with Netflix in total US subscribers? Or Peacock and HBO Max?
I think 2021 is the year we find out. Not all the services will catch up to Netflix in one year, but we’ll at least find out if this is going to be competitive or not. And that’s huge.
The Ramifications of this Question
To start, Netflix is the biggest beneficiary of the assumption that there will be one winner in streaming. The thesis is that “Netflix will become TV”. Not just a channel, but the whole shebang. That’s a winner-take-all economy. That’s network effects. That’s what has driven the huge valuations of the rest of the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google).
If Netflix can’t dominate streaming, then the better analogy is that Netflix is a new “bundle of channels”, much like what Disney, NBC-Universal and Viacom-CBS already were in cable. What has changed is the distribution. If that’s the case, woe to Netflix’s stock price.
This also matters for all the other streamers. They want to be a piece of the streaming pie. If Netflix owns the whole pie outright, then the investments of Amazon, AT&T, Disney and Comcast will utterly fail.
Further, this impacts the device and operating systems of the world, Roku, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and Sony (the RAMAS if you will). If Netflix is the once and future king, it will have the leverage to negotiate those devices into oblivion. If they aren’t, then all the streamers may lose to the RAMAS’ value capture. (Their fees to sell subscriptions will capture most of the profit margin from the streamers.)
My Take? Streaming Won’t Consolidate
If you’ve read my website for any amount of time, you can guess how I think this question will be answered. (So fine, I am making a prediction!) While content often performs with “logarithmic distribution of returns”, channels don’t have quite the same variability. (Or the winners can shift over time fairly easily. NBC won the 1990s, CBS won the 2000s; HBO won the 2000s, but Showtime almost caught them until Game of Thrones.) Frankly, this is where I see streaming headed: consumers will have multiple streaming services simultaneously, meaning there will be leaders, but not dominant winners.
Notably, part of this thesis stems from a skepticism on the presence of “network effects” for streaming video. (And the dreaded “flywheel” for Netflix.) For user-generated content, network effects were very, very real. The more users posting videos on one platform, the more viewers used the platform, so the more creators who posted videos on that platform. Hence, Youtube has demand-side increased returns, and it’s winner-take-all. Same for Google in search, Facebook in social, and Amazon more web marketplaces.
The biggest input for streaming video, though, isn’t user data—which allegedly is Netflix’s driver of their winner-take-all flywheel—but the quality of content. And since the difference between 30 million subscribers and 60 million in data terms doesn’t produce that much better content, network effects in streaming video likely won’t appear. So it won’t be a winner-take-all market.
At least that’s my theory!
I’m not certain and as an analyst I’m willing to be upfront with you, instead of pretending to a level of uncertainty most analysts can’t truly possess. (Is this a bit of shade throwing at some of my entertainment business peers? Sure. Welcome to 2021!) The rest of this year will help me/us figure out if we are/were right or wrong.
Other Questions That Will Define 2021
Does the live/experiential economy feature a boom?
When a vaccine was announced, I speculated about the upcoming “year of bacchanalia”. Over the break, I was glad to see another pundit take this same stand in Andrew Sullivan. His/my thesis is that once the vaccine begins rolling out in force, we’ll see folks make up for the lost time of 2021 by partying. For entertainment, this means lots of potential revenue. Concerts will see booming attendance, same with music festivals, bars, parties, travel, theme parks. You name it, we celebrate it. Quoting myself:
Customers in 2021. My biggest prediction is that we see a big rebound emotionally/culturally/socially. Take the Roaring 1920s and pack it into one year. Folks throwing big parties. Or holding double birthday parties. Splurging on outdoor concerts and festivals. Big vacations. In other words, 2021 becomes the year of the party. The pent up demand hypothesis.
The challenge will be figuring out if this is happening. If we use full-year numbers, it will be hard to see, since no one knows when we’ll feel safe to party again. It could be by March (if deaths fall quicker than expected) or fall (when we achieve herd immunity). Or somewhere in between. I’ll be looking to use per capita numbers as much as possible to untangle this.
What happens to theaters?
They’ll suffer the same uncertainty as the live economy, with more pronounced scheduling problems. The key date for me is May 7th, when Black Widow premieres. If theaters can be at full capacity in America by then, the entire world looks better. The other question is how firm the theatrical release slate is and how much the studios are willing to spend on marketing. And then whether or not the theaters can make it to May. Lots of question marks.
What happens to the economy?
The entertainment industry isn’t quite as recession proof as folks have made it out before. If wallets are trimmed, some entertainment spending goes with it. Some cheaper forms of entertainment, though, can resist this trend (like theaters) and some limited capacity forms of entertainment can also focus on high-wealth individuals (like concerts, sporting events and some theme parks).
Thus, in 2021, entertainment folks would rather have a booming economy than a stagnant one. Folks are now openly speculating about a “v-shaped” recovery again, but it remains to be seen if the damage of 2020 can be overcome that easily. (Lots of businesses closed that may never come back, and that damage can take years to overcome.) The solution is lots of stimulus, which it sounds like Biden is considering.
Other Contenders for Most Important Story
If I weren’t speculating about the future of this year, what could have been the story of the week? Glad you asked.
Roku Acquires Quibi’s Library
Is this a good deal for Roku? Who knows. If I knew the price, I still couldn’t tell you because I don’t know how good these shows are. If the price was very, very low, then maybe. Really, though, this is still a content licensing deal since Quibi didn’t own most of the shows, but was either licensing them or co-producing them with top talent.
Apple TV+’s Bold January Release Schedule
I’m sure if Apple TV+ could have, they would have released a lot of season 2 TV series back in the fall, a year or so after they launched. Instead, a lot of shows got the “Covid-19 pause” and it looks like Apple TV+ is on track for a big January, with Dickinson, Servant, Losing Alice and Palmer releasing each week in January. Also–and this is big–Apple TV+ is moving some shows to a weekly release.
The upside is this will keep folks engaged (hopefully) through Q1. So I love that. The downside is a few other big shows still have vague “2021” release dates, like The Morning Show and Foundation. Apple TV+ still has new service growing pains, clearly.
For those keeping track, Disney+, Apple TV+ and Prime Video have all released some shows weekly. (HBO Max has flip flopped on this point.) At this point we have to ask, who really knows more about release schedules: the rest of the market or Netflix?
Discovery Plus Launched
And it’s here! Discovery+ launched this week, and the reviews are much stronger than I anticipated. Rick Ellis makes the case that Discovery+ will help a lot of folks cut the cord, what I would call the next gen of cord cutters. Dan Rayburn says it is intuitive to use and has a massive library. I’ll be curious when we see the numbers on this one.
I’d also add, the Food Network Kitchen experiment doesn’t seem to be going well, and I wonder how long that standalone service lasts.
Netflix Increases Prices in the UK
This brings the UK in line with US prices (roughly) so it wasn’t unexpected. (The price increase in the US was!) Still, it will be fascinating to see how these latest price hikes fare in the next year with much more competition.
CyberPunk 2077 Security Fraud Case
Read about this interesting case either at Sportico or Matt Levine’s newsletter. Essentially, some folks are suing the makers of CyberPunk 2077 for releasing a game that was so bad it had to be recalled. Of course, some entrepreneurial lawyers will always sue claiming “securities fraud” for almost anything. However, this could set a precedent for digital products that are released and fail to meet their billing.
Amazon is acquiring another audio platform, podcaster Wondery, to boost its Amazon Music platform. As the article notes, Amazon also owns Audible, which competes with a separate subscription in narrative audio. When a company is so big it’s competing against itself, that’s probably too big, right?
As for the strategy, it’s fine. The biggest harbinger of doom is for Spotify, though. It would be much easier to corner the market on audio if Apple, Google and Amazon weren’t all fighting you for it. (We could also ask, is music streaming winner take all?)
When it comes to regulations, I have my eye on antitrust for 2021. (I should have put that in the other questions above!) I hadn’t really considered unionization, but this could absolutely become an issue for the big tech firms. Like antitrust, this is a regulatory issue where a motivated Biden Presidency could make lots of changes without Congress passing new laws. So keep an eye on Amazon to see if unionization pushes come to them.