When these two release dates were announced, frankly, I was ecstatic:
– On 21-August, HBO will debut House of the Dragon, their Game of Thrones prequel.
– On 2-September, Prime Video will debut The Rings of Power, their Lord of the Rings prequel.
What a showdown! Two of the most anticipated series of the last five years…and they’re coming out within two weeks of each other. You couldn’t script a better battle.
(Remember that HBO documentary on the “late night” wars? Who’s gonna green light the fantasy wars equivalent?)
I don’t want to put too much onto these two TV show’s shoulders, but if one streamer or the other can truly launch a new event series, it will take a huge chunk out of Netflix’s streaming lead.
And those two series aren’t alone. Disney has She-Hulk: Attorney at Law coming out on 18-August and Andor on 21-September. For the super genre nerds, there’s also new Rick and Morty starting the same weekend as Lord of the Rings. And Netflix isn’t sitting on their hands either; one of their biggest swings this year, The Sandman, based on DC IP (but really Vertigo, for my comic book super fans), debuted on 5-August.
Too much content!
Back in 2019, I started a series to analyze the streaming wars through the lens of who will “win the battle for the next Game of Thrones”. Unfortunately, I never finished that series. (Though I still recommend it, since it explains the economics of streaming fairly well.) At the time I thought the battle mattered because these are truly huge content swings. If either Amazon or Warner Bros Discovery can replicate Game of Thrones’ success, it could launch them up a few spots in the streaming rankings.
So how likely is that? In a rare sort of “Most Important Story of the Week” mash-up with my “Streaming Ratings Report”, I want to review the streaming data, making some best and worst case scenarios, along with some (very tentative) predictions about what I think could happen.
Most Important Story of the Week – The Franchise Wars Heat Up
To set the stage, here’s the top streaming debuts in my Nielsen database through the first eight weeks of a show’s release:
In other words, if any of these aspiring series want to knock off Squid Game, they’re going to have to do some work. So let’s go through these big new streaming series, in order from biggest swing to smallest.
Amazon: Prime Video —> Lord of the Ring’s The Rings of Power
– Amazon Wants: The Biggest Streaming Debut of All Time (Squid Game with 233 million hours)
– Amazon Needs: Their Biggest Streaming Debut of All Time (Reacher with 96.1 million hours)
– Worst Case: Anything below The Wheel of Time (with 81.8 million hours)
Yeah, I did set the bar high for Amazon, but really Prime Video set that high bar for themselves. This is the most expensive series commitment of all time—at least five seasons—so if it doesn’t do well, they have the most to lose. All in, I have estimated that Prime Video could spend over $1 billion over the course of this series. Indeed, one news leak suggested that Amazon could spend $465 million alone on season one, though this likely included upfront spending that will be amortized over all five seasons.
Still that’s a lot!!! They need a big hit!
It would be a nice time for it too, since Prime Video has quietly had a good year so far, with Reacher, The Terminal List and The Boys all becoming hits.
Though, Amazon also has less upside than HBO or Disney in this genre showdown. While all eyes are on Amazon, who controls the TV rights for LoTR, it has to be noted that the LoTR rights, overall, are a big ol’ mess. This article in Variety indicated that certain film and video game rights are up for sale. (I’m beyond curious who will end up with those rights.) Meanwhile, Warner Bros., via New Line Cinema, still claims it has some film rights, and they’re making an anime film set before the LoTR films. There’s a reason Amazon’s series is set in the “second age” of the LoTR universe.
My Prediction? I think Amazon will declare this their biggest series debut of all time. As for numbers, I don’t think this beats Squid Game or Bridgerton, but will probably be their biggest streaming debut, simply via hype.
What to look for…the weekly ratings trends, since it looks like Amazon will release episodes weekly. After a big debut, The Wheel of Time stayed roughly flat in weeks six and seven. The Boys performed similarly. If The Rings of Power sees front loaded viewership, with big weekly drops over time, then that’s a rough sign for a series with at least four more seasons coming.
Warner Bros. Discovery: HBO/HBO Max —> Game of Thrones’s The House of the Dragon
– HBO Wants: Their biggest show since Game of Thrones (In classic vague datecdotes, HBO said 44 million viewers watched the final season per episode of Game of Thrones.)
– HBO Needs: The biggest streaming show by viewership the week it debuts
– Worst Case: Horrible reviews and/or IMDb scores
You know the best way to cure some bad PR? With a popular TV series! Since no one has had a worse few weeks than David Zaslav (in the trade media’s eyes), no one needs a win more. As I’ve written a few times this year, HBO has continued their streak of releasing one buzzy series per quarter, with series like Euphoria and Winning Time leading “the conversation”. And yes, they dominated the Emmy’s again.
But you know what really drives subscriber growth? Really popular shows (that also happen to build the brand). For all their hype, series like The White Lotus and Succession don’t really drive lots of viewership.
Remember when I said I think Game of Thrones probably netted HBO $2 billion on its own? That’s what happens when a show is popular and prestigious.
HBO needs The House of the Dragon to be its next broadly popular series. (Though, arguably, Euphoria is both acclaimed and popular, the HBO sweet spot.) That’s a lot to put on one show, but if The House of the Dragon starts a successful new series for HBO, that’s proof the Game of Thrones franchise is more than one series and lots of merchandise sales. Indeed, it could be the next Star Wars, DC, Harry Potter or Marvel, which would be valued in the billions of dollars.
My Prediction? Like Amazon, HBO will announce that The House of the Dragon is their biggest premiere since Game of Thrones, or some other carefully managed nugget. As a caution, we might not get Nielsen data, since Game of Thrones premieres on HBO too, and in the past Nielsen has only released data for HBO Max Originals. If we do, though, I think The House of the Dragon will be the top streaming series…until The Rings of Power knocks it off.
What to look for…whether Game of Thrones makes it on the acquired charts for HBO Max for Nielsen. That would be a huge sign of success even if we don’t get ratings.
Disney: Disney+ —> Star Wars’s Andor and Marvel’s She-Hulk: Attorney-At-Law
– Disney Wants: Their next Loki (96.7 million hours)
– Disney Needs: A WandaVision to Obi-Wan Kenobi performance (76.4 to 80 million)
– Worst Case: Two “flops”
In general, Disney had a fairly “meh” second quarter in terms of top TV series. Obi-Wan Kenobi debuted well, but felt “meh” overall in the ratings. And I covered how Ms. Marvel definitely underperformed. Meanwhile, Disney still needs to prove that it can launch series with lesser known characters on TV. The MCU can do that with feature films (Guardians of the Galaxy for example), but less so on TV. You can see that in the performance of the Disney series:
The other fix for Disney is to get a handle on their release dates. After launching Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ms. Marvel right on top of each other, then having no major series with new episodes for four weeks, they’re launching She-Hulk and Andor only four weeks apart.
My Prediction? I think She-Hulk gets into the “mid-tier” range and Andor stays in the Moon Knight tier just below that. Andor will be on the streaming air for longer, though, with 12 episodes, so that may help its totals.
What to look for…like Prime Video, look for the weekly decay or lack thereof. The truly popular weekly streaming series build viewership over time, and Disney needs at least one of these series to do that.
Netflix: Netflix —> The Sandman and The Witcher
– Netflix Wants: Their next Stranger Things
– Netflix Needs: Their next Umbrella Academy
– Worst Case: A bad Q2
Arguably, Netflix already has their contender for the next Game of Thrones in The Witcher. And given that its second season debuted to 2nd place in the second season Nielsen rankings, arguably, they have their hit. Though, it still isn’t Game of Thrones in terms of viewership, which probably says more about how much of a unique phenomenon GoT really was. And it’s a warning sign for all the streamers that not all fantasy series will be as big as Game of Thrones. (Arguably, Stranger Things is Netflix’s Game of Thrones.)
Let’s talk Netflix’s recent releases. In July, Resident Evil underwhelmed with only 14.3 million hours on debut. The Sandman has already been released, so we’ll see if it underperforms as well. Netflix also released another season of Locke & Key, but that’s another genre franchise that has generally underperformed.
(By the way, when I first started writing about this, Netflix had a planned series in the Narnia universe, and since then we’ve heard crickets about its progress.)
My Prediction? I think The Sandman will do okay in the streaming rankings, but probably not shatter records. The Witcher has already proven itself, though.
What to look for…Netflix’s content slate in Q3 may be in rough shape compared to Q2. Whereas Q2 had utter monsters (Bridgerton into Ozark into Stranger Things into The Umbrella Academy and back to Stranger Things), right now Netflix has Resident Evil, The Sandman, Virgin River and maybe Locke & Key. If you compare the biggest similar series from Q2, the equivalent series on Netflix in Q3 aren’t in the same ballpark. Does that impact churn? We’ll see. That said, Netflix will also overwhelm by volume. (I didn’t even mention Never Have I Ever.) So we’ll check on this question in a few weeks.
So Who Wins It All?
Overall, I try to avoid making predictions about content ahead of time. Because until customers see it, you just don’t know. All we really know is that a lot of streamers have a lot riding on a handful of series. Hot Genre August won’t make or break the up-and-comers, but if these series miss, that could mean a lot of wasted money.
Other Strategy Thoughts on This Showdown
– One caveat—since I see it as my mission to destroy narratives when they creep up—is that I don’t think any of the studios particularly wanted August to shake out like this. Instead, I think they’re as surprised it ended up this way as we are. Likely, Amazon picked a date on the calendar as soon as they were confident the series would be done, and likely picked September to avoid August, which is traditional a dead month for TV and theaters. HBO didn’t want to go head-to-head with Amazon—and is a bit better at production planning—so preempted The Rings of Power by two weeks instead of going second. And Disney likely had their schedule set in advance, with possibly She-Hulk getting delayed to improve some lackluster CGI, given that it would have made more sense to premiere it in July following Ms. Marvel.
– Remember, predictions are tough! So take everything I write with a grain of salt. All of these series could either flop or succeed. It depends if they’re good…and I have no way of knowing that!
– Compared to Amazon, HBO has tied themselves closer and closer to George R.R. Martin. If I had one recommendation, I’d really consider making some feature films through Warner Bros. In the old, silo-ed Warner Bros, this was out of bounds because HBO didn’t play well with the film team. Personally, I think a GoT film is almost guaranteed box office. (They should also really consider paying whatever it takes to secure GRRM’s rights in perpetuity too…)
– There is a chance that by the first week of September—again only a chance—that Netflix has their worst week to date on the Nielsen Original TV charts. That would be fascinating. So far, Netflix has never put fewer than six series onto the Original charts. We’ll see if September changes that.
– Some folks will make a lot of noise about the merchandise piece for Lord of the Rings (and really all of these shows). And I’d tap the brakes on that. Yes, in success, there are merchandise opportunities. But the key is “in success”. If a show isn’t a huge hit, there is little demand for merchandise.
– I know we have some time before the full Amazon marketing campaign ramps up—and I’m not a huge Amazon shopper so that may explain some of this—but so far HBO seems to be winning the marketing war, followed by Disney in my unscientific opinion.
– Also, there was a story that there is a Jon Snow sequel series in development. That is a tragedy.
– Lastly, does it matter that Amazon “ghosted” Peter Jackson? Probably not, but it depends how close they hew to the vision/look of his series.
M&A Updates – Hasbro Buys “D&D Beyond” for $146 million
If we’re talking genre, we may as well mention Hasbro’s big push into D&D. Back in April they bought the owners of a D&D “digital tool set”, and now are going all in on a D&D world. The next film in the franchise will come out in 2023. We’ll see if D&D ever makes these rankings.