This story first ran in Buffering, Vulture’s newsletter about the streaming industry. Head to vulture.com/buffering and subscribe today!
When you’re running global multibillion-dollar streaming platforms, you’re bound to make a few enemies — or at least not be universally beloved. That became clear to me a few weeks ago when I started working on a project for the TV issue of New York (on newsstands now!). Culture editor Gazelle Emami tasked me with figuring out where things stood in the battle for the hearts, minds, and wallets of consumers, and one of the metrics we decided to consider as part of our broader evaluation is what folks in Hollywood and on Wall Street think about all the major services.
They did not hold back.
Through email and phone, I connected with a dozen different industry insiders, asking them to rank the streamers according to their overall importance and influence in the business right now. I also gave them an opportunity to explain their votes, hoping a promise to keep their specific identities hidden would result in more candid assessments. It worked: The agents, studio execs, Wall Street analysts, and PR insiders I surveyed were blunt about which services they think are working, which ones need help, and whether any of them should just call it quits.
The results were a lot closer, and a bit more venomous, than I expected. Netflix was still rated most powerful by the 12 industry types surveyed, but almost half of them did not put the streamer at the top of their lists. Disney+, HBO Max, and Amazon Prime Video all landed at least one first-place vote, while second-place Disney+ wasn’t that far behind Netflix overall. And while Netflix is still respected and admired, there was a constant refrain from respondents that it had also become generic and uninspiring as it enters its teenage years. “It’s still Netflix, unfortunately,” one studio exec warily told me with a tone of voice that was the verbal equivalent of a scowl.
As my story earlier this week noted, there is also a sense among these industry types that things are changing quickly in the streaming space. HBO Max is clearly the “It” streamer of the moment, with a ton of critical buzz and lots of industry respect, while Disney+ has used franchise power to become a massive force in a little more than a year. More than one person I spoke with talked about Amazon and Apple being on the verge of jumping up to the next level thanks to massive content spending. Hulu and Peacock have their fans, but they’re also clearly underdogs. (For the record, we only evaluated platforms that have been operating for at least a year, which is why Paramount+ and Discovery+ weren’t included.)
You can find the full chart here, including my thoughts on how the streamers rate according to content offerings, critical buzz and overall momentum. But I wanted to use this week’s Buffering to focus on the industry rankings portion of the chart, and more specifically, all the very interesting things our insiders told me. From worst to first, here’s what TV’s power brokers really think about the streaming competition in mid-2021.
PR vet: Someone lend these people some money so at least they pretend to be contenders. It’s a joke that they think they’re going to contend in a real way when they don’t spend — in content or marketing.
Producer: Well-liked by talent since [Susan] Rovner went over. I think they’ll be a strong player in a few years.
Agent No. 1: Peacock is a non-factor for me, my clients, and the biz — right now.
Reality producer: Poor Peacock. You’ve got some amazing IP to exploit, and your international offerings are more appealing than Netflix, but you’re a mess. Selling to them is equally as irritating, because there are just a handful of gatekeepers who are deciding if your pitch belongs at NBC broadcast, or the 15,000 other NBCU outlets. I don’t think streamlining is going to help make anything creative. You’ve already lost the Kardashians. Who is next?
Agent No. 2: They have Mike Schur and Tina Fey, but nothing has really cut through. Maybe the Olympics will be the breakthrough?
Wall Street analyst No. 1: Interesting only so far as it will answer the question, how little can you risk to participate in a war you’re already late to?
Wall Street analyst No. 3: Completely irrelevant to date beyond WWE and English Premier League.
Wall Street analyst No. 1: Totally uninteresting. Time will remember it only as a near-first mover that spent a decade without sufficient funding and was ultimately eclipsed by a much better product: the Star tab within Disney (which is what every Hulu and Disney+ subscriber hopes for Hulu’s future).
PR vet: Someone tell [FX Networks chair John] Landgraf to quit trying to make FX on Hulu happen. I think what they are doing in movies could be interesting, and the way they campaigned for the Oscars this year (and had real contenders in the race) was interesting. But you hear about all the internal drama between Searchlight, Disney, Hulu — the only thing that will stop them is politics.
Studio exec: Disney doesn’t need two expensive streaming services.
Wall Street analyst No. 3: The challenge is that most of its viewership is tied to linear TV, and linear TV is dying. They will also be losing NBC content.
Reality producer: With the Kardashians moving to Hulu, along with the D’Amelio family, they could be the ones to beat in the future.
Wall Street analyst No. 2: Just not a lot of buzz, and a lack of new content that is obvious.
5. Apple TV+
Studio exec: The arrow’s going up. I was dubious, but they’ve done a good job. They’re one massive hit away from becoming real.
PR vet: They’re great programmers. Unfortunately, it took longer than it should have to get up and running, so I feel like they missed a window of opportunity that Amazon jumped through first. That said, Ted Lasso still makes me root for these guys. Mythic Quest does, too. I thought Calls was genius.
Agent No. 2: They have all the money in the world, and they spend it to make good stuff. They’re fulfilling their side of the bargain. And their ability to reach an audience is second to none.
Wall Street analyst No. 2: Feels like this product is in need of a reason to exist.
Wall Street analyst No. 3: Dollar for dollar, the most impressive content slate since launch. Trying to become the HBO of SVOD.
Studio exec No. 2: So very hungry.
PR exec: Ted Lasso is a good first step. They need more, but I have to think they will get many, many chances.
Reality producer: Apple is so premium, everyone would love to get in there. But their release pattern is spotty, and their unscripted originals are restricted to their docs.
4. Amazon Prime Video
Studio exec: They’re a pain in the ass to deal with; it takes them forever to make a decision, [and] it’s hard to sell a show there. But they have great execs. When they make a decision, they’re all in. They’re very specific about what they want. When you have that much money, if you want to compete with Netflix and Disney, you can do it.
PR vet: They (smartly) let Netflix pay the pioneer tax and capitalized on being second in market. That said, their shows are only okay and their promotional efforts aren’t great. Barry Jenkins just did a show for them. Oscar-winner f—ing Barry Jenkins — and it was like a tree falling in the forest, with no one to witness. They have done a better job hyping their movies, like Coming 2 America. Buying MGM definitely makes me interested in what could be on the horizon for them. I hope they don’t f–k it up.
Producer: Their marketing reach is extremely valuable, and the execs are well-liked.
Studio exec No. 2: They are desperate to be bigger.
Agent No. 2: It’s a sleeping giant that hasn’t spent money.
Unscripted producer: So far, nothing in their reality [slate] has even sparked a fleeting interest. They need their Jersey Shore — a loud upstart to get eyeballs. But everything about their platform is frustrating, from the interface to the ability to get materials in front of executives.
PR exec: Feels incomplete. If they can build out The Boys universe without running it into the ground quickly, it could be interesting.
3. HBO Max
Studio exec: HBO used to be the crème de la crème. Now that brand is slightly tainted because HBO Max is more about volume. It’s not as niche, it’s not as cool.
PR vet: They are not the big box store with a thousand titles, none of which stand out for more than a week. And as much as I have a love-hate relationship with weekly episodes, they’re the first streamer I check for new shows. Yes, even before Netflix.
Agent No. 3: HBO brand is still hugely important to talent (see Mare of Easttown). HBO Max has done a good job with Flight Attendant and Hacks finding a niche.
Wall Street analyst No. 2: This service is really underrated — just always great content, the best library, and more to come.
PR exec: When Mare, Flight Attendant, and Hacks get a ton of Emmy noms, they will start to get more love.
Agent No. 2: The most important streamer now, and in the future. For me, it’s about the success rate of their shows and how quickly they ascended.
Studio exec: They know how to play to scale and they have such phenomenal IP. They’re a big-time contender.
PR vet: I hear lots of people talk about the Marvel shows, but I don’t watch them. I don’t have kids, so I never turn this service on. But they have the brand equity and they spend. They are real competitors.
Wall Street analyst No. 2: Amazing success with such a limited amount of original content. Watch out.
Wall Street analyst: By far the most impressive recent launch, and they have quickly realized they need far more content.
Studio exec No. 2: Has yet to really subvert the expectations creatively.
PR exec: Bet against Star Wars and Marvel at your own risk. Also, they were really smart to not go the Netflix way of [releasing] all episodes at once. They dominate the conversation weekly with their hit shows.
Studio exec: They’ve done such a good job of becoming the Kleenex of TV. It’s always high on every writer’s list. But that largess is starting to bite them on the ass. Unless you’re the big show, nobody knows you’re there. In some parts of the creative community, the feeling is that they’ll put anything on.
Agent No. 2: I think there’s a backlash starting against Netflix. I love the people there. But they don’t make a lot of great deals. Under Cindy [Holland, the former head of programming], they lost a lot of luster. Bella [Bajaria, her successor] came in trying to cut prices. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want shows to last longer than three seasons.
PR vet: At least a decade ahead of the streamers, but they’re like the Walmart of streamers, and that’s just not sexy.
Agent No. 3: Netflix is still the biggest player, no matter how it evolves and no matter how much people might hate their process.
Reality producer: The go-to for breadth and amount of content. This is the one you want to be landing at. Budgets are great, execs are relatively easy to work with, and even your grandparents know what Netflix is.
Conan’s Last Night
The name “Conan O’Brien” first came on my radar in the spring of 1993. I was less than a year out of college and working as a freelance writer for the Boston Herald when news broke that some kid from Brookline, Mass., who was a writer for The Simpsons was going to take over Late Night from David Letterman. I don’t know if my Herald editor called me or vice versa, but within a few hours of the announcement, I was digging through yellow pages and looking to get in touch with the friends and family of this truly complete unknown. Two days later, my story ran in the Herald, and since it’s not online (because I am old), here’s how it started:
Conan O’Brien always made people laugh while growing up in Brookline — but not because he tried.
“He was a funny guy,” said his dad, Thomas, a doctor at Brigham & Women’s Hospital. “But he was not a class clown. He has just always been very imaginative, always able to take a premise and build humor around it.” It’s that talent that landed O’Brien one of the hottest assignments on television: taking over for Late Night host David Letterman. As news of O’Brien’s selection spread throughout Greater Boston yesterday, friends described the tall, reddish-blond young man as “bright,” “funny,” “articulate,” and “humble.”
“Even though he was gifted, he was never condescending to other students,” said Jeff Young, superintendent of Lexington’s public schools, who was O’Brien’s 11th- and 12th-grade English teacher at Brookline High School. Young remembers O’Brien getting training at BHS for his future job by hosting “a four- or five-hour marathon student-faculty talent show.”
I had no clue when I wrote that little story that within a few months, I’d be asking O’Brien a question at the TV Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles, and that a few months after that, I’d be flying to New York to interview him one-on-one. I snagged that exclusive chat because, at the age of 23, I was one of the few TV critics out there who actually liked O’Brien’s first six months as host of Late Night. His publicist at the time, the late (and gone far-too-soon) Peter Seligman, knew this and helped make the in-person interview happen, figuring I’d give him a fair shake. Long story short, the interview went well, Conan remembered, and over the years, he’s been nice enough to talk to me multiple times.
My latest conversation with O’Brien took place in early June, and of course the main topic was his decision to end his TBS series Conan (the finale is tonight) and get out of the nightly talk-show race. We talked for nearly 90 minutes, and you can read the full interview here. Sad as it is that O’Brien won’t be making comedy nightly, I’m pretty excited to see what he does with a weekly showcase. He did brilliant stuff for The Simpsons (and SNL), and I think a tighter focus will be a good thing for O’Brien— and his fans.
➽ Want some extra Conan-y goodness in your life? You can’t go wrong with “Polly the Peacock,” “Last Night on Conan O’Brien,” and the brilliant “Andy Richter at Woodstock ’94.” And speaking of Andy, read this interview with him from the New York Times (and check him out more from him in Vulture’s amazing survey of multiple generations of Conan’s writers.)
Email Me If You Know What’s Happening at Paramount+
ViacomCBS Wednesday announced a new executive structure it says is designed to better align the company’s many divisions with Paramount+, but I’ll be honest: The reorganization left me more confused than I was already about who does what over there. Lots of people are now in charge of lots of different areas of what is still a relatively small streamer. Everybody got a promotion, nobody seems to have gotten fired, and I’m still not sure who’s calling the shots day-to-day. On the bright side, Pluto vet Tom Ryan, who clearly understands streaming, is still the top exec overall. Tanya Giles, the MTV Networks exec who’s been named chief programming officer for streaming, will ensure P+ and Pluto work more closely together. And talking to some industry sources, it seems this structure could incentivize leaders at the various ViacomCBS programming brands to make content-creation for P+ their main priority.
And yet, while there are lots of smart folks at ViacomCBS, there are clearly also far too many execs trying to carve up their own little fiefdoms at Paramount+ — and very little evidence the company is doing anything to boldly move the streamer closer to where it needs to be to effectively compete. One good example of the dysfunction: P+ just this week decided to give users the ability to save shows to a watchlist. Yes, it took three months after launch to add the most basic of features, even as the overall user interface remains an inelegant mess.
What’s also distressing is that as part of this new exec structure, CBS — which supplies P+ with what I’m willing to bet is the platform’s most-watched scripted content — seems to have been even further disconnected from what was once known as CBS All Access. While Disney and Comcast have wisely disintegrated the walls between their broadcast nets and their ad-supported streaming services, ViacomCBS has gone the opposite direction. It’s all very odd, and not at all encouraging for those of us who think the legendary company has the brands and the library to create an appealing streaming offering. It also makes me wonder whether maybe there is something to those rumors that Comcast and ViacomCBS are planning some sort of merger. After all, if you’re expecting to get hitched, there’s less urgency to do what needs to be done to survive on your own.
➽ Even more intrigue! Meanwhile, the same Wall Street Journal story which floats the previously reported idea of ViacomCBS and Comcast getting together breaks news that Comcast has also been exploring going after Roku. That seems a bit odd to me, given how much Comcast has invested in building its own Xfinity platform. But it would absolutely be a blockbuster deal if it happened. In the interim, Comcast this week finally struck a deal to get Peacock on Amazon’s Fire TV — just in time for next month’s expected start of the rescheduled 2020 Olympics.
Say Hello to Streamliner
My colleagues at Vulture continue to find new ways to keep up with craziness and confusion of the streaming age. Our latest creation: Streamliner, a section devoted to helping you navigate the ever-increasing number of digital TV platforms as well as how you can use technology to make your streaming experience better. My contribution to this week’s launch is a look at the free ad-supported TV (FAST) space, which regular readers of this newsletter know is a rapidly expanding constellation of the streaming universe.