This story first ran in Buffering, Vulture’s newsletter about the streaming industry. Head to vulture.com/buffering and subscribe today!
On Tuesday, ViacomCBS announced what it called a “limited time” promotion in which consumers can get a subscription to both Paramount+ and Showtime for as little as $10 per month. If you’re already a Showtime subscriber, that’s an amazing deal, since Showtime’s base rate for a digital subscription is $11 (though it’s been as low as $9 per month via recent promotions). Despite being a pretty solid value proposition for consumers, when I tweeted the news, much of the reaction I got — particularly from colleagues in the media — was negative. At first I didn’t understand all the hate for the idea, but the more I dug into what was actually announced, the more I agreed with it — to a point.
For one, it’s weird that this so-called bundle is only being offered for a few weeks. It’s one thing to cut the price of a single service for a short time, something HBO Max is currently doing. People get the concept of stuff being on sale. But a “bundle” is something you need to educate consumers on, so they understand why it makes sense to order two services instead of one, particularly when one is as brand new as Paramount+. Putting a time limit makes it feel like a marketing gimmick rather than a strategy shift, which I’m assuming — perhaps incorrectly! — is what’s really going on with the bundle offer.
What’s more, as many commenters pointed out in their replies to my thread, bundling two services for less than the price of one is just sort of … silly? As one person noted, it would make a lot more sense for ViacomCBS to give anyone with a Showtime subscription free access to the ad-supported level of Paramount+. That would dramatically boost P+’s sub tally while also making Showtime customers less likely to cancel. Anyone who’s currently paying full freight for digital Showtime now has to figure out how to cancel their current subscription and sign up for the new deal. And if you get Showtime through cable or satellite, well, unless it’s heavily discounted, you now feel like a sucker for paying more … to get less.
ViacomCBS seems to want to emulate what Disney and Apple have done with their digital bundles, but those companies combine at least three services, and those services are actually pretty different: Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ all offer very different kinds of content. Showtime and Paramount+, by contrast, are both platforms filled with movies, TV shows, sports, and even information-based programming. And P+ originals such as Evil could just as easily fit in on Showtime. As investor and industry analyst Matthew Ball noted in his reply to me on Twitter, Showtime and P+ “obviously need to be collapsed” into one service, the way WarnerMedia has essentially done by mixing HBO and content from Turner cable networks into HBO Max.
From a long-term perspective, he’s absolutely right: From day one, CBS All Access should have been folded into a SHO+ or ShoMax. That platform still wouldn’t be as strong as an HBO Max, but it would have been far easier to market a bulked-up Showtime than launch yet another standalone service. But ViacomCBS apparently thinks there’s more money to be made by tweaking the status quo rather than blowing it up, so here we are. This new bundle isn’t a bad thing, particularly if you’re a power user of Showtime or P+. But for anyone hoping ViacomCBS was finally ready to break its addiction to the short-term economic benefits of its current linear-centric economic model, the news is yet another disappointment.
And the Winner Is … Streaming!
Why Netflix’s Big Haul Matters
Back in 2013, Netflix became the first-ever streaming platform to land Emmy nominations in the series categories, thanks to House of Cards and its continuation of Arrested Development. Within five years, its overall tally skyrocketed to 112 noms and 23 wins — good enough to tie the mighty HBO in 2018’s kudos competition. And now, not even a decade after jumping into the business of scripted TV, Netflix has yet bulldozed through still more milestones: Its jaw-dropping Emmy haul this year — including Best Drama and Limited Series — makes it the medium’s most-honored programmer of 2021, relegating longtime champ HBO to runner-up status for the first time in nearly 20 years. Not only that, but the streaming giant’s overall tally of 44 Emmys also matches CBS’s 1974 record for most awards won in a single season. That sound you hear at the beginning of every Netflix original can now rightly be pronounced “ta-damn.”
Given how many naysayers Netflix battled early on — and still faces today, quite frankly — Sunday’s triumph clearly was a moment to relish for execs and staffers at the streamer. “I was here eight years ago, and we had no idea if we were going to be eligible even,” Netflix U.S./Canada scripted TV chief Peter Friedlander told reporters Monday during a post-Emmys news conference. “So to be where we are feels like such a sea change.” Indeed, while rivals and some industry observers have made much of the fact that Hulu and Amazon Prime Video snagged Best Drama statuettes years before Netflix, such thinking misses the bigger point: Netflix fought its way to parity with quality king HBO in just five years, and then surpassed it three years later. There is not a single person in Hollywood who would’ve predicted that when Netflix snapped up two seasons of House of Cards sight unseen in March 2011. Quite the contrary: The consensus among many agents and execs I spoke to back then was that Ted Sarandos and his free-spending band of digital upstarts were just the latest example of a very particular category of showbiz wannabes, the so-called “idiots with money.” They got the money part right; the idiots, not so much.
While doing research for this week’s newsletter, I stumbled upon an old interview with Sarandos that underscores just how much of an underdog Netflix was when it jumped into the first-run space. Talking to Variety’s Andy Wallenstein just after announcing the aforementioned Cards, the exec explains how premium-cable channels such as HBO and Showtime had been refusing to let Netflix license the most recent seasons of their shows, preferring to keep them exclusive to their platforms. Those networks understandably didn’t want to do anything to help another subscription-based service build up their business, so it’s hard to argue it was a bad decision.
But Sarandos had already seen data suggesting the serialized dramas those cablers were cranking out performed exceptionally well on streaming. Since he couldn’t force HBO to sell him its hits, Sarandos in 2011 basically told Wallenstein he had no choice but to make them himself. “It remains my first desire to license great off-network content as much as it is available,” Sarandos told the trade at the time. “But if we can’t come to terms with traditional season-after model, that pushes up our appetite to compete with those distributors for that same content.” Would Netflix have forever limited itself to being the home of premium reruns had HBO simply said, “Sure, you can have Boardwalk Empire six months after its season ends”? Probably not! But read with the knowledge of what happened next, it’s hard not to read Sarandos’s innocuous quote today without it sounding almost like a Swift-ian taunt: Look what you made me do.
Netflix’s co-CEO doesn’t spend a lot of time publicly gloating about the streamer’s successful takeover of Hollywood. Save for a quick Instagram post, he didn’t even issue an official comment the day after the Emmys, instead deferring to his global TV chief, Bela Bajaria, who was also muted in her reaction (she called it a “historic” day for the company, and for streaming in general). I don’t think this relative modesty should be taken as a sign Netflix doesn’t care about awards anymore: Its massive budget for Emmy campaigning suggests it wants those little gold-winged statutes a lot, and it did hold that news conference to talk about its accomplishment Monday. If nothing else, winning awards helps lure top talent to Netflix, which results in more quality shows, which leads to more subscribers and more awards. (Think of it as another iteration of that “virtuous cycle” streamers love to mention.)
The bad news for Netflix is that competing for Emmys is going to get even harder in the next few years as its rivals boost their prestige-TV output. We already saw some of that Sunday, between Apple TV+’s impressive performance with Ted Lasso and HBO Max’s first-year comedy Hacks doing even better than expected. Indeed, the HBO Max/HBO mash-up still did reasonably well this year even though it didn’t have some of its strongest players in the field this past season: Emmy faves Succession, Euphoria, Barry, and Insecure were all delayed by the pandemic. They’ll all be eligible when nominations are announced next summer, as will the new seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Westworld (probably) and the first season of And Just Like That …, which HBO Max is apparently now marketing as “a new chapter of Sex and the City.” Netflix (and HBO Max, for that matter) will also have to keep an eye on rapidly rising Apple TV+ and the supersized combo of Hulu/FX on Hulu, which figures to roar back next year with American Crime Story: Impeachment, Only Murders in the Building, What We Do in the Shadows, and Reservation Dogs.
Of course, while HBO/HBO Max wasn’t operating at maximum capacity this year, Netflix had to deal with pandemic delays, too: It went without new seasons of Stranger Things, Ozark, and Russian Doll because of the ’rona. What’s more, its biggest winner this year — The Queen’s Gambit — kicked butt even though it went up against an instant classic HBO limited series in the form of Mare of Easttown. Bajaria reminded reporters earlier this week that “at any moment in history,” Queen’s Gambit probably would have been an Emmy darling, and she’s right.
Netflix has emerged as an Emmy titan, and the most-honored platform in 2021, not due to some fluke but because it has spent the past decade investing billions of dollars in the production of extraordinary television — and TV Academy voters reacted accordingly. So while it’s going to be very tough for the streamer to pull off a repeat of this year, when it nearly doubled the Emmy haul of HBO, Netflix’s status as an awards-season superpower isn’t going away anytime soon.
Apple’s Golden Delicious Night
While Netflix ruled the Emmys, there’s a good case to be made that Apple TV+ gained the most over the weekend— at least in terms of how much upside it got from the event. The streamer has made it clear it wants to be a new version of HBO, i.e., a destination for a curated, premium TV experience filled with content from the industry’s best creators. That Ted Lasso was able to capture the Best Comedy award and score victories in several other key races, less than two years after Apple TV+’s launch, serves as a massive validation of that strategy. More importantly, it put Apple TV+ on the radar of millions of potential subscribers, folks who may have vaguely known the tech giant now made TV shows but weren’t sure why they should bother with yet another streaming service. Obviously, Emmys aren’t some magic elixir that will suddenly let Apple double its TV subscriber base overnight. But Apple’s sales pitch to consumers just got a lot easier: If you want to watch the best comedy on TV, you need to get Apple TV+.
The afterglow from Lasso’s big night will also be felt in Hollywood, particularly when Apple is competing for projects: Talent wants to know their work will be seen and recognized, and Apple showing it can mount successful Emmy campaigns obviously helps that cause a lot. I don’t think Apple will get quite as big a boost in Hollywood as Netflix, Hulu, and Prime Video did when they snagged their first big Emmys. But that’s partially due to the fact Apple already has garnered a ton of respect from the creative community, and because streaming platforms are now the center of the creative universe in a way they weren’t even as recently as five years ago.
SNL Comes to Streaming (Sort Of)
Buried deep in NBC’s Wednesday press release announcing guest hosts for the new season of Saturday Night Live was a somewhat major development for streaming: For the first time ever, you’ll be able to watch SNL live without watching NBC. The first four episodes of the fall will stream live on Peacock, and while a rep for the service declined to comment, I have heard the goal is for the show to continue to do so all season long. This is sort of a big deal: Until now, your options for watching SNL live were limited to NBC on broadcast, cable, or a virtual cable service such as YouTube TV or Hulu with Live TV. You could also catch a rerun of the show the next morning on regular Hulu. But now, cordcutters who don’t pay for a TV package (and don’t want to bother with an antenna) will be able to stream live on Peacock.
This wasn’t a simple thing to do, by the way. NBC needed to work out a deal with its affiliates to air more NBC content simultaneously on Peacock, since those local stations pay NBC for same-day exclusivity. SNL appears to be the first show to get the simulcast treatment on the streamer, but from what I’m hearing, it probably won’t be the last. I’m also still waiting to see if Peacock ever makes good on its promise to stream The Tonight Show and Late Night a few hours before episodes hit NBC, but as long as those pesky affils get their way, that won’t be happening anytime soon.