The 5 Stories That Shaped the Streaming Industry This Year

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos by HBO Max, Netflix, Warner Bros. and NBC

2020 (and the last two months of 2019) will likely be remembered as the most pivotal 14 months for the streaming industry since Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon pushed into the streaming-on-demand space in the late aughts. Following the November 2019 debuts of Disney+ and Apple TV+, this year brought the long-delayed unveiling of HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s Peacock. ViacomCBS bulked up the offering of its CBS All Access service and announced plans to rebrand it as Paramount+ next year, while Rupert Murdoch’s slimmed down Fox bought Tubi and started the process of integrating the ad-supported streamer with its broadcast network. And finally, Discovery Networks, which had been testing Discovery+ in India since March, announced this month that its unscripted-focused streamer will land in the U.S. on January 5. There will surely be more big streaming platforms launched down the line, but 2020 will be remembered as the year the battleground was set.

This week’s Buffering looks back at this incredible year in streaming, focusing both on the newest combatants in the streaming wars and the veterans who continue to dominate the space.

Like just about everything else across our society and around the globe, the biggest story of 2020 in streaming was the COVID-19 pandemic. It affected essentially every aspect of the business, from a shut-down production pipeline for new programs to massive spikes in consumption of streaming shows and movies as consumers sought out safe forms of entertainment (and ways to fight the boredom of being housebound).

But even beyond that one, overriding theme, 2020 was notable for some more specific trends and developments. Here are the five I think most shaped the year — and the one other milestone which, while ultimately not all that influential, will not soon be forgotten.

Netflix Keeps the Crown

It’s no longer the sexy new kid on the block, and it now has more well-funded rivals than ever before competing for subscribers, talent, and attention. Things could certainly look much different in five years (and maybe even sooner). But as 2020 ends, Netflix remains just as dominant, influential, and popular as it’s ever been — the only true global general entertainment streaming brand out there. Consider:

The pandemic helped fuel a surge of new sign-ups during the first half of the year, and while momentum slowed a bit during the summer, Netflix is still on track to add roughly 30 million new members by the time the ball drops in Times Square. It will also likely break the 200 million global subscriber mark by the end of this month, or early in 2021 at the latest. That’s more than twice as many as Disney+, which is now pushing toward 90 million worldwide members and boasts the second-largest base of subscribers among U.S.-based streaming-only platforms.

While there were plenty of hits generated by other services, no streamer came close to launching (and returning) as many buzzworthy titles across so many genres as Netflix, which this year boasted significant successes in drama (The Queen’s Gambit, The Crown), comedies (GentefiedEmily in Paris), reality (The Circle, Love is Blind), docuseries (CheerTiger King, Unsolved Mysteries), game shows (Floor Is Lava), and even series acquired from other platforms (Cobra Kai).

And although WarnerMedia’s HBO Max and Disney+ experimented with the idea of premiering big budget movies on streaming, Netflix has been doing that for years now, with its 2020 feature film slate arguably the most successful and varied yet (everything from The Old Guard, Eurovision Song Contest, and Da 5 Bloods to Mank and I’m Thinking of Ending Things).

Acknowledging Netflix remains the uncontested king of streaming (and, arguably, of all of show business) does not mean ignoring the fact that it also had moments of turbulence this year. Ted Sarandos, who was upped to co-CEO in 2020, engineered the biggest behind-the-scenes shakeup of the company’s executive suite in recent memory. He elevated former international/unscripted chief Bela Bajaria to the top creative spot at the company, in the process pushing out Cindy Holland, an O.G. Netflixer who had overseen the streamer’s programming since House of Cards. Key leaders of Netflix’s U.S. comedy and drama teams also departed this year, while in June, Netflix got its third chief marketing officer in less than 12 months. Sarandos and Netflix founder Reed Hastings argued these changes were healthy and would help inject new life into the company — but they still represent significant turnover at a time when Netflix is facing fierce competition on all fronts.

Netflix also leaned into a strategy that had started making itself apparent last year, namely that the company now seems prepared to limit the life span of most new series to no more than three seasons. There is no hard and fast rule about this, and Netflix still has several shows scheduled to last longer (and undoubtedly will continue to renew some shows beyond season three). But as a wave of cancellations made clear, Netflix more often than not would prefer to invest money in new series — which tend to do better at attracting new subscribers — rather than let shows linger too long.

Even if Netflix probably won’t pay a price with consumers — we all like to moan about our favorite shows getting prematurely axed, but few of us really cancel out of spite — this approach could hurt the company with some showrunners, who might opt to take projects to platforms more open to longevity. But that’s in theory: More likely, other streamers will likely emulate Netflix, resulting in the U.S. moving to a more British model of TV, where most shows live and die after two or three seasons. Once again, Netflix’s massive size and global omnipresence allows it to brush off things which would be serious problems for other platforms. It’s good to be king, and in 2020, Netflix’s grip on the streaming crown remained tight as ever.

Disney+ Breaks Out

Even if it seemed like a new streamer popped up every few months this year, technically there were just two big launches in 2020: HBO Max in May and Peacock’s national rollout in July. But given how Disney+ and Apple TV+ debuted just weeks before 2020 began, I think it’s OK to fudge and include them as part of this year’s dramatic expansion of the streaming playing field. Beyond giving media reporters lots more to write about and forcing consumers to consider whether to pay more for TV, I don’t know if all these newcomers had much of an impact on the legacy Big Three streamers. As noted above, Netflix didn’t lose a step in 2020, and Hulu and Amazon also had reasonably good years. The idea that new players in the game would automatically grab market share from older ones always seemed silly to me.

That said, the standout star of the freshman class was far and away Disney+. While I think many analysts always expected it to do well, few predicted it would end its first year with close to 90 million global subscribers. The subscriber growth for Disney+ is all the more gobsmacking when you consider its expected pipeline of new programming was largely halted by the pandemic, with the two Marvel series expected to debut this year pushed to 2021. But the platform pivoted, diverting Disney movies that had been set to hit theaters on to streaming instead. And it worked, with HamiltonMulan, and a few others providing just enough sizzle to keep luring new customers. I also think the overall lack of originals underscored just how powerful the Disney catalogue is: For many folks, having access to several generations’ worth of movie and TV classics more than justified the monthly expense of the service. (A pandemic keeping kids out of school and inside no doubt helped, too.)

Perhaps the biggest moment for Disney+ in 2020, however, came not from a new show or movie but with a sales pitch. During what more than one observer called a “shock and awe” presentation, the company demonstrated how it plans to fight in the years ahead: By superserving fans of its biggest franchises with more content than they could have ever dreamed possible. If you love Star Wars or Marvel movies or campy Disney family films, you are going to be drowning in spinoffs and remakes and sequels.

On one level, you could argue it is a strategy bankrupt of any sort of creativity: No matter how enjoyable or well done these “new” superhero and fantasy stories will be, they will still explore characters and worlds based on decades-old IP. But critics said the same of Disney’s massive investment in Marvel movies last decade, and that worked out pretty well for the company. What’s more, it is not as if Disney being focused on one kind of entertainment is impeding Hollywood’s ability to make other kinds of shows and movies. Netflix and HBO Max and Apple TV+, along with Disney’s own Hulu, are all churning out dozens, even hundreds, of titles with nary a supersomething within them. If anything, Disney should be applauded for carving its own path to streaming success rather than simply trying to rip off Netflix with a something-for-everyone approach.

The Movies Are Coming From Inside the House

A year ago, Netflix was being painted as the Big Bad in the film world for premiering its big Oscar movies in theaters just three to four weeks before they hit the service. Major theater chains refused to screen those films, even going so far as to leave titles like The Irishman out of their Oscar marathons after the picture garnered a slew of nominations. Funny what a pandemic can do: With movie theaters shut down for months, studios finally decided to shatter long-standing norms and release potential box-office blockbusters on TV, either via premium pay-per-view (Trolls World Tour) or directly to subscription streamers (Hamilton, Wonder Woman 1984).

While initially pitched as a pandemic year one-off, WarnerMedia earlier this month decided to blow up past precedents when it announced all Warner Bros. 2021 features would be on HBO Max the same day they hit theaters. There has been predictable pushback from theater owners and many creative types, not to mention apocalyptic talk about how this is the end of the movie business.

A lot of this is noise, and I don’t think we really know yet just how much of the wall between theatrical movies and streaming films will remain in a year or two. But for the streaming business, it’s clear big-budget feature films are going to be a significant part of the programming mix from here on out — just like they’ve been at Netflix for years.

The Device Wars Got Hot

The rollouts of HBO Max and Peacock were both hampered by disputes with two of the leading streaming device makers — Roku and Amazon’s Fire TV — resulting in tens of millions of consumers being unable to to access one or both of the new streamers for months on end. The battles echoed the frequent disputes between cable operators and TV networks over how much cable networks ought to pay for the right to distribute various channels. With the streamers, issues included how consumers would subscribe to the services as well as the sharing of revenue from advertising. By year’s end, peace had (mostly) prevailed: HBO Max settled with Amazon last month and reached a deal with Roku on December 16; Peacock landed on Roku in September and is still talking with Amazon. Roku and Amazon played tough because they had the leverage to do so, but also because their continued growth and expansion depends less on selling new devices and more on generating revenue through ads and subscriptions. The launch of these new services offered a golden opportunity to get the best possible deals. What’s not known is how long these agreements will last, leaving open the possibility that five or ten years from now there could be stories about various streamers suddenly disappearing from devices.

AVOD Ascends

Given the billions being spent on talent and programming, subscription services understandably dominate coverage of the streaming landscape. But ad-supported video on demand (AVOD) services broke through in a big way in 2020. As noted earlier, Fox bought Tubi and has been putting many of its prime-time shows on the service hours after they’re broadcast, while Peacock is a hybrid service which offers a robust tier of content for free. ViacomCBS, meanwhile, loaded up its Pluto TV platform with programming from all of its various networks (even Showtime), and notably decided to put Pluto CEO Tom Ryan in charge of all of its streaming portfolio, including the soon-to-be rebranded Paramount+. And next year, WarnerMedia will launch an ad-supported service expected to be a hybrid like Peacock, offering some (but not all) of the content on HBO Max for a much lower cost. Throw in streaming plays by Roku (The Roku Channel), Amazon (IMDb TV, which is now making original shows), and Sinclair (STIRR), and consumers uninterested in spending $100 per year on a half-dozen subscription platforms will be able to put together a pretty decent TV package for next to nothing. As broadcast and cable continued their rapid declines in 2020, it became increasingly clear that AVOD is poised to fill much of the gap.

…and One More Quick Bite

RIP, Quibi. There’s no doubt the launch and quick downfall of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s short-form streamer was a much-covered story of the year. Spectacular business failures tend to get a lot of ink! But in the end, Quibi had little actual impact on the streaming business. Almost none of the content that ended up on the service would’ve gone to a more established platform. (And the stuff that might have? It may yet end up streaming as rights owners look to sell off their creations.) And while folks who study executive leadership and business models will be analyzing Quibi’s collapse for years, I don’t even think there are any big lessons for the larger streaming business — except, perhaps, that folks don’t want to pay for the kind of content that’s widely available for free. Oh, and make sure viewers can take screenshots.

The 5 Stories That Shaped the Streaming Industry This Year