The “Streaming Wars” is not a formal designation. In fact, some of the supposed participants in this supposed war insist that it doesn’t even exist. Others argue they don’t really care for competitive narratives, only what they think they should do for their customers. Another, arguably growing group believes the war to be so intense it will leave only a few survivors. A subset of this group now fears that the victors’ spoils won’t be enough to justify the monies spent on the war’s armaments.
Though the idea of the Streaming Wars may be debated, there’s broad consensus that it kicked off in 2019. Early in the year, Viacom had acquired the most popular free ad-supported streaming (FAST) service, Pluto TV, with Disney striking a deal with Comcast to take full ownership of Hulu no later than 2024. In September, Viacom and CBS agreed to recombined. And in the 16 months that followed the launch of Apple TV+ on November 1, 2019, Disney+, Quibi, HBO Max, and Peacock joined the fray, while CBS All Access was relaunched as the combined ViacomCBS's primary subscription video on demand (SVOD) service Paramount+. Tubi, the second largest FAST service and the largest independent streamer, was also acquired by Fox, and Roku announced its expansion into original programming.
Of course, one could argue that this war began well before 2019. HBO, which was the world’s largest subscription video until it was passed by Netflix in 2017, debuted its D2C service in 2015. The second-largest streaming service today, Disney+, was announced in 2017—and there was evidence of behind-the-scenes preparation long before. As I wrote in 2016, Disney’s crop of 2013/2014 film and TV licenses were unique from older deals. Not only were they short, but they were all timed to expire in 2018 and 2019. The company had also begun launching a suite of direct-to-consumer platforms under different theses, such as the TV Everywhere app WatchABC (2013), and DisneyLife (2015), an SVOD service limited to the UK and Philippines which contained not just select Disney films and series, but also minigames, comics, and music. In 2016, Disney also spent $1B to purchase a third of BAMTech, spending another $1.6B to buy an additional 42% the following year. In 2014, 20th Century Fox made an unsuccessful $80 billion bid for Time Warner in the hopes of gaining the necessary scale to compete in the digital era. Three years later, Rupert Murdoch opted to instead exit the impending streaming wars by selling the majority of Fox to Disney, which also saw the need to grow in size if it wanted to thrive. TimeWarner had made the same choice a earlier year, selling to AT&T. As had Starz, which sold itself to Lionsgate.
By 2019, at least one streamer had rebooted its strategy, too. Apple’s first foray into streaming video came in 2017, when it launched Planet of the Apps and Carpool Karaoke as part of Apple Music. Neither of these lower-budgeted, unscripted originals picked up much viewership, while their placement within a streaming service dedicated to music proved confusing—and, perhaps, valueless—to most consumers. Accordingly, Apple quickly shut down this version of its video strategy, then reimagined it as Apple TV+ two years later (a move that led Disney CEO Bob Iger to depart the Apple Board). Earlier in the decade, Apple had planned to launch an à la carte pay-TV service, only to find out the major network giants would not unbundle their programming packages the way music labels had let Apple unbundle their albums. Another effort, to replace set-top boxes with Apple TVs, had also failed.
Apple was not the only first Big Tech company to struggle as a new entrant, either. YouTube and Facebook entered the premium original content game in 2016 and 2017 respectively, but both had effectively exited by 2018. And as early as 2012—a year before House of Cards premiered on Netflix—Microsoft established Xbox Entertainment Studios, enlisting Nancy Tellem, the former president of CBS (whose duties also included overseeing The CW) to lead the division. Xbox Entertainment Studios was closed barely two years later, but in the interim, it had released a soccer docuseries and had even broadcast Miss Teen USA 2014 (years before any other streamers offered live events). The closure was partly due to the struggles of Xbox’s broader TV play. The Xbox One console, which debuted in 2013, was intended to serve as both a video game console and a set-top box for pay-TV service, complete with a custom interface and programming guide. However, TV providers, fearing intermediation, declined to support the service. Two series greenlit by Tellem, Humans and Halo, eventually ended up on AMC in 2015 and Paramount+ in 2022 respectively.
It's been 10 years since one of the most infamous console reveals of all time:
While Microsoft rounds out the history of Big Tech in SVOD, it’s not the last of the “high profile, but forgotten” entrants. In 2010, the largest company in the world by revenue, Walmart, acquired Vudu, an early leader in digital video downloads. In 2016, Walmart’s Vudu launched a free, ad-supported streaming library – beating Roku’s Roku Channel and Amazon’s Freevee by years. In 2018, Vudu began developing original content (in partnership with MGM, which was acquired by Amazon in 2022), which debuted in 2019. In 2020, Walmart sold Vudu to NBCUniversal’s Fandango. And in January 2015, Overstock.com announced plans to launch its own streaming service later that year, starting with 30,000 licensed titles but eventually expanding into originals. Overstock.com never mentioned the service again. The company’s ill-fated announcement was obviously inspired by Amazon’s successful foray, which began with the launch of the streaming-centric Amazon Instant Video in 2011, and similarly-timed start of its original programming.
Although many of the participants of the Streaming Wars entered the fray in the early 2010s, the rush of launches and announcements in late 2019 and early 2020led to the unmistakable sense the “war,” should it exist, had begun. The battlefield had been set, and the strategies were no longer taking place in the background but were instead observable. Indeed, most of the new entrants during this period offered investors detailed five-year forecasts and roadmaps that included subscriber forecasts, revenue, profit, investment and more.
The projections offered by the major streaming services enabled outside observers to measure each company's progress against these targets. Three years later, it's time we do.