One year ago, a variety of internet TV companies lined up like pieces on a chessboard to challenge industry leader, Netflix. Disney+ and Apple TV+ had recently launched. Universal’s Peacock and HBO Max were on the way. Hulu and Amazon Prime Video braced for the onslaught.
But then the pandemic turned what could have been a bloodletting into a bonanza for the streaming industry. Lockdowns put work and play on hold for many Americans, and Netflix and other internet TV providers stepped in to fill the void. In a year that was supposed to see intense competition for a limited number of viewers, the industry as a whole increased its number of subscriptions by more than 50 percent, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Netflix remains the king of streaming, with more than 60 percent of U.S. households subscribing to the service, but Disney+ wrote its own fairytale story in 2020. When the platform first launched in 2019, the company estimated that by 2024 it would have 60 million to 90 million subscribers. At its annual investor meeting last month, it announced Disney+ already had 86.8 million. That’s only half of Netflix’s subscribers, but now Disney+ expects to triple its audience by 2024.
The Mandalorian, a Star War series featuring a bounty hunter and an adorable alien child, helped position Disney+ as a major streaming contender. In light of The Mandalorian’s success, Disney recently announced more than 100 new projects based on its most popular franchises such as Star Wars, Marvel, and Indiana Jones—80 percent of which will debut on Disney+. Skipping theaters doesn’t carry the same stigma it did in years past. “Truly the only difference between these [streaming programs] and feature films is length,” Walt Disney Co. chairman Bob Iger said.
By creating series with the same production value as its theatrical films, Disney follows a strategy Netflix pioneered, spending millions on original content. Netflix had its own must-see programing in 2020 with Tiger King, The Queen’s Gambit, and a new season of The Crown. Peacock hopes to boost subscriptions by bringing NBC’s popular series like The Office to its platform, and HBO Max expects gains after announcing that it will debut all Warner Bros. movies in 2021 simultaneously in theaters and online.
The pandemic boosted new and old streaming platforms alike, but one service tailormade for the “old normal” failed to find an audience. Quibi launched in April 2020, offering “quick bites” of entertainment. Ten-minute videos featuring big-name stars and high production values were meant to fill the few minutes of downtime someone might experience while out and about—except in 2020 no one was out and about. After fewer than six months, Quibi announced it would shut down in December. Roku, the leading maker of streaming hardware, is looking to buy Quibi’s shows to augment its own forays into streaming content, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The streaming industry benefited from the coronavirus, but the question looms as to whether the pandemic merely postponed an upcoming streaming war. It all depends on how much TV consumers are willing to pay once other entertainment options return.