Critic's Notebook: The Clock Is Ticking on That WarnerMedia Streaming Reveal

BOB GREENBLATT - Getty - H 2018
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If you're keeping track of the Streaming Wars at home — and you should be, since it might be television's biggest story of 2019 — then answer this question: Who is in the best position right now?

Oh, that's easy: NBCUniversal, which won't launch until 2020. Listen, 2019 is going to be — and in many ways already is — a bloody mess for very large companies. Better to stay out of this ruckus until you can muck it up on your own, which Comcast/NBCUniversal is expected to do early in 2020 (which likely means late 2020 or early 2021 because it's Comcast — and yes, I will use that joke many more times until Comcast proves definitively that it was a joke and not a very good assumption).

Asking who is in the best position right now is not a trick question. But it does have a pretty definitive answer: Disney+, which just threw down the gauntlet and said gauntlet landed on one, possibly two heads, causing untold harm.

So, yeah, Disney+ plus is your leader in the clubhouse, as they say.

But right now, an even better question is: What is the moisture level at WarnerMedia?

Think about it. This year will be about the Big Six streamers. Three of them existed before 2019: Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. Two of them entered in 2019 — Apple+ made its announcement in March (essentially announcing not much at all, but the service is expected to premiere in the fall); Disney+ made its announcement last week, definitively stating that it would be live on Nov. 12.

That leaves one.

Your move, WarnerMedia.

Owned by AT&T, WarnerMedia is supposed to launch sometime in late 2019. It has a lengthy number of issues to deal with as it does that, chief among them:

1. Define the brand to consumers in a way that you can sell it. Nobody outside of this town — and hell, many right inside of it — can really tell you what the hell WarnerMedia is or has, which is not a problem that Netflix, Amazon, Hulu or Disney+ currently grapple with. So, congratulations, WarnerMedia, you're only slightly more mysterious than Apple+, which, for better or worse, is trying to be mysterious on purpose.

2. After enlightening consumers about what shows they'll get with a WarnerMedia subscription, trying to sell that package for less than Disney+ at $6.99 — and good fucking luck with that — or pricing it between Disney's sweet deal and Netflix's most popular streaming option of $12.99.

It's going to be interesting. And damned tricky. 

For starters, although it's not wise to assume cash-strapped Americans will have enough to pay for Netflix, Disney+ and Streamer X as a third option, the fact is that many of them are choosing multiple options already after Netflix, starting with Amazon (yes, because so many already shop there and enjoy the free two-day shipping, which also gets them Amazon Studios originals); and then Hulu, which has not only slashed two bucks off its base, ad-supported tier to $5.99, but also recently partnered with Spotify in a deal where Spotify premium members paying $9.99 a month would also get that Hulu ad-supported option basically for free — since it's built into the $9.99 price. Cord-cutters, particularly music-loving younger ones, no doubt think the Spotify/Hulu combo is a fantastic deal.

Which it is, if you don't mind the commercials.

So, yes, the WarnerMedia price point is almost as eagerly awaited as the Apple+ price tag.

Nobody said being sixth into the race was going to be easy.

If WarnerMedia gets that pricing wrong — significantly higher than Disney+ but not significantly lower than Netflix, which might send buyers looking for a third streaming service to Hulu or Spotify/Hulu instead of WarnerMedia — well, yeah, that's a big problem.

3. There is no No. 3  — weren't the first two daunting enough?

But at least WarnerMedia, by dint of coming into the Streaming Wars after Apple+ and Disney+, will know what not to do. In short, do it like Disney, not like Apple.

But lest we lose focus on just how incredibly difficult this task ahead is, all you have to know is that right now WarnerMedia is getting more attention for the victims of its downsizing than its actual streaming service, which is — hunting for a short word here — bad.

On the plus side, the WarnerMedia streaming team has in the ranks three very skilled and respected executives: Bob Greenblatt, chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment; Kevin Reilly, chief creative officer of WarnerMedia streaming (and also head of TNT and TBS); plus Casey Bloys, president of programming for HBO. I've heard dire murmurings from more than a few influential people that the approved AT&T merger with Time Warner, resulting in the imagined lost luster at HBO and the real loss of its CEO, Richard Plepler  — combined with the hiring of Greenblatt at the top — signals a terrible change for creatives. But that's flat out ridiculous. 

Yes, a vastly bigger streaming entity that will be known as WarnerMedia does cast a big shadow on HBO, which is under its wing (even though HBO Now will continue as a separate and add-on streaming option), but it doesn't diminish HBO's prestige status if Greenblatt and Bloys approach it correctly. And the notion that Greenblatt is some mass-market hack because he once ran NBC and that he's somehow a step down from Plepler is close to insane. For starters, Greenblatt ran Showtime before NBC, has creative experience (executive producer, Six Feet Under) and, if anything, is sharper for having premium cable and network experience (you try doing the latter without losing your mind) before jumping into the streaming world. This seems to be both HBO and East Coast bias, ill-founded and eye-rolling in both instances.

Greenblatt — and WarnerMedia — should do just fine, but that No. 1 issue above is an essential nut to crack, mostly because it highlights the disconnect between people in the industry and those (paying customers) outside of it. I've already written about this, but it can't be stated enough — outside of HBO, Friends and Looney Tunes, what immediately comes to mind about WarnerMedia to non-industry people who might, before the end of 2019, be asked to subscribe to it?

Not a lot, is the guess here.

So beyond saying, "Hey, we not only own HBO — Game of Thrones, Game of Thrones, Game of Thrones — but also TNT and TBS," which is not super sexy, WarnerMedia needs to tout its vast film influence (and vault), the Harry Potter movies, the DC Entertainment connection, Turner Classic Movies, Adult Swim, etc., while also being able to articulate if, how and when its numerous TV series spread out on other platforms (you know, like Friends) will migrate back to be seen on the streaming platform.

That is an infinitely harder proposition than saying, "We have really good stuff, honestly."

Maybe make a list? Take out some ads that scroll all your IP and what will end up on the streaming service? Because literally no one is going to forget what Disney+ did, which was make it very easy for consumers to say, "Here's my wallet, when can I sign up?" Rolling out the Disney movies (even the ones in the vault), the Pixar catalog, the Star Wars franchise, the Marvel universe, all The Simpsons episodes and prestige National Geographic content, among a whole lot more. 

Articulating clearly to the world exactly what you own and what the world can see on your streaming service is Job No. 1 for WarnerMedia right now, because look at how well Disney+ sold that message and how Netflix essentially sells, as its brand identity, "we have everything."

It's April. There's not a lot of 2019 left. WarnerMedia needs to do this — this whole "be obvious and patently clear about what you're selling" thing — way quicker than it currently seems interested in doing. 

And that's really the problem of the Streaming Wars when you're the sixth horse out of the gate in a six-horse race. Big media conglomerates are always overconfident in their ability to sell themselves or be impossibly desirable to consumers. Inside corporate headquarters, it's "We are huge and awesome!," and out in public the response back can easily be, "Kind of, but I'm broke because I bought Netflix and Disney+ and Amazon."

Clarity and urgency are big deals, but when you're the last one, money matters. Obviously, it would be nice if WarnerMedia could somehow beat Apple+ to market on the price point. Apple is vulnerable now thanks to the Disney+ announcement, but if Apple is able to, in the next few months or less, come up with some kind of Hail Mary sexy bundling option, that will shift a lot more pressure on to WarnerMedia. And if Apple+ goes really low on its price point, joining Disney+, look the hell out: WarnerMedia could be crippled before its first step.

Yet If Apple is cocky enough to keep waiting, then maybe WarnerMedia can make a splashy presentation earlier and gain some advantage. So yes, step No. 2 is also pretty critical. Or, put a more direct way — it needs to get both steps perfect. Did I mention it's April? You're launching in 2019, right?

Maybe NBCUniversal had the best Streaming Wars idea after all — be last, with the least expectations.