Critic's Notebook: Who Is Winning the Streaming Wars?

Right now, each of the players is acting smartly given its position — but all eyes are on Amazon.
Illustration by John Ueland

Amazon Studios found its new leader, who in turn must now find a direction for the streamer; Netflix found another $300 million to throw at a content creator; Apple continues to be in the game but red flags persist; and Hulu looks sane and stable — and now I will have to put an asterisk by comments like that every time I write them.

The Big Four streamers never seem to be shy of news, so let's toss some analysis at recent events:

1. Netflix just gave $300 million to Ryan Murphy in the pitched insanity known as The Great Talent Wars.

This after Netflix locked up Shonda Rhimes for a $100 million prior (and it's probably only half of a coincidence that both of these people would have been contributing content to Disney's 2019 streaming service if things had turned out differently).

The Murphy money is akin to a top free agent quarterback coming on the market right when the salary cap explodes and four teams have a shit ton of rolled-over money at the ready. So, good for him. No, great for him.

But is it good for Netflix? Well, that depends on what the bean counters say; and right now the bean counters, looking at Disney and Apple about to jump in with both feet, are saying spend like mad, which is using money for speed to stay ahead. Here's a Netflix quote to shareholders about its earnings: "Given our track record of content investments helping to increase growth, we are excited about the growth in future years from the increased investments we are making in original content this year."

That's the Netflix strategy. Spend money to stockpile content. To have everything anyone would need to watch so they don't go elsewhere. Subscribers follow, believing — correctly, at this point — that Netflix is the best streaming option for the money, leaving them less to spend on the next subscription, if there's a next subscription. So, yes, this is a race. And, yes, content is king and content creators will be getting fat stacks.

(Also, it's not your money so don't worry about it — be happy for Murphy or jealous if you want, but it's all paper to you.)

Now, qualitatively one could certainly have issues with Murphy or Rhimes. Murphy certainly has shown an ability to go prestige as well as mainstream. But both are great gets for a platform that has incorporated prestige and mainstream like nobody else. It still seems like a better financial play to invest in lots of different creators, which is basically what FX's John Landgraf said when the Murphy deal was announced. After all, you don't ever get a Rhimes or a Murphy in the first place unless you give them a shot when no one has heard of them. If the content is solid, recognizing the name attached is less important.

But Netflix is in the enviable position to take both approaches. And it has. Also, if  you'd like to speculate on who will cash in at Netflix, friend and indefatigable THR television news champ Lesley Goldberg has some educated guesses.

2. Long ago I wrote that taking over for the deposed Roy Price at Amazon Studios was a great job. We will now see if Jen Salke, late of NBC, knows how to steer it into the future. There have been assumptions that she'll veer away from critical darlings toward more mainstream content, but that assumption takes away her option to do both, like Netflix does, while also assuming that "mainstream" series like those she made at NBC will entice people to subscribe to Amazon instead of, say, watch that content for free (or, "free") on broadcast networks, which is absurd. You can have a mixture of content, but let the TV gods help you if you want to make mediocre network television and succeed in the SVOD market. That's not going to happen.

So Salke will have to make Amazon a whole lot more like Netflix than Amazon is currently configured, which (a) makes a lot of sense given the ideology behind Amazon as a shopping destination for the masses and (b) really hard to do and (c) will require a lot of money.

Amazon has the money in the budget for Salke to do damage — with $4.5 billion in 2018 reportedly earmarked for original content (compared with Netflix's $8 billion) and the studio already shelling out $250 million for the rights to make Lord of the Rings properties. That's a pretty sweet starting point. But it's the balance that bears watching. Don't be surprised if some of the early content deals Salke strikes are with people she's familiar with from network television. That's expected. But she'll need to create truly compelling, intelligent, sophisticated dramas and comedies as well, which she got to do about 10 percent of the time in her recent past. So, that part will be interesting to watch. (Hell, just by refusing to throw stupid money at Woody Allen, she'll come out ahead in the near-term; but marquee creator names are a must.)

Broad appeal doesn't mean dumb, by the way. Jeff Bezos didn't tell Price to make simple network shows so much as he asked for Game of Thrones in the same breath as saying stop making mediocre shows from the F. Scott Fitzgerald canon. Amazon still has plenty of fine series. It could do better promoting them both externally and on its site, but the foundation is there.

3. I've already raised some red flags about Apple's foray into television. I absolutely believe the tech behemoth can play successfully in the TV business and has made a number of smart hires and spent a lot of money to do just that (and can we stop repeating that Apple will spend only $1 billion on programming already? It's going to blow past that). But two things are worrisome currently. First, the suggestion from some corners that early indications are Apple wants its content not to exceed TV14 ratings (which would be both stunning and stupid; some of those suggestions sprang from Bryan Fuller departing Apple's Amazing Stories reboot, but given how many series he's left lately, that's hardly proof of anything). Netflix has already proved that a catchall streaming service can have series that run the gamut from family-friendly to full-frontal male nudity. It doesn't have to be either/or.

And second, not enough credible rumors have floated about Apple buying a back catalog of titles. It could still happen, of course, but no serious streaming service can charge a fee for content without a very deep bench and if you doubt that to be the case you're not paying attention.

As more people shift to streaming, aka the future, they will drop cable (or severely cut it back to local channels) and go with either the skinny bundle route or collect SVOD platforms. By 2019, when Disney has its massive new service, and there's Netflix and Amazon and Hulu — none of them exactly cheap — believing consumers will also pay good money for a handful of Apple originals even if, like me, almost everything they own is from Apple, is delusional. They won't.

That back-catalog purchase hasn't materialized (and that's not saying Apple is late yet, but the clock is ticking) and that's now a little more urgent as Disney has put up a very good front about keeping Hulu. And if it does, as I wrote about, then Apple really needs to get creative and in something resembling a hurry.

But what if it was not inconceivable that Apple would trip up? What if it announced Apple Video, with a shiny platform, but only with all of these new series that have yet to be written or shot or even cast as of this writing? What if Apple doesn't go out and buy a catalog that would make you want to pay, say, $11.99 for it and the new stuff? What if that's how Apple launches?

It would be mind-blowing. But (looks at clock), maybe a thing that actually happens?

4. Meanwhile, Hulu is still making intriguing content agreements, growing, doing well with its bench of series and, pretty soon, will have a deep-pockets new owner in Disney (and all that FX catalog plus other bits coming from the 21st Century Fox deal).

I like Hulu's position.

Thankfully, I liked it well before Hulu picked up streaming rights to Close Up With The Hollywood Reporter from SundanceTV and THR. But there's your asterisk.

And as Hulu goes forward, watching Netflix and Amazon and Apple throw money around, don't forget it's got plenty of its own — $2.5 billion domestic, to make smart decisions. Don't look for Hulu to overpay for a franchise or a Murphy, though — my bet is it takes the Landgraf approach and spreads its wealth in smaller chunks to very talented but maybe lesser-known (or just unproved) talent. Again, that's a smart play with that budget.

And all of this holds true even if the second season of The Handmaid's Tale suffers an audience loss and maybe some critical backlash (which could happen). A lot of what Hulu has coming up could be just as popular. While other streamers are losing their minds, Hulu seems Zen (at least this week).