Tim Goodman: Amazon Is Unavoidable, But What About NBCUniversal?

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

It's partly a sign of the times in the Streaming Wars that I can be reminded by executives not linked to either Amazon or NBCUniversal not to forget that the former recently touted an increase in subscriptions that can't really be proven and don't forget to talk about the stock slide, and why not point out that the "free" plan for the latter's streaming service is both not true and not a great idea.

Or, to put it another way, make sure everybody knows that everyone has issues and when the hell-storm comes there's not a clear winner that can be talked about in advance.

OK, fair enough. Done.

Netflix's recent stock beating is probably on everyone's mind but Wall Street issues are at a great remove from how these services will compete, at least in the early going, in the hyper-competitive Streaming Wars to follow. (The Streaming Wars is a real thing, but let's not kid ourselves, it's also a fun thing to say, while being handy and germane.)

It's always been hard to sift through what Amazon Prime subscription numbers actually mean because not everybody who buys in for the two-day (or now one-day!) shipping aligns perfectly as a user of the video service. Meaning, some people just want to use Amazon to shop, not stream originals and library content, so we'll never really know if the numbers are accurate.

But this much is true: Amazon Studios and the streaming service are large, legitimate threats. The service reportedly has more than 100 million subscribers (and said Thursday it grew its subscription business by 37 percent, however that changes the total number), so even if not all of them are subscribing primarily for the streaming service, that's a formidable number regardless, second only to Netflix.

The streamer recently received 47 Emmy nominations, more than twice what it got last year and regardless of that barometer has a pretty stellar lineup of acclaimed dramas and comedies, plus broad-appeal series like Jack Ryan and Hanna, and has been very aggressive plotting high-profile series (including The Lord of the Rings) and attracting top talent.

In short, as it rolls into the Television Critics Association's press tour on Saturday, Amazon is huge, successful and ascendant. Though it seems impossible given that it's something of a colossus, Amazon Studios is pretty sneaky/stealthy in this conversation about which platforms will get your money. You can make a good argument that as Disney+, Apple+, HBO Max and NBCUniversal get debated in the will-consumers-or-won't-consumers-pony-up debate, Amazon is inoculated from any downside scenario of that.

People will keep it. Amazon Studios benefits from being tied to a gigantic, established corporation in the same way that Netflix benefits from being and getting worldwide faster and larger than anyone else. They are the behemoths, even if Amazon is less zeitgeist-y than Netflix, as rivals make their plans to go to war with the Death Star.

Again, it seems pretty obvious here but it's not — don't underestimate Amazon Studios, not only for its given advantage, but for what it's doing with that advantage on the content side. I suspect the reason it's not bundled into the conversation (see what I did there?) when talking about the pending, damaging cord-cutting, is because consumers (and pundits) simply don’t untangle the streaming platform from the shopping platform. Everybody who can afford the service will keep it, which isn't the same game everyone else has to play.

Which brings us to, well, everyone else. But since HBO Max and Netflix have garnered so much attention from headlines recently, and Disney+ seems to be a slam-dunk gotta-have-it for consumers at the door-busting price of $7, it's probably better to focus on a service receiving less attention — NBCUniversal. (Look, it's not like Apple+ is out of the conversation, but until it comes out of the dark with a launch date and a price structure, let's just wait. Meanwhile, Hulu was just here at TCA and it's doing fine, just fine, plus Disney owns it, so whatever storm is coming will be weathered, no doubt.)

OK, so yes, NBCUniversal — and let's hope it's not called that (a friend is pitching Peacock+) — has a couple of unique issues. First, it'll be the last one in the door, but it will also tout itself as "free" (it won't be — you have to have a cable subscription, which, last I checked, is actually pretty pricey) and it will rely, in the early going, very much on library content and acquisitions. You can also subscribe to it if you don't have cable, meaning if you are a current cord-cutter, which NBCUniversal is steadfastly refusing to believe is a thing or will be a thing in the future. There will also be ads on that "free" part.

If you are already streaming things on virtually any platform, this NBCUniversal plan does not sound sexy. And the reason it doesn't is because it's not. Whatever NBCUniversal is called or whatever it looks like in the early incarnation, there's no getting around the fact that being tied to a cable subscription hardly lets it into the Streaming Wars battlefield. Basically, Comcast has a "thing" and that thing puts it into the game, just not with revolutionary vigor.

Then again, it will also be using the same platform technology as Europe's SkyTV, which is a pretty big deal that can be weaponized and, importantly, will have SkyTV content, adding value.

Beyond that, never doubt the dark horse and NBCUniversal will be here at TCA on Aug. 8 to hopefully better explain its plans and its vision.

Otherwise, unless I'm missing something, the actual idea is that if you already pay for cable you can get this other thing for free, with some ads on it, and likely some content you can't get within the steel bones of your linear cable configuration.

That is a strategy which I currently interpret as "we understand that we got an invitation to this Streaming Wars costume party and so we'll attend, but not with our costume on, but if it looks like everybody else is having a really great and profitable time in theirs, we will eventually put ours on."

But that's just me.

Hey, at least that means all the big players are assembled. I'm not sure how NBCUniversal is going to hurt anyone with $500 million worth of The Office in 2021, but you do you. Maybe the original content comes later and will be awesome (and I will enjoy Peacock+ telling everyone it has the Harry Potter franchise while HBO Max fumes). But otherwise, unless told differently on Aug. 8, it doesn't seem like NBCUniversal is truly in this fight from the start, and maybe that will end up meaning it never gets in at all.