In Race to Beat Netflix, Studios Give Up Billions In Profits
As major conglomerates ready their own streaming services, they'll leave lucrative licensing fees on the table to compete for subscriptions in a contest that, at least in the short term, is likely to "cost everyone."
On Feb. 10, Epix launched a streaming service, becoming the latest network — like CBS, Showtime and HBO before it — looking to extract more profit from its library. That list will grow when Disney and WarnerMedia unveil services in 2019 and NBCUniversal debuts its entry in 2020.
On paper, it's a no-brainer. Netflix has become a $152 billion behemoth since introducing streaming in 2007 and watching its stock rocket a baffling 8,000 percent since then. What entertainment conglomerate wouldn't want to emulate that success? The problem is, each time an entity goes it alone, it enters a crowded field while potentially forgoing its share of the roughly $5 billion Netflix spends annually to license content. Then there's the estimated $4 billion Amazon could spend, $1 billion from Facebook, and so on.
WarnerMedia, for example, convinced Netflix to pay $100 million just to keep reruns of the sitcom Friends on its platform for an additional year, but Kevin Reilly, the newly installed head of content for WarnerMedia's OTT effort, strongly hinted Feb. 11 that another such deal isn't in the cards. "It's not a good model to share," he told attendees at an annual gathering hosted by the Television Critics Association. He also said the yet-to-be named service would launch with about 42,000 hours of existing programming from Turner, DC, The CW and Warner Bros., but that original content won't come until later.
Like WarnerMedia and NBCU, Disney hasn't unveiled pricing or a launch date for its service, though it has a name, Disney+. Richard Greenfield, an analyst at BTIG, estimates it will debut Oct. 1 at $7 monthly and will sign up 2 million subscribers by year's end. But he figures Disney needs about 7 million customers just to make up for the roughly $500 million it won't be getting each year by licensing content to Netflix. "It continues to boggle our mind that Disney wants to compete with Netflix versus remaining an arms dealer to whoever will pay the most for their content," he says.
There's also some expensive marketing to be done, as 50 percent of American adults have little or no clue that Disney+ is on the horizon and even more are similarly unfamiliar with WarnerMedia's (55 percent) and NBCU's (53 percent) upcoming streaming products, a recent Hollywood Reporter/Morning Consult poll found. In contrast, just 17 percent haven't heard of Netflix, which already has 58.5 million streaming customers in the U.S.
Plus, the Big Three that are developing their own streamers already have one: Hulu, run by CEO Randy Freer. When Disney and Fox complete their partial merger, Disney will control 60 percent of Hulu while Comcast's NBCU retains 30 percent and AT&T's WarnerMedia holds 10 percent. "The Hulu owners would be best served to just license their content to Hulu and be done with it," says Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter. "They don't need to each build their own stand-alone services, and I think the coming streaming wars are going to cost everyone money."
When Lionsgate reported its latest results Feb. 7 for its Starz unit, it may have unintentionally highlighted how expensive it is to compete with Netflix. Starz ended the latest quarter with an additional 1.1 million streaming and traditional customers for a total of 25.1 million due to "strong over-the-top subscriber growth," the company said. But while the cable product turned a $136 million profit, the streaming side of the business lost $1.4 million. In fact, in the first nine months of Lionsgate's fiscal year, the Starz streamer bled $31.1 million in red ink, compared with a profit of $346 million for Starz on cable.
Likewise, Disney disclosed in January that losses at its streaming business — including its ESPN+ service, early spending on the unlaunched Disney+ and costs associated with its BAMTech technology asset — amounted to $1 billion in its latest fiscal year. Speaking to Wall Street analysts on Feb. 5, Disney CEO Bob Iger said his ultimate goal is to offer a bundled product that will include Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+, the latter of which has amassed 2 million subs since launching April 12 at $5 a month. “Same credit card, same username, same password … if they wanted to buy all three, we’d give them that opportunity, potentially at a discount,” he said.
Netflix, of course, is responding to the competition, and to the potential loss of lots of licensed content, by creating exclusive shows and movies — to the tune of roughly $8 billion a year. Those who are bullish on the upcoming streamers from Disney, WarnerMedia and NBCU note that they already have vast libraries to populate them and much of the new content will already have first earned money at the box office and via traditional TV, so streaming revenue is mostly gravy that, in the long run, will be tastier on their own services than it would be licensed to a third party.
What all the newcomers are hoping is that consumers will pay for multiple streamers, which analyst Bruce Leichtman says is the case in about 43 million U.S. homes. "The stand-alones are not just about creating more revenue, but about adapting and experimenting with business models," he says. "The scenario of scrapping plans for their standalone services would leave them essentially where they are today, which is not a bad place, but it wouldn't allow them to investigate future opportunities."
This story first appeared in the Feb. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.