What’s Winning the Streaming Wars? CBS All Access Grows, HBO Max Spends, and New Shows Fizzle

Ben Travers

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War is underway, and battles are being fought every day — for subscribers, of course. The so-called streaming wars are already filled with winners and losers, as shows, networks, and services have been renewed or cancelled, copied or rebranded, expanded or completely shut down, all in the name of Peak TV. But with even more streaming titans about to step into the fray, IndieWire is here to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each preening competitor.

“What’s Winning the Streaming Wars?” hopes to elucidate developments big and small in each streamer’s ongoing quest to stock up on covetable content and enviable talent. That means analyzing new data on subscriber growth and viewership statistics (in the below section titled “New Numbers”), evaluating the success of those all-important original series (in “Buzzy Originals”), and gauging the value of blockbuster talent deals (in the simply titled “Big Deals”).

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Acquisitions, renewals, cancellations — they all weigh into who’s winning the streaming wars, but not all streaming services can be judged by the same metric. Each new column will consider platforms’ specific goals, while still weighing their overall value to general customers. By looking at trends and curating the news cycle down to what really matters, IndieWire will offer a clear picture of what’s happening overall and day-to-day in streaming.

So let’s get started. Wars aren’t won or lost in a day, but with 1.5 shows launching every 24 hours, there are battles to be won all the time.

New Numbers

CBS All Access & Showtime Flex Subscriber Growth ⇑⇑⇑

In Thursday’s quarterly report — which provided lots of vague but intriguing tidbits about the company’s streaming future — ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish stated the conglomerate’s dual streaming offerings are on track to hit 16 million combined subscribers by the end of 2020. While it’s annoying that CBS All Access and Showtime’s growth rates aren’t reported individually, a) these numbers put their combined reach ahead of projections (aka the previously announced goal of 25 million subscribers by 2022), and b) the combined growth is what really matters, now that Bakish has gone on the record about plans to create a streaming hub for virtually all ViacomCBS programming. Later this year, expect to see originals from MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, BET, and Smithsonian Channel — plus more than 1,000 titles from the Paramount Pictures film library — join everything already being offered on the CBS All Access platform. Whether that service retains its name or gets a new, more merger-friendly title remains to be seen, as does how, exactly, Showtime’s programming will be linked to the service. But strong growth is always good, and adding more content to the platform can only help (barring an increased price tag).

HBO Max’s $20 Million Ad ⇔⇔⇔

Late Friday, HBO Max made it official: A “Friends” reunion is happening. No, there’s not a movie on the way or even new episodes. Instead, the six iconic cast members will revisit their old sound stage at Warner Bros. as themselves, sitting down for an extended interview about the good ol’ days, when more than 30 million people would watch a sitcom every week. Of course, the streaming era has been pretty good to the Center Perk regulars, too. Netflix kept it in millions of homes for the past five years — costing the streaming giant $100 million for 2019 alone — before WarnerMedia locked down licensing rights to the tune of $500 million, so “Friends” would stream exclusively on HBO Max.

Considering all those numbers, spending upwards of $20 million on one special may not seem like an outrageous number. HBO Max needs a big exclusive to offer fans at launch, and their scripted titles don’t have the same drawing power as “Friends” — and really, what shows do? Hosting a reunion special to promote the service’s debut doubles as a trial for HBO Max, the new home of “Friends,” and HBO Max in general — get subscribers hooked with the special and hope they stick around for more. Plus, the cast was making $1 million per half-hour episode back in 2004, so bringing them back for twice that (for, presumably, twice the runtime) is a steal… except that this “Friends” reunion doesn’t feature Ross, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe, Joey, or Rachel. Whether this is enough of a hook remains to be seen, so for now, the only way to see the “Friends” reunion is as one very expensive ad.

Buzzy Originals

“Hunters” (Amazon) ⇓⇓⇓

While there’s plenty of chatter surrounding Al Pacino’s Nazi-hunting foray into scripted television, the reviews can’t be what Amazon hoped for. Sitting at a 56 on Metacritic (indicating mixed or average reviews), David Weil’s hourlong ’70s actioner has received more pans than raves, with many struggling to handle its extreme tonal fluctuations. Is it a grindhouse pastiche? Is it a Holocaust drama? Is it an entertaining action-comedy? In trying to be a little bit of everything, “Hunters” might not end up being enough of anything — making it an early underdog to become Amazon Prime’s first Emmy nominee for Best Drama Series. That being said, mixed reviews don’t always kill an outlandish premise with big stars. After premiering Friday, February 21, this one could still be a win for the streamer, if only as an audience favorite.

“Devs” (FX on Hulu) ⇔⇔⇔

Though it’s a bit early to gauge critical reaction overall, Alex Garland’s much-anticipated FX on Hulu series has earned solid marks from the first batch of reviewers and piqued general audience interest with its slick, creepy, and mysterious marketing campaign. A favorite of FX chief John Landgraf, “Devs” also marks the first FX Productions series to air as part of FX on Hulu, the partnership between the Disney subsidiaries announced late last year — and it’s the ideal show to test the powers of FX branding + Hulu’s distribution. “Devs” is about a Silicon Valley tech company’s suspicious yet groundbreaking project, and Garland’s cult fanbase is young, engaged, and active online; that means they likely prefer streaming to watching at a set time on cable. Like so many great FX dramas before it, what “Devs” needs is eyeballs — it may be too challenging for some, and its stars aren’t exactly on Al Pacino-levels of fame (though Nick Offerman and Sonoya Mizuno are friggin’ great), but “Devs” will be a success if it earns a larger audience than your typical avant-garde FX project, and maybe even pulls in some Creative Arts Emmy nominations, as well. If no one is talking about “Devs” in eight weeks, then perhaps Garland’s dream of making another series with the same cast is over, but for now, there’s reason to hope.

Big Deals

Taylor Sheridan signs with ViacomCBS ⇑⇑⇑

After building the brand for Paramount Network through “Yellowstone,” the Oscar-nominated writer/director has signed an overall deal with ViacomCBS’ Entertainment & Youth Brands — and why not? Come 2021, Sheridan will be the name behind three Paramount Network original series: “Yellowstone,” which got an early Season 4 renewal before Season 3 premieres in mid-2020; “The Last Cowboy,” which earned a second season after debuting well in 2019; and the upcoming “Mayor of Kingstown,” another scripted small-town story about a blue-collar family. While Paramount Network is a cable channel, ViacomCBS’ emphasis on streaming synergy indicates those originals will soon have a more widely accessible home, and having a creator who’s proven his stories connect with a wide swath of Americans can only help the company’s overall brand become more essential in an overcrowded market.

Hulu + Neon = Theatrical & Streaming Harmony ⇑⇑⇑

While it’s easy to focus on how streaming impacts the TV industry, alluring film titles are a vital part of a successful service — just look at what Netflix spends on in-house Oscar contenders and Sundance acquisitions. But the latest awards and indie success story comes from Hulu, who entered into an output deal with Neon in 2017, where all of Neon’s theatrically distributed films would later stream on Hulu. Now, that includes the Neon-produced “Parasite,” which made Oscar history in February with four wins, including Best Picture. As Bong Joon Ho’s South Korean masterpiece continues raking in money at the box office, you better believe even more viewers will be thrilled to see it pop up on Hulu in the coming months. Even though it’s not a first-run Hulu title (and thus unlikely to bring in new subscribers to the service), the Academy Award-winner will still add prestige to the brand and keep its current subscribers happy. Plus, Neon and Hulu are partnering on their next feature: Andy Samberg’s “Palm Springs” Sundance feature, which will get a theatrical release via Neon and a streaming launch on Hulu, with a release date still to be announced.

Top 5 Power Rankings (February 23, 2020)

1. Netflix
2. Amazon Prime
3. Disney+
4. Hulu
5. HBO/HBO Max

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