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A few years back, cutting the cord for Netflix was a relief. Finally, a money-saving, high-quality alternative to increasingly expensive cable and satellite services! However, now in May 2021, Netflix’s success has produced so many competitors that the once simple route of cord-cutting has turned into a convoluted, hectic, expensive process.
The latest development came Monday when AT&T announced it was spinning off its WarnerMedia assets into a $45 billion merger with Discovery. The background is that AT&T acquired Time Warner for $85 billion in 2017 to capitalize on the streaming, film, and original programming landscapes. Once AT&T won its battle with the Trump Justice Department — which tried to prevent the merger — AT&T took control of CNN, HBO, Warner Bros., TNT, TBS, and DC Comics, which ultimately led to the launch of HBO Max in 2020. Long story short, AT&T and its unimpressive acquisition of DirecTV in 2015 — which cost $48.5 billion and came with a $67 billion debt — then inherited even more debt. It was a risk, and it didn’t pay off. Thus, the phone company by birth has now spun its assets off into a new company — likely named WarnerDiscovery, says CNBC — that Discovery Inc. CEO David Zaslav will lead.
Together, the company includes CNN, HBO, HBO Max, DC, TNT, TBS, Cartoon Network, Food Channel, the Discovery Channel, HGTV, and Adult Swim among others.
While questions remain — such as whether Zaslav will retain Jeff Zucker as head of CNN — reports are the move is the latest attempt to make a splash in the ongoing streaming wars. Though there are already more new streaming services than subscribers looking to add to their monthly bills, WarnerDiscovery — if that’s ultimately its name — has promise.
Launches of Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max, AppleTV+, Peacock, Tubi, Amazon Prime Video, Paramount+, ESPN+, Crackle, IMDb TV, and about 20 others all support a common assumption: to have success, a service must have a distinguishable identity. In other words, a service can’t succeed by out-Netflixing Netflix.
Netflix has 208 million subscribers. It’s the default streaming service. We “turn on Netflix” like we “Google the question.” Streaming competitors aren’t necessarily taking subscribers from Netflix, but convincing Netflix subscribers to subscribe to an additional service. Loading up on content — even if high quality — isn’t enough when households already pay for multiple services a month. Even a great series will attract only limited viewers for a short period. The successful competitors are distinctive. They aim at particular areas in which they can top Netflix.
No matter how strong Netflix’s library and original content are, families with children want Disney+. Disney+ is the babysitter. It’s a must-have. As popular as Stranger Things and Ozark are, they are not substitutes for Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars, all of which are on Disney+. In May, Disney+ reached 103.6 million subscribers.
And as much as Netflix has much to choose from — dramas, comedies, action, true crime, satire, stand-up, and bizarre stuff — it also does not offer sports. Fans of the UFC, boxing and soccer have to have ESPN+ too. ESPN+ recently increased its customer base 75% year over year.
My original concern with Peacock was it lacked a path. It coupled a good number of shows and films into a crowded space. Everyone had already seen every episode of The Office. More than once. However, this year, Peacock upped its game and acquired exclusive rights to WWE’s library and all of its upcoming pay-per-views. To wrestling fans, and there are many, Peacock has a hub no other service can match.
IMDb TV, Paramount, Apple TV+, etc. lack an exclusive, long-term offering. For now, at least.
WarnerMedia-Discovery has the assets to stand out, to make the case that its services complement Netflix and Disney+. Though it’s not clear what the plan is yet, I’d be stunned if HBO Max is diminished in any way. The letters “H.B.O.” are selling points in any space. HBO is still viewed as the home for the best original series. HBO Max will debut NHL next year and should strongly attempt to convince AEW to move its pay-per-views from B/R Live (under the same umbrella) to HBO Max.
Should Zaslav combine the new company’s units, which he didn’t rule out Monday, I’d expect Discovery+ to go on HBO Max with its own Hub. That said, I think a bundle is more likely than one large service.
The successful Disney+-Hulu-ESPN+ is a hint. While a WarnerMedia-Discovery bundle might not top Disney’s, it could take off. HBO Max is growing at a fairly impressive rate, its library is prestigious, and it’s a year away from expanding the Game of Thrones universe. Discovery Inc’s assets — Discovery Channel, Food Network, HGTV, Oprah Winfrey Network — have passionate bases that will follow.
Then there’s CNN. For years, industry experts have waited for CNN’s entrance into the streaming wars. CNN has had just a small role on HBO Max. As Fox News goes all-in on its OTT Fox Nation and Peacock expands MSNBC’s presence, CNN has fallen behind. Zaslav added fuel Monday, saying he will focus particularly on supporting a global streaming platform for the CNN brand. Smart. CNN’s linear TV ratings are falling, but the brand remains widely shared and viewed on social media and YouTube.
Again, I could see a CNN platform finding success grouped with scripted programming, sports, and Discovery’s brand. Though it’ll likely be offered solo as well, it’d bundle well with HBO Max and Discovery+.
WarnerMedia and Discovery’s merger doesn’t have to have a presence wider than Netflix, nor is it going to damage Amazon Prime Video, which might outspend all on Lord of the Rings alone (half kidding). WarnerMedia-Discovery just needs to find its corner. Few remain untaken, but not all.