Hollywood is paying a steep price for never really figuring out the streaming model

People carry indicators as SAG-AFTRA members stroll the picket line in solidarity with putting WGA staff exterior Netflix places of work in Los Angeles, July 11, 2023.

Mario Tama | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Picket indicators have lined the gates of Hollywood’s studios for practically 5 months, as the business’s writers and actors rally for AI protections, higher wages and a lower of streaming income.

The downside is streaming is not but worthwhile for many studios.

Sparked by the creation of Netflix’s direct-to-consumer platform in 2007, streaming has upended the economics of the media business. Yet, it is nonetheless unclear whether or not it is a sustainable enterprise model for the future.

“Without sounding hyperbolic, the change in the economics of the North American media business in the final 5 years has been breathtaking,” stated Steven Schiffman, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

Legacy media corporations like Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery, Paramount and NBCUniversal scrambled to compete with Netflix when it started creating unique content material in 2013 and slowly pulled market share over the subsequent 5 years. The studios padded their platforms with huge content material libraries and the promise of latest unique reveals and movies for shoppers.

However, the subscription-based streaming model proves vastly totally different than the ad-revenue-fueled conventional TV bundle. High licensing prices and low revenues per subscriber shortly caught up with studios, which had beforehand placated shareholders with huge subscription development.

Netflix was the first streamer to report a loss in subscribers in 2022, sending its inventory and different media corporations spiraling. Disney has adopted swimsuit. Since then, each have set subscription numbers apart in favor of promoting, a password-sharing crackdown and elevating costs.

Media corporations even have begun slashing content material spending budgets. Disney CEO Bob Iger has promised the firm will concentrate on quality over quantity on the subject of each its streaming and theatrical companies, pointing to Marvel for instance of an excessive amount of content material.

Yet streaming stays the focus for all of those corporations as shoppers quickly lower the wire and decide for streaming. To make up for the losses, media organizations at the moment are counting on strategies that when made the conventional bundle so profitable.

“What’s the basic resolution? In a way, form or type, it is every little thing introduced collectively,” stated CEO Ken Solomon of the Tennis Channel, owned by Sinclair, of the numerous enterprise fashions in media. “It’s about understanding the place to place a little extra assets and the way all of them are glued collectively to fulfill the shopper.”

A damaged model

Two methods media corporations lengthy relied upon — windowing content material to varied platforms and creating extra cable channels to reap greater charges from the bundle — proved profitable and nonetheless reap income.

“This gun has been cocking itself for a long time,” stated Solomon, noting that the pay TV bundle was a good worth proposition till it grew to become too costly for shoppers. That gave Netflix a gap to upend how the leisure business makes and spends cash.

Legacy media corporations scrambled to comply with swimsuit, not sure if the model truly labored. But they had been determined to maintain up with altering shopper demand, and in the course of they depleted different income streams.

Now turmoil guidelines the business. Companies like Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery are in the midst of reorganizations — slashing jobs and content material prices whereas attempting numerous methods to piece collectively income.

An picture from Netflix’s “Stranger Things.”

Source: Netflix

“All of those corporations spent extra money than they seemingly ought to have,” stated Marc DeBevoise, CEO and board director of Brightcove, a streaming know-how firm.

Netflix, with a appreciable head begin, is the solely firm to make a revenue off of streaming. “For everybody else, it is nonetheless dictated by linear TV,” stated UBS analyst John Hodulik. “That’s a downside as the decline in prospects accelerates and streaming is not a sufficiently big alternative to offset that.”

Although subscriber development initially ramped up streaming subscriber development and bolstered many media shares, it was short-lived. Fears of a recession, inflation and rising rates of interest led Wall Street to reassess these corporations and concentrate on profitability as subscriber development slowed.

A content material arms race

Netflix’s entrance into media signaled the starting of a content material arms race that, in the end, hasn’t paid off for any media firm.

Content spending ballooned throughout the business, with every firm spending tens of billions of {dollars} for new reveals and movies in an effort to lure in new subscribers — and preserve the ones they already had.

“The networks had aligned with their streaming companies and brought all the elasticity out of it. They had been throwing cash at a downside and hoping that it was going to unravel itself,” stated Solomon. “There was no economics behind it.”

Race to launch

  • Netflix — launched streaming service in January 2007, first unique content material launched February 2013
  • Hulu — launched streaming service in March 2008
  • Paramount+ — launched as CBS All Access in October 2014, rebranded as Paramount+ in March 2021
  • Disney+ — launched streaming service in November 2019
  • Peacock — launched streaming service in April 2020
  • Max — launched as HBO Max in May 2020, rebranded as Max in May 2023

There had been additionally huge one-off licensing offers for reveals like “The Office,” “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” which viewers had been actively watching on repeat.

Studios even struck unique contracts with a few of Hollywood’s largest writer-producers — Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes, J.J. Abrams, Kenya Barris and the duo of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss — in the hope that they may create new tasks that would seize the consideration of audiences.

Show budgets draw a lot of consideration nowadays. But Jonathan Miller, a former Hulu board member and present CEO of Integrated Media, would not recall that being a focus when it was simply the 4 main broadcast networks creating all of the content material.

DeBevoise, a former ViacomCBS (now Paramount) government, stated he would not keep in mind greenlighting a present, together with “Star Trek Discovery,” in the mid-2010s at CBS for greater than $10 million an episode, noting many had been “a lot, a lot cheaper.”

Meanwhile, Solomon, who as soon as ran Universal Studios Television, recalled when his budgets for prime TV reveals like “Law & Order” had been under $2 million an episode. “I believed budgets had been out of management again then,” he stated.

Shonda Rhimes attends 2018 Vanity Fair Oscar Party on March 4, 2018 in Beverly Hills, CA. 

Presley Ann | Patrick McMullan | Getty Images

Disney sought to capitalize on the success of its Marvel Cinematic Universe by growing greater than a dozen superhero reveals for its Disney+ platform. Although the seasons had been shortened, typically solely six to 10 episodes, every episode price round $25 million. Similar manufacturing budgets had been seen for the firm’s foray into the new live-action Star Wars TV sequence.

Netflix has poured cash into a number of seasons of political drama “The Crown,” science fiction darling “Stranger Things” and a sequence primarily based on The Witcher online game franchise. Production prices per episode for these sequence ranged from $11 million to $30 million.

And Warner Bros. Discovery is including extra Game of Thrones sequence to its catalog of direct-to-consumer choices with “House of the Dragon,” which price round $20 million per episode, and the upcoming “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms: The Hedge Knight,” which has not begun filming.

Meanwhile, e-commerce big Amazon shelled out a file $465 million on its first season of a Lord of the Rings prequel sequence, which was met with tepid responses from critics and followers alike.

“The price of content material is not all the time determinant of success. ‘The Simpsons’ had been crudely animated initially, proper? So, it is not essentially that for those who go spend a lot of cash, it really works,” Solomon stated.

Bart Simpson performs esports in an episode of “The Simpsons” that aired on March 17, 2019.


At the similar time the economics for actors, writers and the business as a complete modified.

“The downside is that the price will increase do not make sense given the income fashions. Something obtained damaged on this a part of the enterprise if that sort of improve occurred and actors and writers do not feel like they obtained their fair proportion,” DeBevoise stated.

A rising disconnect

While a lot of Hollywood’s largest studios are publicly traded and should share quarterly monetary studies, there aren’t any guidelines about offering streaming-viewership information. This lack of transparency has made current contract negotiations between studios and the business’s writers and actors particularly contentious.

“There’s a frustration about how these individuals can get collectively and share this info and provide you with one thing that is affordable for each side,” stated Schiffman, the Georgetown professor. “But till that occurs, in my opinion, this factor goes on till subsequent 12 months.”

Streaming studios, specifically, have lengthy been reluctant to share information round viewership and don’t desire compensation to be tied to the recognition of reveals, together with these which were licensed from different studios.

This is in stark distinction to how linear tv has dealt with well-liked reveals. Traditionally, studios pay residuals, long-term funds, to those that labored on movie and tv reveals after their preliminary launch. Actors and writers receives a commission each time an episode or movie runs on broadcast or cable tv or when somebody buys a DVD or Blu-ray Disc.

When it involves streaming, there aren’t any residual funds. Studios that get a licensing payment move on a small sum to actors and writers, however no further compensation is given if the present performs properly on the platform. Actors, specifically, wish to change this.

“Why I believe the streaming model has been a troublesome model for the actors and writers, and I used to be a part of serving to that model, is that there was a basic shift of long-term versus short-term economics that seemingly wasn’t correctly understood or defined,” stated DeBevoise.

Back to the future

The consumer is ultimately the winner in the Disney-Charter deal, says media mogul Tom Rogers

“We, the distributors, are funding the streaming expertise. And it is frankly a higher content material expertise on streaming than what is supplied to us on linear TV,” stated Rob Thun, chief content material officer at DirecTV. “These corporations will stop to exist with out the funding of distributors’ licensing charges. Perhaps this is a second of awakening.”

Disney and even Netflix, which lengthy resisted adverts, are amongst the corporations relying extra on ad-supported choices to spice up subscriber development and herald one other income stream, at the same time as the advert market has been comfortable.

This is very true as free, ad-supported streaming companies like Fox Corp.’s Tubi and Paramount’s Pluto — that are likened to broadcast networks — have additionally exploded. Besides the father or mother corporations leaning on the advert income from these platforms, different media corporations, like Warner Bros. Discovery, are funneling content material there for licensing charges.

“In phrases of the enterprise fashions, all of them ‘work,'” stated DeBevoise. He famous paid tiers for the dearer, well timed content material will stay, whereas free and choices with commercials will help the older library reveals and film. “There are going to be hybrid fashions that reincarnate the dual-revenue cable TV model with each a subscription payment and adverts. It’s all going to be about price-to-value and time-to-value for the shopper.”

Disclosure: Comcast is the father or mother firm of NBCUniversal and CNBC.

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