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Streaming wars eEnter the volume phase as services look for differentiation

With the consumer market already accepting that streaming is the present and future of TV, the 2022 version of the so-called “streaming wars” take on a new tone. Services are largely past the point where they’re introducing themselves to consumers. We’re now progressing to a point where they’re showcasing what makes them different — and why choice-weary consumers should choose a subscription with one service over another.

To-date, each streaming option fits into a general characterization, and they mostly do enough to avoid overlap with one another that it creates tougher choices for consumers. Bundles (Disney’s, in particular) help streamline this decision-making for would-be customers with “get more for less”-type messaging they’re already familiar with from the cable package days. But for many, the differentiating point beyond price is programming, and more of it appears to be governing the year ahead.

Since many of the network-backed services and Apple TV+ launched in the middle of a pandemic or right before it, volume hasn’t been easy to come by, at least when looking at new content. You can make inexpensive and sticky reality TV, like Discovery+ and Netflix have. But for scripted shows, it’s tough to just churn out a ton given the production issues of the last couple years.

Even Netflix, king of churning out a ton of content, fell victim to slowing outputs in the last year. But they’re modeled entirely around what’s new, so they powered through. Plus, the current strategy of controlling the zeitgeist for a few weeks every quarter is enough to fight off any boredom that could set in around its ubiquity as a service in the U.S.

Other services certainly seem to understand that. While quality is ideal and preferred as much as possible, the premium approach only takes you so far, as even a giant like Disney appears to understand. Given the glut of popular IP already on the service, and array of related content always joining the fray on Disney+, previous sensibilities would indicate the conglomerate is doing plenty. Yet, in a complete departure from the usual event-based quality over quantity approach there, even Bob Iger admits they need more.

Disney isn’t the only player in the streaming real to rethink approaches either. Apple TV+ is doubling production in 2022 in order to shed its previous reputation as the “NBC of streaming.” Peacock and and Paramount+ will be pursuing strategies of both bigger and more content as well, while HBO Max looks to find a way to keep their 2021 customers without day-and-date movie releases (at least for now).

For as much as Netflix can be dinged for prioritizing quantity over quality in its march to the top of the streaming food chain, the strategy’s also clearly paid off and is sort of their “thing” now. Plus, when they have a hit, no one bats an eye or dismisses it because there’s also a glut of possibly unwatchable drivel on the service. Like traditional TV, that’s just part of what the service comes with.

Admittedly, this sort of pivot becomes easier for those not entrenched in a certain way of doing things. The powers that be at ViacomCBS, Disney and NBCUniversal got here by largely pursuing a strategy endorsing fewer premium pursuits over a “spray and pray” model of releases. Expensive IP and talent will do that to you, and it should. But that becomes the biggest challenge for them now given their reliance on what’s worked. The volume play demands they take more risks. The question is, can they?

A follow-up to that might also be, “do they truly need to?” Or can the network-affiliated services simply sink even larger dollar amounts into more of the types of content consumers are already subscribing for to begin with. You might not be able to diversify or grow your base as much as you’d like in that case, but you are fortifying your core audience… at least until something similar enough comes along at a more convenient price.

It’s what Iger is guarding Disney against when mentioning needing more content for more people. Investors want and need to see growth from these services, especially when they have no ads as is the case with Disney+. At some point, you max out on the number of subscribers invested in seeing all the new Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar content, and there’s no one left to successfully appeal to for new sign-ups. For Disney, this may get to the Hulu of it all.

But for competitors, they’re in a similar boat. What happens when everyone that will be on board for Yellowstone spin-offs or The Office comfort viewing is? Stockholders and company leadership won’t accept a “steady as she goes” approach given the dollar amounts Netflix is paying for so much new content. So unless the answer is to pay a ton for as much IP-driven content as possible, the only way forward is simply more shows and movies (but really, more shows, since those encourage extended and repeated viewing more than movies).

If everyone’s looking to just keep adding “more,” though, then what becomes the differentiator for the services? Aren’t they then in the exact same place as before, just further in the hole throwing money at the content problem? And who winds up paying for the increased cost of production and development? Consumers, inevitably, which brings us right back to price as a key piece of all of this.

There’s no doubt that the more content you have on a service, the more likely it is you’ll be able to keep viewers around — and the more ads you’ll be able to serve to them, where applicable. In the end, though, the differentiator could just end up being whoever can do that at the cheapest price, while avoiding sacrificing too much on the quality front. It’ll be interesting to see how this coming year shakes out there, and which services start making the more obvious pivots to emphasize volume as a selling point (and whether or not that actually becomes a real advantage). TVREV

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