Streaming platforms: successes and failures

by Andrea Fornasiero | 01.12.2020

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It’s been a volcanic year for the streaming universe: with the launch of several new platforms that seal the makeover of traditional networks that are now increasingly looking into the online world; with the surge in audience volume, largely due to forced domestic life in the coronavirus era; and with the extremely rapid failure of Quibi, born by a bet on mobiles but presented when there was very little mobility, again due to the aforementioned virus.

Let’s start from here, because it was certainly the most raging case, with an investment of two billion dollars raised even before setting forth and then almost entirely burned out in a few months, despite the participation of notable Hollywood names. Spielberg’s announced horror project, which should have exploited Quibi’s ability to detect the time of day and thus be aired only at night, for example, was never realized, perhaps because the ‘old fox’ had already scented the possibility of a fiasco and kept aside before plunging into the adventure. Unlike, for example, Steven Soderbergh, always fascinated by technological challenges, who produced one of his most innovative titles for Quibi, now destined to be forgotten or in any case no longer consumed as conceived by its authors.

The title is Wireless, a “movie in chapter” with Tye Sheridan that thanks to Quibi’s Turnstyle technology (where a viewer can switch from vertical to horizontal format by simply turning the phone or the tablet 90°), can be watched on a double channel: from the smartphone’s point of view looking through the camera, or from an “objective” point of view, as we are used to. Essentially, Wireless was a (double) short-format miniseries in two simultaneous versions – a bit like the paradoxes of quantum physics.

The project was produced by Soderbergh and directed by Zach Wechter, not enough however to make Quibi into what was once defined the “Must-See Television”. Perhaps Quibi’s problem wasn’t only in the format of its content for an audience already drained by coronavirus, but in the very idea that such an audience actually existed and was willing to pay to watch movie clips while queuing at the post office, instead of watching Tik Tok or short videos on YouTube or simply checking emails or chatting on social media. In addition, the content features – more or less Netflix’ ‘TV Movie’ formats – didn’t really help, and innovative operations such as Wireless arrived too late and without the necessary promotional force. Many in Hollywood were hoping it would make it, also betting on Katzenberg’s name, but in the end very little of the invested capital will ever make it back into the investors’ pockets.

If the outsider of this gold rush ended up biting the dust, the same cannot be said of other contenders, who indeed found themselves overwhelmed by the viewers’ extremely high draw due to the quarantine. In order to promptly reply to the demand, all players’ plans were sped up, and drastically, as Disney did by restructuring its offices, where the film division no longer put theatrical in pole position – a revolutionary event for a studio which for over fifty years had maintained iron control over the broadcasting of its classics. Furthermore, even Disney can make a slip and a film like Artemis Fowl which wouldn’t have performed well at the box office, ended up giving fresh air to the inert position where Disney+ stalled for most of the year. In fact, despite a great start off in terms of volume, subscribers soon realized that the content on the platform wasn’t truly original or noteworthy.

So much so, that to remedy and tackle the pandemic, the musical hit Hamilton which in the US would have had high ground at the box office, shifted directly to the platform, just as Mulan did, and as the Pixar movie Soul shall. The case of Mulan was among the most controversial, since on the one hand it enraged the exhibitors, on another it registered contradictory data, and from another perspective it was a real flop, as proven by the revenues in China, where not only did it fail but was also harshly criticized for staging the Wuxiapian narrative trope as a stereotype, and in particular for the description of “Xi” as a kind of superpower. The Chinese probably wouldn’t however have embraced an American product struggling to ‘be’ Chinese regardless – and this was certainly a misjudgment on Disney’s side, which we imagine should be more successful with the animation Raya, a sort of Southeast Asia fantasy. Besides failing in China, Mulan was released in PVOD on Disney+ (and later on other platforms as well), with results that are therefore difficult to read. Even though the American survey company Nielsen declared that, for the first time since its launch, the Netflix monopoly was broken this summer, referring to the top ten streaming titles, the operation will not be repeated soon, for sure… Soul, for example, will be released as a normal Disney+ title, while the Marvel theatrical releases have been drastically shifted in time to prevent them from ending up on the platform: if the Mulan experiment had been successful, perhaps Black Widow would have landed on the platform as well, while instead it will be released theatrically (maybe), after collecting dust in a drawer for at least a year.

Disney’s other problem is that the already sluggish original production schedule for the platform has been further slowed down by the virus, so the Marvel series that was supposed to debut in late summer and early fall were skidded to winter and fall, and, besides the aforementioned Hamilton, the only real significant title of this first year of activity is the second season of The Mandalorian, proving that in one year nearly no relevant titles have disembarked on the platform. Nevertheless, these errors do not seem to have paralyzed the growth in subscriptions, so much so that at the beginning of August the entertainment sites were all titling Disney+ as a success, having exceeded 60 million subscribers, which was actually the target set for the first five years! In addition to restructuring its production offices, the company then pushed the accelerator further in two directions: internationally, by acquiring Hotstar, which is expected to side Disney+ also in Europe, and technologically, thanks to the ‘shared vision’ innovative frontier. Hotstar should do for Asia (where the brand was born) and Europe what Hulu does in America, that is to provide a more adult content to be associated with Disney+ in a subscription package.

Moreover, it will probably be Hotstar to invest in foreign production, which for the Disney brand is a relatively unknown field. Secondly, by the launch of GroupWatch, Disney beat all contenders to the shared-vision technology, providing the platform with an integrated system in order to view the same content together with friends elsewhere (at another TV or in another house) at the same time. With the crisis of theaters, and with a long quarantine still underway, shared vision could actually be the key to the future. At the moment, however, having tried it, we must say that it doesn’t work very well as the images aren’t always fluent, and are hindered by slowdowns and other issues if one of the viewers pauses the streaming. Furthermore, for now the ‘shared vision’ is limited to the exchange of emojis, proving to be much less interactive than any live on YouTube, Facebook or Twitch. Naturally, this is only a first phase and it will soon be enriched with a chat, but the challenge of turning streaming platforms into socials is still far from being won.

Amazon in turn has implemented service innovations that were lacking in countries other than the United States, England and Germany and perhaps a few others. In Italy and in the rest of Europe, TVOD content (to be rented for a period of time) arrived first, and then later the actual Amazon channels, which host third-party libraries to be exploited by a separate subscription integrated into Prime. Naturally, these libraries are not the American ones, but rely on Italian and European distributors, such as RaroVideo and Koch’s Midnight Factory line, but also include a US service such as Starzplay, which continues to rely on other platforms to offer its contents. Who knows that in the future, platforms that are still unknown to the Italian audience, such as CBS All Access – whose new version of The Twilight Zone hasn’t yet found a streaming distribution – might land in Italy. Even Amazon has grown in US subscribers, perhaps due to the success of The Boys – which is the other non-Netflix title that entered the top ten of Nielsen survey.

In regard to the new platforms launched overseas, we need to mention HBO Max and Peacock: both have recorded good numbers, but these numbers should be read with a grain of salt. Peacock has grown by 17% in the third quarter, peaking nearly 22 million users. Yet how many of these subscribers receive a free service because of their subscription to Comcast (Peacock’s owner), or simply because they subscribed to the ads version? Hard to say, and the recently announced cancellation of the only original series produced by Peacock, Brave New World, is not exactly an example of victory, although the platform can count on NBA to support itself. Then again Comcast has increased its investment in European productions launching Sky Studios in a view to strengthen its presence in England, Germany and Italy, where its goal is to make a new original series a month. However, many of these productions end up in the HBO library, because HBO is their distributor or co-producer, so the vertical integration of Comcast, which theoretically competes with HBO, still seems to be far.

It’s roughly the same for HBO Max with its nearly 29 million subscribers although many of these owe their subscription to their Internet provider AT&T (owner of Warner) or simply because they already had an HBO subscription. At the same time, some of these subscribers cannot even watch HBO Max, as the platform hasn’t yet found an agreement with a very popular US service such as Roku, while an agreement was reached with Amazon Fire TV only in mid-November. 

Latest in the streaming rush, Viacom and Apple, where the former has just recently announced the name of its future platform that will incorporate CBS All Access: Paramount + (long live fantasy). Apple, on the other hand, in spite of excellent quarter results in its sales of Macs and iPads, seems to languish on its streaming platform, with an increasingly slow production of content. Finally, Netflix continues growing, but after a truly explosive era, this year hasn’t reached its third quarter objectives and has suffered a slight decline on the stock market. Just a slip on the way or the beginning of a halt? With nearly 200 million subscribers, is Netflix nearing its peak? Perhaps not yet, but it’s clear and physiological that costs are no longer cheap, and competition is starting to rumble.