Barbarians Are Sacking the City
This is an update to a 2019 article in which I noted how Netflix’s Content Empire was slowly coming under siege from competitors, much like the barbarians who eventually took down Ancient Rome.
Locking us down with little else to do, the COVID pandemic in 2020 and 2021 seemingly solidified Netflix’s dominance in the digital streaming space. But 2022 has proven to be the year when “barbarian” competitors are no longer outside looking in. Rather, they’ve effectively deployed a battering ram to the gates of Netflix’s once impregnable Content Kingdom.
From 2019 to 2021, Netflix’s (paying) subscribers exploded from 139 to 221 million. In 2022, not only has growth decelerated, but Netflix is now bleeding users, losing 200,000 sets of eyeballs in Q2. Guidance predicts they will shed another two million in the upcoming Q3 alone. The ensuing 70% drop in the stock’s value begs the question: Are Netflix’s best days behind it? And exactly who are these “Barbarians” perpetrating this full-frontal assault?
While Apple is still not thought of as a top-tier streamer, its massive user base and sticky ecosystem make them a formidable force. It’s impossible to know the precise number of Apple TV+ users as this number is not publicly disclosed. But Statista estimates the Apple user base is likely 25-50 million strong. With shows like Ted Lasso and The Morning Show, along with Oscar-winning movie hits like CODA, Apple’s content arrows are now clearing Netflix’s high pay wall fortifications.
Furthermore, Apple’s bundling servicing model is a sharp sword for content combat. One can add Apple TV+ for only a few extra dollars a month if you already subscribe to services like iCloud+; a clever tactic that could accelerate user growth. Considering that content creation is not even their core business, it is remarkable that Apple generated over $100 billion in profits for streaming in just the last twelve months. Needless to say, Apple’s seemingly bottomless war chest permits them to win the price war for both content and talent.
While Amazon Prime has over 200 million subscribers, (according to Statista.com) it’s difficult to gauge how many people actually use the streaming service on the regular basis. Amazon has had some successes but ultimately has not created the kind of marquee content that can keep users glued to Prime Video. However, before Jeff Bezos left in 2021, he committed to making Amazon a Hollywood player by acquiring the rights to Rings of Power - a prequel to the Lord of the Rings saga and fantasy genre book series, Wheel of Time. That’s on top of paying top dollar for the James Bond franchise from MGM’s vaults. Amazon is burning tremendous amounts of cash to acquire these properties and beef up its subscription service, but it remains to be seen whether it can truly traverse the content moat surrounding Netflix.
HBO Max is a potential swarming Armada in the steaming space. Over the years, it has created classic, high patina shows like Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. While HBO may have invented the premium subscription model with almost 77 million users (according to ‘The Verge,”), they may yet struggle to reach the level of popularity they saw during the Game of Thrones phenomenon. Still, they hold valuable franchises in their quiver, including the DC Comics Universe, Harry Potter’s Wizarding World new Game of Thrones spinoff: House of the Dragon.
If any one player has managed to build a siege engine capable of destroying Netflix’s city walls, it’s Disney. According to ‘The Verge,’ Mouse House added nearly 8 million new users in Q1 of 2022, for a total of 138 million subscribers. When you add ESPN+ and Hulu, the horde expands to 205 million. What’s more, Disney has been able to construct an “ecosystem” on their platform build on the most successful movie franchises in history; namely the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars.
Disney’s unique interlocking content strategy is designed to drive users to multiple tiers on their platform. Subscribers are essentially forced to see all releases to understand creative origins and storylines more clearly. To appreciate the full mythology behind Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, for example, you would need to see the Spider-Man: No Way Home movie, as well as the Disney+, show WandaVision, not to mention the interwoven storylines from Avengers Endgame and Avengers Infinity. The latest streaming release of Obi-Wan Kenobi will similarly tie into the Star Wars movies. Given it has a seemingly endless backlog of characters to draw from, Disney can continue this lucrative cross-content fertilization for the foreseeable future. Just as a reminder, here is a list of the major proven properties under the Disney shield:
- Disney Animation
- Lucasfilm/Star Wars
- 21st Century Fox Movie Studios
Furthermore, to quote the great Mel Brooks in Spaceballs,’ Disney has “merchandising!” Toys, video games, parks, etc., allow Disney to squeeze every dollar of value out of their intellectual properties. Netflix has been unable to recreate a similar structure, even with its most successful shows. There were attempts to draw engagement and build additional content around huge global hits like Stranger Things and Squid Games, but these efforts were met with limited success. Instead of having “legs”, great Netflix shows are watched, then forgotten once they have run their course. Great Disney content by contrast seems to live on in perpetuity.
The old saying goes: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Well, it also was not destroyed in a day. The first sack of the city happened in 410, 66 years before the actual fall of the Western Empire. And it wasn’t one group alone that brought the empire down, but a persistent siege by several tribes attacking from separate weak points over time. Even after the Western Empire fell, the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) stood for almost another millennium after adapting to a changing world. Like Rome, I believe Netflix remains standing for a long time. But they must innovate and fortify their empire against the new siege of streamers. As I asked in 2019, is Peak Netflix behind us? Only time will tell.