News Analysis: Subs, Hype and Debt: Another Week in the Pursuit of Netflix-Like Relevance

NEWS ANALYSIS — Executives at media giants Disney, Comcast and AT&T took to virtual online events this week (and prior) to brag and cajole Wall Street investors regarding efforts to narrow the divide between their respective over-the-top video platforms and market behemoth Netflix.

The tape measures came out early with Disney CEO Bob Chapek announcing that the company’s branded SVOD platform, Disney+, had just surpassed 100 million subscribers, less than a month after reaching 95 million — but still less than 50% of Netflix’s 203 million subs at the end of 2020.

“The enormous success of Disney+ has inspired us to be even more ambitious,” Chapek said, adding the service plans to release 100-plus new titles per year across its Disney Pixar Animation, Disney Live Action, Marvel, Star Wars and National Geographic brands.

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By comparison, Netflix released more than three times that (371 movies and TV shows) in 2019, while reportedly launching 40 to 50 TV shows (some returning) and movies monthly in 2020. The SVOD pioneer earlier this month said it would alone bow 41 Indian movies and shows this year — a shot across the bow in response to the fact that 33% of Disney+ subs come from India.

Meanwhile, WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar raised the bar on the company’s HBO Max service, telling investors he expects between 120 million and 150 million combined HBO Max/HBO subscribers by 2025 — up from the 75 million to 90 million projected in October 2019. The combined platforms ended 2020 with more than 41 million subs.

“We exceeded that milestone more than two years ahead of plan,” Kilar said. “The launch of Max has not only covered the decline in linear-TV subscribers, it has actually driven material growth.”

The co-founder/former CEO of Hulu told investors that based on third-party data, in-house number crunching, and a market-leading $14.99 monthly subscription fee, Max was the No. 2 revenue-generating SVOD in the United States — after Netflix.

When multiplying subs by subscription fees, HBO/HBO Max generated about $7.4 billion in revenue in 2020, compared with about $4.6 billion for Disney+. By comparison, Netflix generated $25 billion in revenue last year and added a record 37 million subs. Max plans to launch a lower priced, ad-supported option in June.

“The economics of Max’s growth are compelling,” Kilar said.

After a measured launch last summer, NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service ended 2020 with 33 million app sign-ups or people who created accounts, but weren’t necessarily paying for the SVOD/AVOD hybrid service. Comcast Corp. CEO Brian Roberts claimed Peacock was the second-fastest growing brand (after Zoom) during the pandemic.

But at what cost? The company quietly disclosed in a regulatory filing that Peacock lost $914 million in 2020, while generating $118 million in revenue. Neither HBO Max nor Disney+ are yet profitable. Much of the Peacock fiscal loss is due to opportunity costs associated with NBCUniversal diverting programming to Peacock rather than third-party content licensees — a fiscal conundrum not lost upon Roberts.

“During this year, one of my goals is to step back and comeback with, ‘Okay, we had this start [with Peacock], what are we going to do about it?’” he said.

Analyst Rich Greenfield with Lightshed Partners has a possible suggestion: consolidation. Greenfield contends NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia should merge OTT video operations rather than going it alone to create greater competitive scale in a saturated marketplace.

“We believe it is time for both AT&T and Comcast to abandon the fool’s gold of vertical integration of content and distribution and merge NBCUniversal with WarnerMedia,” Greenfield wrote in a blog post last November. “Abandoning grandiose plans and empire building is a tough psychological hump to overcome. However, it would be a wildly accretive outcome for investors.”

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