Warner Bros. Discovery’s Studios business segment reported fourth-quarter content sales revenue of $2.9 billion, down 19% from revenue of $3.6 billion in the previous-year period.
Content sales, which include distribution across streaming, cable, satellite and broadcast networks, local television stations, and airlines, also encompass Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.
The latter oversees the global distribution of content through physical discs (Blu-ray Disc and DVD) and digital media in the form of electronic sell-through and video-on-demand via cable, satellite, online, and mobile distribution channels.
TV content revenue declined primarily due to the impact of last year’s WGA and SAG-AFTRA labor strikes, and comparisons with certain large content licensing deals in the prior year period. Theatrical revenue increased due to a larger release slate in the current year quarter (Wonka, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom and The Color Purple). Games revenue increased due to the continued performance of Hogwarts Legacy, including the Q4 launch on the Nintendo Switch platform.
The top-selling Warner digital and packaged media release in 2023 was Barbie (released Oct. 17, 2023), followed by the disc release of the DC Comics anti-hero film Black Adam on Jan. 3, 2023.
Total studios revenue declined 17% to $3.17 billion from $3.84 billion. Operating income fell 29% to $543 million from $768 million.
Studios operating expenses decreased 15% to $2.63 billion compared to $2.28 billion in the prior year quarter. Costs of revenue decreased 26%, primarily driven by lower TV content expense, including strike-related impacts, partially offset by higher games content expense. SG&A expenses increased 38%, primarily driven by higher theatrical marketing expense due to the larger release slate.
Warner Bros. Discovery’s direct-to-consumer business unit is the first studio-based streaming business (excluding Netflix) to post a fiscal year profit. WBD’s DTC business includes global Max, HBO and Discovery+ subscribers.
The media company’s DTC segment posted a fiscal-year operating profit of $103 million on revenue of more than $10.1 billion. That compared to an operating loss of $1.6 billion on revenue of $7.27 billion in 2022.
By comparison, Disney’s DTC segment, which includes Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu, reported a fiscal-year loss of almost $2.5 billion on revenue of $19.9 billion.
NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service generated an operating loss of $2.75 billion in 2023 on revenue and costs of $3.4 billion and $6.1 billion, respectively.
Online live sports TV streaming platform Fubo Feb. 20 filed an antitrust lawsuit against The Walt Disney Co., Fox Corp., Warner Bros. Discovery and their affiliates, alleging that the media companies have engaged in a years-long campaign to block Fubo’s live-sports streaming business, among other anti-competitive practices.
The complaint further alleges that the pending launch of Disney/Fox/WBD’s sports-streaming joint venture steals from Fubo’s business playbook. Indeed, Fubo’s stock price dropped 23% day after the JV was announced.
Launched in 2015, Fubo was the first to offer a sports-centric package of live TV streaming channels.
“For decades, defendants have leveraged their iron grip on sports content rights to extract billions of dollars in supra-competitive profits, by engaging in practices causing consumers to pay more for highly popular sports content, and resulting in significant damages to both Fubo and its customers,” read the complaint.
Specifically, the complaint claims Disney, Fox and WBD bundled unwanted programming as part of licensing their sports channels to Fubo, in addition to charging exorbitant (30%-50% higher) content licensing rates than charged other distributors.
Fubo alleges the defendants imposed so-called “non-market penetration requirements” (the percentage of total subscribers to which a content package must be sold to or cannot exceed), which increased costs to end-users, and forced Fubo to incur billions of dollars in damages.
“Each of these companies has consistently engaged in anticompetitive practices that aim to monopolize the market, stifle any form of competition, create higher pricing for subscribers and cheat consumers from deserved choice,” David Gandler, co-founder/CEO of Fubo, said in a statement.
“Simply put, this sports cartel blocked our playbook for many years and now they are effectively stealing it for themselves,” he added.
The stakes are high as live sporting events dominated television viewership in 2023, with 97 of the top 100 broadcasts dedicated to live sports, according to Nielsen.
“Fubo seeks equal treatment in terms of pricing and all relevant conditions from these media giants to ensure we can compete fairly for the benefit of consumers,” Gandler said.
Disney, Fox and WBD reps were not immediately available for comment.
Fox Corp., Disney-owned ESPN and Warner Bros. Discovery have formed a sports streaming joint venture that aims to soften the effect of the rising cost of live sports programming while retaining joint ownership.
The unnamed and unpriced JV would stream on WBD’s Max streaming service, in addition to Disney-owned Hulu and ESPN+, and launch sometime later this year. Subscribers would also have standalone access to Max, Disney+ and Hulu.
Bob Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Co., said the new service represents a significant moment for Disney and ESPN, a major win for sports fans, and an important step forward for the media business.
“This means the full suite of ESPN channels will be available to consumers alongside the sports programming of other industry leaders as part of a differentiated sports-centric service,” Iger said in a statement.
Speaking on the Feb. 7 fiscal call, Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch said legacy pay-TV remains the company’s primary focus, while adding that the new streaming service would target the 60 million consumers outside of the traditional bundle TV market with an array of “amazing sports content” in one place.
“We’ve done lots of sensitivity analysis, and we would not be launching this product if we thought it was going to significantly affect our pay-TV affiliate partners and that’s very important to us,” Murdoch said. “So the opportunity is huge. And that’s really because this platform is focused entirely not on cord cutters, but cord nevers.”
David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, said the new sports service exemplifies the media company’s ability to drive innovation.
“This service will] provide consumers with more choice, enjoyment and value,” Zaslav said.
WBD’s Max streaming service currently offers select live sports programming through its branded Bleacher Report app.
Sports covered by the new JV platform include:
NFL | UFL
NBA | WNBA
ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Big East, SEC | 40 NCAA Championship Events |
NCAA Men’s & Women’s Basketball Tournaments |
The College Football Playoff
PGA Tour | PGA Championship | The Masters | TGL
Wimbledon | US Open | Australian Open
Giro d’Italia | UCI Mountain Bike World Cup | Giro Donne
FIFA World Cup | U.S. SoccerNWSL | MLS | LALIGA | Bundesliga | UEFA | CONCACAF
UFC | Top Rank
Formula 1 | NASCAR | 24 Hours of Le Mans
With both NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service and Paramount+ increasingly offering live sports, professional sports leagues are eyeing the transitioning market dynamics as a way to increase license rights.
With the exception of ad-supported Tubi, subscription-based Fox Nation and ad-supported Fox Weather, Fox has no direct-to-consumer streaming option for sports.
The National Basketball Association is looking to renegotiate its broadcast rights with ESPN and WBD’s TNT, which could reportedly fetch upwards of $70 billion over a 10-year deal.
Amazon currently pays the NFL $1 billion annually to exclusively distribute “Thursday Night Football” on Prime Video.
Both Prime Video and Peacock reportedly paid the NFL $100 million each for exclusive rights to Black Friday and Wild Card Weekend games, respectively.
All six seasons (96 episodes) of critically acclaimed HBO romance drama “Sex and the City” are reportedly set to begin streaming on Netflix in April. The move, first reported by The New York Times, marks another trend among media companies licensing legacy content to third-party streamers for incremental revenue and increased cross-platform viewership.
Since the merger of WarnerMedia and Discovery into Warner Bros. Discovery, CEO David Zaslav has made no secret his desire to license proprietary programming he says is underutilized on the Max streaming platform. While naysayers question the strategy, the results would seem to bear fruit.
Past seasons of “Young Sheldon” concurrently streaming on Netflix and Max topped Nielsen’s most-recent weekly “Acquired Content” Top 10 with more than 1.4 billion minutes consumed. Catalog episodes of Paramount+ shows “NCIS,” “SpongeBob Squarepants,” and “School Spirits,” along with Peacock’s “Suits,” all concurrently streaming on Netflix, rank among the most popular programming streamed across household TVs, according to Nielsen.
Netflix, with more than 260 million global subscribers and deep pockets to license programming, has become a coveted platform for third-party content. Indeed, the streamer topped all competitors 48 weeks out of 52 weeks in 2023, according to Nielsen.
Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos has questioned why media companies wouldn’t license their programming to the world’s largest subscription streaming platform — which just added a record 13.1 million subscribers in the most-recent fiscal period.
“I think licensing to us has the added benefit of enhancing the value of [everyone’s] IP on top of the revenue stream,” Sarandos said at an investor event last December. “Look, it’s a very competitive business, and folks don’t want the shows that didn’t work on their network to work somewhere else. [But] the opportunity for something to get a second life and work is — the payback is enormous.”
A growing number of studio executives and other industry observers say they believe transactional home entertainment — the traditional, a la carte method of bringing a movie or show into the home, either to watch or to own — may be in the early stages of a resurgence.
The realization that subscription streaming is not sustainable on its own has prompted studios to take a second look at what was once the primary “second window” for movies fresh off their theatrical runs, and the result is that more and more films are being released for digital or physical purchase or rental before they are handed off to the streaming services.
Through much of 2022, as the world was still grappling with fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, Warner, Disney and Paramount were still releasing the majority of their films to their streaming services on the same day as their traditional home entertainment release. Today, all three studios have brought back windows. New theatrical movies are typically available transactionally several weeks before their subscription streaming debuts.
“It’s about maximizing the content life cycle through windowing, just as it’s always been,” said Bob Buchi, president of Paramount Home Entertainment,
At Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, division president Michael Bonner notes that both The Super Mario Bros. Movie and Oppenheimer “yielded new benchmarks in digital and physical, demonstrating some of the highest transactional performance levels across the business that we have seen this year. The performance of The Super Mario Bros. Movie was especially standout, earning more digital revenue than any other theatrically released Universal movie ever. Results for Oppenheimer’s 4K Ultra HD release were equally notable, currently tracking in its debut window to be Universal’s biggest-selling 4K title of all time.”
David Decker, president of content sales at Warner Bros. Discovery, also said his division “had a successful 2023, driven by Barbie‘s ‘pink wave’ and the health of the WBD catalog, and punctuated by our ‘WB 100th Anniversary’ promotion. We are finishing the year with digital sales up over pre-pandemic levels.”
Given the higher margins of digital releases — and fewer headaches because there are no manufacturing or shipping costs, not to mention returns — studios in 2023 began focusing on making films available for digital sale or rental much sooner than in the past, often at a premium price. This past year has seen a significant uptick in premium video-on-demand, or PVOD, releases, with films fresh from their theatrical runs becoming available to rent or buy at higher prices as early as 18 days after their big-screen debuts before the price is lowered to the standard transactional price of $5.99 for a rental and $19.99 for a sale. Universal Pictures Home Entertainment’s Trolls Band Together, for example, was released Dec. 19 — just one month after its theatrical debut — at a rental price of $19.99 and a purchase price of $29.99. Six days earlier, Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour was released for digital rental only at $19.89, also by UPHE, about 60 days after it opened in theaters — still much shorter than the traditional 90-day window.
Even Apple allowed its high-profile film Killers of the Flower Moon, directed by Martin Scorsese, to be released via PVOD prior to its debut on Apple TV+.
UPHE’s Bonner said 2023 “reinforced our view of the importance of the home entertainment category, led by some impressive title successes across both premium and traditional windows. When studios release titles under a compressed window framework that includes an exclusive home entertainment offering, consumer engagement for transactional formats is very strong.”
Taking Aim at Collectors
The disc business, meanwhile, continues to decline, kept alive by a growing reliance on the collector market and a hope among some for a vinyl-like resurgence.
“Initially, the disc market was driven by families with kids,” said one insider. “Now, the business is being driven by collectors, as evidenced by continued year-over-year growth in 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray sales.”
Still, 2023 was a tough year for the disc business, with total consumer spending this year expected to come at less than $2 billion — less than 10% of what consumers spent on DVDs and Blu-ray Discs in the peak year of 2006.
In early September, Ingram Entertainment, once the largest distributor of physical home entertainment product, announced it is getting out of the DVD and Blu-ray Disc business. “Expenses are exceeding sales [so it’s] time to exit,” chairman and CEO David Ingram told Media Play News. Later that month, Netflix shut its legacy disc-rental business and let customers keep whatever discs they had out. And in October, the Best Buy retail chain announced it would exit the DVD and Blu-ray Disc business beginning in the first quarter of 2024.
But things may be looking up for the disc, which once was such a crucial revenue stream that DVD sales projections were factored into the movie greenlighting process.
The streaming services’ content purge may prompt more consumers to consider a la carte options, studio insiders say. And the tendency of digital purchases to sometimes disappear from consumer libraries — a hurdle in getting more people to shell out $20 for a digital movie — may also drive disc purchases.
Critics contend a primary reason disc sales are in a protracted slump is studio indifference. They say the number of theatrical catalog releases has plummeted in recent years, paving the way for pirates. And while fresh new theatrical films continue to be released on DVD, Blu-ray Disc and 4K Ultra HD, special features are becoming increasingly scarce while quality issues abound.
“The studios have checked out,” said industry analyst Ralph Tribbey, who has been tracking discs sales through his DVD & Blu-ray Disc Release Report since DVD was launched in 1997.
But that’s not entirely true. Paramount continues to create collectible disc offerings for a wide array of titles in its vast and storied library, such as a deluxe anniversary package with hours of bonus content for Titanic, new additions to its acclaimed Paramount Presents line such as Terms of Endearment, and newly remastered 4K Ultra HD releases of classics from Roman Holiday to The Truman Show.
Demand for the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release of Oppenheimer was so great that retailers were running out of copies, prompting Universal Pictures Home Entertainment to issue a statement promising to “replenish those retailers quickly so fans can watch the film at home in the best picture quality possible.” Meanwhile, retail-exclusive editions of the film commanded big prices on the secondary market, with Best Buy’s 4K Steelbook edition of the film listed on eBay at an average asking price of well over $100.
And then there’s Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, the latest name for The Walt Disney Co.’s home entertainment operation. The division made headlines in August when it announced it is exiting the disc business in Australia. But just days later, Disney announced plans to roll out several of its popular Disney+ series, including “The Mandalorian,” “WandaVision” and “Loki,” as “Collector’s Edition” 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray Discs in Steelbook packaging.
Since then, Disney has packaged 100 of its animated films into a massive Blu-ray Disc boxed set retailing for $1,500 and issued Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first of its iconic animated classics, on 4K Ultra HD.
WBD’s David Decker says the physical business “continues to represent a meaningful portion of our transactional revenue, and WBD remains committed to the category. We will keep reaching casual consumers and avid fans where and how they want our content: from best-in-class 4K Blu-rays to remastered and re-released films on 4K UHD from our 100-year library of titles.”
Independent film distributors such as Ed Seaman, CEO of MVD Entertainment Group, also see opportunity ahead.
“In disc sales, as studios and brick-and-mortar retailers continue to bail, the opportunity grows for both independent distribution and retail/e-commerce,” Seaman said. “Savvy dealers will pick up more and more great movies and shows and feed the strong demand for the end user, who has a huge appetite for collectible content.”
Keeping the Party Going
Studios have also resumed a practice that subsided years ago when streaming became the dominant form of home entertainment consumption: gala release parties celebrating the disc debut of high-profile new theatrical films.
Disney in January 2023 threw a release party for journalists and social-media influencers to promote the Blu-ray Disc release of the thriller The Menu. The party was held at the Blockbuster pop-up on trendy Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles and included as guests stars Aimee Carrero, Arturo Castro and Mark St. Cyr. Guests enjoyed drinks that they could order by presenting bartenders with an appropriately labeled Blockbuster videocassette box and “well-made” cheeseburgers from Irv’s Burgers, the historic West Hollywood burger stand.
In September, Disney hosted a dance party at the California Science Center in Los Angeles to celebrate the digital and disc release that day of the live-action feature The Little Mermaid.
And November saw two disc release parties. To promote the DVD, Blu-ray Disc and 4K Ultra HD release of Oppenheimer, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment held a screening of a making-of documentary, introduced by director Christopher Nolan, at the Linwood Dunn Theater at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Hollywood. And over in Venice Beach, Disney held a “Haunting in Venice … Beach!” party for A Haunting in Venice, highlighted by trivia for Agatha Christie and murder mystery fans, typewriter poets who wrote on-the-spot personalized poems for partygoers, and sessions with medium Christina Engelhardt.
Lastly, Paramount Home Entertainment in December held a party at Pizzeria Mozza to celebrate the 4K and Blu-ray Disc release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. Guests included filmmakers Seth Rogan, Evan Goldberg, James Weaver and Jeff Rowe.
One big development on the disc front that occurred in 2023 is word that Walmart, the biggest physical retailer of DVD and Blu-ray Disc with a market share of 45%, is looking to consolidate distribution through Studio Distribution Services (SDS), the joint venture formed by Universal Pictures and Warner Bros. back in April 2021 to sell and distribute DVDs, Blu-ray Discs and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray discs in North America. The venture is headed by Eddie Cunningham, a former president of UPHE, a steadfast champion of physical media.
Cunningham is calling for the elimination of the window — typically two weeks — between a film’s digital release and its physical release, a practice instituted more than a decade ago by the studios in the hopes of jump-starting the electronic sellthrough, or EST, business.
“I do think it is time to closely align disc and EST release dates,” Cunningham said. “While it was clearly the right decision to give EST a short window in the early formative, and massive growth, stages of that developing business, both EST and disc are now mature businesses. I would now let the consumer decide how they want to view content in home entertainment. I believe many of studio our partners are looking at this issue objectively and that we will see some significant movement in that direction in 2024.”
Speaking privately, studio executives say the key obstacle to such a move is one of logistics. Since so many new films are being released through PVOD, there simply isn’t enough time to prepare a disc release on the same day. Traditionally, films come to home entertainment about three months after their theatrical bow; with PVOD, the window can be as short as 18 days.
But Cunningham maintains that at the very least the window should be eliminated between a film’s disc and standard digital release, “where materials can be prepared early enough to work through the much more complex compression and authoring, manufacturing, and distribution challenges unique to the disc business.”
Prospects for 2024
Looking ahead, studio executives are looking at the transactional business with guarded optimism for 2024, particularly on the PVOD front.
“We expect that extended studio and retailer support of early availability, in addition to strong consumer demand for accelerated theatrical-to-home releases, will continue to fuel meaningful growth of the premium window, offsetting the decline of physical and delivering significant value to the home entertainment ecosystem,” said UPHE’s Bonner.
“We are seeing strong growth in the transactional marketplace across new releases as well as the weekly and monthly catalog run rate for our own business,” said Adam Frank, EVP of global partner management, sales and distribution for Lionsgate. “The industry is moving away from release-strategy fragmentation as studios prioritize a healthy ‘free-and-clear’ transactional window post-theatrical. This trend should lead to higher engagement from our core transactional audience and an influx of new consumers.”
Paramount’s Bob Buchi agrees. “We know that fans still love to own and collect their favorite films and television shows, which is why we continue to support the physical disc business,” he said. “At the same time, we live in an increasingly digital world so we are exploring some enticing and novel ways to augment both the collectability and gift-ability of digital content. There are exciting developments on the horizon, and just as the home entertainment industry has always done, we will continue to evolve and adapt to changing technologies and consumer behavior.”
Warner Bros. Discovery’s David Decker said that in 2024, WBD is looking to build “on our 2023 momentum. We have exciting new releases coming with titles such as Dune 2, Furiosa (the “Mad Max” prequel) and Beetlejuice 2.”
Decker added that he believes windowing of new releases “is finding its footing. Barbie had one of the biggest premium windows of the year, and the release strategy also helped the film’s historic box office success. We will evolve our strategy in 2024 with more data-driven analysis, working closely with our colleagues at WB Pictures and Max on each individual title. We are relentlessly focused on getting these incredible movies in front of as many people as possible, through the best possible viewing experiences, and at price points that satisfy consumer demands. For us, Barbie said it best: ‘It is the best day ever. So was yesterday, and so is tomorrow and every day from now until forever.’”
Warner Bros. Discovery has acquired the remaining stake of Turkish subscription streaming VOD service BluTV for an undisclosed amount. WBD acquired a 35% stake in the seven-year-old streamer in 2021.
BluTV, under the direction of CEO Deniz Şaşmaz Oflaz, released its first original production, “Innocent,” in 2017, and currently has 26 original productions, in addition to launching free ad-supported streaming television (FAST) service in 2022. Earlier this year, the platform began streaming select HBO programming.
BluTV is expected to be rebranded as Max going forward as WBD rolls out its branded SVOD platform internationally.
“Turkey has been an important investment territory for us for over 20 years and the acquisition of BluTV brings Turkey’s first local SVOD player into our portfolio,” Jamie Cooke, GM for CEE, Middle East and Turkey at WBD, said in a statement. “Together we bring Turkish audiences the most compelling viewing experience and expand the reach of Turkish content globally.”
The CEOs of Warner Bros. Discovery and Paramount Global reportedly met Dec. 19 in New York about a possible merger between the two legacy media companies.
The meeting, according to Axios, which cited numerous sources, revolved around how the two companies might meld operations, which include studios Warner Bros. Pictures, Paramount Pictures, CNN, CBS, HBO, HGTV, and streaming platforms Max and Paramount+, among other assets.
Paramount Global, which is majority owned by National Amusements and its president Shari Redstone, has been reportedly exploring options to help reduce its corporate debt, in addition to Paramount debt. Paramount’s market valuation hovers around $10 billion through Dec. 20, while Warner Bros. Discovery is valued at $29 billion. By comparison, Netflix has a market valuation of $220.6 billion.
While the report said the discussions were preliminary, with no suggestion about a possible deal, a merger of the two legacy companies — led by WBD CEO David Zaslav and Paramount Global CEO Bob Bakish — would reverberate through Hollywood.
Warner Bros. Pictures and Paramount had the No. 1 theatrical box office hits in 2023 and 2022 with Barbie ($1.44 billion) and Top Gun: Maverick ($1.49 billion), respectively.
WBD’s Max and Paramount+ subscription streaming video platforms ended the most-recent fiscal period with 95 million subscribers and 63 million subs, respectively.
GCN+, the Global Cycling Network subscription streaming service, and its branded app will cease operations Dec. 19 — about 10 years after the platform catering to competitive cycling was launched on YouTube in the United Kingdom.
In 2017, GCN was partially acquired by Discovery Communications and melded with the media giant’s Eurosport platform. The platform then became part of Warner Bros. Discovery Europe’s operations following Discovery’s acquisition of operational control (and minority stake) of the former WarnerMedia.
GCN said the shutdown is part of WBD’s global strategy consolidating streaming services, offering content in fewer places to make it easier for consumers to access more content. In Europe, GCN+ subscribers will have the option to subscribe to Eurosport or Eurosport Extra, where they can continue to watch live cycling.
For U.S. consumers, starting in February 2024, an expansive roster of more than 300 of the biggest live bike races across road, mountain bike, track, BMX and cyclocross — including the Giro d’Italia, monument classics, mountain bike world series & UCI Track Champions League — will be available on the Max streaming platform via the B/R Sports Add-On.
The Tour de France bicycle race, among others, is exclusively streamed in the United States on NBCUniversal’s Peacock service.
Warner Bros. Discovery is partnering with music streaming platform Spotify for a new podcast distribution and monetization partnership across the legacy entertainment company’s portfolio of brands.
Spotify’s enterprise podcast platform, Megaphone, will host and distribute Warner Bros. Discovery’s slate of audio shows. Additionally, the music platform will serve as one of WBD’s podcast monetization partners via the Spotify Audience Network.
WBD’s podcasts include CNN’s All There Is With Anderson Cooper, CNN’s Chasing Life With Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s The Assignment With Audie Cornish, HBO’s The Official Game of Thrones Podcast: House of the Dragon, HBO’s Succession Podcast, TCM’s The Plot Thickens, and WBD Sports’ The Steam Room, among others.
Podcasts from HBO, Max, CNN, CNN en Español, Bleacher Report, WBD Sports, Adult Swim, Turner Classic Movies Network, and truTV will be hosted and distributed via Megaphone. Over the past 12 months, advertiser participation has grown more than 45% while opted-in publishers have increased more than 70%, according to the companies.