Netflix Challengers: Are There Flies in the Ointment?

This is the month when the long talked-about “streaming wars” finally get underway — at least, the first round. Both Apple TV+ and Disney+ are launching in November, with two more heavyweights — NBCUniversal’s Peacock and WarnerMedia’s HBO Max — debuting next April and May, respectively.

Subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) pioneer Netflix has ruled the proverbial roost for years. Sure, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu have given Netflix a taste of competition, but Amazon Prime’s viewership numbers remain clouded by questions about how many people primarily sign up to get free shipping on hard goods — and Hulu has always been the home entertainment equivalent of a third-party candidate.

So with the November launch of Apple TV+ and Disney+, Netflix is finally facing some stiff competition, although, to be fair, both new services have inherent flaws that could impede their success.

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Apple TV+ is being launched by a technology company with no content to poach. As a result, the service’s success or failure hinges on the strength of its original movies, TV shows and other content. Apple TV+ readily admits, on its website, that “unlike most other streaming services, Apple TV+ does not include a back catalog of any kind,” and that “right now, the library of Apple originals in terms of raw numbers is quite small.” But the company is betting that the monthly subscription fee of $4.99 is low enough for curious viewers to take a chance on the new streaming service.

Disney+, on the other hand, comes from the vaunted Walt Disney Co., which has long held a Midas-like touch in everything from movies and TV shows to theme parks and toys. Disney is the only Hollywood studio with a viable consumer brand of its own. And executives are hoping that the Disney brand, along with a stable of acquired brands — including “Star Wars,” Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel and National Geographic — will not just provide the streaming service with a rich library of content, but also with strong platforms upon which to build original shows, such as the “Star Wars” series “The Mandalorian.”

Apple TV+’s challenge will be to produce a steady stream of top-quality, “must-see” originals, as Netflix has done. Netflix had the advantage of using studio movies and TV shows to captivate viewers while building up its slate of originals. But Hollywood has learned its lesson and is unlikely to feed another beast that may one day attempt to devour it, so Apple TV+ will have to go it alone.

Disney+, on the other hand, needs to get out of the recycling business. Even on the theatrical side, the studio’s success has largely been built on Marvel sequels and remakes of its own animated classics — and the team behind the new Disney streamer must encourage, develop and nurture new ideas and concepts if it is to pose a serious long-term challenge to Netflix.

But the streaming wars involve more than big guns. There’s a whole undercurrent of niche streaming services that cater to very specific audiences with targeted programming, such as VET Tv, a San Diego-based SVOD channel aimed at active military personnel with original shows such as “A Grunt’s Life,” “Drunken Debriefs” and “Kill, Die, Laugh,” which take dark, irreverent looks at life in uniform.

Parks Associates estimates that over the past five years, the number of SVOD services has more than doubled, to 271. And projections are that subscription streaming will grow at a faster clip than any other segment of home entertainment — almost as fast, one observer noted wryly, as traditional cable loses subscribers.

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