Has Netflix ever had a reason to be afraid of competition? I've always thought there was a chance someone could knock them off the throne, but now that we're done with all of the big new streaming service releases of 2020 — including Peacock and HBO Max — it feels like Netflix is still the king.
But while my opinion may be well informed, it’s just my opinion. So I got Paul Dergarabedian, Senior Media Analyst at Comscore on the line to talk about the state of the streaming media world, and where the different players rank.
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Interestingly enough, Dergarabedian personally thinks that the concept of "the streaming service that's winning" isn't something that's universal, but personal.
"Whatever service you as an individual love, if you're Team Disney Plus, Team Apple Plus, that one wins the battle — it comes down to what you watch most," he told me. And to an extent, I get that. But considering how I won't apply my belief that IWTV (Independent Wrestling Television) is the best streaming service in the world, I'm thinking it's best to look outside my own personal tastes to see the industry from a macro view.
While I'm mostly focusing on how each service's 2020 is going, Apple TV Plus and Disney Plus' late 2019 arrivals are recent enough to be counted. Netflix's 2020 is so strong that I don't even need to mention their late 2019 hit with The Witcher. Consider this more of a state of streaming power ranking, than anything concrete, like our best streaming services page.
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Even with an onslaught of contenders storming its streaming castle, Netflix has continued to add to its tally of subscribers, bringing in 10.1 million of them this past spring. Netflix stayed strong by owning the entire virtual watercooler conversation on social media with each of its hit shows, from the viral The Tiger King to the Michael Jordan docuseries The Last Dance.
And then, Netflix hit another home run with the licensed acquisition of the Avatar: The Last Airbender, one of the most adored animated series that's criminally under-seen. The Old Guard is basically the blockbuster action movie of the year, and it leaves Netflix open for a sequel to create a new franchise. Tiger King wasn't the only hyper viral reality/documentary hit, as big red also hit strong with Love is Blind and the revived Unsolved Mysteries. Netflix also has debuted plenty of lovable shows that may not be huge hits, but still help their brand as a place for everyone, with Mindy Kaling's Never Have I Ever and the third seasons of Dark and Ozark.
But speaking of franchises, Netflix has gotten this far and stayed strong by constantly investing in its future. Most recently, Netflix got the rights to its next potential series of top-tier films, with the CIA espionage film The Gray Man, which will see Chris Evans chase Ryan Gosling. Directed by MCU maestros The Russo Brothers, this movie could bring Netflix a series of films at the level of the James Bond series. And unlike Bond, these films don't need theaters, as Netflix is on our TVs, tablets and phones.
Subscribers: more than 190 million
2. Disney Plus
Disney Plus may have started with a glitchy day one, the wrong crops of The Simpsons and a lot of shows that didn't take off — remember High School Musical: The Musical: The Series? — but it's also nailed what a streaming service needs to be. First of all, Disney Plus was hot out of the gate with The Mandalorian, thanks to the surprise charm offensive of Baby Yoda (if you call him The Child, he's gonna Force-throw you into a Mudhorn pit), and we are still slated to get The Mandalorian season 2 later this year.
Even though he's not subscribed to it currently, Dergarabedian ranked Disney Plus as the best new streaming service, "obviously, with its depth and breadth of content."
And to help families during the pandemic, Disney threw release dates out the window, streaming Frozen 2 months early, and taking Onward and the Hamilton live recording from the theaters to Disney Plus. Lin Manuel Miranda's musical is likely the most important Disney Plus title since The Mandalorian, as it gives audiences the best seat in the house for one of the most beloved musicals in generations.
On top of that, Disney Plus continues to pry Marvel movies out of Netflix's clutches, like Thanos collecting the Infinity Gems. Even if you're not a fan of one of Disney Plus' big properties, they probably have something to entice you.
As Dergarabedian noted, "look at the brands they have under their wing, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar and Hamilton, for a relatively new player, they made a huge splash." That being said, we'll be curious how the Disney Plus subscriber count stands this November, as The Falcon and The Winter Soldier's August 2020 release date has been erased.
Subscribers: 33.5 million
Still a top streaming service for cord-cutters, who get TV shows the day after they air, Hulu spent the pre-pandemic months getting stronger by adding the FX library. That deal got even sweetened last month, as there will be FX on Hulu exclusive shows, including two of the network's hottest properties: the upcoming Y: The Last Man and the long-running American Horror Stories, with episodes premiering exclusively on the streaming service.
Hulu's also got its own strong exclusives you can watch now, with novel adaptations Normal People and Little Fires Everywhere earning the service considerable attention. Most recently, the Andy Samberg-starring film Palm Springs film was a hit for Hulu, and helped them stay near Netflix when it comes to original movies with bankable stars.
And just like Netflix, Hulu had a stellar year for great new shows that appeal to various audiences, with the High Fidelity reboot, Solar Opposites, The Great, well-made second seasons of Ramy and Shrill and Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation. Hulu may not have had as big a hit as Hamilton or Tiger King, but its strong overall lineup of originals make it more than compelling, and they're primed for further success.
Subscribers: 32.1 million
4. CBS All Access
The second tier of streaming services is led by CBS All Access, which has quietly been going strong. Its big title of 2020 was Star Trek: Picard, which brought a mix of classic Star Trek and modern TV tropes.
Season 2 of Picard may also arrive in 2020 (we want them to make it so, but we're not holding our breath), and it's adding more familiar faces including Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan. New seasons of The Good Fight and Jordan Peele's The Twilight Zone helped give CBS All Access subscribers reason to stay on.
Subscribers: Expected to reach 16 million by end of year
5. Amazon Prime Video
While Amazon Prime hasn't had a big season for any of its prestige shows, it did make some splashes in January with announcements and teases of its upcoming Lord of the Rings and Jack Reacher series. Its slot in the rankings is earned by the hype surrounding the upcoming The Boys season 2 and how Amazon has one thing the next two competitors don't: a wide reach.
"For Amazon, and for every platform, you're only as big as your last big original, in the minds of the audience," Dergarabedian said. But he noted that the service has a deep well of 50's sci-fi and 70's exploitation and horror, and that platforms can buoy a lack of originals if they can be "the go-to rabbit hole for exploring content."
Subscribers: 150 million Prime members
I almost put Peacock and HBO Max at a tie, as they've got similar positives and negatives. But Peacock has one thing to put it over the top. Not only does it offer the impressive back catalog for fans of sitcoms and Law & Order, but Peacock's free tier and lower pricing for its (sorta) ad-free tier ($10 vs $15, compared to HBO Max) gives it a greater potential going forward.
While both Peacock and HBO Max have a trove of stuff for you to watch, neither is currently available on the two biggest streaming devices in the U.S. — Roku and Fire TV (which comprise around 69% of streaming devices, in total). So no matter how great their original shows are (and Peacock doesn't have a hit right now), you may not be able to put them on your TV. And as we'll get to later, where you watch shows and movies plays a crucial role in how we enjoy them. "I think you have to give a little break to those services that are new," said Dergarabedian on Peacock’s early stumbles.
Are people who primarily want sitcoms going to stop paying to watch The Office (U.S.) on Netflix to watch it with ads on Peacock? The answer may be yes, but I'm confused as to how Netflix and Peacock share shows such as Parks and Recreation and the aforementioned Office.
Those back catalog shows matter a lot, though, as Dergarabedian explained. "The soothing nature of a beloved program may be more important to consumers than the dollars and cents, right now, as crazy as that sounds."
Subscribers: Unknown at time of publishing
7. HBO Max
Since I've explained HBO Max's biggest flaws above — pricey, no free tier and no Roku or Fire TV — let's get to what it does right. And that's the amazing back catalog of HBO's beloved and prestigious original shows. Of course, HBO Max had a head start building its library — it's very, very similar to HBO — but its selections of additional back catalog shows like Friends, Studio Ghibli films, The Big Bang Theory and some of the Criterion Collection make the platform a great home for a wide range of content. That being said, movies, such as the Harry Potter films, are already leaving HBO Max, showing that it's just like Netflix in this capacity.
HBO Max makes a mistake, though, by not calling out those Criterion Collection films in its librarywhen you're using it. Dergarabedian has an HBO Max account, but he didn't know those movies were there.
But, again, without Roku and Amazon Fire TV, HBO Max has a big problem, as people don't want to buy new streaming devices, and Dergarabedian says there's a chance that "maybe ubiquity [is] the greater currency than content." As you may remember, Apple Music's period of streaming exclusives didn't lead to it defeating Spotify.
Subscribers: 4.1 million
8. Apple TV Plus
While I give Apple TV Plus credit for getting their service on more platforms than HBO Max or Peacock, it has content problems. Specifically a lack of any serious hits on its hands, despite its high concept (See) and topical (The Morning Show) content. Central Park, from the folks behind Bob's Burgers, failed to take off, and to me felt more like a less weird version of the Belcher family's adventures.
Apple TV Plus' successes come more in the feature-length category, with Beastie Boys Story proving entertaining and Tom Hanks' war film Greyhound garnering attention. While Apple is acquiring more and more movies and TV shows to expand the service, we're wondering if that will be enough to get folks to resubscribe after the free year of service from buying an Apple device ends.
Apple's quest to build a brand identity for Apple TV Plus might be its biggest difficulty, as Dergarabedian admitted on the call that he'd forgotten that the Beastie Boys movie was actually on that platform — even though he watched it, and loved it.
Subscribers: More than 10 million
For those who already forgot, Quibi is the mobile-first streaming service with original shows that last 15 minutes or less per episode. That was also their name for episodes, as Quibi is short for “Quick Bites.”
While Dergarabedian said that "this is a never-ending horse race," it's not hard to think that Quibi is in serious trouble. Its subscriber count is in question, as the firm Sensor Tower claimed only 72,000 of the 910,000 users who downloaded the app during Quibi's launch actually became paid subscribers after the three-month trial. Quibi responded by saying these figures were "incorrect by an order of magnitude" before noting it's observed an "excellent conversion to paid subscribers," with 5.6 million downloads by July 9.
Quibi's rotating programming proved interesting in the moment when we tested it out, but its inability to connect with a true successful show — and Chromecast and AirPlay being the only ways to get it on a TV has kept it in the cellar.
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Henry is a managing editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past seven years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.