Critics and journalists have clung to the phrase “streaming wars” — not to be confused with the “cable wars” or the “late-night wars” — to describe how this core group of commercial platforms isn’t just in competition with one another for visibility, but engaged in an existential battle to integrate themselves within the viewing routines of a mass audience.
It is easy to see these platforms as becoming increasingly similar in their seeming attempts to accrue the broadest possible audience. Each is scrambling to scale their subscriber base and reduce churn, even as the campaign for viewers might serve ulterior motives: Amazon Prime Video drives Prime subscriptions, and Apple TV+ draws people to Apple hardware or other services that its bundled with. Listen to any Hollywood Reporter roundtable, shareholders presentation, or creative summit interview, and you will hear well-suited and sneakered execs discuss the need to hire big-name directors, a.k.a. “storytellers,” to produce films, series, and event programming for a global market.
A quick survey suggests that all these platforms offer a remarkably broad array of genres, from rom-com to true crime, horror, and historical drama. In turn, media libraries — what above-the-line folks dub “good IP” — provide properties that can then be reissued as well as reimagined for sequels, spin-offs, and reboots. But the imperative to court and keep subscribers, combined with the need to attract talent — many of whom are concerned with curating their own public images — requires something beyond the catch-all pitch of “compelling content.” The race for the streamers to configure themselves as full-service production, distribution, and exhibition outlets has intensified the need for each to articulate a more specific brand identity.
This move toward differentiation-as-survival-strategy finds its most apt precedent not in the days of the “Big Three” networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) but, rather, the “Big Five” film studios. In the post–World War I era, these studios were all vertically integrated companies, sharing in the practice of making as well as showing their films through ownership of theater chains. In their efforts to appeal to moviegoers, they distinguished themselves from one another through the cultivation of respective house styles (heavily influenced by art direction) and leaned into particular genres. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) promised “more stars than there are in heaven,” often showcasing their actors in elaborate melodramas (Grand Hotel) with Art Deco sets designed by Cedric Gibbons. Warner Bros. reveled in working-class, gritty gangster films (Little Caesar, The Public Enemy) that struck a special chord with audiences during the Great Depression. Tapping into the origins of its Austro-Hungarian founder, Adolph Zukor, Paramount Pictures produced more “European-minded,” romantic dramas featuring émigré director Josef von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich along with “sophisticated comedies” helmed by Preston Sturges.
As with the major studios of Classical Hollywood, the streamers today aim to control each component of the media pipeline and advertise to audiences a robust array of alluring titles. At the same time, they aren’t just individual production houses trumpeting the appeal of this film or that film; rather, they are entertainment entities (often connected to larger parent conglomerates) trying to persuade people to buy into a constellation of viewing experiences that include a variety of moving image subjects, story-worlds, and narrative formats. What we are seeing with the streaming wars is not the emergence of a cluster of copy-cat services, with everyone trying to do everything, but the beginnings of a legible strategy to carve up the mediascape and compete for peoples’ waking hours. And, as always, these burgeoning brand identities carry great cultural meaning, inflecting what kind of media will be made and viewing as a social practice. Below, I attempt something like a tentative taxonomy of these identities-in-the-making.
Leaders of the Pack
Since its courting of David Fincher to produce-direct House of Cards (2013–2018), Netflix has prided itself as a home for filmmakers. Co-CEO Ted Sarandos, along with Vice President of Independent Film and Documentary Features Lisa Nishimura, boast that the studio offers a hands-off approach necessary for individuals to express their personal vision. Netflix’s penchant for character-centered stories with a three-act structure, as well as high production values (an average of $20–$50-plus million for award contenders), resonates with the “quality” features of the Classical era. It’s a production ethos mythologized by the studio’s own fictionalizations of Hollywood history, deepened by Netflix’s Sunset Boulevard headquarters and intensive Oscar campaigning (36 nominations for the recent competition, the most of any studio). All the while, it has been pioneering a more flexible, personalized form of production and exhibition entirely unlike legacy forms of film and TV. Sarandos once quipped that the business of content is a blend of algorithmic evidence and gut feeling. From early on, Netflix cultivated a liberal public image, which has propelled its investment in social documentary and also driven some of its inclusivity initiatives and collaborations with global auteurs and showrunners of color, such as Alfonso Cuarón, Ava DuVernay, Spike Lee, and Justin Simien. This has also led to architecting multi-picture mega-deals with public personalities such as the Obamas and the Windsor-Markles. Netflix is currently leading its peer streamers with 195 million subscribers, even as it lacks (for now, at least) a large library and periodically generates some bizarre flops (no finer failure than Bear Grylls’s You vs. Wild).
Disney’s embrace of family-friendly entertainment shapes Disney+’s catalog of animated films and key franchises. The notion that individual projects ultimately serve the parent brand is apparent from the logo.
“Disney+” hovers above a horizontal list of assets, which have come to include Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Marvel. The lyrical arc of a crescent line extends from the iconic “D” to the “+,” as if framing a dome under which the IP exists. The prominence of the Disney brand, along with emphatic self-referentiality, is nothing new. The company’s “science-factual” programming and Walt Disney’s Disneyland TV show in the 1950s attracted attention to its theme parks, which in turn garnered interest in its animation films and merchandize. Fast forward to Disney+, and One Day at Disney and Prop Culture offer a deep dive into the inner workings of the empire and how the creative process of “imagineering” is distributed from the top downward, beginning with former CEO Bob Iger and extending to everyone from the animators to the story artists, theme park performers, and animal doctors. Even the narratives connect thematically: tales of individual acts of virtuous heroism and the sanctity of the nuclear family transcend franchises, as well as the fiction/nonfiction and human/nonhuman divide.
AT&T’s spin-off of WarnerMedia, which in turn merged with Discovery in 2021, was both an admission of a failure on the part of HBO Max and Discovery+, and a concerted effort by both parties to stake out a stronger position within the streaming landscape. HBO Max had originally aimed to build on its key asset’s motto — “It’s not TV. It’s HBO” — and position itself as providing a more selective array of arthouse dramas, investigative documentaries, and big-budget franchise films (Godzilla, Batman). It featured a sleek, less cluttered interface for a slightly higher subscription fee ($14.99/month for ad-free) that reinforced the must-see nature of its offerings. Discovery+, on the other hand, is tied for the cheapest of platforms ($4.99/month). For decades, Discovery had been a major player in nonfiction, or what the platform has recently taken to calling “real-life entertainment.” At launch, Discovery+ contained a staggering 50 original series, including explainer films, game shows, reality TV, lifestyle programming, and self-help series that appeared across HGTV, DIY Network, Food Network, and TLC. Still, both HBO Max and Discovery+ underwhelmed in their initial roll-outs, failing to capture a strong subscriber base. Whatever form their merger takes, it is clear that the two entities together form a new kind of “high-low” brand. Amazon Prime Video is going through a similar transformation of its own. Jeff Bezos doesn’t do anything small, and the company’s recent purchase of MGM for $8.45 billion will help the tech behemoth reconcile Amazon Studios’s boutique indie film operation with the warehouse of the media world that is Amazon Prime.
Epic Misfires, Slow Starts, and Mixed Messages
Quibi promised to be a streaming service geared toward the small, vertically oriented screen of the smart phone. The brainchild of Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg and Silicon Valley maven Meg Whitman, the company assembled a large war chest ($1.75 billion) and boasted an original documentary series by LeBron James (I Promise) and an action-thriller (Most Dangerous Game) starring Liam Hemsworth and Christoph Waltz. Quibi specialized in programs that were 10 minutes or less and inscribed its target length into its very title: Quibi as short for “Quick Bites.” In turn, the promos wouldn’t so much emphasize “the what” of the programming as the interest and convenience of being able to watch it while waiting, commuting, or just taking a break. However, this unit of prospective viewing time lies uncomfortably between the ultra-brief TikTok video and the half-hour sitcom. The COVID-19 crisis prevented Quibi from course-correcting in any way, as it was precisely those experiences of travel and short-term waiting that the pandemic neutralized.
Of all the platforms, NBCUniversal’s Peacock shares the most DNA with legacy TV, building its brand on what people already love about it: namely, its affordability, liveness, and topicality. The logo speaks to this sense of stability, drawing on the old Peacock mascot of NBC and a rainbow of vertically aligned buttons to suggest the “channels” viewers can choose from.
Most importantly, unlike its competitors, Peacock offers a free, ad-supported subscription option. The content includes flagship NBC TV shows such as Parks and Recreation and The Office, freshly pulled from rival streamers, as well as news, sports from around the world, and reboots of SoCal ’90s kitsch favorites Saved by the Bell and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. As the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was to be Peacock’s major showcase and opportunity to strut its plumage, its delay due to the pandemic stymied the platform’s reach. Peacock’s central obstacle moving forward will be convincing would-be subscribers that the things they loved about linear broadcast and cable TV are worth the investment.
Apple TV+’s rollout has been the trickiest thus far. The platform began without a ready-made catalog of content, but at least one of its essential challenges was clear: channel the company’s allure as a laboratory of sleek consumer tech into a studio for cutting-edge filmmaking. In part, this meant aligning the aura of Steve Jobs with the auteurs that the company planned to sign. A promising launch event featuring the likes of M. Night Shyamalan, Steven Spielberg, and Oprah Winfrey waxing poetic about the art of cinematic storytelling, however, has not been followed by a strong enough lineup of films and series or a clearly defined identity. Instead of digging deeper into its parent brand, which might have generated promising narrative intersections of sci-fi, fantasy, documentary, and melodrama, Apple TV+ launched with too little original content (14 movies, 32 shows, and a comparatively low content spend of $1.9 billion) alongside a multitude of films to rent or buy. One of its star producer-directors, J. J. Abrams, walked away from a $500 million exclusive contract, and CEO Tim Cook struggled to explain the company’s misguided 2018 assertion in the Wall Street Journal that it would not showcase “gratuitous sex, profanity, or violence.”
The Impression of Totality
The internet loves its metaphors, and the impulse by journalists, critics, and industry personnel to speak in adversarial terms makes for a more dramatic narrative. Vivid cover art from the news and entertainment press likens the streamers to ships engaged in a nautical race (The New York Times Magazine) or a Royal Rumble wrestling match (Thrillist). One of the most intriguing and revealing of metaphors, however, isn’t so much related to war as celestial coexistence of streamer-planets within the “universe.” Certainly, the term resonates with key franchises, such as the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” and the bevvy of intricate stories that such an expansive environment makes possible. This language stakes a claim for the totality of media — that there are no other kinds of moving images beyond what exists on, or what can be imagined for, these select platforms.
Much has been said about how these streamers’ consolidation of power comes with the threat of increasingly higher pricing, homogenized style, inflexible exhibition protocols, and invasive data-mining. But there are still additional threats to consider. As these companies continue to amass their holdings of films, series, and live entertainment, they collectively signal a utopia of consumer choice. But the reality is closer to the philosophy of organization guru-turned-Netflix personality Marie Kondo: media will only gain entry to the interconnected walled gardens of these platforms (and retain the right to stay) to the extent that it “sparks joy.” Put another way, programming must fit within the calculus of subscriber growth and retention. Such is the eternal sunshine of the for-profit streamers.
This charts a rough path forward for projects that are formally experimental, collectively authored, politically radical, or come from other marginalized corners of moving image culture. The streamers’ enthusiastic claims to an abundance of quality, combined with their perpetual “tidying up” and “de-cluttering,” results in a more limited selection than viewers may realize. Not only does this wreak havoc on a richer and more complex understanding of film and TV history, as searching historically on these platforms is a perpetually disorienting experience. These moves ultimately limit our ability to imagine alternative forms of films and media, and what the social experience of making and viewing them might be.
Joshua Glick is the Isabelle Peregrin Assistant Professor of English, Film, and Media Studies at Hendrix College and a Fellow at the Open Documentary Lab at MIT.
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