July 9 Update: We’ve finally learned what WarnerMedia’s service will be called. Details below.
It may already feel like we have too many streaming services to choose from, but the market's about to get even more crowded. Two names you might not expect — WarnerMedia (which owns HBO and the Turner networks) and NBCUniversal — are jumping into the fight against Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, not to mention Apple and Disney, which are launching their own streaming services this fall.
When I think about the impending streaming services from Warner and NBCU, a famous Steve Jobs quote from when the company was reportedly trying to buy Dropbox comes to find.The Apple CEO told Dropbox that its online cloud storage was "a feature, not a product."
Which is to say, can NBC and WarnerMedia exist on their own as stand-alone services, when we're used to their content existing in combination with other channels and films? With that in mind, I decided to look into these services to see how they expect to capture our attention (and in one case, our money).
Right now, the American version of the hit sitcom The Office is one of the biggest names available on either service, but I would hope that both WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal will be able to generate new hits and not rely on old victories. Here's everything you need to know about these soon-to-launch streaming services.
What to expect from NBCUniversal
Way back in January, news broke that NBCUniversal was planning to jump in the already crowded ocean of streaming services, which is filled with the likes of Amazon, ESPN+ and Netflix. (Apple and Disney plan to offer their own subscription services later this year.)
NBCU's closest parallel is CBS All Access, which has surprised yours truly with its success, hitting its goal of 8 million subscribers two years ahead of schedule. Of course, CBS’ offering has big properties attached: Star Trek Discovery and the Jordan Peele-helmed Twilight Zone revamp.
What, exactly, will NBCU use to drive subscribers, though? Well, when the titan announced the service this past January, NBCU CEO Steve Burke told Variety that the 2020 Olympic Games are going to be used "to put a lot of afterburners on this service." That could help raise awareness for NBCU's service, which is barely mentioned these days.
In fact, I found out about the NBCU service only last week when the company announced that it's taking the hit sitcom The Office off Netflix in 2021 to make its new service the exclusive home of Michael Scott's adventures. The show is clearly one of NBCU's biggest weapons in this conversation, especially as the company outbid Netflix for it, with a final deal that costs $500 million total (over five years).
So will a beloved sitcom and summer Olympics coverage be enough to sway audiences? The good news for our wallets is that NBCU's service will be free with ads, taking it back to the old days of network TV.
When Will It Launch: 2020
Pros: Free (ad supported); The Office; The Olympics
Cons: Unclear what else there will be.
Just like Steve Jobs with Dropbox, I had my doubts when I heard about WarnerMedia's unnamed service that was supposed to launch in 2019 (and got pushed back) and will cost upward of $17 a month. That's a lot to ask for, since it costs more than any of Netflix's subscription tiers.
That might not sound like a bad deal when WarnerMedia is packaging HBO, Cinemax and the Warner movie library, but I sincerely wonder how many people are clamoring for this package of options.
And the service has a name that matches its array of programming: HBO Max. Announced today (July 9) in the Wall Street Journal this service will be the exclusive streaming home of Friends, when it launches in Spring 2020.
The stand-alone HBO Now service has done well during the Game of Thrones years, driving a record number of subscriptions, but I'm doubtful about what show will move the needle next and a Mintel research report says HBO Now users are among the most likely to cancel their subscriptions when a specific show ends.
Programs such as Barry and Big Little Lies are great, but not even Westworld feels like the giant cultural moment that GoT was. As for Cinemax and the Warner movie library, I'm not sure either has any strong public sentiment or brand awareness for what either offers that's a must-see.
Another brand likely to be folded into WarnerMedia's unnamed service is the DC Universe, but that isn't doing well, either. A report from this past January suggested the streaming service that houses the Titans show may not be profitable enough for WarnerMedia's taste, and the service is doing so poorly that it canceled the critically applauded (92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) Swamp Thing show only five days after the show’s first episode aired.
When Will It Launch: Spring 2020
Pros: HBO, Cinemax and more; Friends
Cons: Pricey; Lacking a big hit show
I bet NBCUniversal will do OK, mostly because I'm still shocked that CBS All Access has acquired its legion of paying subscribers, a challenge that NBCU will avoid, much like how Spotify rose to the top with its ad-supported tier. Still, it's a service looking for reasons to make the public excited to see what's on — and almost feels more like it will exist because its parent company feels like it has to, as the service won't shake up the status quo, and instead rely on tried-and true-methods of revenue.
HBO Max is facing a bigger challenge, finding a way to make customers spend more money — or providing great enough content that persuades them to cancel something else. Its best bet is probably going to come through finding a new hit show that it makes exclusive to the service, and doesn't put on HBO Now. If the company just cancels its existing streaming services and rolls out the new platform as a replacement, that could work, but it would also risk alienating audiences.