The one true streaming service
Your five-minute guide to the best of Protocol (and the internet) from the week that was, from the state of the streaming wars to the future of climate tech to the Starbucks App Effect.
One streaming service to rule them all
The streaming business is a simple one. To win, all you need is a never-ending river of spectacular shows and movies that appeal to a massive global audience that spans every demographic, an app that works perfectly on every platform and a great relationship with the other content makers and platforms you’re also trying to destroy. You have to make money even though a lot of your users will share passwords, and god help you if you charge more than about $10 a month. Like I said, simple!
This week’s news included a couple of industry-shaking streaming moves. Discovery announced that when it merges with Warner Bros., it also intends to merge Discovery+ with HBO Max, turning the two services into a formidable combined player. Meanwhile, Amazon’s $8.45 billion purchase of MGM was approved — or, more accurately, half-heartedly waved through — by regulators around the world.
To understand the lay of the streaming land, I called Julia Alexander, a senior strategy analyst at Parrot Analytics and a longtime writer on the streaming wars. She told me there are basically three paths to a successful streaming service. You either have to be so big that everyone subscribes and so good that they never cancel; small and nimble, a la Shudder or Marquee TV; or run by a tech company, like Apple TV+ or Amazon Prime Video. “I always say, we cannot talk about Apple and Amazon in the same way we talk about any other company,” Alexander said. “For them, $8.5 billion is … whatever.”
Most of the streaming companies we talk about — Netflix and Hulu and Paramount+ and Disney+ and Peacock and whatever the Discovery/HBO thing is called — are engaged in the fight to be the biggest. In some ways, that’s the only safe bet. It’s increasingly clear that while many people will pay for streaming services, they won’t pay for an infinite number of them, and the only safe thing to be is the default first choice.
For years, Netflix has occupied that first slot on the streaming dial relatively unopposed. And it’s still the clear leader, don’t get me wrong. But the growth of Disney+, thanks to the catalog of Disney and Marvel and Star Wars and Pixar stuff that seems to come faster and faster all the time and is miraculously almost all really good, seems to put Netflix under real threat. And Alexander told me she sees Discovery/HBO as another possible party-crasher: “It makes the most sense of all the M&A happening,” she told me, “if what they’re trying to do is create ‘cable light’ but for a cord-cutting audience.” It has everything from the prestige shows to the complete Guy Fieri oeuvre, which means there’s pretty much always something for everyone.
Speaking of cable: The next phase of the streaming era may look awfully familiar to cord-cutters. (Frankly, the current phase does, too; nobody’s fooled by YouTube TV and Hulu with Live TV and Sling. It’s just cable, folks. And it’s not even much cheaper!) Alexander told me she expects there to be much more consolidation in the coming years, as the big players try to become Too Big To Cancel. “You’re already seeing it overseas,” she said, “where you have Paramount and NBC making SkyShowtime because that’s the only way they can take on Disney and Warner and Discovery.”
The next few years are going to look a lot like the last few, with more shows than any human could ever watch coming to more services than any human could ever afford or even remember. But as the big players get bigger, they’re also taking on new problems, like Netflix deciding to finally make moves against the password-sharers of the world. They’re also going to have to continue working on discovery and recommendations, or risk users opening up HBOvery+ to watch “Euphoria” and instead getting a screen full of Fieri, or the other way around, which is decidedly not a good user experience. In general, Alexander said, don’t lose sight of the fact that this is still early days. Most people still have cable, the world’s a big place, and there’s a lot left to figure out.
If you’re looking for a wild card option in the fight, though, start with the tech giants. Apple and Amazon can afford to amass huge amounts of content and users, subsidized by selling iPhones and cloud services, and then figure out the landscape as it changes. Right now, as my colleague Janko Roettgers pointed out, the MGM deal may be most useful in service of growing Amazon’s ad business, while Apple is happy to subsidize TV+ for people who buy Apple products.
Everything you really need to know about the Big Tech streaming strategy you can learn by opening the Prime Video app. Which sucks. It’s just a wall of movies in no particular order! But that’s the thing: Amazon doesn’t really need to make it great. It just needs to have the right content — hence the MGM deal — and be ready whenever we figure out what “great” actually means. And then they pounce.
A MESSAGE FROM CLARI"To win more revenue for your sales teams, start with the customer. Understand what your customers need, and make sure that those needs are aligned to clearly defined internal success criteria. Build trust across the teams that what you sold the customer is what is being delivered." - Pilar Schenk, COO at Cisco Collaboration
You tell us
We asked you to tell us your No. 1 streaming service, and you responded! Many of you picked Netflix, as we figured, but your loyalties varied more than we would have guessed. Here are a few of our favorite answers:
“I have two kids, between the 3yo's nonstop reruns of Encanto and the 8yo's Star Wars obsession, 90% of all our monthly streaming use is Disney.” — Kate Cox
“YouTube Premium. Not quite sure how it happened but I now spend too much time on Youtube so the value of having it ad free is much more than what Premium costs. And Spotify's emphasis on exclusives is a terrible thing for podcasts IMO, so Youtube Music (which is included in Premium) replaces Spotify!” — Tom
“I find that most of what I end up watching is on Amazon Prime - but most of the content comes through secondary subscriptions to BritBox, Acorn, and Masterpiece. I watch relatively little American programming (though I am enjoying the second season of Upload).” — Oren Sreebny
“Netflix seems like a must-have, but it's also the one with content I can probably do without (that's neck and neck with Hulu, but Hulu is a good cable replacement, whereas with Netflix we have to wait for the current season of a show to be totally done airing before it goes live on the platform). Content-wise, HBO Max is by far supreme, with the trade-off being less-than-ideal UI/UX.” — Gina Gacad
Then Gina followed up: “Actually on top of my note re: favorite streaming services, here's a funny tiktok that basically sums it up.”
“My must-have streaming services:
- For live TV, it's YouTube TV. We've been using it for the last 6+ months after using Hulu Live for a few years. I pay for HBO Max and Showtime through my YTT subscription.
- Netflix - since the beginning of time
- Prime Video - since I've been a Prime member even longer
- Paramount+ - but only for a few shows
- Apple TV - but only to watch 1-2 shows
- Disney+ - I can't remember the last time I watched it
I cut the cord about 6 years ago to ‘take charge.’ I now wish there was a streaming version of a cable package. I'm probably paying more, watching less, and am more frustrated trying to remember which service has which shows.” — Tamara Dull
“Paramount +. Just to get rid of the commercials.” — J Mark Burns
The best of Protocol
How to read a tech company climate plan, by Brian Kahn
- Have you signed up for the Protocol Climate newsletter yet? You should. And you should also read the inaugural issue, which digs into what tech companies’ climate plans really mean, and whether most of them mean much of anything at all.
The open EV charging network we need might finally be on the way, by Lisa Martine Jenkins
- It was a weird week in the EV world. Super-high gas prices are making people realize the need for a switch to electric more than ever, but supply chain crunches forced EV manufacturers to raise prices. Starbucks is getting chargers! But your Uber is going to be more expensive! But in the long run, open charging is key. And it’s coming.
An Uber crash derailed this rider’s life. How much should Uber pay? by Issie Lapowsky
- In the gig-economy, two-sided-marketplace future, everything’s confusing, and nobody wants to be held responsible. Anthony Nwosisi’s story makes plain how complicated these tech-powered systems are, and how important it is for companies and governments alike to set clear rules and follow them.
- Google has quietly become one of the most powerful companies in Washington, leading the charge as tech continues to ramp up its lobbying efforts. All that success started with a fairly spectacular failure a decade ago, when PIPA and SOPA were the stories of the day. That outcome, and Google’s learnings, have changed everything.
Meet Raycast, the remote control for your work life, by Lizzy Lawrence
- Raycast isn’t trying to build a platform or an operating system for your life. It’s trying to build a simple, powerful tool that removes all the friction of using all those other apps and services. And keyboard shortcut junkies everywhere are starting to fall in love with the idea.
Mark Zuckerberg: NFTs are coming to Instagram before the metaverse is a thing, by Nat Rubio-Licht
- Zuck took the stage at SXSW this week and just kind of riffed for a while on what he thinks the metaverse will look like and why he thinks Meta’s going to be the one to build it. Whether you think he’s right or ridiculous, it’s worth understanding his vision for the future.
The best of everything else
- There’s a huge amount of tech talent in Ukraine, and many of them have joined the fight against Russia. The Ukrainian government put out a call for “an IT army,” and over the last few weeks that group has worked to disable Russian web services and has helped change the way information moves around the world.
- Ransomware companies: They’re just like us! They deal with bureaucracy, bosses they don’t like, clients who won’t play along and internal politics galore. This is a good look into how the industry works and how truly corporate it has become.
Six months in, El Salvador’s bitcoin gamble is crumbling — Rest of World
- Bitcoin has been legal tender in El Salvador for about eight months, and for all the talk of financial revolutions and the future of money, it doesn’t seem to be going well. Crypto may well be part of the future of everyday finance, but it sure doesn’t look like the present.
- The Starbucks app has been a revelation for the company, turning it into a data-gathering, relentlessly optimizing machine. (And a hugely important financial player, believe it or not.) But as Starbucks leans into speed and convenience and efficiency, is it losing something ineffable and important about what a coffee shop should be?
How California is building the nation’s first privacy police — The New York Times
- Passing a privacy law is all well and good, but then you have to, you know, enforce the thing. Ashkan Soltani’s journey to turn a $10 million annual budget into a functioning 30-person agency hasn’t been easy, but it’s going to be an example many others follow.
Taking stock — Real Life
- What starts with a provocative thesis — is “creator” just a sexy, tech-created word for “underpaid worker”? — turns into a good look at the ins and outs of the creator economy, the meshing of humans and brands and the inherent meta-ness of creator life in general.
A MESSAGE FROM CLARI
"Trying to make every deal as big as possible often adds complexity and extends sales cycles. To accelerate growth, sellers should focus on landing faster, and then expanding, and expanding again. Getting customers into your solution sooner helps you solve their initial problems, then later, you can grow together." - Michael Megerian, Chief Revenue Officer at Yello
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