From quick bites of programming on the ambitious Quibi platform--championed by Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman--to original and classic content spanning features, TV series and documentaries on the just rolled out HBO Max, streaming has launched into the marketplace in a big way as of late with a formidable field of new competitors, which also includes Disney+, Apple TV+ and NBC Universal’s upcoming Peacock, looking to catch up with Netflix as well as the firmly established Amazon Prime Video and Hulu, as well as a fortified CBS All Access.
Recent viewership numbers, though, make it a bit problematic if you’re trying to reach any definitive conclusions as to the state of the streaming consciousness--the elephant in the room being the pandemic. On one hand, the lockdown has been a boon for subscriber numbers. Yet at the same time, a high-profile launch has been hurt by the coronavirus right out of the gate.
On the former score, consider Netflix’s performance in Q1 of 2020. Picking up nearly 16 million global subscribers during the year’s first three months, Netflix could be viewed as an essential service in times of isolation or crisis. The strong showing more than doubled the quarterly growth that Netflix predicted for itself in January, prior to when COVID-19 necessitated stay-at-home orders worldwide, including in the U.S. Captive at-home audiences contributed greatly to the largest three-month gain in the 13-year history of Netflix’s streaming service.
Meanwhile Disney+ in its relatively brief existence has amassed in excess of 50 million subscribers. So as the economies in the U.S. and worldwide sink into recession, video streaming shows signs of thriving.
However, that’s not the case across the board as the coronavirus has stricken Quibi, hitting at the heart of its business plan which centers on short-form content--entertainment and news fare in five to 10-minute allotments--made for people’s limited downtime during the course of a business day whether it be waiting in line at Starbucks or a doctor’s office, taking a quick break during the business day and during various other junctures. It’s intended to fill the void for people on the go who are too busy to sit down and stream TV show or movies.
Then the virus crisis dramatically changed that dynamic, literally stopping those on the go as shelter-in-place orders were enacted. This has taken its toll on Quibi’s projected numbers--even with the pandemic-sparked enticement of a free 90-day trial. Initial reports were that around 3 million to 3.5 million have installed the Quibi app, disappointing numbers for a heralded launch. Quibi has also revised its mobile-only mantra, making its original content for iPhone users available on TV screens where incremental chapters in a movie, for example, can be watched collectively as a whole, as can the platform’s TV shows.
Still, the promise of Quibi remains but will seemingly have to wait to be realized once daily life returns to some semblance of normal when people will go back to using their smartphones in a manner that inspired the platform’s creation.
Also on the positive side, talent has embraced offering installments of movies and TV in chapters of 10 minutes or less with such high-profile offerings as the 16-episode Most Dangerous Game starring two-time Oscar-winning actor Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds) and Liam Hemsworth, #FreeRayshawn with a cast headed by Stephan James as a black man framed by the police in New Orleans, and Punk’d featuring Chance the Rapper.
Filmmakers are adapting to creating for the Quibi platform. Director Tricia Brock, for example, came on board to collaborate on Dummy, a series that introduces us to an aspiring writer (portrayed by Anna Kendrick) who befriends her boyfriend’s sex doll and the two take on the world together.
A prime challenge was the framing for mobile phone display. Brock explained, “We had to shoot it in a certain way so the framing would work if it was vertical or horizontal. The DP Catherine (Katie) Goldschmidt took that on like a champ. It was wonderful for me because she was so technically astute. Katie’s pioneering spirit was perfect for shooting the first Quibi show. She had a monitor with her, and I had a monitor so I could also see the grid of what was in the frame and what wasn’t. It impacted Katie’s process but she so brilliantly handled it that I was liberated and able to focus on the creative. Occasionally they would say to me, ‘If we do this set up, this, this and this will be out of frame.’ Then we would adjust. But it didn’t happen that often. As far as I was concerned, I was shooting it like a movie [100 minutes over those 18 days].”
Brock was well equipped to take on Dummy, in part because of her prior short-form episodic experience on Margot vs. Lily, Nike’s first scripted episodic web series in 2016. There are parallels between Margot v. Lily and Dummy, according to Brock. “What Quibi shines a light on is you can go out to the market with much shorter content. They’re pioneering this format just like Nike pioneered it in branded content.”
While Quibi has been adversely impacted by the pandemic, other streamers and TV itself have generally benefited. And there have been instances where the closure of theaters during the virus crisis--fueling uncertainty over when cinema exhibition can safely resume--has pushed noteworthy content onto streaming platforms. For example the live capture of the Broadway show “Hamilton”--which had been scheduled to hit movie theaters in October 2021--will instead be streamed on Disney+ starting next month (7/3).
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop show about the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton won 11 Tony Awards and made assorted tours. The film was made at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway in June 2016, and stars all of the original Tony Award winners--Miranda as Alexander Hamilton; Daveed Diggs as Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson; Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler; and Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr. The filmed version was helmed by the show’s director, Tommy Kail.
Yet the "Hamilton" film notwithstanding, there are downsides for streamers due to the virus outbreak. With many people out of work due to the COVID-19 crisis, they have had to carefully watch their spending. HBO Max, for example, costs $15 a month, pricey compared to streaming services such as Disney+, Quibi and Peacock. For example, Peacock is an ad-supported streaming service offering a basic free tier, with around half as much content as the Premium version ($4.99 a month) and an ad-free Premium plan (for $9.99).
And while services like HBO Max, Peacock and Disney+ have libraries of coveted content spanning TV shows and features, original content also figures prominently and is being impacted as the pandemic has shut down Hollywood productions. Originals are important for the role they play in bringing in subscribers and keeping them on board month after month. Disney+ boasts a beloved lineup of classic content but it too has generated buzz and subscribership through its original offerings with some conjecturing that Star Wars content on TV, for example, may prove more lucrative than feature films in the future. The Star Wars-inspired series The Mandalorian has become a marquee attraction on Disney+.
A long lapse in production as we know it could be felt not only this year but arguably more heavily in 2021. Apple TV+, for example, is sans a classic library inventory and wholly reliant on original content production, having already generated followings with The Morning Show, Defending Jacob and Home Before Dark, among other shows. Interrupting that pipeline could carry consequences over time.
Even HBO Max--which has a healthy inventory including classic TV series ranging from HBO’s The Sopranos to The Wire and Sex and the City, favorites such as Friends and The Big Bang Theory, the Superman and Batman franchise feature films--also is counting on original content to attract subscribers. The recent production shutdown has, for example, postponed the rollout of such highly anticipated fare as the Friends reunion special which HBO Max heavily promoted.
Upon its launch just a couple of weeks ago (5/27), HBO Max had a slate of premium Max Originals that included: the scripted comedy Love Life, starring Anna Kendrick; Sundance 2020 Official Selection feature documentary On the Record; and Sesame Workshop’s The Not Too Late Show with Elmo.
Further underscoring the role that original content plays in HBO Max are coming attractions. The next wave of titles arriving on the platform begins next week (6/18) with the debut of the entire first season of the unscripted kids adventure competition series Karma.
On June 25, HBO Max will premiere an original second season of the critically acclaimed DC Universe fan-favorite Doom Patrol; an original second season of Sesame Workshop’s animated series Esme & Roy, taking preschool-aged viewers on learning adventures through Monsterdale; a brand new third season of the comedy thriller Search Party (the first two seasons will be available on the platform at launch on May 27); and Adventure Time: Distant Lands--BMO, the first of four hourlong breakout specials resurrecting the Emmy and Peabody award-winning franchise Adventure Time.
July 9 marks the premiere of the three-part docuseries Expecting Amy, an unfiltered and intimate view into comedian Amy Schumer’s life on tour creating a stand-up special during her difficult pregnancy, directed and edited by Alexander Hammer, and the adult animated comedy Close Enough, a hilarious look at the surreal life of a millennial family living with roommates, from J.G. Quintel, creator of the Emmy-winning Regular Show.
On July 16, the multi- generational family docusoap The House of Ho, chronicling the daily lives of patriarch Binh Ho, matriarch Hue Ho, their daughter Judy Ho, their son Washington Ho and his wife Lesley Ho, Aunt Tina, and Cousin Sammy, lands on the platform.
On July 23, HBO Max will debut Cartoon Network Studios’ animated children’s series Tig n’ Seek.
On July 30, HBO Max presents the U.S. premieres of the scripted comedy Frayed, which follows a wealthy Londoner as she travels back to the Australian home she escaped as a teen, and the unscripted heartwarming British animal rescue series The Dog House.
On August 6, Seth Rogen’s comedy feature, An American Pickle, will world premiere as the first HBO Max original film on the platform under the Warner Max label.
“Shortly after the initial launch our monthly strategy kicks in, as we introduce great new originals every month throughout the year,” said Kevin Reilly, chief content officer, HBO Max, president, TNT, TBS, and truTV.
“We want to provide audiences with a wide-ranging and consistent flow of high-quality programming across all genres,” added Sarah Aubrey, head of original content, HBO Max. “From scripted series and intimate documentaries, to premium animation for kids and adults, to feature length films from teams at the top of their game, our creators bring it all, each with their own unique take.”
Original content is also a key component of Peacock’s lineup, a complement to its library of blockbuster movies (the Jurassic Park franchise, E.T., Meet the Parents, and Shrek); comedy series like Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Saturday Night Live, King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond, Two and a Half Men, Frasier, George Lopez, and Cheers; and dramas Law & Order: SVU, Downton Abbey, Yellowstone, Friday Night Lights, House, Battlestar Galactica, Psych, Parenthood, Monk, and Heroes.
When Peacock launches nationally on July 15, customers can stream originals such as all first season episodes of Brave New World, The Capture, Intelligence and Lost Speedways; sports documentary In Deep with Ryan Lochte; and the entire full-length film Psych 2: Lassie Come Home. Additionally, Peacock Kids is home to new episodes of Curious George and two original series from DreamWorks Animation: Cleopatra in Space and Where’s Waldo?. Premiere dates for future Peacock Originals and exclusive content will be announced later this year.
On the drama front, Peacock’s Brave New World is based on Aldous Huxley’s groundbreaking novel of the same title. Brave New World imagines a utopian society that has achieved peace and stability through the prohibition of monogamy, privacy, money, family, and history itself. As citizens of New London, Bernard Marx (portrayed by Harry Lloyd whose credits include Game of Thrones, The Theory of Everything) and Lenina Crowne (Jessica Brown Findlay, Winter’s Tale, Downton Abbey) embark on a vacation to the Savage Lands, where they become embroiled in a harrowing and violent rebellion. Bernard and Lenina are rescued by John the Savage (Alden Ehrenreich, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Hail, Caesar!), who escapes with them back to New London. John’s arrival in the New World soon threatens to disrupt its utopian harmony, leaving Bernard and Lenina to grapple with the repercussions.
And for a sampling on the comedy side, Peacock struts out Intelligence which is set in the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters--a kind of weedier, geekier, more bureaucratic version of MI5 and MI6, where they tackle international and domestic Cyber Crime from a desktop. When a pompous maverick NSA agent Jerry Bernstein (David Schwimmer, American Crime Story, Friends, Band of Brothers) comes over from the U.S. to join the team, he enlists an inept and tactless computer analyst Joseph (Nick Mohammed, The Martian, Ted Lasso, Christopher Robin) in a power grab that threatens to disrupt the team’s ability to combat cyber terrorism.
The Peacock app will also feature daily programming highlights from Today, NBC Nightly News, Meet the Press, Noticias Telemundo, MSNBC, CNBC, NBC Sports, E! News and Access Hollywood, and 75 streaming channels, including clip-based channels like the best Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers comedy sketches, the best sketches from the SNL Vault, plus news channels from NBC News Now and Sky News, and genre channels like True Crime, Reality Check-In and 80s Mix Tape.
“Our variety of Peacock Originals at launch demonstrates how we deliver timely and timeless content--no matter the genre or format,” said Bill McGoldrick, president of Original Content, Peacock. “We’re proud to establish our voice and are excited to build on our strategy to attract a wide audience to Peacock.”