The streaming wars raged on in 2021. The giant players—Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney Plus—created more high-profile events to cement the viewing habits formed in the pandemic, and late entrants (welcome, Paramount Plus!) tried to make a dent in people’s streaming budget. All of the services benefited from the shift away from seeing movies in theaters, but viewers also began migrating off of couches and heading back into IRL social gatherings as well as returning to the office. Not to mention that pandemic-induced production delays meant that new TV shows and movies didn’t hit streaming platforms in a substantial way until later in the year. No two companies’ strategies in meeting these challenges were alike, nor were their end-of-the-year results. Herewith is a report card summarizing who best rose to the very unique occasion that was 2021.
If any streamer got a shot in the arm in 2021, it was HBO Max, which, in a twist of pandemic-related fate, wound up with Warner Bros.’ entire theatrical slate for the year on its platform, including big-budget films like Dune and Godzilla v. Kong, which were released day and date on HBO Max. This infusion of mass entertainment (a bet that could have gone horribly awry, mind you) along with HBO’s consistent delivery of top-notch, buzzy shows—White Lotus, Succession, and Mare of Easttown—made HBO Max the streamer to beat this year. (HBO Max originals like Hacks also struck a nerve.) The service, along with HBO, now has nearly 70 million subscribers. More exclusive films are planned for 2022. Although Warner Bros. will return to theatrical releases in the new year, it is making 10 films specifically for its streaming sibling. The move comes as HBO Max is preparing to lose some of its content to rivals wanting to beef up their own streaming platforms. Comcast announced that Universal movies will soon move to Peacock after they come out in theaters. And Disney will be keeping movies from Fox on Disney Plus or Hulu after 2022. Yet even with these hiccups, HBO’s continued track record of living up to its pedigreed mantra—”It’s not TV. It’s HBO”—makes HBO Max one of the strongest contenders in the race.
2. Amazon Prime Video
In April, Jeff Bezos wrote in his last shareholder letter as Amazon CEO that Prime, which includes its video streaming service, had surpassed 200 million subscribers, inching it ever closer to arch-rival Netflix. The growth underscored Amazon’s own transition from a prestige programming platform (remember Manchester by the Sea?) to one that has expanded its focus to major event films. The Chris Pratt action movie The Tomorrow War, for example, cost Amazon $200 million to buy the film from Paramount, and reportedly garnered 1.1 million minutes of viewing time over its Fourth of July weekend release. This past year also saw the release of the Coming to America sequel (another Paramount acquisition). On the TV front, Amazon notched things up tremendously with the adaptation of Robert Jordan’s best-selling fantasy novels, The Wheel of Time, which Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke said was the most-watched series premiere of the year and one of the top five series in Amazon’s history. (Prime Video’s long-anticipated The Lord of the Rings adaptation is coming in 2022.) Fan-favorite originals such as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and The Boys, meanwhile, continue to roll along. Amazon still spends far less than Netflix on content—$11 billion in 2020, to Netflix’s $17 billion—but with the pending $8.5 billion acquisition of MGM, the company may soon have access to library that boasts the kind of franchise—James Bond—that Netflix can only dream of.
After a lackluster start to the year—the hangover following the binge fest that was 2020, when Netflix saw its subscriber numbers soar—Netflix ended the year with a bang in the form of Squid Game. The dystopian Korean drama, that has spurred TikTok memes and Halloween costumes (and inspired Netflix executives to show up to an earnings call in green track suits) became the biggest show in Netflix’s history, proving how its strategy of investing in local language content is paying off in a big way. Indeed, shows like Squid Game, La Casa de Papel (Spain), and Sex Education (U.K.) were the top watched-shows on Netflix in September. Squid Game not only pushed Netflix back into the cultural conversation, but it gives the company a major franchise (in addition to Stranger Things) to plug into its new revenue gambits such as gaming and merchandise, which Netflix is pursuing as it tries to catch up to Disney. If there was any lesson for Netflix in 2021, it was that it needs to further differentiate itself from rivals like HBO Max and Amazon Prime that are starting to catch up to its long-dominant subscriber base—it hit 209 million this year. Attempts to copy Marvel and create a cinematic superhero universe with the comic-book IP Millarworld has sputtered thus far, and although Netflix has touted the outsized success of its star-studded action film Red Notice, it appeared to be a rather quiet phenomenon in terms of actual discourse.
4. Apple TV+
In 2021, Apple’s deliberate, slow-paced approach when it comes to producing content began to pay off. Ted Lasso came back for its second season with an aw-shucks charm offensive, establishing itself as one of the year’s most popular shows—it took home seven Emmy Awards, including Best Comedy series—and titles like The Morning Show, the NASA-themed For All Mankind, and the adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation generated their own share of buzz. The company is still playing catch up with subscribers—it reportedly has 20 million paying users and another 20 million who get the service through free trials—but with reports that it is going to dramatically increase its output in 2022 to at least one new TV show or movie a week (double its 2021 release cadence), that number is poised to spike. In the meantime, the company is continuing to marry big, commercial bets like the Tom Hanks movie Finch with more niche selections like Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground documentary and the series The Problem with Jon Stewart. The vision doesn’t feel fully realized yet, but the blueprint is there. With more firepower in the coming year, AppleTV Plus could well become a real threat to the mega streamers, particularly if it dips into the company’s trillion-dollar war chest.
5. Disney Plus
After meteoric start in November 2019, Disney Plus’ growth stalled in late 2021, in part due to pandemic-related production delays slowing its ability to release new content. But the sluggishness also points to a more pressing, existential problem that the streamer faces: How does a platform so singularly focused on a single genre—family entertainment—survive in a landscape where Netflix, Amazon, et al, are offering virtually everything to their subscribers? Put another way: Are new seasons of The Mandalorian and WandaVision, plus a library of old kids’ titles (however beloved), enough for Disney Plus to remain a mainstream streaming player? Disney has racked up an impressive 118 million subscribers in a very short amount of time, but for that to double and close the gap with Netflix and Amazon, the company will need to come up with more content options for viewers. Not helping matters is Disney’s confusing, figure-it-out-as-we-go programming strategy when it comes to releasing movies. While Pixar’s Luca was available exclusively on Disney Plus (reportedly annoying animators), Marvel’s Black Widow and Cruella got day-and-date releases, available to Disney Plus subscribers for an extra $30 while simultaneously debuting in theaters. Later in the year, Disney veered back to theatrical-only distribution with Marvel’s Shang-Chi and Eternals, and Disney Animation’s Encanto, which all appeared on the streaming platform months after they hit theaters. (This annoyed Scarlett Johanson, who sued Disney over lost compensation; they settled.) For a company that is so steadfast and clear about what it’s offering users, how it’s offering it to them is a tad schizophrenic.
Hulu has historically been in the crosshairs of varying corporate interests, making it a conundrum that no one could seem to figure out. Even with Disney now as its majority owner, that perception hasn’t really changed. With most of Disney’s firepower going toward Disney Plus, Hulu has yet to come up with a robust, originals pipeline to replace aging favorites like The Handmaid’s Tale and Little Fires Everywhere, nor is much money being spent on that effort. Hulu’s content budget in 2020 was $3 billion. Worse: In 2022, the platform may start losing content from NBCU, which could begin redirecting shows to its own streamer, Peacock. Broadcast shows, including next-day reruns, remain Hulu’s biggest appeal, but even this can get complicated. For a buzzy series like FX’s Impeachment: American Crime Story, the show was only available to Hulu Live subscribers. Although FX is also now owned by Disney, Impeachment will be headed to Netflix in 2022, due to an old library deal. Then again, some new originals struck a chord this year, such as Dopesick and Only Murders in the Building, which the service claims was its most-watched comedy series premiere ever. Hulu’s subscribers have risen to 43 million, compared to 35 million in 2020. Disney also says Hulu is now profitable.
In 2021, Peacock finally got the live event its original launch in 2020 was predicated on: the pandemic-delayed summer Olympics. As expected, the Tokyo Games delivered a jolt and in July, Peacock was up to 54 million signups and more than 20 million monthly active users. But the question quickly became: Now what? Without a collection of buzzy original series, by the end of the year subscriptions appeared to be lagging. Parent company Comcast offered no details on Peacock’s growth during its third-quarter earnings call in late October. Rather than a Netflix-style Vegas buffet, Comcast has positioned Peacock as the place to watch the best of broadcast TV. It’s home to The Office, Parks and Recreation,and Modern Family (which it shares with Hulu). Thrown in are a smattering of originals—like Dr. Death, which did garner acclaim, and a reboot of Saved by the Bell—as well as WWE programming, which Peacock acquired the U.S. streaming rights to early in 2021. But without a solid premium offering, it’s not clear how Peacock will pull itself up in the streaming wars, particularly when it comes to gaining higher-paying customers who want more than Peacock’s free-with-ads tier. One answer may be Universal movies, including Jurassic World: Dominion, and Minions: The Rise of Gru, which Peacock will start streaming 45 days after they hit theaters in 2022.