When Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) announced its streaming service in 2007, it created a gold rush. Netflix's first real competitor, Hulu, launched that same year, and today, there is no shortage of streaming competition.
But when it comes to streaming services, how many are too many? We may be about to find out. Disney (NYSE:DIS) has announced a subscription service called Disney+, and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is plotting its own streaming video service. On top of that, AT&T's (NYSE:T) WarnerMedia is making moves to start a streaming branch of its business.
The newcomers will join a market that already has some established giants. It's about to get very crowded in the streaming business.
The major streaming service landscape right now
Disney, Apple, and WarnerMedia are planning to enter a subscription streaming market that already looks fairly mature. Netflix (137 million subscribers) remains the top dog among subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) services, but there are major competitors in that space. The most notable is Amazon's (NASDAQ:AMZN) Prime Video, for the simple reason that it reaches the second-most viewers: 26 million according to documents obtained by Reuters in March, and that figure is likely to have risen along with Amazon's total Prime subscriber account. Hulu lags a bit behind the giants, but has a strong following of its own (20 million subscribers).
On top of that, there are the less-direct competitors. HBO offers its content via cable and streaming pay-TV packages, as well as through the Amazon Channels marketplace. But it also maintains a direct subscription service that competes with Netflix and the rest of the subscription video on demand (SVOD) gang. Tubi TV and Sony's Crackle are free streaming services using the ad-supported video-on-demand (AVOD) model. And live-TV skinny bundles tend to offer on-demand content, too, making them real competitors to Netflix and other SVOD-only services even if those companies continue to resist the jump into live TV themselves.
The field looks full, if not quite crowded. But it's going to get crowded fast. Disney seems likely to be the first of the newcomers on the scene, and its Disney+ SVOD service looks like the best bet to threaten Netflix since Amazon Prime. That's thanks largely to Disney's massive stable of stream-ready media properties, which grew to its current proportions when Disney acquired most of Twenty-First Century Fox.
Apple's project seems a bit further off, but its strategy also hinges on content: Apple is spending $1 billion to make content for its new service. And while the streaming service as a whole won't necessarily debut in 2019 (at least not in its final form or in a full global rollout), leaks have indicated that Apple will debut at least some of its original content by the end of that year.
WarnerMedia has content, too: It owns HBO, already a rival to Netflix. HBO's shows will form the basis for the new service's catalog, though WarnerMedia is also promising lots of new spending. Like Disney, WarnerMedia is looking at a 2019 debut for its service.
Self-competition and the consequences of a crowded market
The new, more crowded market is shaping up to be a mess. Disney's new service will boast tons of Disney content, but the company is also now the majority owner of Hulu, which it co-owns with Comcast and AT&T. Disney will likely focus more on its wholly owned streaming service, combining its own content with its own streaming service in a cost-effective strategy similar to the one that Netflix has pioneered. Comcast and AT&T have studios that make content, but how willing those companies will be to license their content to Hulu while Disney stuffs its own content into a competitor remains to be seen.
Disney isn't the only one with two services in competition with each other. When WarnerMedia releases its new service, it will be pushing an on-demand subscription that offers HBO content -- a service that will quite clearly compete with HBO Now, the current direct-subscription option for HBO. WarnerMedia says its new service will be pricier and will have additional content, but there are plenty of similarities between HBO and its new big brother -- and plenty of reasons to believe that the two will be in de facto competition.
And then there's the biggest question of all: How many streaming services does the market have room for? That's very hard to say. According to a CNBC poll in March 2018, one in four Americans subscribes to two or more streaming services. But a Leichtman Research finding pegged the number at 63% of Americans — nearly as many as the 69% of Americans who had a SVOD subscription at all.
But it is reasonable to assume that there is a limit to consumer appetites for SVOD services. And on-demand services aren't all like Netflix and its incoming competition. There are also niche SVOD services like AMC Networks' Shudder (for horror fans) and free ad-supported video on demand (AVOD) services like Tubi TV. Pairing such niche or non-SVOD services with a subscription to Netflix may make more sense for consumers than pairing one SVOD giant with another, since the former are cheaper and supplementary by design. It's not safe to assume that everyone with multiple subscriptions has more than one major SVOD service.
International growth opportunities could stave off the worst of a dogfight in the United States, and money saved from cutting cable (an accelerating trend) could expand American appetites for additional SVOD services. But there are a lot of services on the way and only so many customers. The competition in the SVOD space is about to get very, very tough.
Limits and long-term plans for SVOD services
In the United States, Amazon and (especially) Netflix dominate on-demand streaming. Netflix has the clear inside track thanks to its market share advantage, while Amazon has the benefit of being able to keep its streaming offerings housed in its larger (and more popular) Amazon Prime subscription service. Given Netflix and Amazon's head start and the fact that consumers have a limited appetite for SVOD subscriptions, an uphill battle awaits Disney, Apple, and WarnerMedia as they try to make real gains in the U.S. market.
With that said, Apple has the cash to compete, WarnerMedia has (through HBO) the content to compete, and Disney has both. The fight for the U.S. market will be furious and the stakes will be high. Even with international growth possibilities to offset domestic disappointments, this is a fight that seems likely to be fatal for at least one of the streaming services involved.
John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Stephen Lovely owns shares of Amazon, Apple, AT&T, and Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple and short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool recommends AMC Networks and Comcast. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.