When Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) got its streaming start in 2007, it was the only service of its kind. Locking down deals to stream movies and TV shows back then was not quite as difficult as it is in today's highly competitive field. But Netflix foresaw that it wouldn't be the only game in town forever, and it prepared for a cost-efficient and promising future by investing heavily in original content. Last year, Netflix spent more than $12 billion on content, around 85% of which was earmarked for original films and series.

Netflix needs to spend big. It's facing down a lot of new competition, and many of the incoming competitors are major content producers -- effectively taking certain shows, movies, and franchises out of Netflix's consideration. But the newcomers have to spend, too, because toppling Netflix won't be cheap. The result is a pricey battle for the best content. Let's take a look at what the major companies are shelling out.

Coins slip through a businessman's fingers.

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Amazon: $6 billion on original content

Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) spent $1.7 billion on music and video content in the first quarter of 2019, an increase of 13% year over year that put the company on pace for $7 billion of content spending in 2019. But that combined total makes it tough to figure out how much Amazon is spending on video as opposed to music.

According to one analysis, Amazon's 2019 content budget will include roughly $6 billion earmarked for original content. That figure would put Amazon neck and neck with a new competitor: Apple.

Apple: $6 billion

Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) new streaming service, Apple TV+, is designed to take on Netflix and draw customers to Apple's TV app, an Amazon Channels-like service that gives Apple another chance to charge a platform tax. But Apple TV+ is entering a market with established competitors like Netflix, and Apple does not have a back catalog to leverage like Disney does.

What it does have, like its peers in the tech industry, is a lot of cash on hand. Apple is using that cash to play catch-up. Apple's big spending on original content has only gotten bigger since numbers were first reported, and it now stands at an eye-popping $6 billion.

AT&T: $14.3 billion in 2018 and likely more in 2019

AT&T's (NYSE:T) HBO boasts some of the biggest shows in streaming -- and some of the priciest, too. AT&T spent a whopping $14.3 billion on content in 2018, according to RBC Capital Markets analysts. With a new streaming service on the way, AT&T is likely to spend even more this year.

AT&T has already beefed up HBO's streaming budget (HBO spent about $2 billion a year before being acquired), and now it's poised to spend even more to get HBO Max off the ground.

Disney: $23.8 billion but not all for streaming ($1 billion on Disney+ originals)

Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) is making a big push in the streaming space, because it already has a lot of content to offer subscribers, so it's no surprise to find some numbers here that aren't completely relevant and others that look a little low. Disney's entire content budget is $23.8 billion -- but that includes content not only for three streaming services (Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu) but for non-streaming outlets like movie cinemas and Disney-owned television channels (like ABC and Freeform) as well. Take out sports and that drops to $16.4 billion.

Further confusing things is the fact that there's so much overlap; for instance, Disney funds shows on ABC that are available to stream on Hulu after they air.

However, Disney is spending $1 billion on Disney+ original content this year, a figure that the company expects to rise to $2.4 billion by 2024. That's less than many competitors spend, but Disney has lots of content to supplement the originals with -- which is why the company is also spending $1.5 billion to license content from its own catalog to Disney+.

Then there's Hulu, which had a 2018 content budget of $2.5 billion. Hulu's CEO says that Disney will step up spending on Hulu now that the former company controls the streaming service, but neither Hulu nor Disney has revealed any figures on that alleged boost in investment.

Ultimately, Disney's spending isn't entirely what it seems, especially in terms of original content. Disney has a massive and valuable back catalog of movies, and Disney-owned shows and movies that hit TV channels and movie theaters in 2019 are all candidates for inclusion on Disney+ at some point down the line. These content paths make Disney's original streaming content spending figures a poor comparison to streaming-only competitors like Netflix, while Disney's overall content budget remains a poor comparison for the inverse reason.

Netflix: $12 billion in 2018 -- but what about 2019?

As mentioned earlier, Netflix has been spending big on content in general and original content in particular. The company's budget has risen quickly, hitting $12.04 billion in 2018.

Year Content Spending
2015 $4.61 billion
2016 $6.88 billion
2017 $8.91 billion
2018 $12.04 billion


Some analysts expect Netflix to keep spending even more, up to a projected total of more than $15 billion. But that might not come to fruition. According to a report last month from The Information, Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos has told some film and TV executives that Netflix will tighten its belt. The company can't afford to waste money in a battle against such powerful and deep-pocketed new competitors.

Big spenders

There's a lot of money flying around the streaming space right now, and more is likely to pour in. We still don't know, for instance, how much Comcast will spend after committing to a $500 million deal to bring The Office back home. With subscription churn likely and competition everywhere, the stakes are high for these companies as they bet more and more cash on their streaming futures.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.