In the streaming wars, news breaks so fast it feels like you need a scorecard. Netflix (NFLX 0.16%) will lose Friends but will get Seinfeld. AT&T's (T 0.05%) WarnerMedia will have The Big Bang Theory on HBO Max. And remind me, again: What is Peacock?
The battle for subscribers' money -- and time (so many shows, so few hours) -- has never been so intense. Netflix has been the online video streaming leader for years, but now, blue-chip competitors have their own services or are about to launch them.
For investors, the competition demands attention, because some companies are willing to take a loss in the early streaming years. Their strategy: Spend big on content and offer low subscription rates that will attract subscribers. After a few years, when there's a large subscriber base, the business will be churning out cash (and loyal customers might be willing to pay higher prices).
So, let's look at streaming-video giant Netflix and five contenders competing to take subscribers: Disney's (DIS 1.29%) Disney+ and bundle package, Amazon Prime Video (AMZN 0.80%), HBO Max, Comcast's (CMCSA 0.94%) NBCUniversal service Peacock, and Apple's (AAPL -0.14%) Apple+.
The leader: Netflix
Netflix shares are down nearly 30% since July, and there are some legitimate reasons for concern. The company lost U.S. subscribers in the second quarter, something that hasn't happened since 2011. As competition ratchets up, Netflix is losing programming to rivals: Friends, Parks and Recreation, and The Office are among Netflix's most popular shows, and all will be on other platforms in the next 15 months.
That's not to suggest that the company is standing still. In September, Netflix announced that it had landed the worldwide streaming rights for longtime hit Seinfeld, beginning in 2021. Though terms of the Seinfeld deal haven't been announced, it's safe to assume the company paid hundreds of millions of dollars and maybe even a billion. That represents a Netflix trend: Increasing content spending. The company spent $12 billion in 2018, and that could reach $15 billion this year.
Those investments are paying off with awards (117 Emmy nominations this year) and subscribers. In the second quarter, Netflix reported 151.6 million global subscribers, including 60.1 million in the United States. (For perspective, consider that eMarketer estimates Netflix to have 62 million more U.S. viewers than its next-closest competitor, Amazon Prime Video.)
Netflix is undeniably video streaming's top dog, but that also means the company has the most to lose against some deep-pocketed competitors.
The No. 1 contender: Disney
Disney has been creating content for nearly 100 years, and its lineup will attract loyal fans. Whether it's Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, or The Simpsons, Disney has them all. To bolster that library of existing content, Disney is planning to release a number of original series for its service as well. Disney+ will launch Nov. 12 with 300 movies and more than 7,500 episodes of Disney TV, management has said.
At $6.99 per month, Disney is about half the price of Netflix's most popular plan ($12.99). Disney also will offer a bundle package, which includes Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu (also a Disney property) all for only $12.99.
$12.99 for Standard Plan
|Signed deal for Seinfeld sitcom|
|Disney+||$6.99 monthly ($69.99 annually)||Launches Nov. 12.|
|Amazon Prime||$12.99 monthly ($119 annually)||Won 15 Emmys in 2019.|
|HBO Max||Not yet announced||Launches in spring 2020|
|Peacock||Not yet announced||Launches in April 2020|
|AppleTV+||$4.99 monthly||Launches Nov. 1|
Disney is willing to lose money in the early years of the service as it attempts to quickly grow a subscriber base. That growth might cost Netflix subscriptions.
Other contenders: Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max, Peacock
Amazon Prime Video: Amazon's video service continues to pump out award-winning content. Amazon won 15 Emmys in September. Only HBO (34) and Netflix (27) won more.
As the company continues to strengthen its video content (spending could reach $7 billion this year), Amazon becomes a bigger threat to competitors. No other streaming service offers the value proposition that comes with an Amazon Prime subscription -- free delivery of merchandise bought on Amazon's platform.
Prime Video alone costs $8.99 per month, but Amazon Prime's $119 annual fee -- which includes video -- is less than an extra dollar per month, $9.91. (Amazon Prime is $12.99 monthly.) It's a competitive price, and if subscriber fatigue begins to set in for consumers choosing a video service, Amazon Prime has a notable competitive advantage.
WarnerMedia's HBO Max: If you've got HBO confusion, let's clear this up briefly: HBO is the service you can buy with your cable subscription. HBO Go is a streaming service available for HBO subscribers. HBO Now is a streaming service available to people who don't have HBO through a cable provider.
Which brings us to HBO Max, a new service expected to launch in spring 2020. It will have a 10,000-hour content library that includes two of the most popular television series this century -- Friends and The Big Bang Theory. In July, the company reported it would be streaming Friends' 236 episodes. In September, WarnerMedia announced a deal, reportedly worth over $1 billion, to stream The Big Bang Theory's 279 episodes. Those modern-day classics will join HBO content that will include new original series and a library with Game of Thrones, Sopranos, The Wire and more.
The quality is undeniable, but the price is where it gets interesting for HBO Max. WarnerMedia is expected to reveal pricing and more details Oct. 29. Right now, HBO Now is the most expensive of the subscription services, at $14.99 per month. Given the lower rates for Disney+ and Netflix, it would seem difficult for WarnerMedia to price HBO Max higher than $14.99. And it's unlikely the company would price it lower because it already has millions of HBO subscribers paying that rate.
NBCUniversal's Peacock: The new service will launch in April, and the company says it will have more than 15,000 hours of content. The shows will include well-known classics like Saturday Night Live and Cheers, along with new series, including a reboot of Battlestar Galactica.
The company plans to have an advertising service and a subscription-based service, but it hasn't announced pricing. What it has announced is that two of Netflix's most popular offerings -- The Office and Parks and Recreation -- eventually will be on Peacock. The Office won't leave Netflix until the beginning of 2021.
The long shot: AppleTV+
It's odd to call Apple a long shot at anything. It has a huge cash hoard (more than $210 billion). It also has 1.4 billion iOS devices on the market, a massive potential to attract subscribers already on Apple's platform.
Apple has resources but lands in the long shot category for two reasons. First, AppleTV+ is cheap. The new streaming service will cost only $4.99 per month, and it's free for a year for customers who buy an iPhone, iPad, Mac, or Apple TV. It's possible customers that will keep their Netflix subscription and simply add Apple. Second, when Apple launches Nov. 1, it's expected to have only nine original shows. While those are packed with big names, Apple's library is so small that it probably won't be a viewer's only streaming service.
The streaming wars are likely to be a mixed bag for viewers, who will need more subscriptions to find all their shows. However, content quality should remain high and subscription costs might not go up in the short term in such a competitive environment.
For investors, it also could be a mixed bag. For instance, Netflix's entire business model is based on subscriptions for streaming video. For Apple, streaming video will be a tiny fraction of revenue, dwarfed by iPhone sales.
Investors should examine each company closely and take a long-term view of the impact streaming video may have on their overall growth.