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Whoever Can Solve This Streaming Video Problem Will Win the War

By Adam Levy - Oct 17, 2019 at 10:30AM

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Consumers already have too many subscriptions to remember.

Americans spend a lot of money on streaming subscriptions. A recent survey from Amdocs, a software and services provider to communications and media companies, found 27% of Americans are spending over $100 per month on subscriptions. That number will likely climb as new streaming-video competitors like Disney and Apple (AAPL 0.88%) enter the market over the next few months to take on stalwarts like Netflix and (AMZN -1.85%).

As the number of subscriptions grows, consumers are finding it harder and harder to manage them all. One-third of respondents in the Amdocs survey said remembering all their passwords was their biggest pain point; 39% said a bundled platform with a single login would be the best solution to their frustration.

Streaming-service aggregation is just starting to gain steam after Amazon introduced its Channels in 2015. Apple and Roku (ROKU -6.78%) each joined with their own aggregation services earlier this year, leveraging their install bases to improve revenue and profits from selling other companies' streaming services. Connectivity companies like Comcast (CMCSA -2.73%) and T-Mobile (TMUS -0.74%) are also starting to dip their toes into streaming-content aggregation, bundling other services with their own.

The companies that can successfully relieve this customer pain point stand to benefit greatly as consumers subscribe to more and more streaming services.

A man's silhouette standing in front of dozens of video screens.

Image source: Getty Images

Amazon, Apple, and Roku

Amazon, Apple, and Roku hold similar positions in their ability to offer a compelling streaming-aggregation service for users and streaming services. All three have install bases of tens of millions (or hundreds of millions in Apple's case) for their devices. Amazon also sports tens of millions of Prime members, a prerequisite for subscribing to Amazon Channels. Roku says the Roku Channel is a top-five channel on its platform. And Apple is working to make Apple TV an instant success by integrating Apple TV+ with Apple TV Channels in the app.

Apple has taken the extra step of extending its Apple TV app to Roku and Amazon's Fire TV. That gives it superior cross-device compatibility, offering consumers a way to stream all their services in a single interface with a single login and across whatever device they want. Well, almost any device: Apple, unsurprisingly, hasn't announced any plans to support Android.

But all of these services face some major roadblocks to offering consumers a complete solution to their problem. Most notably, Netflix isn't participating in any of the tech companies' aggregation services. It has taken steps over the last few years to keep more of its subscription revenue for itself instead of sharing it with distributors. Other companies with considerable leverage like Disney may exhibit similar behavior down the line. Disney is currently in a standoff with Amazon for ad inventory share for its ad-supported streaming services on Fire TV.

Can your internet or phone service do better?

Comcast introduced Xfinity Flex earlier this year, a streaming set-top box. Flex offers a content-first user interface featuring shows and films across multiple streaming services including Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and more. It's offering a single Flex device free to all of its internet subscribers.

While Comcast has revenue-share deals with Netflix and Amazon for customers signing up through its Xfinity platform, those deals are designed to reach an audience that's not typically heavily invested in streaming video. Netflix may not be as amenable to Comcast's Flex platform.

Moreover, Comcast has work to do to develop a wholesale relationship with streaming services, so it can offer a single login. All that said, Flex is extremely limited in its reach (Comcast's footprint only) and its available streaming services. Some services like virtual multichannel video programming distributors (vMVPDs) aren't available on Flex because they represent a direct challenge to Comcast's biggest source of revenue: cable TV. 

T-Mobile also has a deal with Netflix similar to Comcast's, integrating the service into its plan pricing for two or more lines on its unlimited wireless data plans. T-Mobile hasn't announced plans to expand on that deal, but COO Mike Sievert said he sees an opportunity for T-Mobile to help streaming services go to market and in "helping you choose the subscriptions that makes sense, billing for those things, [and] search and discovery of content," as he noted on its fourth-quarter earnings call in February.

Comcast and T-Mobile have different incentives than Amazon, Apple, and Roku, however. Whereas the tech companies are aiming to profit directly from distributing other services, Comcast, T-Mobile, and other connectivity-service providers stand to benefit from increasing subscriber switching costs. That may mean they're willing to take a much smaller cut of subscription revenue, making them much more appealing to streaming services.

Investors should look for other cable and telecom companies to move into streaming-service aggregation as a means to reduce the churn rate of their own subscribers. In the near future, consumers may not only have to choose which streaming services they want to pay for every month, but what platform through which they want to pay for them all.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Adam Levy owns shares of Amazon, Apple, and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Roku, and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2021 $60 calls on Walt Disney, short October 2019 $125 calls on Walt Disney, short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple, long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple, short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple, and long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Comcast and T-Mobile US. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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