Preventing people from being bored is a surprisingly big business. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that consumers in the U.S. alone collectively spend on the order of $700 billion per year on everything from movies and television to video games, music, and books, which makes entertainment one of the country's biggest industries.

Of course, whenever big bucks are at stake, big companies develop. A handful of familiar entertainment names have grown into outright behemoths, and they all continue to leverage their existing reach. Curiously, though, they operate distinctly different business models.

Here's a rundown of the three biggest entertainment giants in the U.S., from smallest to largest.

Woman watching a movie in a theater.

Image source: Getty Images.

Netflix

Market cap: $214 billion

As the king of the streaming video market, Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) is a well-known name. What's not fully appreciated about the company is just how far it's come since 2007, when it first started to offer streaming movies in addition to DVD-by-mail rentals. CEO Reed Hastings may not have known it at the time, but he was about to revolutionize how we watch movies at home. The company's annual revenue grew from around $1 billion then to nearly $24 billion per year now, driving its market cap up from roughly $1 billion then to its current size of $214 billion. The company's annual net income is nearing $3 billion.

Those numbers make for an outrageous valuation by almost any standard, but this may be a case in which investors simply have to accept they'll be paying a premium if they want to participate in the company's success. Indeed, it may well be worth that price.

Certainly the company's got some up-and-coming rivals to deal with, like Walt Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Disney+ and HBO Max from AT&T unit WarnerMedia. Being first to the market has helped make Netflix a favorite among consumers. A recent survey performed by TiVo makes it clear that if a consumer is going to subscribe to any on-demand video platform at all, it's most likely to be Netflix. In other words, when choosing a combination of SVOD services that included Amazon's (NASDAQ:AMZN) Prime, Google's YouTube, and Disney's Hulu as well as Disney+, survey participants almost always chose a combination that included Netflix. It remains the pacesetter for all the others.

Comcast

Market cap: $226 billion

You may recognize Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) as a cable giant, which these days usually means it's a broadband provider as well (coaxial cable lines are particularly well suited for delivering high speed internet service). What you may not fully realize is just how many other businesses this company is in. Comcast is the owner of broadcast network NBC and movie studio Universal, which means it's also the owner of Universal-branded theme parks, as well as the nascent streaming service Peacock. The media powerhouse acquired most of Britain's Sky in 2018, adding exposure to overseas cable, broadband, and streaming opportunities. No one business accounts for more than a fifth of the company's total revenue, but perhaps more important, Comcast's business lines don't ebb and flow together. The company's always got something marketable to offer to consumers in particular situations.

Case in point: The rise of streaming video has taken a toll on Comcast's cable business. Its Xfinity cable service shed another 273,000 customers last quarter, bringing its total attrition to over 2 million for the past couple of years. The company continues to build its customer base in the very business that's driving all this cord-cutting, though. Xfinity added over 600,000 broadband subscribers during the three-month stretch ending in September, and now serves 3 million more high speed internet customers than it did two years ago.

Comcast's big challenge in this ever-changing environment is finding the optimal mix of services and bundles with the widest appeal.

Walt Disney

Market cap: $256 billion

Finally, it comes as no real surprise that Walt Disney is the entertainment industry's single-biggest player, sporting a market cap in excess of $250 billion.

Disney is a pillar of the business. It's been making movies and shorts since the 1930s, has been the premier name in amusement parks since 1955, and has steadily expanded its resort and hotel presence for the past few decades. The company also owns the ABC television network and sports channel ESPN, and of course has developed respectable streaming platforms Hulu, ESPN+, and Disney+. The last of those three only launched a year ago, yet already serves nearly 74 million paying customers.

What's most amazing about Disney's massive size is that it's still the biggest entertainment name, despite this year's overwhelming challenges. Coronavirus-related shutdowns and restrictions crimped the company's film and theme park operations far more than it boosted its streaming and television revenue. For its fiscal fourth quarter ending in early October, revenue was down 23% year over year, and lower to the tune of 6% for the full year. Full-year operating income was down nearly 50%, and off by more than 80% last quarter alone.

The market saw it coming, for the record. Disney stock took a 40% dive in February and March -- like most other stocks -- as pandemic uncertainty took hold. Disney shares are back to their pre-plunge levels, though, with investors anticipating the company's prioritization of streaming will be a much-needed recovery driver.

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.