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Are Walmart’s streaming plans too little, too late?

The rumors of the real-world retail giant’s imminent foray into streaming media do not suggest that Walmart will be all smiles when it enters the ruthless market dominated by Netflix and Amazon.

Are Walmart’s streaming plans too little, too late?
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With more news this week of Walmart’s plans to launch its own subscription streaming service, the question is: Is it too little, too late? 

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On paper, the idea behind the service, which could be announced later this summer or in early fall, sounds reasonable: In a streaming world dominated by services like Netflix, HBO Now and GO, and Hulu, all of whose signature shows cater toward the liberal elite (this year Netflix signed a production deal with the Obamas), Walmart seeks to go after the folks in Middle America and serve them up shows like the (short-lived) Roseanne reboot and Fuller House.  

Walmart certainly has cash to spend. The retail giant generated $123 billion in revenue in the first fiscal quarter and has $7.9 billion in cash in its coffers. Sources say it is willing to spend a few billion dollars to launch the new service–something that will surely be enticing to Hollywood. The entertainment industry is increasingly brand agnostic, ready and willing to play with whoever will write the biggest check. 

As for consumers, Walmart has hinted that its service, which would include free and paid tiers, would be cheaper than its competitors, giving it another notch in its belt. 

The only problem is that Fuller House is actually already a thing–and on Netflix. In other words, the great swath of Middle America that Walmart is so eager to tap into is arguably already being served. Perhaps not blatantly or exclusively, but, arguably, rather effectively. Indeed, although Netflix has built its reputation in the media on sophisticated dramas like The Crown and House of Cards, it actually has a decent load of what might be considered Red State content, including Ozark and the Ashton Kutcher comedy The Ranch. Not to mention a huge catalog of network TV series. 

[Photo: Fabio Bracht/Unsplash]
The bigger challenge for Walmart, which is being advised on the project by former Epix CEO Mark Greenberg, is how to start from scratch, which is what the company will effectively be doing, when so many players are already so far ahead in streaming. Netflix has over 125 million subscribers and is pumping $8 billion into content this year; or four times what Walmart is reportedly thinking about spending. Amazon is now nipping at Hulu’s heels with over 100 million subscribers and is spending $5 billion on content. Hulu is about to be re-invigorated with more resources and strategic management by Disney, its majority-owner-to-be, once Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox is complete. HBO, meanwhile, has orders to beef up its pipeline from new-owner AT&T, which will be writing the company bigger checks than former owner Time Warner was. Disney, with the help of streaming-tech giant BAMTech, is putting all of its corporate energy into launching a new family entertainment streaming service by the end of 2019. Wait, are we forgetting anyone? Oh yeah, just a couple of small fries: Apple and Facebook.  

Beyond having to race to create a product and lure talent to create the kind of brand-making shows that have defined Netflix (Orange Is the New Black, Narcos), Amazon (Transparent), and Hulu (The Handmaid’s Tale), in order to succeed, Walmart would need to fill its library with licensed shows, which are what actually drive viewing. As the Los Angeles Times pointed out last week, 80% of TV streams on Netflix are licensed TV shows, and 42% of Netflix members watch little to none of the company’s original content. The data was based on a study conducted by the research firm 7Park Data.

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Netflix is having trouble holding onto licensed content as the studios become more protective of their own IP; the biggest blow has come from Disney, which will stop selling shows and movies to Netflix once its current contract expires. For anyone who isn’t building its own streaming service, its content is increasingly already locked up with other players like Amazon and Hulu. Even if Walmart shells out better offers, the company would have to wait for deals to expire, which could take years (which is more like decades, in streaming terms). 

Finally, Walmart’s track record in direct-to-consumer entertainment is weak, suggesting that perhaps the Walmart shopper thinks of it as a retailer and not a lifestyle brand. As far back as 2002, Walmart started testing a Netflix-style DVD-by-mail service. It sold that business to Netflix in 2005. In 2007, it tested a movie and TV show download service in partnership with Hewlett-Packard, but it never took off. In 2010, the company bought the video-on-demand company Vudu, which allows users to buy and rent movies, but that, too, has failed to gain traction. According to comScore, Vudu, which is available on devices like Roku, attracted only 13% of U.S. streaming households in April, compared to Netflix’s 73%, YouTube’s 50%, Hulu’s 36%, and Amazon’s 28%.  

By copying some of those players and throwing money at its streaming efforts, Walmart can certainly get to the starting gate. But to become an effective player–and get people to pony up for yet another streaming app–the company will need to do more than simply make another version of Roseanne.

It will need to distinguish itself in both its product and portfolio in a way that feels novel and exciting. Walmart already has a well-established brand. To win in streaming, it will need to prove why that brand matters in entertainment. 

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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