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In 2018, the best streaming drama took place offscreen

How Netflix, Amazon, Warner, and Disney defined streaming’s future this year.

In 2018, the best streaming drama took place offscreen
[Photos: Sharp Objects: Anne Marie Fox/HBO; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: Giles Keyte/Lucasfilm; The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: courtesy of Amazon Studios; Roma: Carlos Somonte/Netflix]

In 2018, the biggest proof of being a Serious Media Company That Totally Gets the Future And Is All Over It was to announce a streaming service. From the newly formed WarnerMedia to Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Quibi to, of course, Costco (!), everyone threw their hat in the ring vowing to create the next Netflix.

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Why wouldn’t they? Linear TV watching remains on a steady, downhill incline. Even my mother knows what Netflix is and has become one of the 137 million people to sign up for the app. Anyone under the age of 18 spends most of their time on mobile devices. In this environment, it’s not all that hard to drum up a couple hundred million–or, if you’re Katzenberg, $1 billion–just by saying the words “streaming platform.”

Herewith is a look back at the key moments and trends that shaped the 2018 streaming arms race.

1. The Year of Anticipation 

So everyone says they’re getting into streaming and will be launching a hot new service in “late 2019”–maybe early 2020 if they can’t quite pull everything together by then. That much we’ve unanimously agreed is the right time to turn into Netflix (at which time Netflix will have somewhere north of 150 million global subscribers). What’s less clear–much less clear–is what that actually means. 

That’s because none of the streamers-to-be companies have come out and announced a cohesive strategy or plan for their services. Rather, each has slowly dripped out details over the course of several months–a tea leaf here, an executive hiring there–leaving observers and news outlets to piece things together and draw their own conclusions as to how, exactly, these apps are going to fulfill their owners’ mission of competing with behemoths like Netflix and Amazon.

Disney has been playing this game longer than anyone. It announced in August of 2017 that it was pulling its content off Netflix in 2019 and launching a new entertainment app that would be built by BAMTech, in which Disney is a majority stakeholder. It wasn’t until this past November that the service was given a name, Disney+, and a few more contours to round out the picture: Content would be divided by brand (Marvel, Disney, Pixar, Nat Geo, Star Wars) and have exclusive movies and TV shows, including a new Star Wars series starring Diego Luna as Rebel spy Cassian Andor, following his adventures leading up to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. 

WarnerMedia’s new app seems to be coming together more quickly; the company has only existed, after all, since June 2018 when AT&T acquired Time Warner and birthed the company. That said, AT&T has had since at least October 2016, when it announced its intent to buy Time Warner, to develop a streaming strategy. But it still seems to have gotten only so far as having a plan to have a plan. Since being announced last summer, all we know at this point is that it will be a three-tiered service, not unlike AT&T’s data plans; content will come from HBO, Time Warner, and Turner (which anyone could have guessed); Turner exec Kevin Reilly will be heading the content strategy; and Friends, one of the crown jewels in the WarnerMedia library, will not be exclusive to the service at launch.

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Then there’s Quibi, Katzenberg’s billion-dollar, short-form, mobile platform, which promises to have 5,000 episodes of “quick bite” content in the year after its launch next year, even though at this point it’s not fully staffed. Not to mention Apple, which is sinking $1 billion into a slate of high-profile press releases announcing deals with A24 and stars like Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston. 

How much will any of these services cost? What will be exclusive to these services and when will it appear on them? How much content will actually be offered at launch? Who knows?! Those are late-2019 problems. What seems to have mattered most in 2018 was staking out ground in the increasingly crowded streaming universe and stating your intent not to be left behind in the digital revolution.

[Photo: courtesy of Warner Media]

2) The year of go big or go home

The streaming game of 2018 was also defined by scale. If you’re not going to try to be as big as Netflix, why bother? This philosophy led WarnerMedia to shutter two of its niche streaming platforms not long after the AT&T and Time Warner merger: FilmStruck, the classic movie subscription app that combined films from the Turner Classic Library and the Criterion Collection; and DramaFever, a VOD service geared toward Korean dramas. The company also shuttered SuperDeluxe, Turner’s youth-focused digital media company that created short- and long-form programming for TV and social media. 

These smaller spigots had to be turned off now in order to feed content into WarnerMedia’s bigger hose–i.e., its forthcoming app–and to, as the company said in regards to SuperDeluxe, “redirect this investment back into our portfolio.”

If you’re a corporate accountant, this strategy makes perfect sense. You’re not going to compete with rivals like Amazon, Disney, and Netflix with a battalion of micro-targeted apps. FilmStruck, for example, had 100,000 subscribers. Netflix has more than 130 million.

But what is lost in this shift are passionate fan bases, the kind that are crucial to word-of-mouth and longevity as subscribers (as opposed to the types that churn through OTT subscriptions based on wanting to see and binge a new show and then cut bait until the next one). Indeed, the news that FilmStruck was closing set off an outcry of horror–and an online petition to keep it alive–among the brand’s small but vocal following. 

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Will WarnerMedia be able to retain that group when it launches its new multi-tiered app next year? To do so will require threading a needle of sorts–appealing to both these niche audiences along with the bulk content buyers that are its ultimate target. In other words, WarnerMedia’s new app will have to be for lovers of both Casablanca and Harry Potter. Netflix has proven this is possible. Can WarnerMedia?

Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg [Photo: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]

3) The Year of the Nine-Figure Show Runner

In 2018, deep-pocketed streaming companies, Netflix in particular, began directing their resources not just at big-budget TV shows, but at the people who make them.

After Netflix started this process back in 2017 with its $150 million overall deal with Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes, the streamer has followed suit this year with a $300 million deal for Glee and American Horror Story showrunner Ryan Murphy and a $100 million pact with Kenya Barris, the mind behind Black-ish. 

With that, a talent arms race was underway, with even non-household-name scribes getting fat overall deals. Warner Bros. signed Jessica Jones (a Netflix series) scribe Melissa Rosenberg with an eight-figure deal. Marti Noxon, who created HBO’s Sharp Objects and has written on a number of big shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mad Men,  and Glee, got similar treatment from Netflix. 

Netflix’s motivation is to pad itself with brand-name talent, who will attract brand-name talent, who will, in turn, theoretically at least, woo subscribers. Ultimately, that’s the company’s only real mission and business. It’s also a way to deal blows to traditional media and weaken its competitors as Netflix evolves into its own television network. Rhimes and Barris were two of ABC’s biggest showrunners, and it’s not entirely coincidental that the Rhimes deal was announced just weeks after ABC’s parent company, Disney, said that it would be pulling its content off Netflix in 2019 in order to keep it for Disney+. The Ryan Murphy deal came two months after Disney agreed to acquire Fox, which had been Murphy’s home base.

The question for 2019 is: How much longer can this extravagance continue? Netflix is operating on borrowed cash, after all. At what point does spending on big names become a liability, or at least an incredibly risky game, especially given that at this point most people are tuning in to the service to watch Rhimes’ old shows, like Grey’s? The headlines generated by the deals have certainly captured the media’s attention. But will the actual shows? 

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The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel [Photo: courtesy of Nicole Rivelli/Amazon Studios]

4) The year Amazon grew up 

Yes, some of the best streaming-world drama actually took the form of great programming! This was the year that Amazon proved its TV chops, or at least revived itself after a years-long, post-Transparent slump. That show, which debuted in 2014, established Amazon as a buzzworthy competitor to Netflix, along with other critically acclaimed titles like Mozart in the Jungle. But Amazon never fully leveraged its Transparent edge, nor did the show about a transgender patriarch played by Jeffrey Tambor ever reach a very broad audience despite getting awards love. (Its final season was announced earlier this year in the wake of sexual harassment allegations against Tambor.) Mozart, too, always felt like a small show embraced by cultish fans. 

Today, Transparent feels like a cocktail hour that paved the way for Amazon’s real coming-out party. Led by The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which took home eight Emmys this year, including best comedy series–a category that has long been dominated by HBO’s Veep–Amazon’s lineup this year is a deep bench of quality shows that have connected with the zeitgeist. Among them are: Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan with John Krasinski; the adaptation of the popular Gimlet podcast Homecoming, starring Julia Roberts; and the drama series A Very English Scandal, with Hugh Grant and Ben Wishaw. The only blatant miss: Matthew Weiner’s much-anticipated mini series The Romanoffs, which left viewers scratching their heads. 

When the SAG nominations were announced last week, Mrs. Maisel nabbed four; Jack Ryan received two; and King Lear, the TV movie starring Anthony Hopkins, and A Very English Scandal each garnered one. 

Expect the turnaround to accelerate under Jen Salke, the Amazon Studios head who joined the company from NBC earlier in the year. Within weeks of her appointment, Salke was reaching out to talent like Nicole Kidman and Jordan Peele to make deals. Salke is promising to do the same on the film front, which is still steadying itself in the wake of executive departures that preceded her. 

[Photo: courtesy of Netflix]

5) The Year of Netflix growing pains

Media Darling, Critics Darling, Consumer Darling, Wall Street Darling–Netflix has been all of the above for years now, or at least since the 2011 Quikster debacle (but who remembers that?)! In 2018, though, the streamer hit some stumbling blocks, the result of its ever-escalating scale as well as an identity crisis of sorts, as the company that has always prided itself on being Disruptor Numero Uno, began adopting some of the Hollywood practices that it is desperately trying to usurp. 

Case in point was the rollout of Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s sweeping memoir of his childhood nanny that quickly emerged as a Best Picture contender following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival last August. After vowing publicly that the film would debut in theaters the same day it dropped on Netflix–as has been its policy–the company then reversed this decision and gave the film, along with a few other awards contenders, a brief exclusive run in theaters. The move revealed internal confusion at the company and raised the question: Is Netflix indeed a tech disruptor or a Hollywood sheep dressed in disruptor’s clothing? 

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Then there was the bungled press rollout of Norm MacDonald Has a Show, which saw the former SNL comedian embark on a bender of gaffes–he described Louis C.K. and Roseanne as victims and then, in an attempt to recuse himself from the comments, said “You’d have to have Down’s Syndrome to not feel sorry” for those who’ve been subject to sexual misconduct. Not to mention the graceless cancellation of Michelle Wolf’s talk show: Employees of the show found out their gig was up via a Twitter post from Netflix. 

Netflix itself became embroiled in a political correctness scandal when its former head of communications, Jonathan Friedland, was fired after using the N-word in a marketing meeting. The drama was the subject of one of two lengthy pieces in the Wall Street Journal that shed light on Netflix’s “unique” company culture, which, we learned, is replete with its own, cultish lingo; endorses strenuous acts of transparency such as allowing all employees to look up how much everyone in the company earns; and has its own “churn” approach to staffing.   

But hey, the Queer Eye reboot has been fun.

Looking ahead to 2019, we say to Netflix: Better luck!

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based senior 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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