The streaming wars reached new levels of competitive zeal in 2020 with the arrival of yet more services—most notably, HBO Max and Peacock—thus ratcheting up the need for players to prove their distinctiveness to customers overwhelmed by a dizzying array of choices. Over the course of the year came surprise hits in the form of an eccentric tiger trainer, an enigmatic chess champion, and an irrepressibly upbeat (yet totally unskilled) soccer coach, and surprise showings of meant-for-theaters movies such as Hamilton and the Borat sequel.
Indeed, viewers greatly benefited from Hollywood’s increasing need to rely on streamers to launch movies (see item 7) in the midst of COVID-19, as theaters closed down around the world, a trend that will likely continue even once the pandemic passes.
Having arrived at the tail end of all the jostling, here’s how the streaming services rank as we go into 2021:
Netflix continues to be the bonkers, rich uncle who shows up for dinner in extravagant clothes that don’t necessarily match, with wild tales of traveling the world and lavish gifts spilling out of his pockets. He may make you roll your eyes, but there’s no way you’re not inviting him over. The ever-dominant streamer became even more so in 2020 thanks to the pandemic and a global audience with huge gobs of time on its hands to Netflix and chill. This spike in consumption led to a record-breaking 16 million new subscribers in the first quarter, though the growth slowed down later in the year. Nevertheless, the company has racked up 195 million subscribers total, still the industry leader by a mile. Its throw-everything-at-the-wall approach to content is showing cracks: heralded films like Glen Keane’s animated feature Over the Moon came and went, as so many titles do, and the rich deals that Netflix made with showrunners like Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes have yet to pay off. Murphy’s offerings this year (Hollywood, The Politician) were duds, and it’s taken Rhimes three years to launch her first executive produced (not created) show, Bridgerton, which came out on Christmas. But proving that it still has the ability to draw aces, shows like Tiger King and The Queens Gambit came seemingly out of nowhere and dominated water-cooler chatter for weeks of the year. And as movie theaters shut down due to the pandemic, films like Extraction and The Old Guard filled the void.
2. Disney Plus
In 2020 only one streamer proved it’s any match for Netflix—and that’s Disney Plus. Its laser-focus approach to branding and cultivating its stable of A-list, family-friendly brands—Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, Nat Geo, etc.—helped the service reach 87 million subscriptions in just 13 months. The Star Wars offshoot The Mandalorian, the flagship series when Disney Plus launched, proved that a show without any big-name talent and a relatively modest production budget can still win over fans and have them hooked over the year that the show unspooled. Granted, it took Disney Plus eight months to pull out its next big hit, the filmed version of Hamilton, which Disney decided to stream rather than release in theaters in 2021, and which became the film event of the summer. But it rounded out the year with Pixar’s first streaming feature, Soul, and the promise of a fusillade of content in 2021 in beyond. Of the 105 new titles being spun off or given a prequel from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars,and old Disney titles like Three Men and a Baby and Turner and Hooch, 80% of them will debut on Disney Plus.
Already firmly situated in the streaming ecosystem with a familiar brand and solid library of new and existing content—including buzzy series like A Handmaid’s Tale and Little Fires Everywhere—Hulu has only become more fortified thanks to Disney ownership. In 2020, it became the streaming destination for content from FX, which launched A Teacher on the service, and which is gearing up to produce 30 new, original titles a year. Fox Searchlight titles will start arriving on the platform in 2022. (Essentially, Hulu will soon be Disney’s streaming channel for grown-up fare in the United States.) Hulu’s combination of a deep catalog of comfort viewing, live TV, along with new surprises, such as the Andy Samberg film Palm Springs— which Hulu said generated more hours watched over its first three days in July than any other film on the service during the period—makes Hulu a must-have tile on any TV screen. In 2020, the service grew to 36 million subscriptions.
4. Amazon Prime
As the ultimate free, video add-on for Amazon Prime members, the streamer has easily scaled its subscriber base to an estimated 150 million. Amazon has yet to clearly define its original programming strategy, moving out of the arthouse lane that initially defined it and into broader turf with this year’s thriller anthology series Welcome to the Blumhouse and the release of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, whose savvy marketing and timeliness (it was released days before the election) turned it into a buzzy cultural event—the streaming world’s equivalent of a blockbuster opening weekend. Amazon also generated noise with the dark, superhero series The Boys and garnered critical acclaim for Steve McQueen’s series Small Axe. The company certainly has the resources to surpass Netflix, but in order to do so will need to turn up its content spigot and invest more consistently in big-name attractions. Upcoming titles like Coming to America 2, which it bought from Paramount, will help.
A late entry in the streaming wars, NBCU’s free, ad-supported service (there are premium tiers with no ads) went up against early headwinds when it launched in July. The Olympics had been cancelled due to COVID-19, stripping the platform of a juggernaut marketing vehicle, and a number of its planned original series were delayed because of the pandemic. But thanks to its enormous library—20,000-plus hours—of familiar network TV shows and movies coming at a time when audiences craved comfort, Peacock took off quickly and scaled to 26 million subscribers by early December. (It’s unclear how many of them are paying subscribers.) An ongoing hurdle is that it is still not available on Amazon Fire TV, but it will gain more steam in 2021 with the arrival of The Office and extra content around the show in January. Its “Live Channels” feature, whereby content streams live, with no ability to fast-forward or scroll back—the way traditional TV works—is now being copied by Netflix.
6. Apple TV Plus
AppleTV Plus launched with a bang in late 2019 with a slate of gleaming, A-list original programs from the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Jason Momoa. The bang turned into more of a pop when most of its early releases failed to resonate—though series like The Morning Show grew into themselves and drummed up Emmy nominations (and one win). In the new year, the streamer gained momentum, launching left-field surprises, such as the addictively delightful Ted Lasso and the Israeli thriller Tehran. The company also defined its feature-film strategy over the summer, when it bought the Tom Hanks film Greyhound from Sony and turned it into a event movie on the service. Apple wouldn’t divulge numbers, but it was the streamer’s biggest opening weekend and was reportedly commensurate with a summer theatrical box-office hit. The streamer’s affordable pricing—$5.99 a month—and deep pockets mean that it’s poised to catch up to Netflix, and so far has a reported 35 million subscribers. Furthermore, its taste in prestige programming, penchant for talent relationships (it launched a Bruce Springsteen documentary), and partnerships with sterling brands like A24 mean that it could easily fill the void that HBO is leaving as HBO Max morphs into an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink collection of movies and TV shows.
7. HBO Max
HBO Max got off to a rough start with confusing marketing—no one could figure out the difference between HBO, HBO Now, and HBO Max—and a challenging price point of $14.99 a month. It also lacked key distribution partnership with the likes of Amazon and Roku. But towards the end of the year (better late than never), WarnerMedia made bold—and highly controversial—moves to goose its growth (and the stock of AT&T, which owns WarnerMedia). The $200 million Wonder Woman 1984 was moved to the platform, where it launched on Christmas Day; it was also released in theaters. More dramatically, WarnerMedia moved all 17 of Warner Bros. 2021 movies onto HBO Max, where they will get the same hybrid, streaming-theatrical release, including big-budget titles Dune and Matrix 4. The move prompted a new deal with Roku, just a month after one had been reached with Amazon. Even without corporate maneuvering, HBO Max was starting to find its footing with shows like The Flight Attendant and The Undoing, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant. As a result, in the last three months of the year, the streamer added four million new users, growing its activations to 12.6 million.