Business / Tech

Streaming wars heat up as rivals prepare to challenge Netflix


Some of the biggest names in media and tech are gearing up to move into streaming in what could be a major challenge to market leader Netflix.

Apple is expected to make its move with an announcement March 25 on its media plans, with a war chest estimated at some $1 billion and partners including stars like Jennifer Aniston and director J.J. Abrams involved in content.

Walt Disney Co. has announced its new streaming service Disney+ will launch this year, as will another from WarnerMedia, the newly acquired media-entertainment division of AT&T.

The new entrants, with more expected, could launch a formidable challenge to Netflix, which has some 140 million paid subscribers in 190 markets, and to other services such as Amazon and Hulu.

“It’s really going to change the industry,” said Alan Wolk, co-founder of the consulting firm TVREV who follows the sector.

Wolk said he sees seven or eight powerful players in streaming, which will lead to “huge competition for new shows and hit shows.”

These rivals are coming into a segment that has been transformed by the spectacular growth of Netflix and a growing movement by consumers to on-demand television delivered over internet platforms.

In the U.S. alone, an estimated 6 million consumers have dropped pay TV bundles since 2012, while on-demand services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon have been surging, according to Leichtman Research.

But just as Netflix has disrupted traditional linear television, rivals are now moving to disrupt Netflix.

Netflix is likely to feel pain, not only from the new rivals, but also from the loss of content from the big libraries of Disney and Time Warner.

These Hollywood firms “have big libraries, so the cost of their content is much lower than it will be for Netflix, which has to pay for all its content,” said Laura Martin, analyst with the research firm Needham & Co.

“Netflix will lose subscribers to these new entrants,” Martin said.

AT&T’s WarnerMedia will launch its service later this year that combines the content from its premium HBO channel (known for “Game of Thrones”) and the vast Time Warner library or films and shows.

Disney’s service will have its films and TV shows, along with the library it is acquiring from Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, a deal closing in the coming days. That includes the “Star Wars” and Marvel superhero franchises and ABC television content.

JP Morgan analyst Alexia Quadrani predicts Disney will eventually scale up to become as big as Netflix, or even bigger by signing up 45 million U.S. subscribers and 115 million internationally.

Quadrani cited Disney’s “unmatched brand recognition, extensive premium content, and unparalleled ecosystem to market the service.”

The analyst said Disney benefits from its global ecosystem that develops good customer relationships from its theme parks, hotels, cruises, and consumer products.

Wolk agreed that Disney “is in a good spot” because of its strong brand and content but predicted that consumers may be overwhelmed by the growing options.

“I think there will be a lot of churn,” Wolk said. “People will subscribe to one service to watch one show, and then it becomes easy to cancel and take another.”

Some analysts say Netflix has no reason to panic — yet.

“Netflix has figured this business out, they know what consumers want,” said Dan Rayburn, a streaming media analyst with Frost & Sullivan.

But Rayburn said that over time, rivals may be able to leverage their user base and infrastructure to eat away at Netflix’s advantage.

“What does Netflix own? Nothing,” Rayburn said.

“If you’re Amazon or AT&T you can give this stuff away and be a loss leader, that’s the big value.”

Still, he said any company that wants to challenge Netflix needs to be “quick and nimble” and that it remains to be seen if the legacy players can do that.

Richard Greenfield of BTIG Research also questioned the capability of the legacy entertainment firms to compete in the world of new media.

“We believe legacy media has missed their window to compete with Netflix (and other tech platforms) unless they are willing to truly go all-in,” Greenfield said in a recent research note.

Greenfield said that means moving the focus away from the box office and getting better control of content.

“Disney is battling a classic innovator’s dilemma that makes it hard for them to truly pivot to direct-to-consumer, not to mention, they and the rest of legacy media do not really appreciate how important technology is to success in direct-to-consumer streaming,” Greenfield wrote.

Daniel Ives of Wedbush Securities said Apple could be the wild card, but that the iPhone maker might need to acquire a content provider like CBS or Sony Pictures to be a major player.

Apple “is definitely playing from behind the eight ball in this content arms race with Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Hulu, and AT&T/Time Warner all going after this next consumer frontier,” Ives said in a note to clients.

“While acquisitions have not been in Apple’s core DNA, the clock has struck midnight for Cupertino in our opinion and building content organically is a slow and arduous path, which highlights the clear need for Apple to do larger, strategic (deals).”

Video games are following television and music into the cloud, with console-quality play on its way to being a streaming service as easy to access as Netflix or Spotify.

Computing power in data centers and devices from televisions to smartphones has surged and streaming technology has advanced, providing tools to break blockbuster titles from confines of consoles or personal computers.

Google is looking transform internet-age game play, with an expected launch of a streaming service that uses the tech giant’s power in the cloud.

Expected Tuesday is the debut of a ramped-up version of a cloud gaming platform Google tested recently in partnership with Ubisoft.

Google collaborated with French video game colossus Ubisoft to use the hit “Assassin’s Creed” franchise to test “Project Stream” technology for hosting the kind of quick, seamless play powered by in-home consoles as an online service.

A recently uncovered patent that Google filed for a video game controller hinted that the tech firm might be planning to release its own console and controller to go along with a streaming service.

Google, whose YouTube video service operates an eSports platform for viewing game competitions, will be entering a sector with other powerful competitors including Sony and Microsoft.

Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter sees Amazon, Apple and Google as potential big players in the space, given huge investments they have made in data centers that provide cloud services to millions of people.

Amazon, a major cloud operator through its Amazon Web Services, also owns the popular game play-streaming service Twitch.

Console-quality video game play streamed online as a service, hosted on servers in the internet cloud, faces challenges including moving data quickly enough to avoid lags in action or imagery.

Improvements in internet bandwidth, computing power and data storage capabilities are enabling “disruptive technologies” such as streaming that can change the way games are created as well as played, according to Ubisoft.

While streaming game services might nibble at consoles sales, they are more likely to broaden the audience of players to anyone with an internet connection, according to analysts.

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