The global pandemic has upended the way that we watch, make, and purchase our entertainment. For the past few months the box office has been based almost solely on drive-in movie theaters, flagship releases like Scoob! and Trolls World Tour have gone directly to video-on-demand, and massive landmark blockbusters like Tenet, Mulan, and Wonder Woman 1984 have been repeatedly delayed. In the midst of it all there has been one constant: People around the country, and the world, have been stuck indoors and left to their own devices–figuratively and literally–to entertain themselves, which means that streaming services should have been reaping the rewards.
And some have. As the crisis began, Netflix reported record-breaking new signups which resulted in huge stock gains for the streamer, and Hulu reported surging viewing numbers for both familiar comfort watches and new series like Little Fires Everywhere. But there’s been one area of the streaming industry that has bucked that trend: new services which have launched during the pandemic. Despite a captive audience of viewers stuck at home and people hungry for new content, three major services have launched with more of a whimper than a bang. Let’s look at what has gone wrong with the much-hyped second wave of streaming.
The most high profile of these lackluster launches has been Quibi, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s ambitious attempt to corral the success of YouTube’s short content model and monetize it. The biggest immediate issue here is that Quibi was apparently built to be watched whilst viewers are waiting to do other stuff like waiting for food in a restaurant or running errands. Despite the fact that I’m not quite sure who regularly watches 10 minute videos when they’re just out and about, COVID-19 immediately took away the appeal of what the Quibi creators saw as its core concept.
With millions of people under “Stay at Home” orders, there was still arguably a massive base that Quibi could have taken advantage of, had the platform been appealing to users. But there were some key issues that immediately stopped Quibi from getting the positive word of mouth it needed. The biggest one is that Quibi was only available on users’ phones. In a world where everyone was at home with the ability to watch their TVs constantly, that was a problem. Then came the decision to not allow viewers to screencap or share their screens, which halted any and all viral capabilities, especially the memeification that often makes or breaks new shows/services. (Who launches a show featuring Emmy-winner Rachel Brosnahan slowly being driven insane by her golden arm and then doesn’t let the internet meme it?!).
Speaking of those shows, despite giant celebrity names, high concept remakes, and a lot of money behind them–one report mentions the figure of $100,000 a minute–Quibi has yet to find a certifiable hit. Not only that, but many critiques were aimed at the fact that the projects didn’t seem to be made for the “quick bite” structure, often feeling like standard features that were just chopped up to fit the platform rather than taking advantage of the unique format. Plus, the concept is essentially based on getting people to pay for the same length of content they’re used to getting for free on services like YouTube, so without killer shows or movies that everyone’s talking about there is little to no draw, aside from the novelty value of the streamer.
Quibi was also not without its controversies. As the streamer launched, popular vloggers Everything Is Terrible accused Quibi of stealing their concept–finding and curating old, weird videos–and aesthetic for their new series Memory Hole. There was also the fact that the streamer’s biggest unique selling point, the trademarked “Turnstyle” technology that allows viewers to seamlessly switch between landscape and portrait modes, is part of an ongoing lawsuit where the plaintiffs claim the tech was stolen from New York-based video company Eko.
The public perception of a company has a lot to do with how it lands. From the outset, Quibi has seemed like an expensive and risky endeavor that had little understanding of its demographic. Aiming for a young audience that will embrace shortform programs but not fully understanding that format seemed misguided. The timing of the pandemic certainly didn’t help, and Quibi has since been assailed by several exposés filled with insider knowledge and drama about what went wrong behind-the-scenes of the launch that are arguably more interesting than their programming. And now that the extended free trial has ended three months after the service launched, the streamer is dealing with the reality that only 10% of their original signups have translated to paid users.
Out of 2020’s big streaming launches, HBO Max seemed to have the most solid slate and biggest built-in audience due to the popularity of the already established HBO Go platform and much-admired HBO brand. But even with some impressive gets like acquiring the entire Studio Ghibli catalog and making it available to stream for the first time ever, as well as a wide selection of classic movies and new hits like Joker, HBO Max still didn’t make the impact that anyone was expecting. There are a couple of key factors that came into play, beginning with the rollout.
Due to issues when trying to strike a deal with Roku and Amazon Fire, HBO Max launched–and is still currently–without apps for either, cutting out over 70 million potential viewers. The problem wasn’t just that people couldn’t sign up via those platforms, but also the lack of information that was available. For example, if you had Hulu on your Roku, you were offered the chance to sign up for HBO Max, but you couldn’t actually watch any of the Max exclusive programming through your Hulu app. The only way to watch was to log onto HBO Max via your computer by using your Hulu login to watch there. Basically, not a very easy or satisfying user experience.
There was also the matter of HBO Go and HBO Now, the two popular services which were already available through the Roku app. The former gave access to HBO programming to people for a $15 monthly fee–the same price as HBO Max–and the latter allowed users with a cable package to access a library of HBO content. After some big confusion about the services and their overlap, HBO announced that after July 31 HBO Go will no longer exist, with HBO Max overtaking it, and HBO Now will be simply rebranded as HBO. Some growing pains are to be expected with any new service, but all of this happening after the launch date with many customers suddenly unable to access tons of new content whilst paying the same amount as customers who could was not exactly an auspicious beginning. At best, the rollout was confusing. At worst, it diluted HBO’s usually slick brand identity.
One of the biggest draws of HBO Max is the fact that the company is owned by WarnerMedia, meaning it has access to a large catalog of classic films and, most importantly to a large demographic of fans, DC films. But when the service launched there were a lot of gaps in that particular category. Neither Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy nor the original Superman films were anywhere to be seen, and newer DCEU flicks like Man of Steel and Birds of Prey were also missing, while some of the DC movies available were leaving the service in mere days. Part of this was to do with previous licensing agreements, but there was also the additional complication of WarnerMedia’s DC Universe app.
That niche streamer only launched in 2018, though the announcement of HBO Max had many observers wondering if it would be made obsolete by its newer, bigger sibling. So far, at least, that appears to not be the case as certain shows like Swamp Thing, Titans, and Batman: The Animated Series–which would have been a huge draw for binge-hungry HBO Max viewers–are all only available on DC Universe, and it seems there’s no plan to move them to the newer service. That means fans would need to subscribe to both to be able to access all the DC content they’re likely looking for.
The DC Universe conundrum is a big one. Why didn’t HBO Max just fold it into the service? Or even add a small fee to make it an add-on? The fact that DC Universe also offers digital comic books as part of its subscription would have been an interesting way of helping HBO Max stand out from the ever more saturated streaming crowd. And, of course, there’s also the matter of all that other DC content that lives only on the smaller platform, from comics-focused programming to documentaries and more. It’s an example of the company not utilizing all their assets, something that seems to be a recurring issue for HBO Max.
Popular anime streaming service Crunchyroll has been majority-owned by AT&T since 2014 and has been under the watchful eye of Warners since 2019. Yet when HBO Max launched it included less than 20 anime series. I should note that more will be added, but once again it seems like a waste of potential content that could’ve been something for viewers to really dig into at launch–not to mention tempt subscribers who feel underserved elsewhere. And speaking of streamers that Warner Bros. has owned, there’s the case of DramaFever, the hugely popular Asian drama VOD service which they shut down in the fall of 2018, only a month after launching DC Universe. In hindsight, that might have been another misfire as Netflix is currently finding great success in this very popular area with a large catalog of shows from Korea, China, and Japan… an arena that Warners now can’t compete in.
There are other more specific problems too, one which has particularly perplexed fans: HBO Max doesn’t offer the 4K / HDR viewing options which are becoming more or less the standard for new services. With major confusion, a muddled rollout, and multiple irritating issues, HBO Max is still struggling to find its feet two months since its launch and over a year since it was officially announced.
The most recent addition to the strange streaming saga of 2020 is Peacock, NBC’s big budget service which, despite a soft launch in April to Xfinity customers, was still struggling when it hit wide release on July 15. In some ways Peacock has been more obviously affected by the current global pandemic, since a lot of its launch appeal relied on its big slate of Tokyo Olympics coverage (including both the opening and closing ceremonies). With that event cancelled, the service lost one of its biggest selling points as well as time and money spent filling its catalog with Olympic-centric programming which just won’t have the same resonance now.
Even without that major loss, Peacock hasn’t been delivering the experience viewers would expect from a company as huge as Comcast NBCUniversal. Although execs surely saw the fallout of HBO Max not being available on Roku or Amazon Fire, Peacock also launched without app support for either, once again isolating those 70 million potential streaming customers. Then for those ingenious Roku and Fire users who thought they might have found a work-around, Peacock decided to block subscribers from using HDMI cables to connect their computers to their TVs. This was a particular sticking point for users who had paid a premium and were hoping to watch the UK’s Premier League soccer games on a bigger screen.
That wasn’t the only problem with the interface. Android users struggled to find the app on launch day, whilst other viewers reported issues with watchlist features disappearing, as well as the “continue watching” section. And even the parts of the app that are supposed to be selling points are causing issues. Peacock decided to list certain genres, like horror, under different categorizations – spotlighting sections that highlight their monster movies or other more particular niches. It’s also not very easy to find offerings from particular studios. Simple hubs like these are something that HBO Max has been lauded for, but that Peacock’s designers didn’t think to–or chose not to–add.
Just like HBO Max, Peacock has also had issues around its confusing branding, specifically the way subscription tiers are broken down. One of the streamer’s biggest draws is the Free tier, which is an ad-supported video-on-demand service akin to Pluto TV, Vudu, and Tubi. The Premium service is $4.99 a month, but despite opening up more content options, it’s still supported by ads. Then there’s the Premium Plus tier which costs $9.99 and is sold as ad-free, but the reality is that the service still breaks up binge-watching with ads for its own shows.
Going back to Pluto TV for a moment, CBS Viacom’s acquisition boasts hundreds of curated channels and ad-supported on-demand content for free and has found a passionate following. Peacock seems to be attempting to replicate that by programming channels that show nothing but reruns of certain shows including The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Keeping up With the Kardashians. It’ll be interesting to see how these curated spaces land as part of the paid service when the most well-established version of this model is available for free.
Some of the smaller scale issues with the app include Peacock’s bigger draw properties like The Office not being available on the service at launch, as well as a strange feature which could be great but inadvertently showcases the limits of the catalog. Something many viewers would enjoy is the ability to know when something is leaving a service, and Peacock offers that on some titles. At launch, big Universal franchises like Jurassic Park were already tagged as leaving at the end of the month, and the 2009 movie Fast & Furious was already gone one day after the service launched, with none of the other Fast & Furious movies available for a Fast binge, presumably due to existing licensing deals. With a small launch collection of nine original series that are only available to paid customers and multiple issues with the interface, Peacock seems like yet another example of a new streaming service that hasn’t learned from the mistakes of the streamers that preceded them.
There are plenty of lessons to be learned here, but what seems clear is how important accessibility is not just to a service itself — which is obviously key — but also when it comes to finding and enjoying content. Knowing what your unique selling point as a platform is seems obvious, but was often ignored in these cases. Also important is showcasing a vision for what your service offers in comparison to competitors, especially considering there’s so much overlap as the streaming landscape becomes more saturated and curating an experience that people want to be a part of seems ever more essential. Finally, branding in a simple and easy to understand way is a necessity. Do people need your service? Is it superfluous to what they already pay for? And, most importantly, what are you offering that viewers want?