People carry signs as SAG-AFTRA members walk the picket line in solidarity with striking WGA workers outside Netflix offices in Los Angeles, July 11, 2023.
Mario Tama | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Picket signs have lined the gates of Hollywood’s studios for nearly five months, as the industry’s writers and actors rally for AI protections, better wages and a cut of streaming profits.
The problem is streaming isn’t yet profitable for many studios.
Sparked by the creation of Netflix’s direct-to-consumer platform in 2007, streaming has upended the economics of the media industry. Yet, it’s still unclear whether it’s a sustainable business model for the future.
“Without sounding hyperbolic, the change in the economics of the North American media industry in the last five years has been breathtaking,” said Steven Schiffman, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.
Legacy media companies like Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery, Paramount and NBCUniversal scrambled to compete with Netflix when it began creating original content in 2013 and slowly pulled market share over the next five years. The studios padded their platforms with massive content libraries and the promise of new original shows and films for consumers.
However, the subscription-based streaming model proves vastly different than the ad-revenue-fueled traditional TV bundle. High licensing costs and low revenues per subscriber quickly caught up with studios, which had previously placated shareholders with massive subscription growth.
Netflix was the first streamer to report a loss in subscribers in 2022, sending its stock and other media companies spiraling. Disney has followed suit. Since then, both have set subscription numbers aside in favor of advertising, a password-sharing crackdown and raising prices.
Media companies also have begun slashing content spending budgets. Disney CEO Bob Iger has promised the company will focus on quality over quantity when it comes to both its streaming and theatrical businesses, pointing to Marvel as an example of too much content.
Yet streaming remains the focus for all of these companies as consumers rapidly cut the cord and opt for streaming. To make up for the losses, media organizations are now relying on methods that once made the traditional bundle so successful.
“What’s the fundamental solution? In some way, shape or form, it’s everything brought together,” said CEO Ken Solomon of the Tennis Channel, owned by Sinclair, of the various business models in media. “It’s about understanding where to put a little more resources and how they all are glued together to satisfy the consumer.”
Two strategies media companies long relied upon — windowing content to various platforms and creating more cable channels to reap higher fees from the bundle — proved lucrative and still reap profits.
“This gun has been cocking itself for decades,” said Solomon, noting that the pay TV bundle was a good value proposition until it became too expensive for consumers. That gave Netflix an opening to upend how the entertainment industry makes and spends money.
Legacy media companies scrambled to follow suit, unsure if the model actually worked. But they were desperate to keep up with changing consumer demand, and in the process they depleted other revenue streams.
Now turmoil rules the industry. Companies like Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery are in the midst of reorganizations — slashing jobs and content costs while trying various ways to piece together profits.
An image from Netflix’s “Stranger Things.”
“All of these companies spent more money than they likely should have,” said Marc DeBevoise, CEO and board director of Brightcove, a streaming technology company.
Netflix, with a considerable head start, is the only company to make a profit off of streaming. “For everyone else, it’s still dictated by linear TV,” said UBS analyst John Hodulik. “That’s a problem as the decline in customers accelerates and streaming is not a big enough opportunity to offset that.”
Although subscriber growth initially ramped up streaming subscriber growth and bolstered many media stocks, it was short-lived. Fears of a recession, inflation and rising interest rates led Wall Street to reassess these companies and focus on profitability as subscriber growth slowed.
Netflix’s entrance into media signaled the beginning of a content arms race that, ultimately, hasn’t paid off for any media company.
Content spending ballooned across the industry, with each company spending tens of billions of dollars for new shows and films in an effort to lure in new subscribers — and keep the ones they already had.
“The networks had aligned with their streaming services and taken all the elasticity out of it. They were throwing money at a problem and hoping that it was going to solve itself,” said Solomon. “There was no economics behind it.”
Race to launch
- Netflix — launched streaming service in January 2007, first original content launched February 2013
- Hulu — launched streaming service in March 2008
- Paramount+ — launched as CBS All Access in October 2014, rebranded as Paramount+ in March 2021
- Disney+ — launched streaming service in November 2019
- Peacock — launched streaming service in April 2020
- Max — launched as HBO Max in May 2020, rebranded as Max in May 2023
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