The Streaming Wars: How the new kingdoms of Hollywood are battling it out for the future of entertainment
Chaos is a ladder, and the changes in technology and distribution present great opportunities for innovative minds with the ambition and resolve to fight.
The Streaming Wars: Up top, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wears the crown. Middle left, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. Middle right, Apple CEO Tim Cook. Bottom left, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts. Bottom middle left, Disney CEO Robert Iger. Bottom right, HBO CEO Richard Plepler and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson.Robin Muccari / NBC News
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The old studio order has been upended by new streamers from distant lands. Warring fiefdoms are consolidating for self-preservation. There is talk that even greater change is still to come. But as the smartest media executives know, chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder. The tumultuous changes in technology, distribution and consumer habits present great opportunities for innovative minds with the ambition and resolve to fight.
While Hollywood has always been a land of warring factions, today is different: A smaller number of houses exert greater control over the continent. Each is seizing the means of distribution through internet-delivered-direct-to-consumer services. And, in the not-too-distant future, each house may build walls around its intellectual property to further solidify its holdings. Those who want access to "Star Wars" will have to pay homage (and gold) to House Disney; those who want to watch “Westworld” will have to pay homage to House Warner, etc.
Much is unknown about how Hollywood's Streaming Wars will play out. Some houses have deep pockets and can spend limitless sums on talent and show runners. Some houses have built powerful armies of intellectual property through decades of acquisition. Some houses appear to simply be betting on the magic of the internet’s “over the top” capabilities or the promise of high-speed 5G wireless internet.
Consumers, however, only have so much money, meaning that in the streaming wars, as Cersei would say, your house wins or your house dies. Those who have the best content will win the attention of audiences around the globe; those who do not will disappear, their banners lost to history (or maybe acquired by a bigger house).
Here's a guide to the most powerful houses of Hollywood. The Streaming Wars have begun.
For too long, Hollywood ignored the whispers: It was said that in the north the Night King Reed Hastings was using billions of dollars in original content spending — more than $8 billion this year alone — to amass an ever-growing army of dedicated subscribers that was moving south, hell bent on replacing all of Hollywood with a zombie order.
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Now, Netflix has arrived and Hollywood's kingdoms face an existential crisis. Yet it has also been said that Netflix has secret weaknesses. Rumors of unsustainable debt, dissatisfied content creators and a "ruthless, demoralizing" culture mean that winter may have come, but spring may be just around the corner.
Led by the unflinching but respected Bob Iger, theirs has long been the most admired in the land. But whispers from Northern California foretold the rise of new streaming services that threaten House Disney and all the fiefdoms of Hollywood.
Now, the King of Burbank, heir to Walt, plots his revenge. Iger’s greatest weapon is his pack of dire wolves: Pixar, Marvel, Lucas and Fox. With unparalleled brand history and the ultimate intellectual property arsenal, he hopes to create a streaming service with a content portfolio of unparalleled quality — and restore Disney to the throne.
Lord Jeff Bezos sits atop the streaming kingdom with immense power and riches. More than 100 million Prime members are but loyal serfs in his empire, paying their annual or monthly tithe for access to everything, with two-day delivery.
Power hungry and eager for complete, Alexa-enabled domination, he bids his minions to create the next great television saga that will command the respect of all the kingdoms. They return with the rights to "Lord of the Rings" for a mere $250 million. His greatest assets are his gold and his ever-expanding stores of consumer data.
The Iron Bank of Braavos. Led by Randall Stephenson, the kingdom's largest telecommunications company has long carried the various fiefdoms by providing them with cable and mobile distribution. But like all ambitious bankers, they want to be owners.
Now, through debt and acquisition, Warner has assembled an army of mercenaries — HBO, Warner Bros. and Turner — and is aiming to expand its content powerbase and take on the other houses. An old but powerful force, it is still learning the rules of a new game and relying on veterans like HBO’s Richard Plepler to chart the course.
The Tyrells. Comcast has long been a wealthy and prestigious house. The business was strong, from broadcast to cable to theme parks. But with the streaming wars consuming the land, Brian Roberts, King of Thorns, knew he needed to guide one of the largest media conglomerates ever through a transition to meet the next phase of consumer habits.
So Roberts set out to do battle with House Disney for 21st Century Fox. After a devastating loss, Roberts instead acquired Sky, and is now obsessively trying to forge a future for his great house via his grandchildren: NBCUniversal, Xfinity and Sky. (NBC News is a bannerman of NBCUniversal.)
Netflix, Disney, Amazon, Warner, Comcast, they're all just spokes on a wheel. One is on top, then another, and on and on it spins ... but in a distant land, Tim Cook has hardware dragons and a massive army of loyal, affluent users who see him as a rare source for good in a tech industry rife with controversy and questions of trust.
Now, Cook has shifted his gaze to Hollywood. No one knows how the invasion will proceed. Cook's hand, Eddy Cue, has acknowledged that Apple "doesn't know anything about making television." But Cook is said to be a benevolent leader, and with his house’s vast tech prowess and unmatched financial resources, it is not difficult to envision a future in which a ruler with silver hair sits on the Iron Throne.