Streaming was part of the future — now it’s the only future

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Over the last year, if an entertainment conglomerate hasn’t announced a shift to focus on streaming, does it really count as an entertainment conglomerate?

With the end of the year in sight and the entertainment industry crowded with streaming options, legacy companies are making big bets on their new services, using public executive shake-ups and declarations of digital-first importance to make their point heard. Streaming isn’t just a part of their businesses; it’s their future.

Over the last several months, Disney, NBCUniversal, WarnerMedia, and ViacomCBS have restructured their teams to make streaming a primary focus. Longtime executives have been fired, others have stepped down (aka fired), and departments merged in an effort to compete with the biggest competition in the room. The lingering question is will it work for every player in the game? How much of it is too little too late?

(Disclosure: Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal, is also an investor in Vox Media, The Verge’s parent company. The Verge is also currently producing a series with Netflix.)

That doesn’t mean four of the biggest conglomerates in the world aren’t making big moves to try to compete. Let’s break it down company by company.

Disney

Former Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes believes that of all the new entrants, only Disney will succeed. Just before the one-year anniversary of Disney Plus’ launch, CEO Bob Chapek announced a monstrous reorganization for the company’s streaming division — one that affects nearly every part of the company. Various divisions have been consolidated into one main section — Media and Entertainment — with one of Chapek’s right-hand men from his time in the parks division, Kareem Daniel, overseeing the newly renamed arm. As executives shuffle around, Chapek and the company also issued a public release confirming Disney’s future priorities are streaming-first.

Disney hasn’t shied away from its streaming ambitions. Disney Plus launched in November 2019, and since then, it has amassed more than 60 million subscribers. Alongside Disney’s other streaming initiatives — Hulu and ESPN Plus — Disney has more than 100 million subscribers paying monthly for its various offerings. Disney Plus has grown so quickly that even Netflix CEO Reed Hastings noted in a Netflix earnings call that over the last 20 years, “I’ve never seen such a good execution of the incumbent learning the new way and mastering it.”

“To see both the execution and the numbers line up, my hat’s off to them,” Hastings said.

Within that same time frame, Disney has seen the exits of many of the executives who oversaw the launch of Disney Plus, acquisition of Hulu, and reformation of ESPN Plus. Kevin Mayer, once considered the House of Mouse’s king-in-waiting, left to become TikTok’s CEO for about 100 days after Disney appointed Chapek to CEO. Agnes Chu, who oversaw original content for Disney Plus, left not long after. Ricky Strauss, one of the final executive members of the Disney Plus team, has disappeared into the background.

Under the new reorganization, Disney is seemingly giving more power to those who already had it. Studio and network heads are able to “make the call about whether a project is destined for theatrical, linear TV or streaming distribution,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. The change makes sense for anyone who has been closely following Disney’s moves — ask the creative powers to make more for Disney’s streaming platforms, but give them more say over what that looks like.

Although the announcement is new, the priority shift is not. John Landgraf, the head of FX, has spent months moving some of the channel’s series over to Hulu as Disney tries to grow its “FX on Hulu” arm. The goal is to bring even more viewers into Disney’s domestic, general streaming platform — and ideally boost subscriptions to its other services, too. More recently, Disney is also moving some of its best writers and analysts’ pieces to ESPN Plus, realigning ESPN’s news arm to fit within the goals of streaming.

Like every company listed here, many of Disney’s main businesses were harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic — and the company is readjusting its priorities to grow the one sector that is booming. People are continuing to cut cable (not great for ESPN), ratings are mostly down on linear TV channels (not great for ABC, FX, and Disney Channel), and audiences are stuck at home (not great for movie theaters or theme parks). But streaming isn’t about to disappear. Disney’s reorganization simply acknowledges streaming is the only thing working for the company right now.

HBO Max showing Friends

WarnerMedia

AT&T underwent two major executive changes a few months ago that set the company and its WarnerMedia division up for a never-ending series of reorganizations: John Stankey took over for Randall Stephenson as AT&T CEO, and former Hulu head Jason Kilar was appointed WarnerMedia CEO. Under both Stankey and Kilar, directives for WarnerMedia are clear: turn the company’s entertainment divisions, including cable TV and film, into a streaming-focused business.

Not long after Kilar joined the company in April, the reshuffling started. The biggest change came in August when esteemed company executives Kevin Reilly and Bob Greenblatt were ousted. Andy Forssell, a former Hulu executive who worked alongside Kilar, took over all of HBO Max. Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff and HBO programming president Casey Bloys were selected to oversee a new group that combines WarnerMedia’s studios and networks. Much like Disney, the reorg gave certain executives more consolidated power over their content and distribution streams, with an emphasis on prioritizing HBO Max.

The restructuring didn’t stop there. WarnerMedia restructured its WarnerMax division — a new studio arm created at the beginning of 2020 to make low-budget, independent films specifically for HBO Max — as part of an ongoing process to phase out the division altogether. Warner Bros. Pictures Group chairman Toby Emmerich was given even more power and responsibility, now in charge of overseeing all film distribution for both theatrical and streaming.

Although WarnerMedia and AT&T executives are changing the company to build out its streaming initiatives, HBO Max isn’t growing as fast as some industry critics may have hoped. AT&T reported that HBO Max has seen just over 8 million activations since it launched at the end of May, with 28.7 million customers eligible for the streaming service by the end of the company’s most recent quarter. Stankey has downplayed those concerns, saying they’re mostly on track but would have likely seen a better launch had the pandemic not affected rollout of original series and specials. But one thing’s for sure: HBO Max isn’t seeing the kind of success that Disney Plus did initially.

HBO Max needs to pay off for AT&T — especially as other parts of AT&T’s television businesses flounder. People aren’t paying for cable bundles anymore. Even if they want access to TNT for basketball games, a lot of customers don’t want the other networks that come with it — especially when content from those networks wind up on Netflix, Hulu, Peacock, or Amazon Prime Video a short while later. AT&T needs those customers cutting their cable and other TV packages to transition over to HBO Max. Although AT&T boasts that HBO Max has more than 28 million subscribers, the company includes people who are eligible but have not activated those subscriptions; 70 percent of those eligible to use HBO Max for free as part of an upgrade have yet to do so, according to Variety.

The future of WarnerMedia in both Kilar and Stankey’s eyes is HBO Max. The next hurdle is figuring out how to get people to sign up and actively use the service. Kilar and Stankey have a few ideas, including rolling out an ad-supported cheaper tier next year to try to convince people who don’t want to spend $15 a month.

NBCUniversal

NBCUniversal’s reorganizations started in late 2019. The company announced that Jeff Shell would take over for Steve Burke as the head of NBCUniversal, facing a major task — figure out how to turn NBCUniversal into a proper streaming business.

Then in May, Shell appointed Mark Lazarus as the head of a new division simply called NBCUniversal Television and Streaming. Lazarus’ province would include everything from NBC’s main broadcast network to cable channels like USA and Bravo, as well as international networks, according to The Wall Street Journal. Lazarus, who came in at the same time that many of the individual networks were moving executives around, was faced with two main priorities: keeping football on NBC and turning Peacock, NBCUniversal’s new streaming service that offered both ad-free and ad-supported options being run by Matt Strauss, into an important revenue business for NBCUniversal.

By August, there were more shake-ups as Lazarus and Shell tried to figure out how to reorganize its TV division, including creating an Entertainment Programming unit that includes figuring out content for Peacock. By then, Peacock had more than 10 million subscribers. It’s unclear how many of those are paying $10 a month or watching through the cheaper or free ad-supported versions.

Like Disney and WarnerMedia, NBCUniversal hasn’t tried to shy away from Peacock being a top priority. Unlike Disney Plus, however, Peacock also wants to attract top-paying advertiser dollars, with NBCUniversal developing new ad tech to appeal to the biggest companies. The streamer, which launched nationwide in July, last reported having more than 15 million subscribers.

The throughline between all of these restructurings is consolidation and tightening, especially in areas that continue to wallow. In September, The Wall Street Journal reported that Shell was looking into further reorganizing that would continue to focus on streaming and less on linear or cable TV networks that people weren’t tuning into. The Journal reported that Shell is “centralizing decision-making — from which shows get made to which networks those shows should run on — and dramatically slimming down the cable unit in the process.” Sound familiar by now?

Planned layoffs are still set to come, according to reports from multiple publications. Those cuts will work to get rid of redundancies, and they’ll also target parts of NBCUniversal’s businesses that were already faltering. Continued major losses in cable and lower ratings are an easy target — especially when NBCUniversal can move both customers and advertisers to Peacock.

ViacomCBS

ViacomCBS is one of the more interesting companies because it’s technically been in the streaming game the longest, but arguably one of the last to the party.

CBS All Access, ViacomCBS’s primary subscription on-demand streaming service, launched in 2014. It boasted a pretty big library of classic shows, but CBS could only do so much to attract people. The service was not playing NFL games at the time.

Then, in 2019, Viacom and CBS announced their long-anticipated merger — and CEO Bob Bakish started moving all the different pieces. Just a few months after the merger was announced, the company started moving executives around. Marc DeBevoise, who helped oversee the launch of CBS All Access, was named head of all things digital, including streaming initiatives. Tom Ryan, the head of Pluto TV, one of ViacomCBS’s other streaming services, would continue reporting directly to Bakish.

Almost one year later, things changed. Ryan was promoted this month to CEO of ViacomCBS Streaming. Ryan’s promotion came alongside the announcement that DeBevoise is stepping down. DeBevoise would instead stay on through 2020 and act as an adviser to Ryan. Considering that Ryan saw Pluto TV through the merger, and noting just how big a role Pluto TV, which has more than 33 million monthly active users globally, will play in ViacomCBS’s streaming future, it’s not too surprising. Just to make everything slightly more confusing, the company also announced that CBS All Access would be renamed to Paramount Plus.

Similar to NBCUniversal, ViacomCBS is reportedly considering shutting down entire networks, according to CNBC. Although nothing is imminent, CNBC’s report adds, a cursory glance at the company’s designated pillars for its streaming platforms shows where the company is investing (BET, Nickelodeon, Paramount, MTV) and where the company likely isn’t (VH1, PopTV, Logo). Strategically, ViacomCBS is doing the same thing Disney did — bet on core properties that will drive subscribers to streaming platforms, and consolidate elsewhere to cut costs.

“If you are going to differentiate yourself, every incremental dollar you can put into the development of that content becomes important,” Greg Portell, head of global consumer industries at consultancy firm Kearney, said. “That means a lot of these companies that have gotten bloated over the years, and they really need to stream that down.”

The bottom line is that if all these companies want to be in on streaming, it means they have to slim down and abandon other parts of their business that have become dinosaurs. In many cases, that means shedding cable networks. In others, it’s layoffs to target redundancy. Disney, WarnerMedia, NBCUniversal, and ViacomCBS have shown no sign of trying to fight the future — now they just have to determine if they can find a seat at the table. Portell calls it a true “game of winners and losers.” In the midst of great acceleration affecting every industry, Portell also said it’s adamantly clear, “we’re about to see who those winners are much more quickly.”

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