The future of streaming in the UK: Is Netflix about to lose its biggest shows?
Friends isn't going anywhere - yet. But the tide has begun to turn against the industry kingpin
Streaming is about to change irrevocably. With the launch of at least three new on-demand TV services in the next 12 months, Netflix, which has dominated the landscape for years, is preparing to lose a large chunk of its content.
The effects on the UK market will be delayed – Friends is staying, for now at least – but for how long?
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Netflix has a battle on its hands if it wants to remain the primary port of call on these shores for some of its biggest shows, including current favourites like The CW's Riverdale and Jane the Virgin, and crucial staples like The Big Bang Theory and Breaking Bad.
To prepare for this eventuality, Netflix has been pumping out original content in extraordinary volume to ensure that it has enough massive shows with cultural resonance to draw in and maintain enough subscribers each year to eventually turn a profit. But licensed content reportedly makes up two-thirds of all viewing on the streaming site – and that is cause for concern.
Particularly when there's added competition on the way from media behemoths like Disney, who own a vast catalogue of TV shows and films – including those under the 20th Century Fox brand – and have plenty more in the pipeline. Its service, Disney+, could well land with a catalogue to rival Netflix's.
On top of this, with the BBC and ITV's joint venture Britbox and Apple TV+ set to launch in the next 12 months, viewers can expect a slew of new options, and a hefty bill if they want to keep up to date with all the best TV shows and films.
Here's our guide to the next 12 months and beyond for Netflix and its closest competitors.
The tide has begun to turn against Netflix – but the tech company has proven quite a strong swimmer in the past. It did, after all, transform itself from a DVD-through-the-letterbox subscription service to the industry leader in streaming TV.
This summer, it was announced that Friends and the US edition of The Office – both reportedly among the most-watched shows on the service, despite being old news – will leave Netflix US in 2020 and 2021 respectively for new streaming services from Warner Media and NBCUniversal.
Netflix UK reps have clarified that this news does not impact the UK "at this point". “It is also worth noting that Friends has not appeared on the UK Top Ten shows lists since we started sharing this a few months ago,” the spokesperson added.
Perhaps Friends isn't as important to Netflix as reports have led us to believe. But it may well form part of the foundations of a house of cards (not that one).
Earlier this year, it was announced that its deal with US broadcaster The CW, purveyors of Riverdale, Jane the Virgin and more, has not been renewed, as Warner Media (the company that owns the network) eyes the launch of its own streaming service, HBO Max (more on that later).
While Riverdale will continue to appear on Netflix UK, new shows created by the network – such as Ruby Rose’s upcoming Batwoman and Archie Comics spin-off Katy Keene – will be offered out to other bidders. Netflix could well win that battle, but it won't be an automatic decision as it has been in the past. Unlike Friends, The CW's Jane the Virgin has regularly appeared in Netflix's most-watched lists throughout its final season (airing currently).
On top of this, it seems unlikely that Disney will let Netflix stream its content again, as its preps its own streaming service.
The suits at Netflix have known for some time now that this was a possibility. It's why they're spending a reported $15bn on original content this year alone. But many believe that Netflix doesn’t own enough of its own shows yet to weather this storm.
All that said, Netflix UK is in a far better position than Netflix US for the time being, as it is not entirely clear how many of the burgeoning streaming services from US production companies will launch here, and how long it will take to unseat licensing deals that are already in place.
The arrival of Disney+
The biggest threat to Netflix is Disney’s streaming service which, when it drops anchor in the UK (a spokesperson for Disney tells RadioTimes.com that, all going well, this will happen before the end of March in 2020), will boast a slate of new films and TV shows from Marvel and LucasFilms.
Disney is the biggest company in entertainment right now – just look at the box office – having swallowed up 20th Century Fox in a massive deal earlier this year. It now owns the rights to all the films (The X-Men series, Avatar, the Planet of the Apes reboot series) and TV shows (The Simpsons, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, The X Files) under that large umbrella.
But licensing deals, already in place with a variety of organisations over here, may well disrupt its plans, at least in its nascent stages, in the UK and beyond.
Disney confirmed that the Disney+ content library will differ from territory to territory (though the banner new shows such as The Mandalorian and Loki will be intact). The big announcement when the US launch date was confirmed back in February was that The Simpsons would be available in full – but it is quite possible that won’t be the case here.
That said, if Disney’s domination of the box office at the moment is anything to go by, it could well crush all of its competition and force everyone into the House of Mouse before long.
The future of Sky
Sky, too, is increasingly in direct competition with Netflix. The biggest pay TV broadcaster in the UK, it also has its free-for-subscribers streaming on Sky Boxsets, and stand-alone subscription service NOW TV.
Crucially, Sky has historically had a close relationship with US subscription network HBO, and has long been the only place to stream banner dramas of the likes of Game of Thrones, Big Little Lies and Westworld.
A spokesperson for Sky declined to comment on whether or not this will continue through 2020. However, the two media behemoths are at the beginning of a massive $250m deal (agreed in 2017) that would see them co-produce shows together for years to come. It seems unlikely that this will come to an abrupt end so soon.
However, questions will be raised once again if, as promised, the HBO Max streaming service makes a move for the UK.
On top of this, Sky could get a boost from the introduction of the US streaming service NBCUniversal, which is set to take its crown jewel, the US version of The Office, back from Netflix at the beginning of 2021. Sky and the US production arm are both now owned by media conglomerate Comcast, and reports suggest that Sky subscribers will be able to access this in the UK in one form or another when it launches next year.
That means that Sky may eventually become the home to The Office, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Seinfeld and more.
Both of these major tech companies are putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to their own output. Amazon has dropped a reported $250m on its Lord of the Rings series – which is set to go into production next year – while Apple has been investing heavily in new shows from the likes of Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams.
As Amazon’s service is wrapped up with its next-day delivery subscription service, it is difficult to quantify its success. It reportedly has more US subscribers than Netflix (over 100m compared to around 60m) but none of its original shows have had nearly the same cultural impact as the likes of Stranger Things and The Crown.
Similarly, while Apple TV+ has signed on big name creators ahead of its launch, it doesn’t have the might of huge film franchises and beloved characters behind it like Disney+ – and thus it is difficult to imagine it having quite the same impact in its nascent stages. It faces the same uphill battle as Netflix does when it comes to licensed content.
There is one all-important area, however, where Amazon is streets ahead of everyone: live sports.
Last year it signed a landmark deal with the Premier League, which will see it broadcast two full matchdays (20 games in total) live in December. Prime subscribers will be able to watch them at no extra cost.
The value of the deal is undisclosed, but another package of 20 games was sold to BT Sport for £90m. It's a fraction of the deal that Sky struck up, securing 128 games per season for £3.75bn, but it is a toe dipped in a very lucrative ocean.
If Amazon decides to compete for the full whack when the opportunity comes around again in two years, it could well land itself a package that will make it a true force to be reckoned with.
BBC iPlayer and Britbox
The din from all this incoming competition isn't falling on deaf ears at the BBC. Catch-up service iPlayer is set to undergo some changes, pending Ofcom approval, with programmes set to remain for a full year after broadcast, meaning viewers will have a lot more time to binge shows before they disappear.
On top of this, the BBC's joint venture with ITV, Britbox, has been given the green light. It will offer another subscription, which will give viewers access to a wide range of British TV archive shows, and more recent ones after their stints on iPlayer and ITV Hub have come to an end.
Channel 4, too, could still get involved in Britbox, which would greatly bolster its potential catalogue.
"Of course, we are having positive and constructive discussions with ITV and the BBC about how Channel 4 could partner with them to build the scale of BritBox," C4 CEO Alex Mahon said at the Deloitte & Enders Media and Telecoms Conference in March 2019.
HBO Max & NBCUniversal
It is as yet unclear in what form these services, which are set to launch in the USA at the beginning of 2020, will come to the UK, if at all.
“You can expect that it will be an international service, but initially we are focused on domestic,” Kevin Reilly, Chief Creative Officer, direct-to-consumer at WarnerMedia, said. “First it has to succeed here [in the US], so that’s why the first focus is on domestic.”
That could take a while. It would boast impressive catalogues though, with HBO Max set to comprise the best of Warner Bros Television, including ER, Friends, Riverdale and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, along with HBO's stellar output of Game of Thrones, Big Little Lies, The Sopranos, Sex and the City.