Culture

Television

War for attention

By Craig Mathieson
The launch of Apple TV+ and Disney+ raises the stakes in the streaming wars

Disney+’s The Mandalorian and Apple TV+’s Morning Wars. 

Here’s one way to measure the momentous stakes involved as streaming video on demand redefines television: they made Rupert Murdoch blink. In March of this year, having weighed up whether to compete with the likes of Netflix and the corporate giants pledged to challenge them, the head of News Corp instead sold his company’s long-held entertainment assets to Disney, a competitor. For approximately A$105 billion, the family entertainment behemoth acquired the film and television assets of 21st Century Fox: a storied Hollywood studio, television networks, and the vast catalogue of content they control. Disney was bulking up for what was to come, and Murdoch had provided a growth supplement. Bart Simpson now reports to the same boss as Luke Skywalker.

When Netflix launched in Australia in March of 2015 as part of an international expansion for the California-based company, it was seen as a tech-industry disruptor out to shake up broadcast and cable television. But the idea that streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Australia’s Stan are insurgents no longer applies – streaming is now seen as television’s future. It’s where the battle for screen supremacy will be fought, which is why earlier this month Apple, so long predominantly a maker of hardware, moved into streaming with the worldwide launch of Apple TV+ and a suite of original programming, while last week Disney followed suit with Disney+, a streaming service that brings with it decade’s worth of the company’s creations.

The parameters of the streaming market, and how many services with monthly subscription fees it can successfully sustain, is still a matter of theory and conjecture. Netflix has approximately 160 million subscribers worldwide, while Amazon Prime Video reportedly has 75 million. Stoked by billions of dollars invested in original shows and movies, both are growing, although the arrival of Apple TV+ and Disney+ will undoubtedly impact their trajectories. As well as broad-based streaming services (including the ABC’s iview and SBS On Demand, which are free in this country) that aim to provide an entire viewing ecosystem, there are also growing numbers of speciality platforms, whether for documentaries (DocPlay) or British murder mysteries (Acorn TV). Streaming is booming, which to some would suggest that a bust could follow.

Both Apple TV+ ($7.99/month) and Disney+ ($8.99/month) are undercutting Netflix ($9.99/month and upwards) on price, but they’re taking different approaches. Where other streaming services blanket viewers with ever more choices and algorithmic recommendations, Apple TV+ was positively spartan on day one. It had four new scripted series, headlined by the marquee names of Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell in Morning Wars, a drama set at a US broadcast network breakfast news show that gets more juicy and thoughtful with each weekly episode. Apple wants a streaming presence, and it’s using the accounts of its phone and tablet users as leverage, but it also wants to control how you stream, positioning its Apple TV app and Apple TV digital media player as the gateway to every streaming service. It’s not a huge leap from gatekeeper to toll collector.

Disney+ has essentially one new headline series, although its popular-culture appeal is gold-plated. The Mandalorian is a live-action mix of spaghetti-western stand-offs and galaxy far, far away adventures about a masked bounty hunter (Pedro Pascal) plying his trade at the lawless edge of George Lucas’s fictional Star Wars universe; more blasters, less Jedi philosophising. Disney+ is built on global franchises – Star Wars, Marvel’s superheroes, Pixar’s digitally animated hits, and Disney’s vast catalogue (although not the titles with racist imagery, such as the 1946 musical Song of the South). Disney+ continues the family-friendly ethos that has long driven the home of the Magic Kingdom forward – MA and R-rated content will not be included in its sizable listings.

While streaming services are judged by what they have to offer, equally crucial is what they lack. In Australia, as opposed to the European Union, there are no regulations or quotas set for local content and production by streaming services. What does get made, such as Netflix’s abysmal supernatural beach thriller Tidelands, is merely an afterthought. Unlike Australia’s free-to-air television networks, whose average audience ages are steadily rising as they lose younger viewers, streaming services have no obligation to provide news coverage. Netflix is fond of progressive news commentary by stand-up comics, but it does not believe it has a duty to protect free speech. At the start of this year, Netflix took down an episode of the satirical comedy show Patriot Act in Saudi Arabia, following complaints from the kingdom about host Hasan Minhaj criticising Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “We’re not doing truth to power,” Netflix CEO and Chairman Reed Hastings later commented; “We’re trying to entertain.”

In a wired world entertainment is political (and vice-versa), so any struggle for screen dominance by some of the largest corporations in the world will have massive implications. Change may begin with duelling subscription numbers and the existential struggle of previous formats, notably comparatively expensive cable networks, such as Foxtel in Australia, losing audience numbers to streaming services, but the outcomes will have a fundamental impact beyond which has the most popular scripted shows. If streaming succeeds in becoming the dominant form of television, supplanting the free-to-air broadcasters and cable providers, then the flaws that are already apparent will also become dominant. A world that believes there’s always one more episode a click away won’t know when it’s had enough.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

@CMscreens

Disney+’s The Mandalorian and Apple TV+’s Morning Wars. 

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