The streaming wars have been heating up for years. Initially, it was Netflix‘s game, as the popular service effectively defined streaming as we now know it before anyone even tried to compete. But as media companies started launching their own one-stop streamers, the landscape has shifted; slowly at first but increasingly fast of late. So what does that mean for the future of streaming?
If everyone has their own streamer, it becomes harder for any one company to hold onto licensed titles, so virtually every service needs exclusive new content. Can you make do with just one service? Would one main streaming platform and one or two supplemental services do the trick? Are we approaching a new reality with streaming bundles reminiscent of cable packages?
Read on for a breakdown of how streaming has changed since Netflix first launched its VOD offerings in 2007, and how newer players like Disney Plus, HBO Max, Apple TV Plus, and more might fare in the ongoing streaming wars.
Netflix is still the leading premium streaming service, with over 200 million worldwide subscribers. It offers thousands of movies and TV shows to binge watch, including its always growing list of original films and series, including Stranger Things, The Witcher, Bridgerton, and many more.
Streaming wars overview: When did Netflix start streaming?
Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority
For nearly a decade, Netflix went largely unchallenged. Or at least, that’s the popular narrative.
In reality, Hulu launched in 2007; the same year Netflix expanded and started its streaming service. The big difference is that Hulu was starting from scratch, establishing its brand out of nothing, in a then virtually nonexistent ecosystem.
Netflix was never really the only game in town, but it established its supremacy early on.
Netflix already had a decade’s head start as a brand tied to home entertainment. Long before it became the streaming behemoth we know today, Netflix was a mail-order video rental service (which it still kind of is in the US, if you’re one of the very few people who still take advantage of their DVD service).
As Netflix grew as a streamer, so did Hulu, eventually being acquired by Disney in 2019. In that time, other companies have thrown their hats in the ring, offering either new original content, library titles, or a mix of both. Some crashed and burned (looking at you, Quibi), and others have carved out small niches of the market for themselves. But still, others have begun actually challenging Netflix for the top spot. They’re not there yet, but we’ve seen incredibly rapid change in just the last few years, and that could mean major disruptors in the future of streaming.
See also: Is Netflix worth it?
Streaming wars: The contenders
If Netflix is vying to hold onto its title as the most popular streaming service, it’s worth taking a moment to survey the landscape in the US and see who might pose a threat in the future of streaming.
Hulu has been Netflix’s main competitor for years. As the playing field began to shift around 2019 and 2020, Netflix still controlled about twice as much of the streaming market as Hulu, but together, the two streamers accounted for more than half of streaming subscribers in the US.
Read more: Everything you need to know about Hulu
Hulu is quite similar to Netflix in that it offers a mix of licensed library titles and original content, like the award-winning The Handmaid’s Tale.
A major difference between Hulu and Netflix is pricing. The Disney-owned streamer offers an ad-supported tier that costs just $5.99 per month, far below Netflix’s exclusively ad-free rates. Hulu also offers a degree of immediacy — some shows stream weekly, with a limited delay between the original broadcast and streaming availability.
Hulu offers not only thousands of movies and TV shows to stream, it also has original shows and films like The Handmaid’s Tale. You can upgrade to Hulu Plus Live TV to get live channels, including your local stations.
Disney Plus is one of the fastest-growing streamers to give Netflix a run for its money.
Like Netflix and Hulu, Disney offers a mix of library titles and original content. But the streamer isn’t licensing the hottest new NBC or Showtime shows to stream alongside animated classics. It’s all Disney. And even its Disney-owned content is limited to specific Disney brands. In the US, that means FX and 20th Century Studios content mostly lives on Hulu and other streaming services.
Disney Plus annual subscription
12 months for the price of 10
The streaming service is the home of all Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars movies. It’s also got a bunch of exciting originals like The Mandalorian, The World According to Jeff Goldblum, and more.
Amazon Prime Video
Another player that’s been in the game for a while, existing in some form since 2006, is Amazon Prime Video. Like Netflix, the service offers a mix of original programming and licensed shows and movies.
Amazon Prime Video is a bit of an outlier as it’s not just a streaming service, it’s wrapped up into your regular Prime account. If you signed up for Prime to save on shipping, well, you’re a Prime Video subscriber now too. And you also have access to Music Prime, Prime Gaming, and more. That makes it harder to count streaming subscribers, since people might subscribe without even knowing or caring that they can watch stuff too.
Amazon Prime Video
Amazon Prime Video offers access to thousands of movies and TV shows to stream. That includes great original shows and movies like The Boys and The Tomorrow War. You can also sign up for other premium services within Amazon Prime Video.
A late entry in the streaming game as a one-stop service is HBO Max.
Launched in 2020, HBO Max is WarnerMedia’s massive subscription streaming service, available ad-free and at a reduced ad-supported rate — $14.99 and $9.99 per month, respectively. That’s not cheap, but the service has one of the most impressive libraries around. It includes many HBO titles, films from the Warner archive, and a slew of other licensed and original titles, like the rebooted Gossip Girl and fan-favorite The Flight Attendant.
Read more: Everything you need to know about HBO Max
HBO Max also took a bold step to release Warner Bros.’ entire film slate, day-and-date on HBO Max for all of 2021. That means subscribers could watch films like Godzilla vs. King Kong, The Suicide Squad, and Dune with their $14.99 subscription at home on opening day. (Those titles only remained available to stream for 31 days and weren’t included with the cheaper, ad-supported subscription.)
HBO Max is your home for Warner Bros-made movies and TV shows like The Lord of the Rings, the DC Comics superheroes and more. It’s also the home for new and original movies and shows available nowhere else.
Apple TV Plus
A bit slower to pick up steam, Apple TV Plus has been the fastest-growing streamer in the last year.
With the deep pockets of a company like Apple, Apple TV Plus has a lot of room to build over time. Eventually, the lack of library titles won’t be such a big deal because Apple’s originals may well be enough to convert holdouts.
Apple TV Plus
Apple TV Plus has quickly become a major player in the streaming game since its launch in 2019. Its slate of original programming includes shows like Ted Lasso, The Morning Show, Foundation, and For All Mankind as well as movies like The Banker, Greyhound, and Palmer
The list above hardly captures everyone competing with Netflix. Companies with smaller libraries than WarnerMedia and Disney have been launching their own dedicated streamers too. NBCUniversal’s Peacock and Paramount’s Paramount Plus are small but mighty additions to the space. And cable networks like Starz, Epix, and Showtime have moved online as one-off offerings.
Then there are the smaller services catering to niche audiences too. Shudder is tailor-made for horror fans. Crunchyroll and Funimation appeal to anime lovers. The arthouse crowd has Mubi and Criterion Channel. And on and on.
And last, there are the many live TV streaming services, which effectively migrate your cable bundles of yesteryear into the streaming space. These include Fubo TV, Philo TV, Sling TV, Hulu Plus Live TV, and more.
A shifting landscape: Who will win the streaming wars?
This many new players means power is shifting, and fast. Antenna, an analytics firm that specializes in subscription streaming services, has reported some major changes to streaming service market shares just in the last year. These could point to some big changes in the future of streaming.
Netflix especially has been seeing a dip in new subscribers in the US, and its overall market share has gone way down. It still controls 30% of the streaming market — a huge proportion and far ahead of the competition — but others are catching up.
Netflix is still certainly in the game at 30%, and competitors aren’t necessarily leaching subscribers. The whole field is just growing, with new companies beginning to thrive too.
Apple TV Plus, which only accounts for 5% of streaming subscribers, represented 26% of subscriber growth across services in Q3 2021. In contrast, Netflix was responsible for just 7% of that overall growth.
Netflix is still king, but it’s growing slower than most of its competition.
It’s important to note that these numbers only represent streaming in the US. Some of these services are available globally, or at least in more than one country. This breakdown offers a good snapshot of how they compare when offered in the same markets, though.
And what we can clearly see is major fluctuations in the distribution of subscribers. A rising tide lifts all boats, as they say, but Netflix doesn’t have a ton of room left in which to rise. It’s certainly not dipping back down, but neither is it likely to stay on top forever.
The future for Netflix and the future of streaming
The good news for fans of Netflix is that the success of new streamers doesn’t mean Netflix is going to bow out. There’s a lot of room at the top in the future of streaming, it seems.
If current trends hold, Netflix will absolutely find itself sharing that position.
There are still plenty of unknowns that may tip the balance. Cable TV is still in the game, and streaming has yet to find a way to take over where cable really shines: live sports.
Current trends predict a diverse streaming field, but that could still change.
If someone cracks live sports on streaming, that could be the game-changer. But short of that, we’re likely to see streamers exist in a much more diverse ecosystem, with streaming bundles helping us manage our subscriptions. Disney already bundles Disney Plus, Hulu, and ESPN Plus at a discounted rate. And Amazon Prime Video allows you to sign up for individual “channels” like Shudder and Showtime to fill out your subscription with some extra content.
The good news? Subscribers have tons of options to choose from. The future of streaming is one of plenitude. If Netflix’s library isn’t your jam, you have the power to ditch it and try somewhere else.