Amazon Studios announced its new slate of series orders from their unique, popular vote-driven pilot process last week — and while Netflix and Hulu took a more casual approach to unveiling their latest batch of original content, the user reviews for April Fools release “Rotisserie Chicken” so far are decidedly mixed: “[Two stars] A sophomoric effort. Poor use of thyme. Poorly conceived denouement, with a narrative arc which goes nowhere. Could use more garlic.” But in what’s become tech-giant tradition, this blend of creative marketing and disruptive instinct belies the level of investment in the multi-billion dollar war being waged over one of the 21st century’s most competitive commodities: consumer attention in a fragmented media landscape.
Just three years ago, all the major streaming competitors in what Hulu’s head of content Andy Forssell calls “the battle for screen time” were on the ropes (or in the case of Amazon, hadn’t even entered the ring yet). Netflix’s shift to streaming seemed terminally botched by its “Qwikster” debacle, Hulu was up for sale (and struggling to fetch anywhere near its asking price), and while YouTube was seeing impressive traffic for its original content, monetizing those views was proving difficult as marketers became disillusioned with the value of Pre-Roll ads.
Flash forward to 2014 — Netflix is nominated for 14 Emmys (winning 3) and tops 31 million subscribers (HBO, by comparison, has 29 million), Hulu‘s parent companies (Fox and Disney) have taken down the “For Sale” sign and doubled-down with a $750M investment in the streaming service’s future, and Amazon Prime has been growing so rapidly that new sign-ups had to be capped during peak periods of December 2013 to avoid exceeding their operational capacity. Perhaps more tellingly, YouTube and other online outlets are crashing the Upfronts — a week of presentations by broadcast TV executives to all the major advertising clients — using the industry’s own Nielsen data against it with an aggressive pitch that more 18-34 year olds (49% of the total demo) can be reached through advertising on their online platforms than on the most popular FX (45%), TBS (44%), Comedy Central (41%) or AMC (40%) broadcast packages.
Numbers like these engender a great deal of confidence in the future of streaming, and the larger trends in consumer behavior are unmistakable: streaming is here to stay, and content is still king regardless of platform. For decades, studios and broadcast networks have spent billions on preserving artificial restrictions on consumers — from appointment television to 90-day holdbacks from theatrical release on VOD/DVD/Digital sales — so seeing billions invested on tearing down these barriers and maximizing consumer choices is thrilling, regardless of the outcome.