Streaming Wars: How the Pandemic Has Changed How We Watch and Subscribe to TV (Part 1 of 2)

Part 1: who’s who in the streaming world and the streaming ceiling

Since the pandemic hit the U.S. in late February/early March, millions of American consumers have been sheltering in place at home. As a result, many of our habits have changed. We shop differently, we socialize differently, and we seek entertainment from new and different sources. In addition to gaming, audiobooks, podcasts and streaming music, many of us have turned to streaming video on demand subscription services like Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu and Disney+, even more than before, further fueling the streaming wars.

In their quarterly financial reports, streaming video on demand subscription services have reported spikes in viewership as well as paid subscriptions and subscription revenue growth. We have also seen streaming services like Disney+ adjust their business models. Can we expect these tests and trends to continue after the pandemic is over? To answer that question, we looked at the major players, what they are saying, and how they are faring. Also, in part 2 of this series, we talked to Rameez Tase, CEO and co-founder of ANTENNA, a measurement and analytics company for subscription businesses.

Who’s who in streaming today

There are so many streaming TV providers – subscription, ad-supported and hybrids – that it would be impossible to cover them all in one article. We’ll touch on a few of the more popular services and tell you where they stand in terms of subscription options, subscriber numbers and revenue, if known.

Apple TV+

Apple TV+ is Apple’s premium streaming video on demand subscription service. Launched in November 2019, the service is ad-free, and it offers a catalog of about 30 Apple Originals, including The Morning Show and Defending Jacob. At the outset, Apple had planned to only offer originals movies and TV shows, but it has since acquiesced and will offer a library of licensed content, according to Bloomberg. The Apple TV+ subscription streaming service is available for $4.99 a month, following a 7-day free trial.

For a time this spring, Apple allowed free streaming of some of its original programming when the country was entrenched in the pandemic, reports CNET. Apple has also given new Apple product owners a free year of Apple TV+ to try to attract interest. This could create a huge base of potential viewers, but if those viewers can get it for free, will they subscribe after the free year-long trial is over?

In May, The Verge said that Apple TV+ is not as popular as Apple had hoped, though it has won awards and critical acclaim for several of its shows. We don’t really know how many subscribers Apple TV+ has to date. Apple CEO Tim Cook did not reveal this information in the company’s latest earnings report. In May, in an article by The Verge, estimates ranged from 10 million to 33 million, depending on the source.

Apple TV+


Launched last fall, Disney+ experienced early success with its subscription streaming service. The launch was well planned, well marketed, and the popularity of the brand, shows and movies is unmatched. At last count, Disney+ had amassed 60.5 million subscribers, a huge success in such a short period of time. The company had set a goal of reaching between 60 million and 90 million subscribers within the first five years. They are way ahead of schedule.

CNET reports that Disney added about a million members per month in April, May and June, and another 3 million members in July and early August. The latest subscriber spike was likely due to the July 3 debut of Hamilton.

“Despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, we’ve continued to build on the incredible success of Disney+ as we grow our global direct-to-consumer business,” said Bob Chapek, CEO for The Walt Disney Company, in an August 4 news release. “The global reach of our full portfolio of direct-to-consumer services now exceeds an astounding 100 million paid subscriptions – a significant milestone and a reaffirmation of our DTC strategy, which we view as key to the future growth of our company.”

The total number of direct-to-consumer subscriptions includes Disney’s three streaming subscription services: Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu. As noted above, Disney+ has 60.5 million subscribers, while Hulu has 35.5 million (32.1 million from SVOD and 3.4 million from Live TV + SVOD), and ESPN+ has about 8.5 million.

As a standalone subscription, Disney+, which includes content from Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and National Geographic, is $6.99 a month, or $69.99 a year. ESPN+ was $4.99 a month, but due to a recent price increase, is now $5.99 a month. Hulu offers three different plans at varying price points:

  • Ad-supported plan is $5.99 a month after a 30-day free trial.
  • Ad free plan is $11.99 a month after a 30-day free trial.
  • Hulu + Live TV is $54.99 a month after a 7-day free trial.

Premium streaming services HBO Max, Showtime, Cinemax and Starz are available to subscribe via the Hulu dashboard as add-ons for an extra monthly subscription fee. When bundled together, a subscription to Disney+, ESPN+ and the ad-supported version of Hulu is $12.99 a month. Neither Disney+ nor ESPN+ offer a free trial.



Launched on May 27, HBO Max, which combines all of HBO’s content into one service, is one of the newest major entrants into the streaming subscription market. After a 7-day free trial, HBO Max is $14.99 a month. In addition to HBO favorites, the streaming subscription service offers hit movies, licensed content like Friends, South Park and Doctor Who, and Max Originals like Love Life with Anna Kendrick and The Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo. At launch, the service offered more than 10,000 hours of content. They have plans to continue to roll out new content throughout the summer and fall.

“Our number one goal is having extraordinary content for everyone in the family, and the HBO Max programming mix we are so excited to unveil on May 27th will bear that out,” said Robert Greenblatt, chairman of Warner Media Entertainment and direct-to-consumer, in an April announcement.

“Consumers will quickly see that HBO Max is set apart by a foundation of loved brands built over decades but stitched together with a distinctive voice and product experience,” said Kevin Reilly, Chief Content Officer, HBO Max, President, TNT, TBS, and truTV. “Our team has meticulously selected a world class library catalogue and collaborated with top creators across all genres to offer a monthly cadence of original series and movies that we will program and promote for cultural impact.”

During AT&T’s July 23 earnings call, AT&T CEO and director John Stankey said HBO Max had 36.3 million U.S. subscribers, including HBO and HBO Max. This was an increase over 34.6 million as of the second quarter of 2019. One month after launch, HBO Max had about 3 million retail subscribers and 4.1 million subscribers had activated their HBO Max accounts, including more than 1 million wholesale subscribers through AT&T. To boost subscriber growth, AT&T is bundling HBO Max with some of its premium wireless and fiber plans.

The company commented on its distribution plans to continue growing its HBO Max subscriber base. This is where things stood, as of July 23.

“…we worked hard to make HBO Max available to consumers through nearly every content distributor in the United States. We’ve tried repeatedly to make HBO Max available to all customers using Amazon Fire devices, including those customers that have purchased HBO via Amazon. Unfortunately, Amazon has taken an approach of treating HBO Max and its customers differently on how they’ve chosen to treat other services and their customers. We’re glad to have agreements in place with, among others, Apple TV and Google Chromecast to give customers the right to stream HBO Max on those devices,” said Stankey.

It is not clear if HBO Max and Amazon have yet come to an agreement. Roku also appears to be a holdout as a potential distributor.



In its second quarter shareholder letter, Netflix announced the company had seen double-digit growth in total revenue and in paid net new additions. Netflix reported total revenue of $6.1 billion, a 24.9% increase over the second quarter of 2019. The company added a record 10.09 million new members, compared to 2.7 million paid net adds for the same period last year. The streaming company now has 192.95 million total members worldwide, a 27.3% increase year-over-year. In addition, average streaming paid memberships increased 25% year-over-year, and streaming ARPU increased 0.4% year-over-year.

“We live in uncertain times with restrictions on what we can do socially, and many people are turning to entertainment for relaxation, connection, comfort and stimulation. In Q1 and Q2, we saw significant pull-forward of our underlying adoption leading to huge growth in the first half of this year (26 million paid net adds vs. prior year of 12 million),” said Netflix in their July 16 letter.

Though these numbers are impressive, Netflix does not expect to see that level of growth to continue into the second half of the year. The company estimates they will have 2.5 million paid net adds for the third quarter, compared to 6.8 million in the third quarter of 2019. Instead of focusing on more membership growth, Netflix’s focus will be on customer experience, quality of service, and bringing new content to their members.

“Growth is slowing as consumers get through the initial shock of COVID and social restrictions. Our paid net additions for the month of June also included the subscriptions we cancelled for the small percentage of members who had not used the service recently,” said Netflix. “We continue to view the quarter-to-quarter fluctuations in paid net adds as not that meaningful in the context of the long run adoption of internet entertainment which we believe provides us with many years of strong growth ahead.”

The company shared impressive viewership numbers for the quarter with Never Have I Ever and Space Force each drawing 40 million households each. The SVOD service estimated that Love Is Blind, Too Hot to Handle and Floor Is Lava were viewed by 51 million people, or 37 million households in the first four weeks. Viewership typically represents the number of households that have viewed a program, which is not the same as paid memberships.

Netflix offers paid memberships only. After a free 30-day trial, members can sign up for one of three plans: Basic at $8.99 a month; Standard at $12.99 a month; and Premium at $15.99 a month. All tiers are ad-free and come with their own limitations. For example, the $8.99 plan limits the member to watching a program on one screen at a time, where the $15.99 plan allows four screens in a household to be watched simultaneously. The premium plan is also available in ultra HD where the other two plans are not. (Pricing is for U.S. only. Prices vary by country.)


NBCUniversal’s new streaming service Peacock did a soft launch this spring to Comcast Xfinity customers. The company had originally planned to do a full launch in the summer, just in time for the Tokyo Summer Olympics, but COVID-19 derailed those plans. Not to be deterred, Peacock officially launched on July 16, and early numbers show that the service is a success.

On a July 30, 2020 earnings call, Jeff Shell, CEO of NBCUniversal/Comcast, said Peacock had attracted 10 million sign-ups already. Shell pointed out that these numbers were sign-ups which are not the same as monthly active accounts (households) or monthly active users (individuals). Regardless, the company said they are encouraged by the results thus far.

“…not only are more people signing up than we projected, but they are watching more frequently and engaging much longer than we projected,” said Shell on the call. “The technology worked seamlessly, and the service is improving daily. With much of our strong programming coming in January, including the exclusive rights to The Office, we feel very encouraged.”

Peacock operates under a tiered freemium model. The ad-supported free tier gives viewers access to 7,500 hours of TV shows and movies. The Peacock Premium tier with ads is $4.99 a month, or $49.99 a year, after a 7-day free trial, and it includes access to 15,000 hours of content plus access to Peacock Originals, live sports and current hits. The same content without ads will cost subscribers $9.99 a month or $99.99 a year.


Prime Video

Owned by Amazon, Prime Video is part of the Amazon Prime membership, available for $119 a year, or $12.99 a month, for a regular membership. Student memberships are available for $59 per year or $6.49 per month. In 2016, Amazon began offering Prime Video as a standalone subscription, but it is not clear if this is still an option. Prime Video offers a wide variety of programming, including licensed TV shows and movies and award-winning Amazon Originals, including Fleabag, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and A Very English Scandal.

Prime Video Channels has also become a landing spot, or dashboard of sorts, for other services, so subscribers can go to one place to access many different streaming services as add-ons for an extra subscription fee. The options include BritBox, Sundance Now, Showtime, Starz and Shudder. Some HBO content is available through Prime Video Channels, such as HBO East, HBO Family, HBO Signature and HBO Latino, but HBO Max is not part of the Prime Video Channels line-up yet.

Market US reports that, as of January 2020, Amazon Prime Video had over 150 million users, and Amazon Prime had over 100 million users globally. If those figures are accurate, it seems that Amazon either does still offer the standalone subscription option, or those who signed up just for Prime Video when it was offered as a standalone service were grandfathered in.

Amazon Prime Video


Under the ViacomCBS umbrella, the CBS network has two direct-to-consumer streaming subscription services: CBS All Access and Showtime OTT. Combined, the services have 16.2 million domestic paid streaming subscribers, a 74% increase year-over-year. In its second quarter earnings report released August 6, the company said that CBS All Access continues to break records in terms of paid subscribers, streams and minutes watched. In fact, it hit several all-time highs during the quarter. Showtime OTT, which features Homeland, Billions and The Chi, had its best quarter ever in sign-ups, streams and minutes watched.

Last month, ViacomCBS revealed plans to rebrand CBS All Access as a super service by early 2021. In addition to the rebrand, the company will add more than 3,500 episodes from networks including BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Smithsonian and more. In addition, CBS All Access will feature live programming including news, sports, and major events like the Super Bowl, Grammy Awards and the Academy of Country Music Awards.

ViacomCBS also owns Pluto TV, an ad-supported streaming service. According to the company’s earnings report, the AVOD is the #1 ad-supported streaming service in the country. It has 26.5 million domestic monthly active users, a 61% increase year-over-year. The service offers more than 100,000 hours of content.

CBS All Access offers two subscription options: a limited commercials plan for $5.99 a month, or $59.99 a year, or an ad-free plan for $9.99 a month, or $99.99 per year, following a 7-day free trial. Both options include more than 20,000 episodes from current and past seasons of shows like NCIS, Star Trek Picard and MacGyver, more than 150 ad-free movies, access to four channels of live TV, and exclusive original series like Big Brother and kids’ programming.

Showtime OTT allows subscribers to watch their favorite Showtime programming for $10.99 a month, following a 30-day free trial. It can be purchased directly online or via Prime Video Channels, Hulu (as an add-on) or through a pay TV provider.

CBS All Access

Summary of streaming services

Is there a “streaming ceiling?”

According to a recent report by Ampere Analysis, there is still room for growth in the streaming space, including the U.S. which has the most growth potential. According to Ampere, the streaming ceiling is estimated to be eight services per household. They arrived at that figure by estimating the cost of the lowest priced cable subscription, which is about $900 a year. Cord Cutters News says they think four to five services is more likely to be the ceiling, but this would still leave room for 3 billion more streaming subscriptions across the globe.

Ampere estimates that the average U.S. household has access to almost 100,000 hours of content, based on an average of 3.8 streaming services per household. Households with children have an average of close to five services at home, compared to 3.5 last year. If a viewer was to actually watch 100,000 hours of television, it would take them 11 years if watched continuously, or 70 years if watched an average of four hours per day, says Ampere

My streaming ceiling

A few months ago, I would have said my household, which includes one person and two cats, had reached its threshold of streaming services:

  • Prime Video, as part of my Prime membership
  • Netflix, my first service and my favorite service
  • Hulu, which I joined because I got a $2 a month deal on Cyber Monday last year (I’ve watched it twice)
  • Peacock, ad-supported version, offered for free through my Xfinity Comcast cable service
  • I have temporarily subscribed to services like BritBox and Sundance Now to binge watch a particular series.

That said, I would pay for the premium version of Peacock, because it has great programming, but I am already tired of the ads (sorry, State Farm and Subaru). I have also considered HBO Max, because the original programming looks particularly good. I am also considering CBS All Access.

For me, the bottom line isn’t cost, but content selection and ease of access. My Xfinity X1 box, for example, makes accessing Prime, Peacock, Netflix and Hulu very easy. I am reconsidering my cable subscription though, which just went up $50 a month after my two-year promotional pricing ended. To get a better deal now, I must use their mobile phone service, and I don’t think Sprint is going to let me go. What is your streaming ceiling? How many services are you willing to pay for?

In part 2 of the series, to be published next week, we talked to Rameez Tase, CEO and co-founder of ANTENNA, a measurement and analytics company for subscription businesses to learn more about how our TV viewing and subscription habits have changed in 2020. Stay tuned!

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