‘Peak TV’ is coming to an end as streaming services look to cut costs

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Has “Peak TV” jumped the proverbial shark?

The cancellation and deplatforming of Warner Bros. Discovery Inc.’s

“Westworld” — which had run for four years — “The Nevers” and “Minx” is another signal that the golden age of what many in the entertainment industry call Peak TV has, well, peaked. The glut of content that consumers enjoyed — even expected — for the mere cost of a monthly subscription is waning.

After years of robust growth in streaming services and subscribers turbo-charged the number of TV shows produced each year to record numbers, the streaming explosion has lost steam. Streaming services from the likes of Warner Bros. Discovery and Comcast Corp.

to market leaders Netflix Inc.

and Walt Disney Co.

are responding by slashing costs, which includes slowing down the number of shows they greenlight, and adjusting their strategies (such as Peacock’s reported shift from comedies to dramas).

The number of scripted series for adults ordered by U.S. TV networks and streaming services tumbled 24% in the second half of 2022 compared with a year ago, and has plummeted 40% since 2019, according to Ampere Research. 

Curtailed content has coincided with subscribers overwhelmed by too many programs and a decline in the growth of subscriptions. The number of original scripted programs aimed at adults soared from 182 in 2002 to 559 in 2021, according to FX Research. Earlier this year, Wells Fargo & Co.

 estimated that the nine largest media and tech companies would spend $140 billion on content in 2022.

At the same time, the U.S. household penetration of prominent streaming providers was relatively flat year over year in 2022, according to the Advertising Research Foundation.

The turning point appeared to arrive in April, when Netflix reported it had lost subscribers for the first time in a decade, sending its stock into a tailspin and readjusting Wall Street’s attitude toward media and streaming stocks to focus on profits instead of subscriber gains. This has forced cost-cutting by Netflix, which has poured $17 billion into content this year after spending $13.6 billion in 2021, as well as by Disney, which is seeing its worst annual stock performance in nearly 50 years.

See also: Netflix lost its streaming crown to Disney. Here’s how execs expect to win it back.

“Well, it’s a bitch,” Netflix co-CEO Reed Hastings told employees at a town hall in April, referring to the decline in subscribers, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Since then, the company has laid off more than 400 employees and said it would hold steady on spending for new movie and TV programming and crack down on shared accounts, while adding an advertising-supported tier.

Losses at three-year-old streaming service Disney+ more than doubled in the past quarter to $1.5 billion, prompting the company to hire consulting firm McKinsey & Co. to look at a wide-ranging cost-cutting plan weeks before the ouster of CEO Bob Chapek in late November.

See also: Disney stock on its way to worst year since 1974 after ‘Avatar’ sequel disappoints

Returning CEO Bob Iger immediately vowed to take a “hard look” at costs. “Instead of chasing subscriptions with aggressive marketing and aggressive spending on content, we have to start chasing profitability,” Iger said during his first company-wide meeting, according to a transcript viewed by the Financial Times. “In order to achieve that, we have to take a very, very hard look at our cost structure across our businesses.”

An emphasis on profits at Disney’s streaming services — including Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ — underscores the dramatic shift in investor sentiment this year over the high costs of chasing subscribers. And it has led to speculation that Disney could spin off ESPN to “give it the operational flexibility to move into [direct-to-consumer],” Wells Fargo analysts said in a note this week.

Read more: Disney will spin off ESPN in 2023, allowing it to stream directly to sports fans, analysts predict

While Netflix and Disney retrench, Apple Inc.

and Amazon.com Inc.

— both of which receive the vast majority of their revenue from services other than streaming — are a different story. Both companies continue to plow money into content in order to increase subscriptions, although Apple has shown a propensity to be selective in the shows it buys.

Apple spends roughly $6 billion annually on Apple TV+, which is focused on high-quality original releases. The limited-library approach is part of the company’s strategy of setting itself up as a creative storyteller rather than playing for a mass audience.

Amazon, meanwhile, is in the midst of expanding its media business to help drive Prime subscriptions and more purchases on its core e-commerce site. The company spent $13 billion on content for its video and music streaming services last year, up from $11 billion in 2020, and its ambitions seem to have no bounds. 

The retailer behemoth, which acquired MGM Studios for $8.45 billion this year,   plans to spend $1 billion annually on between 12 and 15 movies, Bloomberg reported, citing people familiar with the matter. Amazon declined comment.

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