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Paramount+ Marks the Maturation—And Saturation—of Streaming
With ViacomCBS’s rebrand and relaunch of CBS All Access as Paramount+ on March 4, all the major TV players are now fully represented in the streaming space.

To be fair, CBS’s entry was actually among the first to market, back in the olden days of streaming in 2014. Somehow, it’s managed to be both ahead of its time and behind the curve as this rebrand arrives two months after Discovery+ and over seven months after key competitor NBCUniversal’s launch of Peacock in July 2020.

As the 6th major streamer to launch in the last 17 months, Paramount+ faces a fully saturated ecosystem of viewing options. To properly evaluate where it fits, we must consider what matters most to consumers and advertisers: content, subscriber numbers, subscription cost and advertising options.

Content is (Still) King

TV broadcaster success has long risen and fell based on programming, and life in the streaming world is no different. But it’s the king with the most subjects who will wear the crown. As such, there is a direct correlation between those streamers who are succeeding and growing and the content they offer:

  • Netflix is the top dog with over 200 million subscribers worldwide, and 74 million in the U.S. Despite relinquishing the golden goose of The Office to Peacock in January, it remains a hit machine due to COVID-popular releases like Tiger King, The Queen’s Gambit, The Crown and Bridgerton; aggressive 2021 plans to release an original movie weekly; and continued success at the awards shows. With its Midas Touch, the rich stand to get richer.
  • Amazon’s Prime Video sits at 150 million subscribers worldwide—buoyed by the inclusion of the streaming service within the broader Prime offering. Boasting streaming’s largest content catalog, with over 14,000 movies and 2,200 television shows, Amazon features established hits like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and The Man in the High Castle, new series like The Boys and Fleabag, and buzzy films including Borat Subsequent Moviefilm and the 2021 release Coming 2 America. Outside of scripted content, Amazon has renewed its partnership with the NFL and FOX to be the streaming destination for Thursday Night Football. Between its exhaustive content and America’s reliance on Prime, Amazon’s not going anywhere.
  • Disney+ has quickly surged to 95 million subscribers worldwide on the strength of the Star Wars series The Mandalorian, key film releases (Hamilton, Mulan, and Soul) and a treasure trove of classic Disney, Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars content. With plans for regular releases of new, original content throughout 2021, subscriber counts only stand to grow. Once the new releases really begin to roll, it will be tough to stop the Mouse.
  • Hulu has maintained steady subscriber counts, currently sitting at 39.4 million in the U.S. Having built loyalty on the back of workhouse hits like This is Us, The Good Place, and A Million Little Things, it looks to keep audiences engaged moving forward with a deep catalog of recent classics, content agreements with FX and Fox Searchlight and a growing supply of original content like A Handmaid’s Tale, Little Fires Everywhere and Palm Springs. If it can hold onto rights to long-time favorites long enough to further build up its originals, consumers should remain loyal.
  • Apple TV+ is perhaps the most unusual of the streamers, a hardware company turned content producer hoping to transform the TV world in much the same way it evolved music via iTunes in the early 2000s. While subscriber estimates vary from 33 million to 40 million, the actual number is asterisked by the fact that 62% of subscribers are on free offers tied to Apple product purchases. That aside, Apple’s biggest issue has been content, with success limited to the Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon drama The Morning Show, the Tom Hanks’ film Greyhound and hidden gems like Dickinson and On the Rocks. Unless they continue to renew the free subscriptions, Apple’s streamer may not last any longer than an old iPhone battery.
  • Peacock is the poster child for the power of content, debuting less than a year ago to tepid interest before reigning in exclusive (or joint) control of key intellectual property like The Office and Modern Family to the tune of an estimated 33 million subscribers by early 2021. However new, original content like Brave New World, Saved By the Bell and Mr. Mayor haven’t become the hits some expected, and the COVID delay of the Summer Olympics has postponed a key subscription driver. Based on its strong track record for content, NBC can’t be counted out in the long run, and should only be strengthened as live and sports programming transitions to streaming. COVID didn’t close this Office, but it’ll take better originals and sports to keep this bird soaring.
  • HBO Max, a hybrid of HBO and Warner Bros. content claims 17.2 million “activated” users, a nuance that separates out how many people have downloaded the app to devices from how many people have subscriptions with existing HBO, WarnerMedia and AT&T pay TV plans. The platform has no lack of high-quality content (Friends, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, DC Comics), but has struggled with noteworthy original content. To inspire sign-ups, it announced in November plans to simultaneously release the film Wonder Woman 1984 for streaming and in movie theaters—something it intends to do for all planned 2021 Warner Bros. films (including Dune and Matrix 4). Clearer marketing and continued co-release of films are the best bets to max its value.
  • Discovery+, the youngest combatant in the streaming wars, has already amassed 11 million subscribers on the strength of content bridging HGTV, Food Network, TLC, OWN, Travel Channel, Animal Planet, Discovery Channel and more. COVID-issues have also led to Chip and Joanna Gaines’ highly anticipated Magnolia Network content now debuting on digital ahead of its linear launch. While arguably a more niche player, Discovery+ stands to benefit in the long run from its popular content. There is no limit to what people will pay to watch someone else cook or upgrade a house.
  • This is the crowded field where Paramount+ finds itself, hanging onto 19.2 million subscribers combined from CBS All Access and Showtime. Content-wise, it hopes to capitalize on classics from its varied properties (CBS, MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, BET) like Star Trek, Spongebob SquarePants, Survivor and Paw Patrol, alongside reboots of popular series including Frasier, The Real World, MTV’s Behind the Music, and Criminal Minds. Taking a somewhat less aggressive approach to new movies than HBO Max, it will release 2021 originals 45 days after their theatrical release, with key drops highlighted by A Quiet Place 2, Mission Impossible 7 and Paw Patrol. One place it is well equipped to succeed is sports due to key contracts with the NFL and international soccer. With a content strategy built around recycling and nostalgia, it’ll take some big hits to become king of the mountain.

Is the Price Right?

While everyone’s in the same ballpark, pricing and subscription models do vary significantly. Three streamers have just one option: Prime Video ($12.99/month, $119/year), HBO Max ($14.99/month; ad-supported tier expected in 2021) and Apple TV+ ($4.99/month). Peacock is the only streamer offering both free and paid viewing, with nuanced options built around access to varying degrees of The Office content and sports. Hulu, Peacock, and Discovery+ all offer the choice of ads or no ads for a small upcharge; Paramount+ is going this route, too, at $4.99/month with ads and $9.99/month ad-free. Most attractive may be the Disney+/ESPN+/Hulu bundle at only $13.99/month.

Less Fragmentation, Fewer Ads

For advertisers, the streaming space presents both significant advantages and challenges as compared to linear TV. On the plus side, broadcasters have consolidated content into enticing bundles that alleviate some of the over-fragmentation of the linear/cable world. Hulu combines content from ABC, Disney, FOX, and—for now—NBC. HBO Max marries content from HBO and Warner Bros. Discovery+ merges 8 popular pay TV properties. And Paramount+ brings together classic CBS with Viacom’s family of premium TV offerings.

Where advertising is available, there also tends to be a much lower ad load. For consumers this means fewer ads to sit through, while for advertisers this allows for a greater share of voice. In some cases, platforms tout ad pods less than half as long as on linear. However with streaming audiences continuing to grow, and linear ones decreasing, only time will tell whether ad pods return to linear levels.

More important though is the fact that only a portion of the most popular streaming services are ad supported. Netflix, Prime Video, and Disney+ combined account for nearly half of all video streaming time spent. The other half is made up of YouTube (20%), Hulu (11%), and then all others. This means that it’s twice as hard to locate consumers via streaming as it is on linear. While this makes ad supported options like Paramount+ all the more valuable to marketers, it also reinforces the need for streamers to build robust subscriber counts.

As an ad-supported platform, Paramount+ has the potential to drive value for advertisers if and when audiences increase. With its ad-supported offering priced competitively compared to Hulu, Peacock, and Discovery+, it will come down to whether consumers see value in its content. Currently ad inventory is sold out for the remainder of 2021, with opportunities expected in early 2022. This either points to strong interest from advertisers or, more likely, limited scale. Advertisers should keep an eye on how things develop over the remainder of 2021 to determine whether Paramount+ belongs in their 2022 streaming plans.

A Tall Mountain to Climb

While ViacomCBS’s decision to rebrand makes sense when considering CBS All Access’s stalled position among its streaming brethren, Paramount+ has its work cut out for itself. It’s lost significant time as more focused competitors have built comparable content libraries with clearer branding and larger audiences. With a disparate collection of content, it very much lacks an identity.