Most of Netflix’s Newest Rivals Aren’t Really Trying to Take On Netflix

Streaming competitors like Apple TV+ and Disney+ have other business incentives

Illustrations of streaming services on devices in front of Netflix logo
Streaming video never was, and never will be, the be-all and end-all of perceived competitors' businesses. Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Sources: Getty Images, Netflix, Disney, Apple, Amazon

In the rapidly intensifying streaming wars, Netflix doesn’t have nearly as many competitors as it might seem.

Sure, there is a dizzying array of new entrants to the streaming space: Apple TV+, BET+ and Disney+ are all coming out before mid-November, and HBO Max along with a service from NBCUniversal are expected next year, joining an already crowded fray of streaming players that include heavy-hitters like Amazon Prime Video and Hulu. Like Netflix, all of these companies are investing big in original programming; most, too, are stocking the digital shelves of their content libraries with existing television and film titles.

If they look like Netflix and act like Netflix, it’s not unreasonable for these burgeoning services to be considered competitors to Netflix.

But for many of these companies there is one major and consequential difference: Streaming video never was, and never will be, the be-all and end-all of their businesses. Many of Netflix’s most compelling peers in the space are instead betting that streaming television will give them a way to shore up more vital businesses endeavors.

Consider Apple.

Apple TV+, an upcoming streaming service that will carry original programming like The Morning Show when it debuts on Nov. 1, is coming into the streaming fray with the sticker price of $4.99 a month, lower than all the other major streaming services on the market. While the price point may affect the broader landscape by pressuring other companies to keep prices low, becoming a streaming behemoth isn’t the goal of Apple TV+ at all.

CEO Tim Cook made that clear during his company’s presentation on Tuesday, announcing that people buying new products like the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV or Mac will get a free year of Apple TV+ with their purchase.

In other words: Apple’s investment in streaming isn’t really designed to take a chunk out of Netflix viewers. It’s designed to give consumers an incentive to buy more Apple hardware.

Apple isn’t the only company using streaming to sweeten its broader business.

Amazon’s streaming endeavor, Amazon Prime Video, is often compared to Netflix because of esteemed original programming like Fleabag and Homecoming, but Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has said he does not consider the two companies competitors. That’s primarily because the investment in streaming television is intended as a way to entice Amazon customers to stay in the Amazon ecosystem as Prime customers.

At the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour in August, Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke detailed the content arm’s business strategy as a way to sweeten the Amazon Prime deal for customers, not as a stand-alone streaming business trying to win with subscription revenue.

“We’re not in the volume business,” Salke said. “We’re in the curated business of bringing individual shows … to our global, diverse audience that they will love, and they will come to count on coming to Amazon Prime Video and seeing shows that are of a certain quality and that are great. Our goal is to delight them and add to the value of what Prime is all over the world.”

Even entertainment companies that seem like more natural competitors to Netflix have other business efforts that don’t and won’t hinge entirely on a streaming success story.

Disney CEO Bob Iger has said that Disney+, which is debuting at $6.99 a month on Nov. 12, will be treated as “the most important product the company has launched” in his tenure. But the service remains just one offshoot from the many-tentacled Disney beast, which brings in revenue from branded cruises, amusement parks, hotels, consumer goods, licensing deals and the box office, to name only a few.

If the anticipated marketing plan for Disney+ is any indication, the streaming service will serve to feed the appetite of Disney fans, who the company is hoping can be counted on to continue buying Disney-branded items, watching Disney-branded entertainment and attending Disney-branded vacations. Even the steep Disney+ discount the company offered last month to members of its D23 fan club—made up of its most loyal consumers—was designed to keep that group even more tightly tethered to the company’s ecosystem.

That appears to be a similar approach that Comcast’s NBCUniversal is taking with its own streaming service, which is expected to become available next April. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts has expressed that the service, which will be free for Comcast cable customers in the U.S., is not intended as a substitute for Comcast’s cable business and is instead designed to be an additional benefit for cable customers. (People who are not Comcast customers will be able to access a pared-down version of the service for an additional fee.)

“We have an existing business to nurture,” Roberts said in October 2018.

For consumers, companies’ motivations behind investing in original programming might be a distinction without a difference: The decision will hinge almost exclusively on which services are worth their money. For Netflix, though, the distinction is important. Even after stumbling in its most recent earnings, the company has downplayed the threats from its competition.

While these companies aren’t looking to dethrone Netflix, they’re still gobbling up good projects and raising the streaming stakes—and they’re doing it without the same level of risk as a stand-alone service. Apple could theoretically throw in the towel on Apple TV+ if its reported $6 billion investment in original content doesn’t pan out.

Netflix has no such luxury.

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.