Disney last week finally unveiled its plans for its upcoming direct-to-consumer platform. It was packed with popular Marvel superheroes, Star Wars warriors and beloved Pixar characters. But none of them got the plum slot at its culmination, just before Direct-to-Consumer and International chairman Kevin Mayer unveiled the launch date and price for the new series. It went to a 30-year-old TV series, The Simpsons, as the Springfield clan, in their trademark irreverent style, announced that all produced seasons of the iconic animated series will be available on Disney+ at launch. (you can watch the video below)
That was not done just for comic relief. Blockbuster movie titles are great, but having 600 episodes of a hugely popular series like The Simpsons can be a game-changer, helping to turn on the lights at any new outlet. The Simpsons already did it for the linear FXX and online FXNow as part of a $100 million deal with The Simpsons producer 20th Century Fox TV, which is now being reworked to move the full library to Disney+ for SVOD. Access to 20th TV’s vast content library was one of the reasons for Disney to acquire Fox assets for $71.3 billion as it is focusing on becoming a leader in the streaming space, currently dominated by Netflix.
WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal will likely follow suit by trying to secure for their platforms the off-network crown jewels they own, Friends, Seinfeld and (down the road) The Big Bang Theory – WarnerMedia — as well as The Office — NBCUniversal. Of them, Friends and The Office are currently on Netflix, Seinfeld is on Hulu, which until earlier today was partially owned by WarnerMedia. The Big Bang Theory has episodes available on CBS All Access through this season, the show’s final one on broadcast sibling CBS.
Being first to market is Netflix’s big advantage. While traditional media congloms Disney, WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal are in various stages of planning for their platforms, Netflix already has 140 million subscribers worldwide. What old media companies have as advantage over Netflix is their deep libraries.
For years, Netflix mined those libraries to boost its programming offerings, and the studios happily obliged as those deals propped up their bottom lines. Not anymore. Disney was first to throw down the gauntlet when it announced in 2017 that it would not renew its rich output deal with Netflix.
In anticipation of its suppliers of licensed product wising up and keeping their biggest titles for themselves, Netflix aggressively moved into original production, exponentially growing its TV series slate at a breakneck speed.
But, while Netflix has produced a number of original hits, led by Stranger Things, which has produced 17 episodes to date, off-network shows are still power performers, with The Office, which has 201 episodes, and Friends, whose library consists of 236 episodes, said to be in the front of the pack at the streamer.
“I believe it’s the No. 1 most-popular acquired show on Netflix, I believe it’s the No. 1 or 2 show on Netflix that they acquire, and there are millions of streams of those episodes,” Bob Greenblatt said last fall while still at NBCUniversal. “And they pay us a lot of money for it. If we knew how popular it was going to be before they made the deal, we would have asked for more money from them!”
The current Netflix deal for The Office goes to 2021. “We’re not going to get it back early, but I believe The Office — those existing episodes — would be a great asset to have” for an NBCU streaming service,” Greenblatt said in the same interview. “[If they’re] generating that much interest on Netflix, you’d certainly love to say, “Here’s the exclusive home of this show that you love.'”
I hear NBCuniversal, whose streaming platform is in its nascent stages, is eyeing The Office as a potential cornerstone for the service.
Similarly, WarnerMedia is believed to be eyeing Friends and Seinfeld for its platform. Like The Office, I hear Seinfeld is tied up until 2021 in its exclusive SVOD deal at Hulu. (Both WarnerMedia and NBCU’s platforms are targeting 2020 launch.)
Also likely earmarked for the service is another Warner Bros.-owned sitcom that has been a huge draw in cable syndication, The Big Bang Theory. Though, because of its rich cable deal, which was extended by the series’ long broadcast run, it likely won’t jump into SVOD right away. That also was the case with Seinfeld, which was held back from streaming while still flying high in off-network syndication.
The classic 1990s sitcom, owned by Warner Bros. via the show’s producer Castle Rock, is being distributed by Sony Pictures TV, which I hear had been kicking the tires ahead of all of Seinfeld‘s off-network deals coming up in 2021, which includes a cable pact with WarnerMedia’s TBS. The AT&T-owned company could go for a package SVOD-cable deal on Seinfeld, whose 180 episodes are said to be doing strong business on Hulu.
Whatever the deal is, it is certain that the series starring Jerry Seinfeld will fetch a lot more in streaming dollars than the $130+ million its current Hulu deal pays. Ditto for The Office. Netflix’s VP of acquisitions Amy Reinhard recently said that the company will “absolutely” try to negotiate a new deal for The Office, which would spark bidding.
Just how high can prices for top off-network comedies can go — look at Netflix, which in December shelled out $100 million for non-exclusive streaming rights to Friends for just one year.
And yet, Kevin Reilly, who oversees the new WarnerMedia streaming service, indicated in February that Friends ultimately will be exclusive to the new platform.
“I think you can expect the crown jewels of Warner will ultimately end up on our new service.,” he said. “Pulling it away (from Netflix)? It’s certainly something we’re willing to do. I think for the most part, sharing destination assets like that is not a good model to share — my belief is that they should be exclusive.”
That is where old media companies’ leverage comes into play. Owning the sought-after series, they can outbid streamers like Netflix as they move funds from one part of the company to another, as long as they compensate properly profit participants.
We will see whether the big off-network comedies will do as well on their parent companies’ platforms as they do in their current SVOD homes but it’s hard to bet against a streaming service that launches with Friends and Seinfeld, for example, with Big Bang and ER, also currently oh Hulu, in the wings.
Both Netflix and Hulu started off with licensed content before venturing into originals. While Netflix will be significantly impacted by studios pulling their movies and series, Hulu, now majority owned by Disney, will be able to benefit from vertical integration with a number of big off-network shows it carries that come from sister studios, such as hit animated comedy Family Guy.
Amazon’s original programming service is an additive to the larger company’s hugely successful e-commerce business, which has helped it without having to rely on off-network content. It will be interesting to see how Apple, which also does not acquire off-network product, will launch its all-original slate.