This weekend, pop culture fans around the world will turn their attention again to the fictional continent of Westeros, where a bitter, treacherous fight for supreme power will finish playing out and finally bring HBO’s epic fantasy series Game of Thrones to a close eight years after it made its debut.
In the real world, meanwhile, a new chapter in a similar, hotly contested fight for who will ultimately occupy the streaming video landscape’s version of the Iron Throne is about to get under way, now that Disney has finally unveiled the Netflix rival, Disney+, that it’s launching in November for a few bucks less than Netflix’s cheapest plan.
Let’s get this out of the way right at the top. Apple, with its forthcoming Apple TV+ streamer, as well as Disney, both represent some of the toughest challengers Netflix will have faced yet since its evolution from a primarily mail-order service to the dominant streaming video content provider. Apple and Disney are also both ripping a page out of the Netflix playbook and turning it against them. Netflix, you’ll recall, transitioned from being a provider of mostly other people’s content and decided to future-proof itself by beefing up a library of buzzy originals that you couldn’t get anywhere else. Apple and Disney are both opening their checkbooks and promising to spend billions of dollars to do the exact same thing.
However, Netflix has something neither of those companies do — a secret weapon if you will. And that is Reed Hastings, the company’s chief executive who, say what you will about him, is not someone you want to cavalierly go up against in this business and assume you’ll easily emerge the victor.
Think for a moment about all of the various subscription packages you subscribe to, everything from cable to a gym membership, newspapers and magazines, Netflix, Hulu and lots more. If we had to start ranking which ones of those you would have to almost be bankrupt before you give it up, I dare say for most people Netflix is either near the top of the list or maybe even at the very top. It has entrenched itself in the minds of millions of customers that it is a “must-have.” Apple, Disney and everyone else are in a tougher spot, in that for most ordinary peoples’ budgets, there’s not that much more room to add a new “must-have” subscription. I can’t imagine almost any scenario in which I’d give up my Netflix subscription — and in large part, you can trace that back to decisions made as a result of Reed Hastings’ visionary leadership of the company.
Apple and Disney are extremely strong competitors according to the rules of the streaming game that they’re currently in. For pretty much the entirety of its history, and you’ll hopefully forgive how trite this statement sounds, but Reed & Co. have been playing a different game at Netflix. Not focused on optimizing for the landscape in front of them, but correctly anticipating what the future holds — and shifting to meet it — before they actually needed to.
From physical DVDs to streaming to original content and eventually producing critically acclaimed feature-length fare, it’s been a fascinating story to watch unfold. This is not to say Apple’s and Disney’s won’t be worthy subscription offerings, and I plan to try out both. But there’s a great quote from Kierkegaard, about how life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards. I’m betting that, as things stand now, Netflix will remain the king of the streaming hill going forward and for much of the foreseeable future, as long as its longtime chief executive remains in charge and Netflix keeps making bold bets about what it needs to do next.