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The Biggest Tech and Digital Media Stories of 2019

Here are the trends that captured headlines this year — from the rise of the streaming wars and podcasting, to digital-media consolidation and the growing backlash against Big Tech.

1. Big-Media Streamers Assemble

The new multibillion-dollar battle fronts in streaming video became sharply drawn in 2019. Disney roared the loudest, with the debut of Disney Plus — snagging an estimated 24 million users in less than three weeks thanks to aggressive pricing, Verizon’s one-year-free promo and meme-ready breakout superstar Baby Yoda. Disney also inked a pact with Comcast to control Hulu (future home to FX’s streaming originals) and is set for a big international streaming foray next year. Apple TV Plus arrived with a more boutique play, including awards contender “The Morning Show.” The field, led by Netflix, will get more heavy artillery in 2020 with the rollouts of AT&T/WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, Comcast/NBCU’s Peacock and Quibi, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s wager on premium mobile video.

2. “Techlash” Intensity Grows

Silicon Valley was once the poster child for American innovation and business leadership. In 2019, the chorus blasting large tech companies as dangerously powerful and even a threat to democracy grew louder — with serious calls for the U.S. government to dismantle them. Against that backdrop, regulators stepped up their attempts to brush back the behemoths. The DOJ rattled its saber with new antitrust probes. Facebook absorbed a record-breaking $5 billion FTC fine over alleged privacy violations (though investors didn’t even flinch), while YouTube was slapped by the FTC for collecting data on children under 13 and was forced to implement major changes in how it treats kid-targeted videos. TikTok, owned by Chinese internet giant ByteDance, drew scrutiny over privacy and security fears (and entered into its own FTC settlement) after exploding as one of the most popular social-video apps.

3. Digital Media Players Get Urge to Merge

Seeking strength in numbers amid revenue shortfalls and fragmenting audiences, digital-media publishers went through a wave of consolidation. Vice snapped up Refinery29, looking to forge a stronger presence with millennial women; Vox Media acquired New York Media, as a growing number of print-centric brands landed new owners; and Discovery-backed Group Nine bought female-focused PopSugar. It’s not certain how well the tie-ups will fulfill their synergy goals, but it’s safe to expect more M&A in this sector in 2020.

4. Skinny Bundles Get Fatter and Pricier

Over-the-top TV providers promised to give cable-weary consumers cheaper, more flexible ways to get subscription TV. But the economic realities of the pay-TV biz came home to roost, as every player in the sector implemented significant price hikes in 2019 while also augmenting their programming lineups. Dish just raised Sling TV’s rates 20%, after Hulu kicked up the cost of its live TV service by 22% last month, following price increases for AT&T Now (formerly DirecTV Now), Google’s YouTube TV and FuboTV. Sony threw in the towel, concluding it couldn’t make money on OTT pay-TV, announcing that it will shut down PlayStation Vue in January.

5. Podcasting Pops

After over a decade of steady growth, podcasting turned a corner this year with a flood of new investments and initiatives. Podcast mainstays like NPR, Joe Rogan and iHeartMedia’s How Stuff Works were joined in the podcast gold rush by everyone from Conan O’Brien to the Obamas. Spotify planted its flag in podcasting with a spate of acquisitions (including buying studio Gimlet Media) and building up a slate of originals, and Sony Music entered the fray. Meanwhile Apple is poised to make noise in podcasting in 2020. In 2019, an estimated 90 million U.S. consumers were listening to podcasts monthly, up 23% from 73 million last year, per Edison Research and Triton Digital.

Going to CES 2020? Don’t miss Variety‘s Entertainment Summit at CES, with a speaker lineup that includes Mark Cuban, Spotify’s Dawn Ostroff and ViacomCBS’s Marc DeBevoise.

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