In the brief history of the streaming wars, the year 2020 has already borne witness to the sharp rise and fall of various direct-to-consumer entertainment services. Disney Plus flourished beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Quibi faltered and faded in less than a, well, you know.
As the streaming market continues to saturate, the new year finds TV viewers in much the same pandemic predicament as the previous one — encouraged to stay at home, fatigued from staying at home, and yearning for distraction. Which makes the global launch of Discovery Plus on Jan. 4 a potentially serendipitous salve, offering the ultimate in comfort viewing: a streaming service filled to the brim with home improvement fare, cooking shows and at least three “90 Day Fiance” spinoffs.
“I look at Discovery Plus as having the potential to be a pretty solid kind of mid-size, DTC service — certainly nothing like a Disney or Netflix — but broad enough and big enough and interesting enough to be pretty successful,” Macquarie equity analyst Tim Nollen tells Variety.
The platform, which has already premiered in the U.K. and Ireland, is set to feature over 50 originals and 55,000 previously aired episodes from Discovery-owned channels, including HGTV, Food Network, TLC, Animal Planet and others.
New shows include “Amy Schumer Learns to Cook: Uncensored,” “American Detective with Lt Joe Kenda,” “Monster Garage,” “BattleBots: The Bounty Hunters,” “Judi Dench’s Wild Borneo Adventures,” “House Hunters: Comedians on Couches Unfiltered,” “Toddlers and Tiaras: Where Are They Now?” and “Say Yes to the Dress: In Sickness and In Health.” It’ll also offer a first look at programming from home improvement gurus Chip and Joanna Gaines and their soon-to-launch Magnolia Network.
As with every new streamer that launches in this competitive landscape, there’s the question of whether viewers will make room in their monthly budgets for another service. Discovery Plus starts at $4.99 a month for the basic tier and $6.99 a month for an ad-free version.
But the biggest question, to Guggenheim equity analyst Michael Morris, is whether the service’s programming and genre of content will drive subscriber growth and adoption the way “The Mandalorian” has for Disney Plus and “Game of Thrones” did for HBO, or whether it will be a complimentary service to Discovery’s linear compatriots.
Discovery execs put the total addressable market for Discovery Plus at 70 million households in the U.S. and at least 400 million worldwide. Nollen is projecting the service will attract 10 million subscribers by the end of 2021, which would be “a pretty decent number.” Morris sees an even higher figure for Discovery Plus’ first year on the market, at 16 million global subscribers by the end of 2021, an “attractive rate of growth.”
But growing a streaming service, as a legacy entertainment company, comes with tradeoffs. Given the ubiquity and allure of Discovery’s networks in the traditional cable bundle — who hasn’t spent an afternoon unexpectedly sucked into a marathon of “Love It or List It” or “Beat Bobby Flay”? — market observers will be keeping an eye on the streamer’s impact on traditional linear cable subscriptions.
“It has the very interesting potential to even further hasten the decline of the traditional bundle, so it’s something of an offset,” said Nollen. “This is, I think, why Discovery has waited so long to launch its service. On the one hand, they had existing carriage deals to work through and renewals to come up where they can negotiate this type of thing. But also Discovery is perhaps as much, or not more than anyone else, beholden to the traditional linear bundle. So offering a service like this brings with it risk of further cord-cutting, which has been its lifeblood for all these years.”
Launching with a massive library of thousands of hours of programming is generally seen as a positive. Disney Plus’ main appeal is arguably not its originals but its treasure trove of Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar and classic Disney movies and shows. Meanwhile, Apple TV Plus raised eyebrows upon launch for its noticeably smaller shelf of library content. Discovery Plus has the benefit of years of shows from the Food Network and HGTV and OWN and the Travel Channel.
But that could also work to the detriment of Discovery’s linear cable networks.
“A huge library… to me is more of a risk for the linear service, because I don’t know that people necessarily need to watch the most current live episodes of Food Network and HGTV if you’ve got all these years’ worth of those types of shows [on Discovery Plus] and you just like to watch them casually,” said Nollen. “You know, why not just get it for five bucks a month and cut the cord?”
Both Nollen and Morris note that sports is what keeps the linear cable bundle alive. But that could cut both ways for subscribers to Discovery Plus. If they love the streamer so much that they’re tuning in less to analog TV, then they might find a cable subscription superfluous. On the other hand, if they’re sports fanatics, they’re unlikely to give up the bundle anyway.
Either way, it’s time for Discovery to get into the game.
“Our view has been, you have to make it — it’s not a matter of whether you want to or not, if you don’t, you are losing audience,” says Morris of entering the streaming market. “And that is obviously very clear in both ratings and declines in people subscribing to the pay-TV bundle. So not offering your content in a streaming manner is just being in denial about what the consumer and your competitors are going to deliver, as you try to protect legacy economics that aren’t realistic.”