2021 was the year that streaming pushed our cultural buttons

To no one’s surprise, 2020 was a bumper year for streaming. With people stuck at home last year, services saw millions of new subscribers — Netflix attracted 16 million customers in just three months, alone. The early part of 2021 continued that trend, but as the year draws to a close, it appears the growth is slowing down across the board. This suggests that as restrictions ease around the world, people might be returning to pre-pandemic norms.

But on the whole, 2021 was still a pretty big year for streaming. Netflix now has 214 million global subscribers, and services like Disney+ and HBO Max lured customers with exclusive TV shows and movies. US platforms, like Peacock, expanded internationally and online-only programming was well-represented at multiple award shows. Titles exclusive to streaming, such as Squid Game and WandaVision, became part of the cultural landscape. A slow year or not, it’s clear that this is how most of us watch our shows now. Here are some of the biggest stories in streaming this year.


Netflix continues to dominate

As mentioned above, Netflix is the undisputed leader in streaming with over 214 million subscribers worldwide. Sure, it’s faced a few challenges from rivals like Disney+ and Amazon Prime, but Netflix is still holding strong. Part of that is due to the company’s strategy of investing in original content that you can’t get anywhere else, like Stranger Things and The Crown.

And of course, there’s Squid Game which is undoubtedly the number one TV show of the year. Netflix has said that around 142 million households watched the Korean-language show, making it the most-viewed new show in Netflix history. There’s also the recently released Red Notice, which became the service’s most-watched movie in its first 28 days of release, with around 328.8 million viewing hours in that time span. That tops the previous record held by Bird Box, which had 282 million viewing hours back in 2018.

Things don’t seem to be slowing down, either. Netflix has signed multi-year deals with big names like Kevin Hart and Steven Spielberg, it has exclusive rights for Universal animated films and it purchased the rights to Roald Dahl’s entire catalog. this phenomenon

Still, 2021 wasn’t without its hiccups. The largest one by far is when Netflix employees staged a protest over the CEO’s remarks defending Dave Chappelle’s standup special, which was heavily criticized for its transphobic content. CEO Ed Sarandos has since said he “screwed up” on the messaging, but has not rescinded his defense.


Disney+ proves it’s a serious contender

Disney+, on the other hand, currently has 118.1 million paid subscribers worldwide, which doesn’t quite compare to Netflix. But the service still gained ground in 2021, with around 43 million more subscribers compared to last year. A lot of that can be attributed to Disney’s powerhouse brands such as Pixar, Star Wars and, especially in 2021, Marvel.

2021 was when the Marvel Cinematic Universe released four different TV shows, all exclusively on Disney+: WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki and Hawkeye. This is a big deal, as Marvel has said that these TV series are key to the MCU’s “Phase Four” chapter, indicating that fans will likely want to watch them in order to understand the context behind upcoming movies set in the same universe.

But there was more to these shows that made them required viewing. As the first out the gate, WandaVision set the tone. The episodes were meant to be watched weekly, as each one spurred so-called “water cooler” discussions in-person and online. This felt a lot like “anti-binging” TV, as much of the appeal of these shows lay in the anticipation of what would happen next. At the very least, it showed that Disney+’s slate of original content — which also includes The Mandalorian and the upcoming The Book of Boba Fett — could hold its own against that of more established platforms.

Warner Bros.

The direct-to-streaming revolution that wasn’t

During the thick of the pandemic, many movies eschewed theatrical releases for direct-to-streaming debuts. Examples include The Lovebirds, Borat Subsequent Movie Film, Mulan (via paid Premier Access), Soul, and Wonder Woman 1984. That carried into this year as well, with Disney+ continuing its paid Premier Access model with Cruella, Black Widow and Jungle Cruise (Luca, however, did not have Premier Access release).

The biggest move, however, was when Warner Bros. announced that every single one of its movies in 2021 would have a one month exclusive access period on HBO Max concurrent with the film’s domestic release. This meant that big blockbuster movies like Suicide Squad, Dune and Matrix 4 would be available on HBO Max on the same day they debuted in theaters for an entire year.

While some may have heralded this phenomenon as the future of entertainment, it looks to be short-lived. Disney revealed a few months ago that all of its remaining 2021 movies will get a 45-day head start in theaters. This could be due to strong responses to titles like Free Guy and Shang-Chi, but Disney might also want to avoid lawsuits like the one Scarlett Johansson filed for breach of contract over shortened theatrical releases. Warner Bros. also said that it’s going back to theater-first releases in 2022. It looks like the direct-to-streaming revolution isn’t quite here just yet.

Other notable streaming news

  • Paramount+ replaces CBS All Access, which essentially opens up the service to other ViacomCBS channels, such as Comedy Central and VH1, plus Paramount’s existing movie library.

  • Discovery+ makes its debut. The service features content from HGTV, Food Network, Animal Planet, TLC, the Magnolia Network, and Discovery.

  • AT&T spun off its WarnerMedia division and merged it with Discovery in a $43 billion deal. The new company will combine Warner’s film division, HBO Max and Discovery+.

  • Roku purchased Quibi’s shows and released some of them as “Roku Originals.”

  • Roku pulled YouTube TV from its channel store amid a contract dispute with Google. The latter apparently requested priority placement in search results and wanted to block results from other providers while the app was in use. As of December 8th, both parties have finally agreed to a multi-year extension.

  • In other notable YouTube TV news, the service recently lost access to all of Disney’s channels, which includes ESPN, ABC and FX, as Google and Disney had failed to strike a deal. After just a couple of days, however, the two companies reconciled and reached an agreement, thus restoring all of the aforementioned channels. When YouTube TV initially lost those channels, Google had dropped the price of the service by $15 (from $65 to $50 in the basic package). Now the price is back to normal. However, if users had already initiated the cancellation process, Google will still honor the one-time $15 credit if they resume their membership. 

  • WWE Network ceased operations as most of its content moved to Peacock.

  • Peacock aired multiple live Olympics sporting events as well as the opening and closing ceremonies.

  • Universal made a deal where Peacock and Amazon Prime Video would have some streaming rights for its live-action movies after their theatrical run. They would air on Peacock for four months, then on Prime Video for 10 months, and then back to Peacock for at least another four months. This kicks into effect in 2022.

  • Netflix gained exclusive streaming rights to all of Sony’s upcoming movies, including upcoming titles in the Spider-Man franchise.

  • Peacock debuts in the UK and Ireland.

What to look forward to in 2022

While the growth in streaming might be slowing, there are still plenty of shows and movies to anticipate next year. Netflix has confirmed that the aforementioned Sandman will be released in 2022, as well as The Witcher: Blood Origin and new seasons of favorites like Stranger Things, The Crown and Ozark. Disney+ will continue its MCU run of TV shows with Ms. Marvel, and will introduce a couple of Star Wars series too: Obi-Wan Kenobi and Andor. Perhaps the two biggest TV series to get excited about, however, are HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel series, House of the Dragon, and Amazon’s epic Lord of the Rings series, which is set thousands of years prior to The Hobbit.

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