Let’s Put An End to the “Streaming Wars”

Everywhere you turn in the media business people are talking about the “streaming wars.”  It’s the catch-all label for journalists, bloggers (including yours truly) and analysts when writing about the latest developments with Netflix, Disney, or any of the other players in the space.

As someone who is actively engaged daily in this so-called “war,” I think the time is long past to retire the term.

Given world events I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with the optics of using the word “war” to describe bloodless competition among media companies.  It trivializes the heroic life and death sacrifices oppressed people, like those in the Ukraine, are making every day.

To be fair, I know no decent person using the term “streaming wars” means any disrespect to those fighting actual wars. And almost everyone in corporate America, myself included, routinely uses the terminology of war and armed conflict.  It’s very hard not to. 

Military terminology has been woven into the DNA of American corporate cultures from the beginning.  Much of the thinking that informed the organizational planning of America’s first corporations was done by men in an era when almost everyone was a veteran of military service. 

To this day, military thinking continues to inform business strategy and culture even though the draft is long gone and most corporate executives have never served.  You can see the legacy in our corporate titles – chief executive “officers.” (My title is CMO). We talk about employees working on the “front lines” and those at “headquarters” as well as who “reports” to who in the corporate hierarchy.  Business professors quote Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.  We talk about taking the high ground, building impenetrable moats or positions…the list goes on.

It’s a habit all of us have absorbed without much conscious thought.  But as I said given that the consequences of armed conflict, especially among those victims mired in crushing poverty or oppression, are readily accessible on our phones with just a swipe and a tap, I think as an industry we can do better.

But there’s a more important reason to reconsider our “war” metaphors beyond optics.  Categorizing as a war the massive shift of resources and energy by media companies across the globe towards streaming reveals a potentially much deeper problem – a lack of strategic imagination and risk taking.

Look at the current situation in the media business as a “war” and all you will see are enemies meant to be conquered.  As a result, your strategy will be limited to seeking competitive differentiators like price, brand positioning or content genres.  In this mindset all you will look for are opportunities to steal share from the competition.

This clearly is the state of things in the streaming business today.  Media companies are seeking new ways to differentiate on price – the introduction of ad supported tiers by SVOD giants like Netflix and Disney and the rise in popularity of free AVOD services like Pluto and Local Now.  (Admittedly a shameless plug for Local Now, a product owned by the company I work for and the fastest growing AVOD player in the space right now.). Also, as I’ve written before, competitors in the space increasingly will look to aggregation, bundling and consolidation to improve the efficiencies of their awareness and acquisition initiatives.

On the one hand there’s nothing wrong with this.  Billions of dollars are in play and companies, including the one I work for, are analyzing the market to best position themselves to maximize revenue.  But if in looking at the current environment all one sees is a battlefield where competitors must be engaged and conquered, you likely will miss opportunities to create new, previously unimagined, value. 

W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne described in Blue Ocean Strategy the bigger payoff that awaits businesses that focus on creating new markets versus competing in existing ones.  Looking at recent history in media, Netflix and Pluto are great examples of unlocking huge market opportunities (“blue oceans”) rather than competing in the existing environment.  Netflix invented the streaming business under the noses of the major media companies.  And Pluto did the same when they pioneered free, ad supported streaming by replicating the linear experience – multiple channels streamed live and organized in a traditional programming guide.

Netflix and Pluto achieved what they did because they didn’t just seek to differentiate themselves among existing competitors.  They sidestepped the existing battle and invented a new model, unlocked entirely new customer segments and generated massive new value for both consumers and their stakeholders.  It’s almost impossible to do that if you’re solely focused on winning short-term battles against pre-determined competition.

Perhaps because I write regularly I place too much emphasis on words.  After all “streaming wars” is just a catchall expression for what is clearly a hyper-competitive, high stakes business.  But words are how we express ideas and concepts.  Our words are our thoughts.  And if those of us in media continue to think of the streaming business as a “war” we risk overlooking new ways to create value for our businesses and ourselves.   That seems to me to be a surefire way to end up a battlefield casualty.

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