It was one of the most hectic Twitter episodes of the year: The One Where Everyone Freaked Out About Friends Going Away. Earlier this month, a few Netflix users noticed that the beloved series, still one of the most-watched sitcoms in the world, was scheduled to depart the streamer in January. Twitter went into shock-and-aww mode, mourning the loss of one of Netflix’s late-night binge staples. Preemptively, as it turned out: Within hours, the company announced a $100 million deal with the show’s owners, WarnerMedia, to keep the show for another year. The Central Perk gang would still be there for you—at least for now.
The panic over Friends, and the nine-figure renewal that ended it, were indicators of just how costly (and caustic) the streaming wars will become in the year ahead. With several high-profile new services being launched next year, including Disney+ and unnamed entries from both Apple and AT&T, viewers will find themselves subjected to the programming and pricing whims of various studios, tech companies, and mega-conglomerates—all of them locked in a battle for your attention.
The hope for many of these companies, of course, is that they can prove to be a viable competitor to Netflix, which is expected to hit nearly 150 million worldwide subscribers by year’s end, and which continues to mint must-see original shows (The Haunting of Hill House), specials (Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette), and movies (the critically beloved, shakily handled Roma). But Netflix is just one of a trio of streaming titans, all of which had notable years, at least creatively: Hulu invested in original movies and found itself an Oscar contender, while Homecoming proved Amazon could make a small-screen hit with a big-time movie star.
But as those companies continue to expand—adding new shows seemingly every ten minutes, often in season-long lumps—the question becomes: How much more of this stuff do viewers actually need? Outside of Netflix and its ilk, the streaming universe is already crowded with smaller but beloved services, many of which cater to specific fandoms: Acorn TV (British programming); Crunchyroll (anime); Shudder (horror movies). In 2018, they were joined by new efforts from long-running comedy outlet CollegeHumor and way-longer-running superhero-depot DC Comics, which launched DC Universe, home of original series like Titans, as well as Batflick-and-chill films like Batman & Robin.
When you combine all of these services together, they make for millions of viewing hours—far too much for anyone to keep up with. And in 2018, the race to be part of the streamosphere began racking up casualties. WarnerMedia shuttered such “niche” providers as FilmStruck—a classic-movie service with reportedly around 100,000 subscribers—and DramaFever, which specialized in Korean programming. The indie-flick provider Fandor, which has been streaming since 2011, laid off its staff, reportedly in preparation for a sale. And YouTube Premium, despite having a buzz-making hit with this year’s Cobra Kai, shifted its business strategy and announced a move away from pricey scripted shows.
But the other, more hazily defined victims are the streaming shows and films that were simply avalanched this year. The upstart Facebook Watch had one of the better-reviewed drama shows of the year with Sorry for Your Loss—but the show struggled to seep into the cultural conversation. The same goes for YouTube’s sci-fi series Impulse, which received a season renewal—and a huge reception at this year’s Comic-Con—while mostly staying under the radar. And while it’s cool that Hulu is getting into the prestige-indie game, did you even know about Minding the Gap when it was released in August? Even if you only subscribe to a single streamer, there are so many on-demand offerings that it sometimes feels as though you’re not sitting back and relaxing with a show; instead, you’re hurriedly gobbling down show after show with gotta-keep-up exhaustion, like Lucy at the chocolate factory (By the way, all six seasons of I Love Lucy are now on Hulu! Watch them all by next Wednesday, and tweet your episode rankings!)
And it’s about to get all the more crowded. The forthcoming Disney+ will not only pull from the company’s massive library, but will roll out original series like the Star Wars drama The Mandalorian (it could also revive some of the high-profile Marvel series—including Luke Cage and Daredevil—that Netflix unceremoniously axed this year, as the streamer moves away from Disney-owned properties). Apple’s streaming arm, meanwhile, has lined up original programming from such marquee names as Reese Witherspoon, M. Night Shyamalan, and Snoopy. And AT&T’s service will likely draw upon many of its recently acquired pop-culture corporate assets, from Harry Potter films to Game of Thrones to numerous Warner Bros.-produced TV series (including Friends). That will make AT&T and Netflix two of the most formidable adversaries in the showdown over streaming—meaning that, at some point in the future, AT&T might decide it wants all of its properties for itself. Could there be a better time to invest in a few Friends DVDs, just in case?