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For streaming services, there’s suddenly danger in numbers

Netflix last month reported losing subscribers for the second quarter in a row as the streaming giant battles fierce competition and viewer belt tightening.CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images

As streaming video services reshaped the TV landscape, it seemed for a long time that the odds of success favored almost any platform that chose to take the plunge.

But now the streaming environment has gotten a lot more crowded, and the fight for market share has gotten fiercer. For the streamers, that means a sharper test looms of their programming ingenuity as well as their business acumen.

Nowhere is the dilemma more starkly illustrated than at Netflix, which was long the dominant player of the streaming revolution, blithely shelling out gazillions of dollars to mega-producers like Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes.


Netflix is still the leader, but according to news reports, the company lost around 1 million subscribers in the second quarter, which ended in June. (And that was considered relatively good news, since Netflix had earlier forecast a loss of 2 million subscribers.)

Those numbers followed the loss in the first quarter of this year of around 200,000 subscribers — the first loss in more than a decade. That led to waves of layoffs at Netflix and a steep drop in the company’s stock price.

According to The New York Times, Netflix has told investors it could “add back one million in the coming quarter.” We’ll see about that. Netflix is planning to offer a lower-cost, ad-supported tier of programming while also cracking down on password-sharing by friends and family members. But the Times reported that “there is some concern in Hollywood and on Wall Street that those moves are not enough.”

That concern is easy to understand. After all, Netflix now faces competition for subscribers not just from rivals like Amazon Prime and Hulu but also from HBO Max, Disney+, Apple TV+, Paramount+, Discovery+, ESPN+…

While the most visible, Netflix is not alone in the challenges it faces. According to Variety, Peacock, NBC’s streaming service, ended the second quarter with a “relatively flat” 13 million paid subscribers, and lost $467 million between April 1 and June 30.


“Consumer behavior has begun to return to pre-pandemic patterns,” Brian Roberts, chief executive of Comcast Corp., parent company of NBCUniversal, said on an earnings call, according to reports, explaining stalled growth in some sectors.

That is doubtless part of the answer. After staying home at night and binge-watching TV for so much of the pandemic, people are feeling freer to head out into the world in search of live entertainment.

But I’ll bet another part of the problem is simply the weed-like proliferation of streaming services. A classic case of too-much-of-a-good-thing (or a mediocre thing, or a bad thing), it’s made viewers choosy (not to mention woozy). Don’t forget the fate of CNN+, a streaming service whose parent company pulled the plug just a month after its launch.

I’m skeptical that increasing the number of ad-supported tiers on streaming platforms will be the answer. Let’s face it, when a lot of viewers sign up for streaming services, TV commercials are exactly what they’re trying to get away from.

Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.