Disney+ is heading to European TV screens on March 24, posing a fresh challenge to Netflix and Amazon. Picture: CHESNOT/GETTY IMAGES
Disney+ is heading to European TV screens on March 24, posing a fresh challenge to Netflix and Amazon. Picture: CHESNOT/GETTY IMAGES

Berlin — Netflix, Amazon and Walt Disney are preparing for a space war in Europe, splurging on blockbuster science-fiction shows in a battle for subscribers that’s adding to the pressure on traditional broadcasters.

Amazon’s Prime Video starts streaming Star Trek: Picard in Europe on Friday, bringing the famous captain of the Starship Enterprise out of an 18-year retirement. Netflix will fire back with a third season of Star Trek: Discovery later in 2020.

Amazon and Netflix acquired the two series from ViacomCBS to bolster their defences against Disney, whose streaming platform Disney+ makes its debut in the biggest European markets on March 24. Its headline show is The Mandalorian, a Star Wars spin-off that’s built a cult following in the US thanks to rave reviews and a widely memed character nicknamed “Baby Yoda”.

Big-budget franchises with mass appeal and a dedicated fan base are vital for drawing in new audiences. They also play to the growing scale advantage the streamers have over European broadcasters, most of which would struggle to produce anything similar in the face of rising production costs and falling advertising revenue.

“We’re in a content bubble that’s still getting bigger as streaming companies invest in big-ticket shows,” said Matthew Bloxham, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “It’s virtually impossible for traditional broadcasters to produce this kind of content.”

The interstellar bonanza raises the stakes for the US entertainment giants by testing popular demand for three expensive space shows in a single year.

Strong US start

The European launch of Disney+ follows a strong start in the US, where 10-million customers signed up on the service’s first day alone. It’s an ominous sign for Netflix, which has come to rely heavily on Europe for subscriber growth. The streaming giant’s expansion in the region may start to slow if it can’t come up with answers to powerful Disney franchises such as Star Wars, Marvel and the Mouse House’s iconic animated movies.

Netflix arguably has most at stake as a pure-play video-on-demand business: Amazon is also the world’s biggest online retailer and Disney owns everything from movie studios to theme parks.

“Netflix has no way of monetising their investment in content other than its customers continually subscribing,” said Tim Westcott, an analyst at IHS Markit in London.

Both Disney+ and Apple’s TV+ service — another recent entrant — are undercutting Netflix on price in Europe, costing €6.99 and €4.99 a month, respectively. A Netflix subscription starts at €7.99, but that’s only for inferior-quality SD streaming. The HD plans begin at €11.99 a month.

Budgets for science-fiction shows are typically far higher than equivalent dramas set back on Earth — think special effects, large sets, and top stars such as Picard’s Patrick Stewart.

Disney spent $100m to make the first season of The Mandalorian, more than the cost of most feature films. Amazon and Netflix bought the rights to Picard and Discovery from the CBS network for an undisclosed amount, but chances are they didn’t underpay: Former CBS CEO Les Moonves said in 2016 Netflix’s Discovery deal meant the show was fully paid before it even aired on CBS’s own streaming service.

European media players are particularly vulnerable to competition from the streaming giants, given the more fragmented nature of the local market. With the exception of a few multinational pay-TV companies, such as Comcast’s Sky and Mediaset SpA, most European countries have their own small broadcasters, all struggling to mount competitive defences against American streaming services. In contrast, media companies in the US have turned to mergers to bulk up and put real money behind their own video-on-demand products.

A boom in production to feed the new platforms is inflating costs, further squeezing out national broadcasters that were once the top customers for US blockbuster shows. Disney’s entry into Europe means future shows from its brands probably won’t be available to others.

Sky is still a credible stable for big-budget US drama. Time Warner’s HBO in October renewed a deal for Sky to carry shows such as Game of Thrones and Watchmen in Europe and pursue co-productions, meaning the US company is unlikely to introduce its Max streaming service to the region any time soon, said Westcott.

Smaller players such as Britain’s ITV, Television Francaise 1 and ProSiebenSat.1 Media in Germany are focusing on cheaper local content — think sitcoms, game shows and reality TV — that’s tailored to their respective national markets. They’ll also be hoping the arrival of Disney+ won’t damage their own nascent streaming services, such as the £5.99-a-month BritBox platform, a venture between ITV and the British Broadcasting Corporation launched in the UK in November.

Of the three intergalactic offerings, Amazon is getting most of the headlines because of the imminent start of Picard. The show is considered a coup by trekkies worldwide because no-one had managed until now to persuade 79-year-old Stewart to reprise his most famous role. He got back on board after the producers convinced him the series — and his character — would be completely different from the last.

“I have said to my co-producers and the writing team: No Enterprise, no uniforms, no ‘make it so,’” Stewart told hundreds of Star Trek fans, many of them dressed in Starfleet uniforms or wearing Spock-style pointy ears, at the show’s German premiere in a Berlin cinema on Friday. “But believe me, what took its place is worth watching.”

Bloomberg