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The 5 Trends That Shaped Streaming in 2021

This story also ran in Buffering, Vulture’s newsletter about the streaming industry. Head to vulture.com/buffering and subscribe today!

It would be wrong to say the streaming business got back to “normal” in 2021. The pandemic remains the Great Disrupter, and COVID continues to be a constant consideration across so many aspects of our lives. But the situation absolutely felt a lot more stable than it did in 2020, thanks mostly to the fact that the content-production pipeline stayed open all year. Even if COVID protocols and the dawn of the Delta variant slowed things down a bit, stuff actually got made — and by summer, most streamers had gotten back to a relatively normal rhythm of releasing new series and movies. Actors even resumed making in-person appearances on talk shows — a sure sign Hollywood was healing.

But while 2021 may have been less of a rollercoaster ride, there was no truce on the streaming battleground. The same big corporations which clashed last year continued to slug it out daily in a ferocious, ongoing battle for subscribers and audience attention. Here are the five trends and developments I think best defined the year.

Following last year’s explosive subscriber growth, 2021 brought a hangover of sorts for Netflix and Disney+ as the two biggest streamers in the U.S. saw their rate of growth slow way down. Netflix, which added a massive 37 million new global subs in 2020, estimates it will finish this year with a gain of just 18 million subscribers. Meanwhile, the much younger Disney+, which signed up a whopping 66 million subscribers last year as it expanded to dozens of new countries, will probably end up with around 30 million new paying customers when the final numbers are tallied next month. The downward direction in growth may sound scary, but it’s hardly reason for panic.

For one thing, 2021 was always going to look bad, growth-wise, compared to the unicorn-like 2020. The first six months of the pandemic had consumers around the world staying home and streaming more, thus speeding up the pace at which folks subscribed to various platforms (particularly less established services.) There was almost no way Netflix and Disney+ were ever going to match their 2020 performances. And while Disney+ is still very much in expansion mode, its first full year was so successful, it’s hard to see it ever adding as many new customers in any future years. Similarly, Netflix has reached the point in the U.S. where, because it is already so widely distributed, there’s only so much more room for it to grow (unless it starts cracking down on password sharing and forces freeloaders to pay for their own account).

Still, at least some portion of the 2021 growth slowdown can also be attributed to a factor not disappearing anytime soon: A dramatically more competitive streaming landscape. Netflix and Disney+ are now facing a much stronger challenge from HBO Max, which bulked up its content offering in a big way this year and began streaming […]

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