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What will streaming bring in 2021? Here are 5 developments to watch

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In 2020, most of us streamed a lot more shows than we otherwise might have, thanks to coronavirus stay-at-home orders. But the pandemic also set in motion a tsunami of new content that’ll hit in 2021.

While consumers in 2020 could glide by only two or three regular streaming subscriptions (one almost certainly being Netflix), 2021 looks certain to deliver even stronger competition for your dollars. A big reason for that is the game-changing plan by AT&T’s
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Warner Bros. to stream its entire 2021 slate of movies on HBO Max the same day they hit theaters, and Walt Disney Co.’s
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hybrid strategy to release some of its movies straight to Disney+ as pandemic restrictions continue to hobble theaters.

HBO Max and Disney+ are also seriously bulking up on new series. Meanwhile, fledgling services Apple TV+ and Peacock were hurt the most by pandemic-related production delays in 2020, but those woes should result in significantly more new releases in 2021. And that’s all in addition to Netflix’s monthly flood of new offerings, Hulu’s best-in-field selection of TV series, the solid-if-not-spectacular Amazon Prime Video, the soon-to-be-rebranded CBS All Access and the soon-to-launch Discovery+.

Also see: These streaming services were worth paying for in 2020 — but might not be next year

With even more quality shows spread around even more streaming services, it’s going to be harder than ever to decide which ones are worth your money.

So for those trying to budget their viewing (and spending) for the year, here are five things to watch for in streaming in 2021:

You’re going to want Disney+ and HBO Max

Netflix has long dominated the conversation for buzz-worthy streaming programming. That’s about to change, with Disney+ and HBO Max making major plays to dominate the workplace water-cooler conversation. (Remember water coolers? Remember workplaces?)

As evidenced by the mountain of new shows and movies that Disney teased at its recent investor day, Disney+ is becoming a must-have not just for families, but for any adult with nerdish tendencies. Disney announced roughly a year’s worth of new Marvel shows — “WandaVision” in January, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” in March, “Loki” in May, “What If?” next summer, and “Hawkeye” and “Ms. Marvel” in the second half of the year. And that’s not even including the truckful of “Star Wars” shows coming, including the animated spinoffs “Star Wars: Visions” and “The Bad Batch,” and “The Book of Boba Fett” next December.

Disney will split its new movies between theatrical releases and straight-to-streaming, with “Flora and Ulysses” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” going directly to Disney+, while “Raya and the Last Dragon” will stream the same day it opens in theaters. And while bigger movies such as Marvel’s “Black Widow” and “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” will debut in theaters only, they’ll still hit Disney+ before the year’s end.

Overall, Disney+ seems to be taking a cue from HBO, which built its brand by always having at least one must-see, tentpole show airing at any one time — you only need four or five of those to have year-round programming. Disney+ is taking that and doubling down. As loaded as 2021 will be, expect 2022 and beyond to be ridiculously stuffed, with multiple Marvel, “Star Wars” and Pixar series airing at the same time, all year long. That’ll be hugely appealing to viewers of all ages.

Meanwhile, HBO Max has an even more ridiculously loaded 2021 on tap, appealing to a much wider and more grown-up audience.

WarnerMedia’s stunning shift to stream its entire 2021 slate of Warner Bros. movies on HBO Max the same day they open in theaters could completely blow up Hollywood’s business model, but for HBO Max subscribers, it’s great news.

Among those 17 movies: the Sopranos prequel “The Many Saints of Newark”; the monster epic “Godzilla vs. Kong”; the musical “In the Heights,” co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda; James Gunn’s “Suicide Squad”; Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated take on “Dune”; and Keanu Reeves in the long-awaited “The Matrix 4.” Analysts project Warner could be sacrificing more than $1 billion in box-office receipts in a bid to bulk up HBO Max. This is a big deal.

Add to that originals such as such as Zack Snyder’s fabled “Justice League” director’s cut and Steven Soderbergh’s crime thriller “No Sudden Move,” the period drama series “The Gilded Age” from “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes, and new seasons of “Search Party,” “Succession” and “Insecure,” and potentially the Bong Joon Ho/Adam McKay “Parasite” limited-series spinoff and Michael Mann’s crime thriller “Tokyo Vice.” Oh, and the long-awaited, pandemic-delayed “Friends” reunion. And much more.

There’s a jaw-dropping amount of fantastic stuff there, and Max’s high price of $14.99 a month can be justified if you think of it as about the price of a single movie ticket. There are no two ways about it, HBO Max and Disney+ are going to be absolute must-haves in 2021.

Apple TV+ is getting better

Here’s another streaming service following the HBO model. In its first year, Apple TV+ had some good shows, just not enough of them. Slowly but surely, that library is growing.

Apple
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has dozens of big-name shows in its pipeline, and while it’ll likely take another year or so to become a must-have service, there’s little doubt that one day it will be. Apple rarely does anything halfway.

Among the highlights on tap for 2021: Jon Stewart’s as-yet-untitled new current-events show; “Cherry,” a crime drama starring Tom Holland; “Schmigadoon,” a musical comedy series from “Saturday Night Live’s” Cecily Strong; and the second seasons of “Dickinson,” Servant,” “For All Mankind” — and possibly new seasons of “The Morning Show,” “Raven’s Quest” and “Ted Lasso,” though that one’s probably more likely for 2022.

We may also see a blockbuster series or two, such as the sci-fi epic “Foundation,” which Apple is hoping will be its “Game of Thrones”-like tentpole series; the sprawling alien drama series “Invasion,” which is being shot on four continents; and “Slow Horses,” a John LeCarre-like spy series starring Gary Oldman, based on Mick Herron’s best-selling series of novels.

Apple could also make a splash by buying MGM Holdings, the studio behind the James Bond and Rocky franchises. MGM is reportedly looking for a buyer, and its massive movie collection would be a huge addition to Apple TV+’s skimpy library.

The pandemic caused enough production delays for Apple that its 2021 release schedule will likely still be inconsistent, with barren months in between the big releases, but at least there should be more big releases. While still not worth paying a 12-month subscription, Apple TV+ should be worth an occasional pop-in (at $5 a month), and certainly worth exploring if you’ve bought an Apple device recently and have a year’s free trial.

Will Netflix start to show cracks?

Netflix
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said last spring that pandemic production delays wouldn’t affect its pipeline of new releases until early 2021, so expect a blip at the beginning of the year — if it’s even noticeable — before the content firehose gets back up to speed. Even with the possible delays, Netflix expects to air more originals in 2021 than in 2020, when it regularly released 50-ish new shows a month.

Expect new seasons of fan favorites such as “Stranger Things,” the stalker thriller “You,” the high school dramedy “Sex Education,” the Spanish teen drama “Elite” and the fantasy epic “The Witcher,” along with new seasons of “Outer Banks,” “The Baby-Sitters Club,” “Narcos: Mexico,” and the new live-action “Cowboy Bebop” series, starring John Cho.

But will the firehose strategy keep working? Netflix has a massive lead over its rivals and pretty solid viewer loyalty, but Disney+, Apple TV+ and HBO Max are making big moves to lure viewers, and those eyeballs have to come from somewhere. While Netflix has a ton of good shows, its slate of great shows is actually pretty small — certainly smaller than HBO Max’s, or even Hulu’s — and it’s developing a reputation for pulling the plug on its most critically acclaimed shows after just two or three seasons. At some point, do viewers and/or show creators get frustrated with that and go elsewhere? Or will viewers get tired of wading through 50 or more new shows every month, in favor of a rival service that offers a more curated selection, with fewer choices but more quality?

That day may be coming. But it likely won’t be soon. For 2021 at least, Netflix will remain a must-have, just for the sheer volume of buzz-worthy shows it keeps churning out. Still, keep an eye out for potential cracks as Netflix’s rivals get bigger.

How much longer can Hulu have the best of both worlds?

Hulu is still the best deal in streaming, even though its $6-a-month, ad-supported version is buggy and annoying to deal with. (I’m convinced the bugs are there to force viewers to upgrade to the pricier, ad-free tier, but that’s a rant for another day).

But Hulu has a ton of great originals, plus a deep and wide-ranging lineup of older shows, the excellent FX library (second only to HBO’s for sheer quality), and next-day airings of many current network and cable shows, including a good number from rival companies.

That bonanza should last a few more years, at least. Besides its stable of ABC and Fox shows (all in the Disney family), its selection of NBCUniversal shows should continue as long as Comcast
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has its minority stake (which it has an option to sell to Disney in 2024). Hulu also signed a multiyear licensing deal with Discovery
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in 2018, so a deep library of shows from HGTV, Food Network, TLC and more will likely stick around a while longer on Hulu, to the possible detriment of the fledgling Discovery+.

Hulu’s long-term future is very much up in the air, though, with a growing likelihood that if/when Comcast bows out, and licensing deals with other studios expire, it’ll be absorbed into Disney+. Hulu, which streams only in the U.S., could end up looking a lot like Star, a new streaming brand Disney+ will launch in February for international subscribers, consisting of Disney’s more grown-up content (such as ABC, FX and 20th Century Studios) but without Hulu’s licensed content from third-party studios.

Still, Hulu’s short-term outlook looks bright. 2021’s slate of originals includes a new show from the Kardashians; new seasons of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Shrill”; Michael Keaton in “Dopesick,” a series adapted from the bestselling book about the nation’s opioid crisis; “Nine Perfect Strangers,” a drama from superproducer David E. Kelley and starring Nicole Kidman; “The Dropout,” a limited series starring Kate McKinnon as disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes; and a documentary about rise and fall of WeWork. Plus FX series such as Jeff Bridges’ retired-spy thriller “The Old Man,” Diane Lane in the long-awaited adaptation of the comic “Y: The Last Man,” new seasons of “What We Do in the Shadows,” “Better Things,” “American Horror Story” and “Snowfall,” and two new seasons of Donald Glover’s “Atlanta.”

Recreating basic cable on the cheap

One notable development as consumers cut loose from cable is that those very same cable packages can be largely reassembled, for a fraction of the price.

Take, for example, a basic cable package through Comcast
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offering 140 or so channels for about $50 a month. By subscribing to Peacock, CBS All Access and Discovery+ (launching Jan. 4), you can get most of the channels you had with cable, for as little as $16 a month in total. (Need more? Throw in Hulu, or ESPN+, or HBO Max, though all that starts to make the price closer to a traditional cable bill.)

Peacock (featuring NBC, Bravo, Syfy, USA and other NBCUniversal networks), CBS All Access (CBS, Comedy Central, MTV, BET, Nickelodeon and other ViacomCBS
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networks) and Discovery+ (HGTV, Food Network, TLC, Discovery and more) are all solid services, offering massive libraries of older shows and movies, as well as current favorites and originals.

All three are, at their core, broadcast/basic-cable offerings. For some viewers, that’s perfectly fine — there’s a reason why predictable ole’ CBS is the top-rated broadcast network year after year. For consumers looking to slash costs and are more comfortable with the shows they already know and love, they’re fantastic options.

Their originals are improving too. CBS All Access — which already has “The Good Fight,” Jordan Peele’s “The Twilight Zone” and a bunch of “Star Trek” spinoffs — has a solid lineup of new shows for 2021, including the Michael Chiklis crime drama “Coyote”; an adaptation of “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (made famous by David Bowie in the 1976 film); a new “Behind the Music” docuseries; “Lioness,” a spy drama from “Yellowstone” creator Taylor Sheridan; as well as possibly another “Star Trek” spinoff, “Strange New Worlds,” though that may not come until 2022. Keep in mind the service will rebrand as Paramount+, likely in the first quarter of 2021.

Peacock should also have a lot more originals in 2021, since most of what was planned for its 2020 launch got postponed due to the pandemic, including “Dr. Death,” a medical thriller starring Joshua Jackson, Christian Slater and Alec Baldwin; Tina Fey’s girl-band comedy “Girls5Eva”; the Ed Helms comedy “Rutherford Falls”; Sam Esmail’s new version of “Battlestar Galactica”; a “MacGruber” series starring Will Forte; and “Bel-Air,” the “Fresh Prince” reboot reimagined as a drama. Peacock will also be the only place to stream “The Office,” and should be a huge draw next summer if the Tokyo Olympics go off as scheduled.

Discovery+ will debut with a bang too, with more than 1,000 hours of original content planned for 2021, including a trio of “90 Day Fiance” spinoffs, the cooking/travel series “Bobby and Giada in Italy,” a “House Hunters” spinoff, new shows from Chip and Joanna Gaines and the global adventure “Race Across the World.”

All three services are solid, affordable and family-friendly options for cord-cutters who miss their old shows, or live sports, and who can live without superheroes or whatever new show Twitter is all abuzz about.

One last thing…

All that, and we didn’t even mention Amazon’s
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Prime Video, which is often unfairly overlooked and should make some noise of its own in 2021 with, among other things, the Eddie Murphy sequel “Coming 2 America”; the eagerly anticipated “Lord of the Rings” prequel series (reportedly the most expensive series in TV history); “Underground Railroad,” Oscar-winner Barry Jenkins’ series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a young woman’s escape from slavery in the antebellum South; and potentially a new season of “Jack Ryan” and the launch of the “Jack Reacher” series, though both of those are probably more likely to land in 2022.

For more monthly picks, check out What’s Worth Streaming.

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