Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photo: HBO Max
The fourth quarter isn’t quite as make-or-break for streaming platforms as it is in the advertiser-driven broadcasting business, where billions in commercial inventory are on the line. But autumn is still awfully important for the digital networks: With summer vacations over and days growing shorter, viewing levels historically shoot up in the fall, and streamers want to make sure they’re prepared to capture as much of your attention as possible. Plus, it’s the last chance to maximize annual subscriber gains before the year rushes to a finish. Below, my look at how the six largest, most established services plan to tackle the final months of 2022. (In the coming weeks, I’ll also try to check in on smaller players with big ambitions, including Paramount+, Peacock, and AMC+.)
Photo: Apple TV+
After nearly two years of slow but steady success, execs at Apple’s streaming TV platform have to be hoping this fall is when their service finally breaks through as a genuine force in pop culture. There are plenty of reasons for optimism: Hit comedy Ted Lasso stands a good shot of having a great night at the Emmys September 19, just a few days after the COVID-delayed season two premiere of The Morning Show, a series that has sometimes divided critics but is unmistakably the sort of buzzy spectacle on which streamers thrive. The fall will also see two big new genre swings from Apple (the stunning space saga Foundation and alien action drama Invasion); Paul Rudd and Will Ferrell teaming for dark comedy The Shrink Next Door; and the return of Jon Stewart, who, having abandoned his 2015 deal with HBO, will instead debut a weekly news explainer called The Problem for Apple on September 30. Throw in a couple of high-profile movies (the Tom Hanks starrer Finch and Todd Haynes’s Velvet Underground documentary), plus the filmed adaptation of Broadway musical Come from Away, and this fall will easily be the busiest — and likely buzziest — quarter for the service yet.
That’s important because the biggest knock on Apple TV+ has been that it doesn’t always feel like a “full” streaming service: Save for a few family titles, there’s no big library of classic TV shows and movies to watch, nor is there a steady drumbeat of new shows being released weekly or, as in the case of Netflix at times, almost daily. Apple’s stepped-up volume still won’t come anywhere close to matching most other streamers, but the pace should quicken just enough over the next few months that subscribers might feel like they’re getting more for their money. Plus, as it prepares to begin its third year in November, the streamer has now built up a decent-size library of its own original content, with several shows that boast multiple seasons and a nice little collection of original films. (I’m currently doing a slow-binge of the excellent Mythic Quest.) What will be key for Apple TV+ this fall is whether the uptick in new content results in people talking about the platform more often and, more importantly, subscribing. I’m also curious whether or not Apple finally gets specific about how many paying customers the service has. Next week’s iPhone release event would be a perfect forum for such an announcement, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Since 2019, Baby Yoda has been to Disney+ what pumpkin spice lattes are to Starbucks: A reliable fall powerhouse certain to goose traffic. Sadly, The Mandalorian isn’t expected to be back with new adventures until 2022, but D+ won’t be without some major tentpoles during the season. The streamer has already announced Marvel’s Hawkeye series will debut in November and, while nothing is official just yet, producers have hinted Star Wars stans will be sated by a fourth quarter arrival of The Book of Boba Fett. Teased at the end of season two of Mandalorian, the series about the famed bounty hunter is being overseen by director Robert Rodriguez and the creative team behind li’l Yoda’s show, and at one point was penciled in for a December premiere. If something changes and there is no Star Wars series this fall, it won’t be ideal, but it won’t be a disaster. Thanks to Hawkeye, Disney+ will definitely have a new Marvel show during the fourth quarter, and the service has proven its massive library remains enough of a draw to keep subscriber numbers growing even when new content is light.
Indeed, Disney+ is planning to once again use its magical kingdom of #content for the second annual Hallowstream stunt, which will mix an expanded selection of spooky movies with new stuff, such as Muppets Haunted Mansion and LEGO Star Wars Terrifying Tales. Also on the (technically) originals front, Disney+ plays the reboot game with just-launched Doogie Kamealoha, M.D. (a new take on Doogie Howser) and the November 12 arrival of a new Home Alone movie (Home Sweet Home Alone). That’s also when the streamer will stage Disney+ Day, an online event (similar to Netflix’s upcoming Tudum) designed to put the entire weight of the Magic Kingdom behind Disney’s primary streamer.
And Just Like That…
Photo: HBO Max
COVID shutdowns hit Max hard: Not only did the pandemic delay the premiere of flashy newcomers The Flight Attendant and Gossip Girl, but it also meant the service had to push through its first 18 months without being able to premiere new seasons of some of Classic HBO’s best-known titles. That changes this fall as Succession, Insecure, and Curb Your Enthusiasm all return within the space of a few weeks. While HBO Max hasn’t had any problem adding new subscribers in 2021, having so many established tentpoles reappear virtually all at once should spur some former cable customers of HBO to either add the channel back to their packages or, if they’ve cut the cord, sign up for Max directly. Plus, all three shows are massive social-media buzz magnets and, thanks to HBO’s weekly release pattern, will draw major attention to Max through the end of the year. (The gang from Succession has already graced the cover of New York Magazine.) As important as it is for streamers to churn out sexy new stuff, familiar favorites are a far more reliable way of keeping subscribers from smashing that cancel button.
Nostalgia will power Max’s fourth quarter in other ways, too. While no premiere date has been announced, late fall is expected to bring the premiere of And Just Like That, a spinoff/continuation of the landmark HBO comedy Sex and the City. Even though I’m pretty convinced a vocal sliver of Very Online fans have already decided to hate the show because of Kim Cattrall’s very public divorce from the rest of the cast, AJLT will be must-stream TV throughout its ten-episode run . Similarly, the final batch of Warner Bros. feature films premiering on Max the same day they hit theaters is arguably the best of the bunch, and it’s heavy on titles with ties to instantly recognizable brands: The Many Saints of Newark is a prequel to HBO’s The Sopranos; Dune is a remake of a classic; and The Matrix: Resurrections is the long-awaited fourth title in the massively successful franchise. Max’s autumnal embrace of the past even includes revivals of stuff only a handful of us #olds will even care about, with the service debuting a new version of ’80s sitcom Head of the Class (from Ted Lasso overlord Bill Lawrence) and a remake of 1970s celebrity game show Tattletales (that’s now being called About Last Night for no good reason). There will be plenty of non-retro programming on HBO Max this fall, of course, including a Mindy Kaling–produced comedy, multiple animated shows geared toward adults, and the Olivia Colman–led limited series Landscapers. But turning old into gold will be the platform’s mandate for the rest of 2021.
Photo: Gene Page/Hulu
For some Hulu subscribers, the biggest thing to hit the platform this fall will be the impact on their pocketbooks: The cost of the streamer is going up by a dollar next month. But Disney’s adult-skewing streaming platform will at least reward customers with several big-budget projects to help justify the added expense, including the incredibly delightful and already underway Only Murders in the Building (wrapping up October 19) and Nine Perfect Strangers (concludes September 22); season two of The Great; and next month’s Michael Keaton–led miniseries Dopesick. The latter project, an eight-part Barry Levinson–directed drama from writer Danny Strong (Empire), dives into the origins of America’s opioid crisis, and it already seems certain to be talked about in the 2022 Emmys race. Dopesick is part of Hulu’s recent wave of projects inspired by true crimes and other assorted newsmakers, such as its acclaimed Brittany Spears documentary (produced with the New York Times) and the upcoming (but not for fall) drama about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes (The Dropout). Hulu execs haven’t talked much about their strategy, but to me it seems clear the streamer is looking to reinvent the based-on-a-true-story genre of TV movies that dominated linear TV in the 1990s and ’00s, turning them into miniseries and classing things up with big name talent (as HBO did for years with its films).
Hulu side hustle FX — or FX on Hulu, if you insist on proper names — will also have several big projects this quarter. New episodes of American Horror Story and What We Do in the Shadows are currently running the day after they premiere on the cable iteration of FX, as is one of the year’s best comedies, Reservation Dogs. Next week brings the long-delayed premiere of FX on Hulu exclusive Y: The Last Man, giving the streamer a major contender in the fall’s Sci-Fi Genre War, while B.J. Novak’s anthology series The Premise represents FX’s second attempt in as many months to revive episodic anthology storytelling (the other is the currently airing American Horror Stories). Still, in a sign of how quirky the shift from linear to streaming remains, FX’s most high-profile project in years, American Crime Story: Impeachment, is one of the brand’s few originals not getting a run on Hulu. A long-ago signed output deal with Netflix and producer 20th TV is the main reason for the linear exclusivity, and it’s clearly not ideal for building the FX on Hulu brand (or avoiding consumer confusion). But as long as there’s even a little bit of money to be made in cable (and cable TV advertising), FX owner Disney still benefits from some content being held back for cable and broadcast.
Photo: Frank Masi/Netflix
The strong box-office performance this past weekend for Disney’s Marvel-branded Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has movie industry folks cautiously optimistic that audiences may be ready to return to theaters in a big way this fall, Delta be damned. If they’re not, however, Netflix will be ready: While there will still be a slew of original series debuting on the service in coming months, the streamer’s fall strategy relies heavily on theatrical-quality movies. Between now and the end of the year, Netflix plans to bombard audiences with more than 40 original films, rolling out a roster filled with everything from action blockbusters (Red Notice, with the Rock, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Godot) and Westerns (Jonathan Majors and Idris Elba in The Harder They Fall) to dark comedies (Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, starring Leo and JLaw) and, of course, Oscar bait (Jane Campion’s return via The Power of the Dog).
Netflix’s overall film volume in 2021 won’t be any bigger than it was last year or in 2019, particularly if you include non-English titles it produces internationally. But COVID delays meant its lineup was a bit lighter in the first half of this year, so fall might appear a bit more jammed this year. And in terms of quality, Netflix will be serving up at least one high-profile, big-budget title nearly every weekend this fall, a bit of an upgrade from last year’s star-studded but somewhat spotty offering. It might have to work harder to get attention for its films this year, however. In addition to more movies being released directly to cinemas — including the new James Bond picture — Netflix will be squaring off against a film-heavy HBO Max, which, as noted above, will benefit from having arguably the most anticipated movies of Warner Bros.’s 2021 slate premiere over the course of just a few weeks.
While movies will be getting a big push this autumn, Netflix’s original series machine will be once again operating at full capacity now that the streamer has gotten past the same early 2021 COVID-caused slowdown that delayed some of its film releases. Genre fans will be well-served by the return of The Witcher in December and the November launch of the live-action Cowboy Bebop, while thriller You finally returns for season three next month and Money Heist unspools its final five hours in December. One under the radar entry to keep an eye on is Colin in Black and White, Ava DuVernay’s limited-series look at the life of Colin Kaepernick. And now that reruns of The Office and Friends have departed, Netflix will try to get millennials to fall in love with another show from the olden days when Seinfeld debuts on the platform October 1 Expect a major uptick in the use of this GIF.
Wheel of Time.
The biggest story in streaming a year from now will probably be Prime Video’s launch of its new Lord of the Rings series, which is on track to be one of the most expensive TV spectacles ever filmed. But this fall, the Amazon subscription streamer gets a chance to test out its franchise-marketing ability with Wheel of Time, its ambitious adaptation of Robert Jordan’s fantasy novels. Prime just released the first teaser a few days ago, but I expect we’ll be bombarded with promotion for the series by the time Halloween rolls around, with perhaps all parts of the vast Amazon empire enlisted to put eyeballs on the show. (Though clearly not everyone at Amazon has gotten the memo, at least not yet: I asked Alexa this week when Wheel of Time premiered, and it simply told me when the first book was published. So much for synergy!) Prime is established enough that nothing is make-or-break at this point, but Wheel offers Amazon another shot at bulking up its genre muscles and to build upon the massive success of its first big breakout smash in the genre, The Boys. (No offense, Carnival Row.)
Another big thing to keep an eye on at Prime Video is the continued growth of its sister streamer, IMDb TV. The ad-supported service continues to ramp up its original offerings, and just today, it announced that its Judy Sheindlin courtroom series Judy Justice will debut November 1, and that episodes will roll out every weekday — just like the now-ended Judge Judy did during its decades-long run on broadcast television. While technically a separate platform — you can watch IMBb TV for free without setting foot into the Prime ecosphere — there’s plenty of crossover between the two: All of IMDb TV’s original and acquired programming has been integrated into the main Prime app. (It’s why there are content rows labeled “free with ads.”) I expect Amazon to be talking a lot more about IMDb TV this fall.