A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 5, 2022

Why As Many As Half of US Streaming Subscribers Quit In 6 Months

The services are relatively expensive, given how many of them there are to get all the shows or movies people want to see. 

And unless the services keep delivering exciting new content, consumers don't think the cost is worth it.  

Benjamin Mullin and David Marcellis report in the Wall Street Journal:

Many new customers unsubscribe within a few months, according to new data, a challenge even for the industry’s deep-pocketed giants. “You constantly need new content. Streaming services not only have to build vast libraries of old shows and movies, they also “need big, nice theatrical movies every quarter to make it feel like it’s really valuable.” Half of U.S. viewers who signed up within three days of the release of “Hamilton,” “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Greyhound” were gone within six months'

Streaming-video services get a surge of subscribers when they launch a hotly anticipated show or movie. But many of these new customers unsubscribe within a few months, according to new data, a challenge even for the industry’s deep-pocketed giants.

The data, which subscriber-measurement company Antenna provided to The Wall Street Journal, illustrate the extent to which the streaming wars require all players to consistently churn out popular and often expensive programming to keep fickle subscribers satisfied.

“You constantly need new content,” said Michael Nathanson, an analyst for MoffettNathanson. Streaming services not only have to build vast libraries of old shows and movies, he said, they also “need a couple big, nice theatrical movies every quarter to make it feel like it’s really valuable.”

Major releases have been a reliable driver of streaming subscriptions, particularly for newer services. Walt Disney Co. ’s Disney+, for instance, won far more new U.S. subscribers when the musical “Hamilton” came out than any other day since early 2020, when the service was still getting off the ground.

Many of them don’t stick around very long. Roughly half of U.S. viewers who signed up within three days of the release of “Hamilton,” “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Greyhound” were gone within six months, Antenna data show.


Disney, Apple and AT&T’s WarnerMedia, the parent of HBO Max, declined to comment.

Even if streaming services only retain half of the users they sign up during big bursts, that still translates into sizable numbers of longer-term subscribers.

All streaming services see a portion of U.S. customers unsubscribe every month and have been signing up more users than they lose over time. But viewers who join a service right after a big release tend to leave significantly faster than the average streaming customer, according to an analysis of Antenna data.

Comcast Corp.’s Peacock, another service that entered the streaming arena in the past couple of years, saw a surge of U.S. sign-ups during last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, for which it had streaming rights. Four months later, roughly half of the U.S. customers who had joined around the beginning of the Olympics were gone, Antenna data show.

Comcast’s NBCUniversal unit, the parent of Peacock, declined to comment. Comcast last week said more than nine million people were paying to watch Peacock, on top of another seven million cable and broadband customers of Comcast and other providers who get the service free and are using it regularly.

Antenna is able to compile daily subscriber sign-ups to most streaming services by aggregating data coming from a series of third-party apps that help users manage their email inboxes or keep to a monthly budget. Such apps keep track of streaming-related transactions and emails confirming users’ decisions to sign up for or cancel a streaming subscription.

The release of the musical ‘Hamilton’ on Disney+ in July 2020 attracted scores of new U.S. subscribers, but nearly 30% of them left a month later, according to data from measurement firm Antenna.


From a sample of five million U.S. users, Antenna extrapolates to build its projections, similar to what pollsters or other measurement companies such as Nielsen do. Antenna said users of those apps opt in to having their data used anonymously.

Streamers’ challenges are exacerbated by the fact that most services are available through a monthly subscription, making it easy for viewers to cancel when they are done binge-watching a specific show.

‘Greyhound,’ a World War II movie starring Tom Hanks, helped Apple TV+ record a surge of new U.S. subscribers, many of whom didn’t stick around very long, Antenna data show.


The proliferation of streaming services has given users an array of options. HBO Max, Disney+, Peacock, Apple TV+ and Discovery Inc.’s Discovery+ have entered the field since 2019, while ViacomCBS Inc. has rebranded and expanded its CBS All Access service, now known as Paramount+. All are fighting for market share with more established players including Netflix Inc., Amazon.com Inc.’s Prime Video and Disney-controlled Hulu.


American households subscribed to 3.6 streaming services on average last year, according to Kagan, a media research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence. The U.S. subscriber base of Netflix, the country’s largest streaming service, has plateaued in recent quarters, MoffettNathanson data show.

When it reported fourth-quarter results on Jan. 20, Netflix said it may be affected by growing competition, adding that it continues to grow in regions where competitors have launched. The company’s operating profit for the quarter shrank to 8.2% from 14.4% a year earlier. Netflix attributed the decrease partly to its larger programming lineup compared with the year-earlier period, when Covid-19 shut down some production. Netflix’s stock plunged by 22% after it forecast a significantly lower number of subscriber additions for the first quarter than it added a year ago, despite coming off a string of hit shows and movies.

“The cost to build, the cost to market and the cost to retain customers will all be going up in a competitive market,” Mr. Nathanson said.


Streaming services spent about twice as much on content—both to create originals and acquire the rights to old movies and shows—last year than they did in 2017, according to projections from Ampere Analysis, a research firm. Netflix alone planned to spend $17 billion on content last year, the company said in April.

More established services with larger libraries of content have shown higher subscriber-retention rates than new entrants.

“We always say that library titles tend to increase engagement and minimize churn,” Disney Chief Executive Bob Chapek said during a conference call with analysts in November, referring to the rate at which customers unsubscribe. “But new titles, new content, whether they’re movies or series, actually add new [subscribers.]”

Netflix experienced a large influx of new customers in the first few weeks of the pandemic in March 2020, when lockdowns left many people with more time to watch shows such as “Tiger King” from the couch. Another notable spike in sign-ups outside that period happened in early December 2020, when David Fincher’s “Mank” and the fourth season of cartoon comedy “Big Mouth” began streaming on Netflix.


Hulu, meanwhile, regularly attracts a wave of new U.S. sign-ups on Black Friday, when the service traditionally offers a steep discount. According to a review of Antenna data, one of Hulu’s highest-drawing shows is “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the dystopian series featuring Elisabeth Moss that is based on the Margaret Atwood novel.

A still from an episode of ‘Big Mouth.’ The release of the cartoon comedy’s fourth season on Netflix coincided with a wave of new U.S. subscribers to the service, Antenna data show.


U.S. viewers who signed up for Netflix when “Big Mouth” and “Mank” came out and for Hulu ahead of the fourth season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” have left at a slower pace than the ones who signed up for HBO Max, Apple TV+ and Disney+ right after the releases of “Wonder Woman 1984,” “Greyhound” and “Hamilton,” respectively, according to Antenna data. Unlike the other titles mentioned, the fourth season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” couldn’t be binged in one sitting: Its 10 episodes were released over the span of months. Apple and HBO Max also have episodic shows that are more likely to retain subscribers for longer, including HBO’s “Succession” and Apple’s “Ted Lasso.”


Netflix declined to comment.

Not all successful shows draw spectacular subscriber numbers on day one. Some of the most popular streaming programs of the past couple of years, including “Ted Lasso” and Netflix’s “Squid Game,” were sleeper hits that required a few weeks of word-of-mouth to gain a big following in the U.S.

Antenna doesn’t track subscriber sign-ups for Amazon’s Prime Video because many subscribers join Prime for other Amazon benefits. The company’s projections only include users who have signed up for a service directly; they exclude some subscribers who join services as a result of an agreement with third parties such as wireless carriers.


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