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Why streaming platforms are loosening up on exclusive content

A hand unhooks a velvet rope from a post topped with a play button.

Illustration by Holly Warfield / Getty / Shutterstock / The Current

When legacy media companies like Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery and others jumped into the streaming industry to compete with Netflix a few years ago, exclusivity was the name of the game.

Each platform created FOMO with a library of exclusive shows, and consumers signed up for memberships at least in part to see what other viewers were watching and talking about.

A lot has changed over the past year, though. Licensing to rival companies or sharing content across platforms has become more commonplace, echoing the glory days of broadcast syndication. The shift was notable when Warner Bros. Discovery began licensing some HBO shows to Netflix last year. NBCUniversal licensed Suits to Netflix last year and it became the year’s biggest streaming series in the U.S. (it also streams on NBCUniversal’s own Peacock).

According to a recent study by Ampere Analysis, “The number of TV seasons cross-licensed between Netflix and Warner Bros. Discovery’s Max and Discovery+ more than tripled in 2023, while Amazon’s overlap with studios’ streaming services also grew significantly.”

The data company expects cross-platform licensing for high profile titles to continue this year, saying that it can maximize a program’s value, extend its shelf life and expand its audience.

“The fact is licensing some library content to other VOD [video on demand] platforms like Netflix or Amazon as part of a co-exclusive agreement is just smart business,” Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav said during an earnings call with analysts last August. “We’re expanding our audience while maximizing the value of the asset and providing more revenue streams. And that is our job — to optimize the windowing to get the best possible return on investment.”

It suggests that the streaming space has entered a “new era” of exclusivity where media companies aren’t so concerned with “streaming at any cost” now so much as they are with profits, says Kelly Dulin, SVP and DRTV media director at Chicago-based ad agency Eicoff. Licensing content not only opens more revenue streams and gets more eyes on the programming, but also could create greater demand and more opportunity for advertisers.

“No matter where a program is airing, if the audience deems it as premium content, that will always have a high value proposition for advertisers,” says Bob Mitchell, who is both founder and principal of marketing consultancy Mitchell Partnership Alliances and an adjunct professor of media and entertainment at American University’s Kogod School of Business.

Collaboration could be the key

The shift isn’t just happening in video: What were once Spotify-exclusive podcasts, like The Joe Rogan Experience and Armchair Expert, are now available anywhere.

“To really raise the demand for advertising space on these podcasts, Spotify has to increase audience reach fast,” Digital Marketing Consultant Rutger Rosenborg wrote for Midia Research. “The best way to do that is allow their top-performing podcasts to distribute to other podcast platforms — in other words, abandon exclusivity.”

Even in the face of fragmentation, more options for consumers could mean more opportunities for advertisers too.

“Eicoff has always seen fragmentation as a good thing,” Dulin says. “There are more places for ads to be run, and it helps to keep pricing in check. When there are more opportunities for advertisers, it means not just one player controls the inventory.”

And in the video streaming space, advertising via connected TV (CTV) creates more possibilities for advertisers to combat fragmentation with “precision audience targeting” and more, Mitchell says.

“CTV is expanding so many opportunities for advertisers,” he says.

But as exclusivity softens in streaming, are certain brands in danger of losing their unique appeal with audiences? Mitchell isn’t too concerned with that, and he encourages the entertainment industry to “take a cue” from the fashion and retail industries.

“Louis Vuitton has stand-alone stores, it has stores in Nordstrom, it has e-commerce on retail sites, and guess what? The brand is still the same for the consumer,” he says. “And collaborations happen all the time in fashion and retail […] The brands stand independently but together make something new.”

A recent move suggests at least a few companies have already given collaboration a lot of thought.

How sports play into this

Warner Bros. Discovery, Fox and Disney’s ESPN recently announced they would launch a joint sports-focused streaming service later this year, which all three companies would co-own.

Sports might be the one area where exclusivity is still pivotal for streamers, especially as sports shift more and more to streaming. Peacock’s recent exclusive NFL playoff game drove nearly 3 million signups, according to subscription analytics firm Antenna.

But sports also provide a chance for media companies to join forces as tech companies like Amazon and Apple vie for expensive sports rights. Another potential example: Paramount and NBCUniversal have discussed combining their streaming businesses, according to The Wall Street Journal, which could make the joint venture another formidable sports streaming offering.

Overall, whether it be sports or scripted content, it can be to advertisers’ benefit is the streaming industry’s walls come down and more viewers have access to more content.

“The primary goal for advertisers is to reach audiences,” Mitchell says.