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New streamers battle over old shows

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Streaming services are putting up billions of dollars to win the rights to TV classics like "Friends" and "Seinfeld," both of which debuted over 2 decades ago on broadcast.

Why it matters: Many of these classic shows had previously been made available on other streaming services, but they're now being scooped up — and often for a lot more cash — by rivals that think they're necessary to compete for users.

Table: Axios Visuals

Yes, but: One of the biggest challenges the streaming industry will face in the next few years is that there's no real way to determine how much companies should actually shell out for content.

  • When it comes to traditional television, Nielsen ratings have for years guided executives in deciding how much to pay for content and whether it's even worth an investment. In the streaming era, no such metric exists.
  • And although Nielsen has begun putting out ratings for some streaming properties like Netflix, the streamers don't rely on them. Netflix famously called Nielsen's estimates "inaccurate" when they were first debuted in 2017.

Case-in-point: Hulu, which currently owns the streaming rights for Seinfeld, reportedly paid $130 million for the rights to stream the show domestically over 6 years starting in 2015 (Amazon currently has the international rights). Netflix, meanwhile, reportedly paid more than $500 million for the global streaming rights for Seinfeld over 5 years starting in 2021.

Yes, but: There is some consensus among analysts that older shows, sometimes dubbed "catalog content" by industry professionals, help reduce subscriber "churn," or subscriber losses.

  • The idea is that while investing in new content may be an effective way to draw a subscriber in, the way to keep them from canceling their subscriptions once they've finished new content is to give them access to deep libraries of old classics.
  • Even for streamers like Netflix that have already spent years building big libraries of original and licensed content, catalog content is critical— hence Netflix's big investment in Seinfeld.

What to watch: Streamers will eventually need to invest in their own versions of what will one day be considered catalog content. Netflix and Hulu have been able to do this with a few popular original series like "Orange is the New Black" and "The Handmaid's Tale."

Go deeper: Streaming's cancel culture problem