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Which streaming service had the best year in 2021?
2021 was a truly wild year for streaming, with the so-called streaming wars heating right up. New services launched. Brand new films were available to stream as soon as they hit theatres. New original shows kept us all in thrall. And subscription stats swung in new directions, with yesteryear’s underdogs rising fast in their bids to become the best streaming service.
So, which of the streamers had the best year in 2021? Who’s winning the streaming wars? Read on for a breakdown of the best in streaming in 2021.
The best streaming services of 2021: Overview
For a long time, Netflix was seen as the only streaming game in town. Even with competition from Hulu and Amazon Prime, we spent nearly a decade with very limited options. There were advantages to that, of course. Namely, you could sign up for everything without totally breaking the bank. The problem was one of scale though. None of them had the massive libraries they have today.
See also: The best original streaming movies
Since then, streaming has become massive, and the days of cable TV may be numbered.
Now, viewers have an incredible number of options. Major media conglomerates like Disney, WarnerMedia, ViacomCBS, and NBCUniversal can better control their own catalogs via their respective streaming services, Disney Plus, HBO Max, Paramount Plus, and Peacock. Meanwhile, a tech company like Apple can swoop in with a slate of original new programming at a low price with Apple TV Plus.
2021 saw the launch of Discovery Plus, the rebranding of CBS All Access as Paramount Plus, and the launch of Disney Plus’ international brand, Star, among other shifts in the landscape.
So, with that in mind, the streaming wars are well underway, with the once-dominant Netflix having to fight to keep its place at the top, and hungry new players posing a credible threat. Shifting viewing habits in the time of COVID-19 have only made things heat up even more.
Best new original content
It was a terrific year for original streaming content. Every streamer came to the table with some stellar titles.
Paramount Plus launched and became the primary home for Star Trek titles including new seasons of Discovery and Lower Decks, as well as the debut of the animated Star Trek: Prodigy. Disney Plus expanded its Marvel Cinematic Universe with five new streaming shows. Hulu, including the now-defunct FX on Hulu, gave us Only Murders in the Building, Y: The Last Man, and Reservation Dogs. Amazon Prime Video delivered the final season of The Expanse and launched the ambitious The Wheel of Time. Apple TV Plus launched new seasons of Servant and The Morning Show while premiering its epic sci-fi series Foundation. HBO Max had Hacks, Station Eleven, Titans, and the Gossip Girl reboot. The list goes on.
But among all of those, one familiar face continued to dominate. Netflix may have a reputation for prioritizing quantity over quality, but it still puts out, pound for pound, some of the best original programming out there.
Netflix’s slate included popular new titles like Sweet Tooth, Maid, The Chair, Lupin, and Midnight Mass. Major shows returned for new seasons, including Sex Education, You, I Think You Should Leave, and The Witcher. And on the film side, Netflix released some huge titles that have been making it onto many best-of-2021 lists, like The Harder They Fall, tick, tick…BOOM!, The Power of the Dog, The Lost Daughter, Passing, and more, along with big, flashy actioners like Red Notice, Army of the Dead, and Gunpowder Milkshake.
2021 was the year of Squid Game.
Of course, the buzziest title of the year was also a Netflix original: Squid Game.
If you thought water-cooler shows were a thing of the past, Squid Game definitely proved that streaming shows can still become cultural touchstones incredibly rapidly. In just days, it became the streamer’s most-watched show ever. On top of everything else, Squid Game proved that Netflix remains the king of original streaming content.
Most surprising streamer
Winner: HBO Max
HBO Max certainly turned some heads when it announced, at the end of 2020, that the entire Warner Bros. theatrical slate would be made available to HBO Max subscribers, same-day, at no cost beyond standard monthly subscription fees.
2020 was a dismal year for film (or at least for movie theaters), and the WarnerMedia-owned streamer saw a chance to recoup some of its lost theatrical revenue by encouraging potential audiences to sign up for the streaming service.
See also: The best movies on HBO Max
The move didn’t come without some hiccups and threats of lawsuits from producers who hadn’t been consulted, but all in all, the rollout was fairly smooth. Major titles like Godzilla vs. Kong, The Suicide Squad, Malignant, and Dune could be streamed from day one on HBO Max.
HBO Max showed a different way forward for theatrical exhibition and streaming in 2021.
With sustained growth throughout the year and some solid original programming, HBO Max certainly already belonged in the broader conversation. But the day-and-date release strategy made it stand out in a big way. The streamer has no stated plans to continue the practice in the new year, and it was clearly a product of adjusting to COVID-19. Still, the move was a major game-changer, revealing to audiences that film release schedules are not set in stone.
How streamers factor into the future of theatrical exhibition is still a huge question mark, but HBO Max made a bold statement in 2021. Its subscribers likely won’t forget it.
Biggest subscriber growth
Winner(s): Apple TV Plus, HBO Max, Paramount Plus
It’s always a little tricky to compare streaming service performance when they’re not all playing on the same field. While Amazon Prime Video is available in over 240 countries and territories, Hulu, Peacock, and HBO Max are only available to American subscribers (for now, at least). We really are talking apples and oranges.
To really dig in and compare growth in a more illustrative way, we can simply focus on one country and see how everyone compares there. So in the US, which streamer has seen the most growth in 2021?
In the third quarter of 2021, Apple TV Plus represented 26% of streamer growth in the US. Next in line was Paramount Plus at 14%, and then Peacock at 12%. These are all smaller players, no doubt, but their rapid growth — as more established streamers approach a ceiling for new subscribers — is noteworthy.
Apple TV Plus made enormous gains in the third quarter of 2021.
These smaller players are not, on the whole, leaching subscribers from Netflix and Hulu, as those two continue to grow too. That means there’s room for more streamers at the table, and Apple especially is capitalizing on that.
So, while the rising tide clearly lifted every ship, Apple TV Plus was the standout, increasing its market share dramatically, at least at the end of the year. Looking back at the bigger picture, though, Paramount Plus and HBO Max saw steady growth in every quarter, each consistently representing about 15% of total streaming growth.
Biggest user base
There’s no fighting it, Netflix remains the biggest streamer in the game, As the legacy service’s new subscriptions slow down and the competition continues to rise, it’s still benefiting from its head start and continued investment in tons of new content every year.
If we narrow our focus to the US once again for the sake of comparing apples to apples, Netflix is the clear winner. Apple TV Plus may be growing at an incredible rate, but at 5% of the market share, it’s still well behind Netflix, which controls 30%.
Even the second-place streamer, Hulu, represents 18% of the US market. That’s barely more than half the subscribers Netflix has.
Globally, Netflix sat comfortably at just over 213 million subscribers at last count, beating its own projections (by just a bit).
Amazon claimed earlier in the year that 175 million of its Amazon Prime subscribers streamed films and TV shows via Amazon Prime Video. It’s hard to compare Prime Video to other streamers, because many Prime subscribers pay for the service for reasons other than video. Still, even when looking at Amazon’s numbers isolating video streamers, that’s still way behind Netflix.
The verdict: What was the best streaming service of 2021?
Your mileage will vary, obviously, but we can’t just end the year without a verdict. If all you use streaming services for is sports, or anime, or horror, or art-house films, you likely won’t much care about streamers outside your niche. And you can rest easy knowing that ESPN Plus, Crunchyroll, Shudder, and Mubi, among others, had good years in 2021.
But if we zoom out and consider the space as a whole, which streamer had the best 2021?
This may come off a little anticlimactic, but Netflix takes it. Despite slow growth and nothing too flashy (like same-day releases of blockbusters hitting theaters), Netflix brought the goods.
Netflix continues to take advantage of its head start.
The old school streamer continues to grow steadily, especially internationally, and it hasn’t slacked off on new content. No one could have predicted the massive success of Squid Game, but that was hardly Netflix’s only hit. Popular shows like You, The Witcher, Cobra Kai, and more launched new seasons, and some stellar new shows rolled out too, like Sweet Tooth and Midnight Mass. On the film side, some huge titles like The Guilty, The Harder They Fall, The Power of the Dog, and Don’t Look Up premiered. Some of those are likely to take home Oscars in the new year.
Looking ahead, 2022 looks promising for Netflix too. The final season of Ozark will premiere early in the new year, and new seasons of Stranger Things and The Umbrella Academy are sure to garner attention. The top streamer also plans to launch major new series like The Sandman and Resident Evil.
The competition is strong though, so next year is still anyone’s to win.
Which streaming service was your favorite in 2021?