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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Binge Times: Inside Hollywood’s Furious Billion-Dollar Battle to Take Down Netflix’

Binge Times, published by William Morrow
(Image credit: William Morrow)

Binge Times offers a deep dive on how Netflix transformed itself from a DVDs-by-mail platform in the late ‘90s to a streaming powerhouse with 222 million subs worldwide that seemingly everyone has recently binged an original series or three on. It also examines, with comparable depth, the more recent entrants in the streaming derby, including Apple TV Plus, Disney Plus, HBO Max, Peacock and even short-lived Quibi, along with veterans Prime Video and Hulu, as each one seeks to steal market share from the big dog. 

The streaming battle changes every day, as each player (minus the late Quibi) ramps up its original series and films, and the massive budgets binge-worthy originals require. Yet authors Dade Hayes, former editor at Broadcasting + Cable, and Dawn Chmielewski deliver a detailed account that will hold up over the long term–depicting how each Netflix rival geared up for launch, how Covid shaped their strategy, and where they stood in the earlier days of the battle for eyeballs and subscription dollars. 

If the authors weren’t at every last streamer launch party and investor day over the past decade, they spoke to someone who was, and offer a comprehensive account of it. A bit from Disney Plus confab reads, “Disney, looking to show its potential to leverage major Hollywood talent in pursuit of streaming, welcomed director and producer Jon Favreau. Clad in Hollywood casual, with jeans, sneakers, and an untucked shirt, his delivery was the exact opposite of his outfit: crisply on message.”

The Binge Times cast of characters, listed under “Streamatis Personae” rubric, includes Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos of Netflix, Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht of Apple TV Plus, Mike Hopkins and Jennifer Salke of Amazon Prime, John Stankey and Jason Kilar of AT&T/WarnerMedia, Steve Burke and Matt Strauss of NBCUniversal, and Kareem Daniel and Kevin Mayer of Disney. 

Stankey’s status as a Hollywood outsider is portrayed with detail. For his part, Reed Hastings was more at home in Los Gatos than Los Angeles, but he went on to amass extraordinary clout in Hollywood as Netflix grew its originals portfolio beyond inaugural series Lilyhammer. “For millions of consumers, Netflix had become synonymous with TV,” the book reads. Of Netflix’s “culture of innovation,” Hastings says, “I’m also confident that it will help us serve our members best now, and find ways of serving our members better than HBO does, or better than Disney does. Because they’ve got so much internal process around things that it slows them down.”

The authors hear from a wide range of media players, most of them on the record, to get their take on how television has been upended in recent years, what worked and didn’t work among streaming players, and who is poised to be king of the hill a few years out. Quoted are Stankey, Sarandos, Mayer, Bonnie Hammer, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Kevin Reilly, Jimmy Pitaro, Cindy Holland, Kilar and many other key streaming figures. 

Beyond the original series of Peak TV, Binge Times unpacks the state of the film industry, with a look at how the window between theatrical releases and streaming launches has narrowed, or has been altogether slammed shut. The book digs deep on Kilar’s decision, announced in late 2020, to release Warner Bros.’s 2021 movies on streaming the same day they arrived in theaters. 

We found the book’s account of the various digital ventures spawned by the tech and media giants that did not fly, including Disney’s Go Network and NBCUniversal’s Seeso, entertaining, as these initiatives, deemed bold at their launch, are otherwise forgotten across the years. Same goes for Prime Video allowing users to weigh in on pilots, and have a say in which shows get a green light. 

Binge Times breaks down the absolute mayhem of the streaming wars in a way that even a casual industry watcher can digest. It is a thoroughly reported work that makes for a compelling read. ■ 

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.