Binge: is this Foxtel’s last gasp or the future of streaming in Australia?

Foxtel’s new offering has a competitive library and, in a first for the pay TV company, it’s affordable and easy to use. So how does it stack up against other subscription services?

When you heard that Foxtel had launched a new streaming service, two questions may have sprung to mind: do we really need another one of these? And didn’t Foxtel try this twice already – and fail terribly both times?

While some would argue Australia is spoiled for choice when it comes to subscription TV, there has been a gap in the market. Netflix is primarily focused around its original productions, while competitors such as Stan are buying up the rights to the limited smattering of shows that aren’t already locked away under other deals.

Following on from Foxtel’s previous less-than-half-hearted and overpriced efforts, Binge is entering the Australian streaming market with the strength of pre-existing Foxtel deals as its foundation – and a more affordable price tag.

Here’s everything else you need to know.

What is Binge, how much does it cost and what does it offer?

After years of being seen as old-fashioned and overpriced, Foxtel – controlled by News Corp – has launched a streaming product that emulates its rivals Netflix and Stan (the latter which is owned by Nine).

Like those services, Binge offers movies, TV series, reality and specials – and it has a very similar user interface: rows of things to watch broken up into different categories.

It is also remarkably similar in terms of price. Binge has three month-to-month plans: an entry-level tier that allows users to stream on one device at a time, in standard definition, for $10 per month; a standard plan, which most will sign up for, which costs $14 per month and allows two devices at once in high definition; and an $18 premium monthly plan, which also offers HD, for four simultaneous devices.

Binge’s major advantage is its library. Through deals struck with Foxtel, it delivers content from WarnerMedia (which owns HBO), NBC Universal, FX, the BBC as well as Sony. Think: Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Succession, Friends, Seinfeld, The Sopranos, Law & Order: SVU, 30 Rock, Chernobyl and Big Little Lies.

These are the same shows already available through Foxtel, but at a significantly cheaper price – and delivered in a way that younger and more tech-savvy viewers actually want.

How does Binge fit in with Foxtel’s current offerings?

If you feel like we’ve seen this before, that makes sense: Foxtel’s track record in direct-to-consumer streaming has been prolific, and not very good.

Their initial effort was the too-expensive movie-only subscription service Presto Movies – at $19.99 a month. Soon realising that people actually wanted to binge TV series, Foxtel launched companion service Presto TV, a joint effort with Seven West Media. Presto Movies and Presto TV could be bundled together to both save money and confuse the marketplace.

Presto only lasted two years, after which Foxtel revised its digital strategy to focus on Foxtel Now. This service – initially (and confusingly) branded as Foxtel Play – is still available to subscribe to.

Subscribers to Foxtel Now can watch Foxtel channels live, and access on-demand TV shows through the app. But even at launch, its focus on branded linear channels seemed old-fashioned.

Foxtel Now is also considered to be too expensive. It costs $25 to join, and an extra $10-$29 to buy add-on packs that give you access to the best stuff. Compare that with a $13.99 Netflix subscription, and the value just isn’t there.

Binge is seen as a major departure. It has scrapped linear channels as the focus, and marked down pricing. Most of the content remains the same, but has been repackaged to be more customer-friendly.

There has, so far, been no announcement about the future of Foxtel Now – but it seems unlikely many subscribers will remain with the dated product.

What will Binge mean for Foxtel?

The traditional Foxtel service has been atrophying. Subscribers after general entertainment have abandoned it in favour of other streaming services. Sport was always considered the jewel in its crown, but people were already heading to Kayo for that – at least before Covid-19 shut the sports world down.

There is still an audience for viewers who want Foxtel’s traditional linear channels: people who enjoy flicking around with their remotes and sitting down at specific times to watch the shows they like.

While the company has plans to phase out cable TV delivery by 2023, it will continue to serve those viewers through satellite delivery.

How does Binge fit in with the broader, ever-expanding landscape of streaming services in Australia?

Australia is not short of options when it comes to big players such as Netflix, Stan and now Binge. But it is an increasingly competitive market with smaller and specialty services too, such as the family-focused Disney+, sports streamer Kayo, the anime-focused Crunchyroll, and reality telly library Hayu.

Add to the mix Amazon Prime Video – which offer video streaming as an add-on to subscribers of Amazon home delivery – and Apple, which gives away free subscriptions for its Apple TV+ service to people who buy a new phone or tablet (and costs $7.99 a month for everyone else). There’s Kanopy, which streams free movies to anyone with a local council library card; and there are free ad-supported platforms too, such as the fun-to-say-aloud Tubi.

Disney are talking about launching Hulu internationally, and 10 All Access will become a much bigger service when owner ViacomCBS rebrand it into an international platform later this year, with a deep bench of movies and shows from Paramount Pictures, CBS and Viacom libraries.

Is the market TOO crowded for them all to survive?

Conventional thinking in the industry is that most people will only look to subscribe to two or three services at a time. That’s a lot of competition, and it takes only a little bit of math on the back of a napkin to realise that some aren’t going to survive.

One of the reasons Rupert Murdoch sold Fox to Disney was because he understood that Fox wasn’t at the right scale to continue to compete. Fox’s content library, distribution channels and company infrastructure wasn’t as large or as globally focused as say, Netflix or Disney, but it was also too big to downscale effectively. That’s the challenge all large media companies are facing: they need to scale up to compete with Disney, Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Google (via YouTube) and all the rest of the global companies that have access to an international subscriber base and can use that money to pay for the best content.

Can local media companies such as Stan continue to compete with these international powerhouses? It is going to be a challenge. Foxtel itself will likely struggle once its content partners WarnerMedia and FX (through corporate owner Disney) scale up, and take their streaming services global. The problem isn’t just the potential subscriber base being spread thin; it’s being able to licence the high-profile, sought-after content that makes Binge such an appealing prospect.

The launch of Binge represents both the future of the quality of libraries that we will come to expect from streaming services as well as a harsh reality: that this could be the last gasp of a local company competing against international giants.

• Dan Barrett is the publisher of Always Be Watching, a daily email newsletter and weekly podcast dedicated to TV news, culture, and reviews. He was formerly the content director of Televised Revolution.

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Dan Barrett

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