On Tuesday, Disney president Bob Iger trumpeted the launch of streaming service Disney Plus in a conference call that generated major entertainment headlines and investor interest. The big news has been covered: Disney Plus currently has 28.6 million subscribers (inclusive of five nations where it has launched so far), beating many estimates.
Fans got their share of news too. Marvel Studios’ hotly anticipated six-episode serial The Falcon and the Winter Solider will land in August, followed by The Mandalorian season two in October, and WandaVision in December. The international roll-out of Disney Plus continues with Western Europe on March 24, and India on March 29.
Following the carefully scripted presentation, a few remarks during the Q&A portion offered Disney Plus fans reasons for concern—or, at least, short-term disappointment.
“In the near term, we expect subscriber growth to come primarily from outside the U.S.,” said Disney chief financial officer Christine McCarthy. “The next meaningful phase of domestic subscriber growth [is] likely to coincide with the release later this calendar year of highly anticipated original content.”
It seems a contradiction to all the buzz. Iger just reported that Disney Plus had two million more subscribers join in January, without any new Star Wars TV episodes. Of course, that January figure includes those who just subscribed to Disney Plus after seeing the Super Bowl ad.
Will the diverse Disney Plus subscriber base be okay with a dearth of fresh releases for five full months? Only by understanding the current state of streaming can one unpack the answer.
As Streaming Competition Heats Up, Disney Plus Taps Out
Never underestimate the marketing and PR prowess of The Walt Disney Company. A corporate showman not seen since Steve Jobs, Iger knows how to generate buzz. On this call, one vague reference to ten Marvel series in development set off a wave of speculation among fans.
Even if it was partly to boost subscribers short-term, Disney spending $5.6 million on a 30-second Super Bowl spot effectively spoke to over 100 million TV viewers. It’s a wide potential audience. Yet for fans who’ve been following along—obsessed enough to know details and weigh the value of Disney Plus versus other services—many had one takeaway.
“Thank you, now I know when to re-subscribe,” said one fan reacting on the unofficial Disney Plus Facebook Group. Another chimed in: “If they continue to do it this way, people will pay for a couple of months, binge watch, cancel, then repeat each year.”
It’s understandable why their dollars may head to streaming competitors. Netflix has a live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender series in production, a Jurassic Park spin-off series releasing in summer, and Steve Carell’s Space Force comedy coming soon. Then Amazon Prime Video has a big-budget The Lord of the Rings prequel series going into production.
Don’t forget two major streaming services are set to launch this spring. NBC-Universal will bring The Office, Parks And Rec, 30 Rock, every Law And Order episode – a total of 15,000 hours of content – to its streamer Peacock. Peacock will have a “soft launch” for Comcast cable subscribers on April 15, then launches nationally (with most content entirely free) on July 15.
Coming in May, HBO Max has 10,000 hours of films and shows of a quality hard to match: 50 original titles in its first year, DC Comics universe films, popular shows Friends, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The West Wing, and dozens more, plus kids content anchored by Sesame Street and Looney Tunes. With ten million already on its app, HBO knows how to bring in subscribers.
What does all this mean for Disney fans? Bottom line: in a fiercely competitive field, not all streaming players will survive. Disney isn’t guaranteed to succeed every time, as we’ve learned from Disney Infinity, Walt Disney World’s Discovery Island, and their purchase of The Muppets.
Why Fans Should Be Concerned
As rivals spend many millions to ramp up, for Disney to publicly state that nothing notable is coming to their streaming service for five months says a couple things.
It’s likely the U.S. subscriber base for Disney Plus will be static or even in decline. But what’s more concerning: it says Disney is not laser-focused on what their core fans want.
To be clear, spending the time to produce quality original content is to be applauded. Fans want these much-hyped series to have storytelling and production quality at the level of The Mandalorian. “We knew when we launched that we were launching with a modest amount of original programming and that it would build over time,” said Iger.
He went on to discuss how a “broad array” of titles across all brands are being watched on Disney Plus, from Pixar shorts to legacy Disney Channel shows, from recent theatrical releases to originals. “Musicals are doing very, very well,” he said. “Consumers have enthusiastically embraced the exceptional offering of classic movies and shorts from our studio.”
Iger started a conversation about subscribers’ response to Disney Plus, but never finished it. He said nothing of how many (surely) thousands of “missing Disney title” requests they’ve received from the app’s feedback form. The issue of disappearing library titles never came up, nor the disconnect between their marketing and what has been delivered.
A quick word to fans. When it comes to giving feedback to Disney, some in the fan community seem to follow a Thumper policy: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Yet the only way Disney today operates the world’s most acclaimed theme parks and cruise line is by receiving and acting on constructive feedback.
Stating potential improvement points need not be dismissed as complaining or spreading negativity. For anyone unfamiliar with what’s missing on Disney Plus, the list is here.
Fans can appreciate Disney Plus and still speak up about its issues, which is the only way it will improve.
What Fans Wanted Bob Iger to Say
Let’s imagine what the president and CEO of Disney could’ve added on the call, to show fans how much their loyalty and feedback matters to the world’s largest entertainment enterprise. Here is what I’d want Bob Iger to say to fix this problem:
“I’ve been using the phrase ‘four quadrant appeal’ to describe Disney Plus, but it’s kind of a cold corporate term for our passionate fans. Disney fans are young and old, of diverse ethnicities and every background. These are people who vacation at Disney Parks and on our cruise line. Year after year, they enjoy our movies, apparel, and much more — really, we owe the success of this company to them. Since Disney Plus launched, we’ve been flooded with tens of thousands of fan responses — many positive, but some also needing help with technical issues. Running a major internet-based service like this is new for Disney. To anyone who’s had frustrations getting Disney Plus set-up, we apologize and are striving to improve. We’ve also received feedback about the content rolled out so far. Our promotions for Disney Plus have stated, ‘The Vault Is Wide Open,’ and last April I said, ‘At some point fairly soon after launch, it will house the entire Disney motion picture library.’
Today, a few dozen Disney titles, mostly recent ones, are still licensed to other on-demand services. 20th Century Studios also has a deal in place through 2022 where hundreds of their titles are unavailable for Disney Plus. As pre-existing contracts phase out in the months and years ahead, those titles will arrive on Disney Plus.
Right now, all the animated Disney classics are on Disney Plus, along with all Star Wars films, nearly every MCU film, and almost every Pixar short and feature. Along with hundreds of live-action theatrical films, Disney Channel movies and shows, and our NatGeo selection, most people who love our brands consider that the entire Disney library.
Still, we’ve heard feedback from some dedicated fans about missing titles. Over the past 90 plus years, Disney has produced hundreds of other films and shows… and our feedback tells us that every title has a fan base! Some are obscure – certainly there are many I’d never heard of – but in some cases we receive requests every day from fans to add a certain film or show.
We’ve been listening, and now we’re taking action. Over the next five months, our team is going to prioritize adding more legacy titles to Disney Plus — and there are some gems in that list. Walt Disney himself had a hand in Zorro, which ran for several years and defined adventure TV for a generation. He also produced films like Third Man On the Mountain, a movie that inspired Disneyland’s iconic Matterhorn Bobsleds. Those classic titles, along with a dozen or so others produced by Disney himself, are coming very soon.
I mentioned earlier how popular that musicals are on Disney Plus, including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oscar-winning The Sound of Music. That 1965 film consistently ranks in our top 50 most-watched titles and it’s one of a few 3 hour films on Disney Plus.
Today, we are announcing that six more beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals will be coming to Disney Plus by early summer. Five are part of the 20th Century Studios library, while the other, Cinderella, which aired on ABC in 1997, features the show-stopping talents of Whitney Houston and Brandy Norwood, among many others.
Speaking of music, who can forget all the songs and laughs in The Muppet Show? For years, Jim Henson’s colorful comedic characters brought families together around the TV. All those musical guest stars on the show have caused us quite a headache, actually, because music licensing can get complex and expensive.
Today, I’m pleased to announce the first two seasons of The Muppet Show will soon release on Disney Plus. Our team will continue to negotiate with license holders regarding music on certain episodes, which is the case with a select number of Muppets TV specials as well. One criticism we’ve heard is that Disney Plus doesn’t have enough titles for audiences over age 12. As we’ve discussed, many films and shows for mature audiences are best suited for Hulu. But our team has also taken a second and third look at Disney-produced Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures releases, along with ABC’s library of hit shows. In the coming months, look for a select number of high-caliber comedies, dramas, and adventure titles to be added to Disney Plus.
One goal also is to communicate better about the status of certain titles. For instance, if there’s a Disney TV movie or series that requires additional work to convert from analog to digital – one of several steps to add titles to Disney Plus – then we’ll get that in the queue for remastering and note a later release date for it.
We all love the storytelling tradition that Walt Disney established: a blend of fantasy, nature, sci-fi, and historical stories that has now expanded with Marvel, Star Wars, The Muppets, and so many thousands of other characters in the Disney family.
Disney Plus is designed to be the permanent home for our films and series that appeal to the whole family. As we ramp up Disney Plus originals, we’re going to continue to add legacy titles on a parallel track – and it will be a particular priority for our team over the next five months.”
To Fill the Content Gap, Open the Vault
If that was the message delivered, every Disney fan would immediately be not just a subscriber but an evangelist for Disney Plus.
Having become the largest movie studio in recent years, Disney has been on a winning streak envied by all its Hollywood rivals. But has the corporate mega-studio grown so large that Iger, Disney Plus exec Kevin Mayer, and other top leaders are disconnected from fan feedback? It’s a question worth pondering.
No one should be under the illusion that it will be simple for hundreds of unreleased titles to arrive on Disney Plus. Some need costly remastering, while others require investment in licensing fees to release (whether due to music rights or co-ownership with other entities).
If a title is not listed on Disney Plus with a future release date, fans can only assume Disney has weighed potential costs or other factors and opted not to release it in the foreseeable future.
Over the next five months, Disney Plus has several original series slated for release and even a few legacy titles. Come August and the fall, those new big-budget series may prove to be hits as massive as The Mandalorian.
With all the focus on international roll-out and new Disney Plus productions, hopefully Disney will not fail to listen to the loyal fanbase that has fueled its success for decade after decade. To us, legacy matters most.
Freelance journalist Josh M. Shepherd covers culture and entertainment for several media outlets, including articles on Disney Plus, the surprising impact of Mary Poppins and Disney nostalgia. A graduate of the University of Colorado, Josh and his wife live in the Washington, D.C. area with their son.