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Disney+ Has Become a Serious Player in the Streaming Wars—but There’s More to Come

On the back of ‘The Mandalorian,’ the new service grew at a pace only Netflix has seen, but with HBO Max and Peacock yet to debut, the battle for viewers is just beginning

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A few months into 2020, the Streaming Wars are no longer a distant blip on the horizon—they’re raging all around us. Services are clamoring for our attention and vying for our viewing hours. HBO Max and Peacock are still waiting in the wings, but Disney+ and Apple TV+ are moving from noisy newcomers to established presences. Projects like The Mandalorian and The Morning Show are no longer hypotheticals; they’re spawning memes and picking up awards (and absorbing the buzz from viral moments at said awards shows). In other words, it’s time for a check-in.

Without a recent major launch, complete with a full slate of brand-establishing series to peruse and parse, the past few months have been marked less by singular events than a slow drip of news items adjusting observers to our new normal. To that end, we’re recapping the latest developments in our brave new world of mega-mergers and endless premieres as we actually experience them: one data point at a time, slowly but surely coalescing, Monet-like, into a larger picture.

Trouble in the Galaxy

Disney+’s The Mandalorian may well be the post-Netflix boom’s biggest success story to date. The Mandalorian, a neo-Western tracking the namesake bounty hunter’s quest to protect a 50-year-old infant from Werner Herzog, established a low-stakes, high-production-value style of Star Wars storytelling that serves as a critical counterpoint to the film saga’s struggles. Who has time to worry about Solo’s underperformance or The Rise of Skywalker’s disappointment when they’re busy cooing over Baby Yoda?

And yet The Mandalorian’s most direct follow-up—apart from Season 2, coming next fall—is currently on hold. A previously announced prequel series about Obi-Wan Kenobi, starring Ewan McGregor and helmed by Mandalorian alum Deborah Chow, was put on hiatus and likely downsized from six episodes to four as LucasFilm president Kathleen Kennedy oversees revisions to the scripts. This is a move that can be interpreted in two ways. Maybe Kennedy is micromanaging and undermining an auteur’s vision, which are the same tendencies widely blamed for Solo and Skywalker’s creative mediocrity; maybe Kennedy’s trying to avoid that mediocrity by taking time to deliver a worthy successor and not rushing the Kenobi series to meet audience demand. Either way, the hiccup is notable for a service that’s otherwise been almost frightening in its competence.

The Mandalorian serves the same function here as it does for the rest of Star Wars troubles: a temporary stay on true skepticism toward this franchise’s long-term sustainability. (Bob Iger even started dangling the prospect of spinoffs after only eight episodes.) Eventually, though, Disney is going to have to prove the live-action TV flank of Star Wars is more than a single show. No wonder there’s so much pressure on its sophomore effort. You might even say Obi-Wan is … its only hope.

But Look, a Flying Shield!

Being in, among many other things, the children’s toy business, Disney knows the best form of distraction is a shiny object. Soon after the Obi-Wan news cast aspersions on Disney+’s smooth ascent, the service aired a Super Bowl spot previewing its ace in the hole: not one, not two, but three additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, spinning off supporting characters from the films to anchor their own series. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, and WandaVision were all previously announced, but none had produced any footage. The internet promptly lost its mind.

The earliest of these releases, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, isn’t out until August, while the trippy-looking, genre-blending WandaVision won’t hit until December. For now, however, Disney has reminded us it controls some of the most valuable IP in the world, and while some of its products may have a smoother path than others, the sight of Tom Hiddleston in a drab prison suit can still reduce millions to borderline hysterics. The Mandalorian was a strong opening, but Disney+ is far from finished wheeling out its biggest guns.

Synergy Has Its Perks

Disney+ may be the new platform on the block, but it’s not the only service in its parent company’s portfolio. The recent acquisition of Fox’s entertainment assets put Disney in control of two separate, but now related, properties: Hulu, the streaming service Disney now controls after buying out Comcast; and FX, the premium cable channel operating in the same tier as competitors like HBO, Showtime, and AMC. FX president John Landgraf is a longtime skeptic of Netflix, but circumstances have put him in business with one of Netflix’s primary peers.

In November, Disney announced “FX on Hulu,” a pairing that will make Hulu the official streaming home of future, current, and many past FX series. (The partnership will officially debut in March, though Hulu aired an ad during last month’s Golden Globes.) The combination is a savvy one, and it cements Hulu’s identity as the more adult-oriented service under Disney’s larger umbrella while also solving the perennial “but where can I stream it” problem for FX. It’s similar to Netflix’s previous partnership with the CW, but also more durable, because FX and Hulu are linked by ownership as well as convenience. Whether FX will survive as its own brand name or get subsumed into a more accessible hub remains an open question, as so does Disney’s intentions with the channel. In the short term, however, it’ll soon be very, very easy to stream Atlanta and The Americans.

The Guessing Games Continue

By now, everyone knows the rules: When it comes to the success of their online ventures, companies will remain as coy about hard metrics as possible for as long as possible, allowing them to selectively drop flattering figures and garner positive press accordingly. They learned from the best—i.e. Netflix’s notorious opacity—and the best are still fine-tuning their game. Netflix recently announced its metric for self-reported viewership numbers would become even more lenient than it was before, lowered to just two minutes of viewing an episode or film as opposed to 70 percent of either. (The change was apparently made to mirror YouTube’s measurement format, even though, uh, watching TV and watching YouTube are hardly the same.) The game is rigged, and Netflix is the referee.

To that end, Apple CEO Tim Cook’s only mention of TV+ on the company’s latest earnings call was that the product was off to a “rousing start”—no actual statistics necessary. A recent outside study suggests Apple’s internal promotion didn’t convert many hardware customers into subscribers (only 10 percent, to be precise), but “rousing start” is subjective enough that no one can say Cook was wrong, exactly. Disney, by contrast, is being relatively transparent, announcing exact subscriber numbers for Disney+ (26.5 million in 2019, 28.6 million to date) and Hulu (30.4 million in 2019, 30.7 million to date) in its own quarterly call. But the corporation isn’t immune from PR gamesmanship, and it boasted of raking in 10 million subscribers on day one despite the fact that everyone was lured in with a free trial. (The figure was never revised to clarify how many became paying customers.) As for individual series ratings? Forget about it.

Obscuring such metrics doesn’t have as obviously catastrophic potential consequences as, say, Facebook inflating its video plays to the point of rearranging an entire industry. The entire reason streaming services are able to pull maneuvers like this is that they often don’t report to traditional advertisers. But eroding the ability to gauge the success of a show contributes to an overall sense of house-of-cards unease. For years now, streaming has been the future. For the future to coalesce into a stable status quo, some level of certainty is a necessary precursor.