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Disney+ Launches New Era of Streaming, With a Few Hiccups

By Peter Suciu
Nov 14, 2019 10:23 AM PT
disney+ content could be broad enough to challenge netflix

The much-anticipated Disney+ streaming service officially launched on Tuesday in the United States, Canada and the Netherlands. In the first 24 hours, the app was downloaded 3.2 million times. Demand for the new over-the-top streaming service prompted the company to announced that it had exceeded its highest expectations -- but with problematic results.

Many users were unable to launch the app on its huge opening day. Forty-two percent of users had problems just logging in, while 57 percent reported video streaming issues, according to Internet traffic monitoring site Downdetector.

Those who had problems connecting took to social media to complain, and a common refrain was that even when they could log on and start streaming, the service crashed repeatedly. However, there was some levity as well.

Much of this is par for the course when it comes to streaming services, which all too quickly can overwhelm a provider's ability to deliver content. HBO Go and HBO Now, the streaming services of pay-TV giant HBO, experienced crashes during the season premieres and season finales of True Detective and Game of Thrones -- and in those cases it was a single program that triggered a temporary outage.

"Some teething problems aren't unexpected," said Dan Cryan, principal analyst at MTM London.

"They had a fantastic number of subscribers, and the problems that users experienced are unlikely to be a long-term issue unless it persists," he told TechNewsWorld.

However, it isn't clear -- problems aside -- how many of those customers will remain for the long run.

"The numbers are meaningless at this point," suggested Colin Dixon, principal analyst at nScreen Media.

"There were a number of offers that essentially created an artificially high spike of users," he told TechNewsWorld.

House of the Rising Mouse

The arrival of Disney+ could be the biggest game changer in the OTT space, simply because of the sheer volume of content it offers. Disney+ is home to content from Walt Disney Studios, 20th Century Fox, Marvel Studios, Pixar and Lucasfilm. It is the home for Star Wars, Marvel superheroes and The Simpsons.

Out of the gate, subscribers already gained access to more than 500 movies and 7,500 TV episodes -- including new exclusive programming -- and that number will increase over the next few years. This breadth of content could give the Mouse House a major advantage over rival streaming services that have entered the market in recent years, and could put Disney+ toe-to-toe with industry giant Netflix.

At present Disney+ is available for US$7 a month in the United States, or $70 a year, which breaks down to $5.83 a month. That is less than Netflix's low end rate of $9 a month, but it should be noted that Disney+ offers four simultaneous streams as well as 4K/UHD content. The pricing is about half the fee for HBO Now, or the upcoming HBO Max.

"The free offers and the $7 price are helping inflate the numbers, but they probably won't keep that price for long," said Dixon.

In addition to those who are paying for the service, Verizon limited wireless customers are being treated to a free year of Disney+, a fact that could help explain Tuesday's outages.

"There were other numerous deals for those who signed up early, including 'park pass' and Disney credit card holders -- so building up to launch there were ways to get it for even less than $7," said MTM's Cryan.

"This is important, because if you are trying to build scale quickly you need to be aggressive in pricing," he added. "It is entirely possible that the pricing will go up. The library is impressive now, but they haven't really gotten into the commissioning process for more original content, and a few movies released over the summer aren't yet available. As this content arrives, the prices could change to reflect it."

Streaming Support

Since announcing the service, Disney+ has received solid device support -- and will be available via a plethora of devices that include Amazon Fire TV devices, Apple TV, iPhone iPad, Android handsets/tablets/TVs, Google Chromecast devices, Roku boxes/sticks, Samsung and LG smart TVs, and video game consoles, including Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4.

"Disney followed the base rule for launching any form of music/video delivery service, and that is going to where the customers are," said Cryan.

This is a playbook other services also have followed successfully.

"Apple+ isn't going to be restricted to Apple devices, just as Prime Video isn't restricted to Amazon devices -- but it did take quite a while for Apple and Amazon to work out a deal," Cryan observed.

"However, for Disney+, support on all these platforms was all but guaranteed," he noted. "Now, that said, it is less clear from what we know at this moment whether a service like NBC's Peacock will have this support when it launches."

Offline Support

Disney+ is also unique in that at launch it provided unlimited mobile downloads for offline viewing. Subscribers can download to as many as 10 mobile devices, including tablets. There is no limit to the number of titles that can be downloaded for offline viewing.

"We need to be clear that you still don't 'own' the content you download, in that you own it only until you stop subscribing," said Cryan.

Other services already are taking this approach.

"Apple+ will be generous about downloading content to devices out of the gate, and Netflix lets you download their original content -- but notably not the Disney content on Netflix," Cryan pointed out.

The importance of the ability to download vs. stream could depend on the market. In cities where people commute by public transportation it could matter more.

"We've seen in cities like London, people download a lot of content to devices -- but in America, where people drive to work, it may matter less," said Cryan. "Right now the ability to download content is not really a large driver for subscribers, but it still adds value to the product."

The New Sci-Fi and Fantasy Service

Disney+ arrived with a huge amount of content from the Disney archives, as well as from the other companies under its corporate umbrella, but today streaming services rely heavily on original content to draw in subscribers.

In this case Disney+ has pulled out the sci-fi guns with The Mandalorian, one of the biggest-budget series to date. Set in the Star Wars universe after Return of the Jedi, it stars Pedro Pascal -- who starred on HBO's Game of Thrones and Netflix's Narcos -- as a bounty hunter. The show promises to be a mix of the Star Wars saga and a Clint Eastwood western.

Another Star Wars series, a prequel to the film Rogue One, is in the works.

The streaming service also has lined up a "magnificent" seven live-action series, based on Marvel superheroes, the first of which will arrive next year.

"We need to see what happens to the subscribers after they've watched The Mandalorian," said nScreen Media's Dixon.

"People could flee the service, and it isn't clear that those who are coming for Star Wars and The Avengers are going to stick around for Beauty and the Beast," he added.

It could be wrong to dismiss Disney+ as a "geek-oriented" service, just "because they have Avengers: Endgame, the highest-grossing film of all time," remarked Cryan.

"Yes, it is easy to think of Star Wars and Marvel as geeky, but look at the box office, and they massively dominate it," he added.

"More importantly the Disney brand has a strategy mixture of 'kids and princess' films in one bucket, and Star Wars and Marvel in another; but they also have the NAT GEO content, which fits with the animal documentaries they've done successfully for years," Cryan pointed out. "Together this is as broad as possible."

Family Focused

Where Disney+ could draw in subscribers beyond the Star Wars and superhero fans is with its archival content, which includes TV programming such as The Simpsons and, of course, the animated films in the Disney vaults.

"This is why the core group that will come and stay could be the families with young children," said Dixon.

The ability to download those movies could give kids a way to watch and rewatch those films on an endless loop.

"Parents can subscribe, download whatever film the kids want to see onto a phone or tablet, and press play whenever they go out," Dixon suggested.

"However, the most important thing to keep the rest of the subscribers is going to be content, and Disney could be stretched thin," he said. "Disney might be the biggest content producer -- but unlike Netflix or Amazon they have other brands, including cable channels, to bring content to."

Content Warning

Beyond the glitches on launch day, Disney+ faced a bit of backlash for its handling of its vintage content, some of which arrived with a warning that viewers could encounter "outdated cultural depictions."

This warning was included in the descriptions for such content as Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book and The Aristocats.

"This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions," Disney's description states.

Disney+ has not explained officially what the outdated depictions are, but it is likely they are racial stereotypes embodied in certain characters and even in some songs -- notably the "We Are Siamese" song included in the original 1955 version of Lady and The Tramp, but wisely removed and replaced in the newly released live action version.

"Disney handled this as well as could be expected -- Dumbo is a good example, as it is beloved film, but on the other hand literally features 'Jim Crow,' so it is a difficult needle to thread," said Cryan.

"It seems like a reasonable approach that was well thought through, as it gives fans what they want, while appealing to modern sensibilities," he added.

One film that Disney+ viewers shouldn't expect to see is the 1946 release of Song of South -- about the only "classic" from the Disney vaults not to be released on home video in the U.S.

What It Means for Netflix

With so much original and archival content available, Disney+ has an advantage over Apple TV+, which debuted earlier this month. Disney+ also could be a major competitor to Netflix. The licensing of content will come into play.

Netflix has been the home to many Disney films, including the Marvel releases and the latest Star Wars titles, and most of those will be making a jump -- not to lightspeed but to Disney+. This could impact Netflix a bit.

It is complicated, as some of the Disney films released from 2016 to 2018 could move to Disney+ only to return to Netflix in a few years. However, the Disney catalog should be built up by then -- and Disney+ and Netflix could likely live side-by-side as streaming services.

Netflix may have reached as many households as it can.

"As that happens, there is the risk of churn, and as significant content is available on other platforms that risk of churning goes up," said Cryan.

Netflix does have a huge lead, and it understands the competition from other services.

"They are entering a more competitive market, but Netflix won't likely see a drop in subscribers," Cryan predicted.

"However, the tide is turning, and this comes as other services now cost less money, so Netflix as the best value is being eroded," he explained. "However, it will be interesting to see if Disney+ maintains its momentum in the coming months."


Peter Suciu has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2012. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile phones, displays, streaming media, pay TV and autonomous vehicles. He has written and edited for numerous publications and websites, including Newsweek, Wired and FoxNews.com. Email Peter.


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