Disney couldn’t have timed it better.
A day shy of their UK debut, the Prime Minister told the nation they ‘must’ stay at home and, luckily, Disney+ had the remedy. A shot in the arm of nostalgia saw housebound Brits embrace the nascent streamer, which claimed 52% of SVOD sign-ups in the initial weeks of lockdown, according to insights company Kantar.
The subscribers kept coming even if the content didn’t. Though the notable sparse release schedule didn’t matter as long as Disney had families, fanboys and the young at heart on board.
Fortunately, no brand understands its audience better than Disney. A three-pronged approach of super-serving fans with content from bankable IP, such as WandaVision or The Mandalorian; creating tentpole events with theatre’s golden ticket Hamilton and Pixar’s Christmas Day drop Soul; and tapping into kid’s programming’s notable subscriber stickiness, has kept churn low and subscriptions high.
For the all fanfare, Disney+ has largely been playing in a different ballpark than the likes of Netflix and Amazon. All streamers are however in the attention economy and with their core viewers suitably captivated, Disney has set its sights on the largely underserved, all-important fourth quadrant of mum and dad. Star, which launched in 21 locations worldwide on February 23, marks a direct swing in those veteran streamers direction, with the service featuring a wealth of box set TV series, movies and exclusives that are not suitable for Moana and Frozen fans.
Sitting neatly alongside ‘tabs’ for the likes of National Geographic and Marvel, and conveniently bundled into the subscription cost (though with a price hike to follow) Star is home to the kind of library titles that attracted subscribers to Netflix long before House of Cards and Stranger Things. Many of those early Netflix hits, like Prison Break, are from the very Disney and Fox catalogue that is set to initially propel Star, with Disney+ UK’s Twitter account promoting the service by touting Lost, The X Files, 24 and Desperate Housewives.
A smattering of exclusives will also join yesteryears hits, including: coming-of-age drama Love Victor, animated alien comedy Solar Opposites, one-and-done Marvel entry Helstrom and David E. Kelly thriller Big Sky. These four titles may seem slightly underwhelming by Disney’s best in class standard but what they lack in star quality, brand recognition and anticipation levels (passing no judgement on the actual quality here), they make up for in promise.
Specifically, the promise of Star as the international home to Disney’s sprawling TV empire, which encompasses 20th Television (where all launch exclusives originate) and ABC Signature (Grey’s Anatomy and Black-ish producer, both of which will stream on Star).
Casual TV fans will be more familiar with Disney’s consumer facing brands: streamer Hulu, broadcast network ABC and basic cable channel Freeform. As media conglomerates continue to vertically integrate, which is corporate speak for owning both production and distribution, the two TV studios will increasingly feed those brands domestically which, in turn, will crucially filter down to Star internationally. The promise of the best content from those networks and studios, including a dedicated home for the majority of Hulu programming, which is currently scattered across the EPG, is an exciting viewer prospect.
A prospect, nevertheless, that could see content flee the platforms of Disney’s newly acquired British broadcasting rivals and head behind the streamer paywall. Disney’s UK TV reach extends to the BBC, which has a pre-Star deal for all FX content (including the likes of Atlanta and Snowfall, which are already available on Star) and Sky, where appropriately Big Sky becomes the only current ABC drama to not debut on these shores on Sky Witness.
Sky also joins Channel 4 and ITV in having long-standing deals with 20th Television’s animated adult sitcoms The Simpsons and Family Guy. Both are stalwarts of a genre which, as THR’s Lesley Goldberg states, is currently booming as they ‘…repeat well on streaming platforms where they […] have a timelessness that makes them easier to bring in new audiences.’ Goldberg also notes that Family Guy is one of Hulu’s most streamed titles, research that Disney won’t ignore.
It may be hard to imagine an exodus of Disney TV content, but building a streaming service requires short term sacrifice for long term reward. Disney already demonstrated this by shuttering their linear kids channels after 25 years and revoking their feature films from Netflix ahead of Disney+. They’re repeating that playbook for Star now too, as Broadcast confirmed that Grey’s Anatomy and Prison Break are to leave Netflix and Amazon later this year. With the distinction between linear and on-demand vanishing, the equally lucrative deals noted above may face similar fates.
Whilst US library programming may not share the same new, shiny appeal of other launch titles, like Apple TV+’s The Morning Show or Disney+’s own The Mandalorian, demand for these once broadcast tentpoles remains strong. Mega-bucks bidding wars were fought over non-linear rights for Friends and The Office and even PSB streamers iPlayer and All4 have raided the US network vaults, adding Heroes and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and The West Wing and ER, to their respective platforms.
UK streaming ratings remain notoriously elusive and the rare Netflix data gauntlet drop (82 million households, or 41% of all subscribers, watched Bridgerton over its first month of release, allegedly) seem more designed to generate headlines and get out the must watch message, but as Vulture’s Josef Adalian observes of the US market: ‘Nielsen’s weekly streaming ratings are regularly dominated by past and current broadcast shows because audiences still want the lean-back, easy-to-digest story lines at which broadcast series excel.’
Disney’s ambitions unsurprisingly exist beyond rehashing old boxsets and siphoning Hulu hits, as a few recent announcements have teased. Ex-Channel 4 commissioner Sean Doyle has joined the streamer as ‘director, original production, unscripted general entertainment,’ according to Broadcast, where he will ‘act as a point person for UK indies pitching ideas to Disney+, including […] older-skewing vertical Star.’
In an TV market dominated by public service broadcasters as the UK remains, local commissions play an outsized role in attracting subscribers. Deadline reported that Disney has earmarked a $16 billion content spend, an astronomical yet all too familiar figure for deep pocketed streamers who can afford carte blanche commissioning. It will be a while yet before we see those dollars on screen, though news of greenlit UK projects is expected to soon follow the ten European commissions announced ahead of Star’s launch.
To borrow some Marvel jargon, this is only phase one of Disney’s adult skewed streaming operation. With high-priced commissions, a steady stream of exclusives, a rollback of licensing deals, not to mention a movie pipeline from 20th Century Studios and Searchlight Pictures, one thing is certain, Disney looks set to continue to shoot for the stars.