Disney vs. Netflix?


Begun, the streaming wars have.

Yesterday, Disney announced that its upcoming exclusive streaming service would be called “Disney Plus” (or “Disney+” as read in text). They also unveiled two original TV shows set to debut on the platform: a Rogue One prequel series centering on fan-favorite Cassian Andor (to be played again by Diego Luna), and an Avengers prequel series about Loki (with role reprised by Tom Hiddleston).

There was much whooping from Marvel and Star Wars fans (i.e. basically half the Internet). This is on top of the reaction to other announcements that Disney has made about its streaming platform in the past – namely, that it will contain exclusive streaming rights to the Disney film and TV libraries. We don’t know quite how extensive that library will be (I kind of doubt it will go so far as Song of the South), but there will be much for Disney fans to celebrate when the service launches next year.

One place that’s not celebrating, though? Netflix.

In 2016, Disney granted exclusive streaming rights for its new films and TV productions to Netflix, then and now the biggest streaming giant of them all. The deal allowed for new Disney flicks (including those produced by Pixar, Marvel, and the Star Wars brand) to be made easily available to Netflix subscribers. At the time, the deal was considered a feather in Netflix’s cap, granting it significant leverage over rivals like Amazon Prime and Hulu.

But in 2017, Disney abruptly cut the deal short. They announced their aforementioned streaming service, thus declining to renew the Netflix deal beyond its initial 18 months. New Disney films through the end of 2018 will continue to pop up on Netflix – expect Nutcracker and Ralph Breaks the Internet to show up next summer – but the last of Disney will likely vanish off the service by the end of 2020.

This is bad news for Netflix, which prides itself as much on diversification as on quantity. Not only are they losing a lot of (presumably) popular content, but they’re gaining a new rival – one that may be large enough to hold its own against them.

Netflix has long been the cream of the streaming crop, easily outpacing the popularity of its longstanding rivals. Amazon Prime may scoop up awards for Transparent and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but most of its original shows haven’t caught on in mainstream conversation. (Amazon is an extraordinarily powerful company, but streaming TV is only one branch of their Prime tree.) Hulu has received plaudits and national recognition for The Handmaid’s Tale, but despite its vast TV library, it remains firmly third-place in its subscribers. (Presumably, the commercials repel many viewers, and the ad-free option seems too expensive.)

But the streaming world is changing, and has been for a while. Streaming services used to be a rare animal (barring the occasional subscription-free platform, such as Crackle), but they’ve grown more plentiful as Peak TV grows and more studios begin discovering the limitless boundaries of the Internet. And they succeed by targeting smaller, more devoted audiences than the wide canopy spread by Netflix. Shudder focuses on horror and supernatural films. Crunchyroll centers on anime. DC Universe features a TV, film, and comic book library for DC fans. And so forth. Not all these services have succeeded (RIP Filmstruck), but overall, online platforms are slowly becoming mainstream. (Shall we call them mainstreaming platforms? …No, we shall not.)

The developments we’re witnessing are not dissimilar to those made by cable networks in the early 2000s. Once upon a time, airing popular original programming on cable networks seemed unthinkable. Then HBO changed the game with the zeitgeist-grabbing Sopranos, collecting both acclaim and awards, and other cable networks followed suit. Over the next few years, FX, USA, TNT, and several other cable networks moved beyond syndicated reruns and into original TV series. Each network seemed to carve out its own niche in terms of genre– one gritty, one bright, one thoughtful. But despite some formidable competition, HBO remained (and remains to this day) the king of the cable hill.

This, then, has appeared to be the trajectory of current streaming services. Netflix planted the flag, and no other streaming platform can rival it in recognition. But as the field widens and more, smaller and more concentrated streaming platforms enter the fray, Netflix loses some of its individualistic air, maintaining its high stature primarily through seniority.

For further evidence, witness the number of shows that Netflix has been forced to cancel in recent years. The Get Down, Everything Sucks!, American Vandal – even Reed Hastings’ seemingly limitless financing budget can’t keep everything afloat. As the subscription base begins to level off, Netflix is forced to cut back on its expansionary goals.

And now Disney is entering the field. The most powerful film studio and pop-culture juggernaut in the world is about to launch a streaming service, and all signs point to it being a resounding success. It will take time for it to catch up to Netflix’s base (and original programming catalog), but with Disney’s seemingly bottomless wallet, I wouldn’t be shocked to see some heated rivalry in the streaming world over the next few years.

And that’s good! As every economics class I’ve ever taken can assert, corporate monopolization is unhealthy for business. The urge to stay on top – ahead of Disney, Amazon, and any other brands headstrong enough to join the battle – will hopefully lead all sides to champion creativity over complacency. To play to the strengths of their properties, rather than any weaknesses. And of course, to inspire many, many more uses of that “Shut up and take my money!” meme from Futurama.

The streaming wars have only begun. Long may the battles rage.

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