When Disney+ was launched a year ago, on November 12, 2019, it was seen by many as the beginning of the “Streaming Wars”.
Of course, we’ve had several big streamers like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu for years, but the difference with this new series of streamers is that they were seen as the entertainment giant that entered the streaming game. Disney preceded the launch of Apple TV+ (which launched on November 1), followed by Peacock from NBCUniversal in April and HBO Max from WarnerMedia in May.
And of course Quibi, which is already the warning story of the streaming market.
Although direct comparisons are difficult in a sector where the major players do not reveal much data, Disney+ was definitely one of the winners of the early battles of the streaming wars.
After eight months, the service’s worldwide subscriber numbers reached 60 million (as shown in the Statista chart below), a milestone that took Netflix four years to reach, with Wired predicting that they will reach 100 million by 2025.
HBO Max now has nearly 40 million subscribers (via CNN in October), while Peacock had 15 million subscribers in September (via CNBC). Of course, it should be noted that HBO Max and Peacock are only offered in the U.S. compared to the worldwide Disney+ and that it has a six-month lead, but still Disney+ has a greater reach than these two streaming competitors combined.
In part, the higher Disney+ figures are due to the fact that the service has managed to hit the headlines with a major release every month or so. While Netflix’s approach is to “throw hundreds of series on the wall and see what sticks,” with many shows cancelled early and huge hits like “The Crown” and “Stranger Things” few and far between, Disney+ has managed to create something that streaming should have killed: real cultural events that everyone saw together.
Most notably, Hamilton, which Disney secured in a fierce bidding war and then released a year earlier. Although Disney probably suffered a financial blow compared to its plans to bring the musical to theaters in 2021, it did provide worldwide coverage for the young streaming service.
In fact, this was a pattern for Disney+ this year, which benefited from a number of major films that would certainly have made more money for the streamer if they had been released in theaters. These include Onward, the Pixar film that came to Disney+ early after the cinemas were closed due to the corona virus, the upcoming soul film that skipped the cinemas to get on the streamer on December 25, and Mulan, with which Disney risked the wrath of cinemas around the world by putting it on early as premium content and costing an additional $29.99 per month on top of the usual $6.99. The service also brought movies like Frozen II and Star Wars Episode IX to the streamer early on, which certainly boosted subscriber numbers during the early coronavirus blackout period.
This means, however, that the first year of Disney+ is not a good indicator of the success of the service – of course the service is successful because it is the only place where you can see these huge movies, and it remains to be seen what it will mean for the service when the cinemas reopen and it reverts to lower level movies like Lady and the Tramp (released to celebrate the launch of Disney+) and movies like The Secret Society of Second-Born Royals that may have gone straight to the Disney Channel at some point.
There is another way the corona virus prevents us from getting a good picture of the true success of Disney+. The pandemic has led to delays in most of the streamer’s biggest upcoming projects. Disney+ may lose movies like Mulan to theaters in the future, but there will soon be exclusive television broadcasts of the two biggest intellectual property (IP) rights in the entertainment industry, Marvel and Star Wars.
Among the upcoming shows that viewers can expect from Disney+ are new shows featuring Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) from Marvel and Ewen McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi from the Star Wars prequels, which are sure to increase subscriber numbers for years to come.
The plans of Disney’s Marvel have already had a major impact on the streaming landscape. Disney’s decision to focus on television shows featuring characters from the Marvel movies effectively led to the demise of Marvel TV and brought Netflix and Hulu’s excursions into Marvel shows such as Daredevil and Inhumans to an ignominious end